Ipswich Icons: Ipswich’s Lower Orwell Street, Today, it looks lost. But, once, it was thriving.

The old Gym & Trim car park, with Smart Street School in the background. The scheduled ancient monum

The old Gym & Trim car park, with Smart Street School in the background. The scheduled ancient monument is buried underground. Picture: JOHN NORMAN - Credit: Archant

John Norman looks at Lower Orwell Street, a quiet neighbourhood once of civic importance and full of life

What's left of the Gym & Trim building where folk used to come for a workout. Picture: JOHN NORMAN

What's left of the Gym & Trim building where folk used to come for a workout. Picture: JOHN NORMAN - Credit: Archant

There is an area around Lower Orwell Street that is today all but abandoned.

In the recent past there had been reason to visit the street but today it lies all but forgotten.

The occasional vehicle nips through from Star Lane, thinking it is a quicker way to Major’s Corner, only to be held at the lights at the top of Upper Orwell Street.

When Martin & Newby was open, Lower Orwell Street provided direct access into its yard; when Gym and Trim started, it occupied the former Tolly Cobbold bonded stores (Barwell Jones Wines and Spirits Stores); and when the restaurants of Fore Street attracted customers in greater numbers than they do today it was a useful place to park in the evening.

But it is in much earlier times that Lower Orwell Street was busy. Its line is immediately outside the town’s ramparts – for the most part nothing more than a bank and ditch, the latter having been dug to create the former.

We can speculate that the bank had a wooden fence along its crest, given the lack of building stone hereabouts.

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It is certain that the ditch carried water: water that had risen from the hillside of Spring Road, flowed down the valley – meeting a second stream coming down Water Lane (Warwick Road) – and along St Helen’s Street; turning into Upper Orwell Street and down to The Wash (or Washes), the junction of Orwell Place and Eagle Street.

The junction was also known locally as the Stepples (or steps) because stepping stones had been placed to enable pedestrians to cross the muddy ford dryshod. It wasn’t until 1885 that this junction was properly paved, with wood blocks laid end-grain uppermost.

An indication of the population hereabouts can be given by the fact there was a pub on each corner of The Wash.

The population of St Clements’ Parish had increased from 1,500 in 1801 to 6,000 by 1841, a working population attracted by the regular wage offered by the new engineering industries.

The Bull’s Head was incorporated into Martin & Newby’s in 1958. Across Orwell Place was the Eclipse, today a charity shop on the corner of Upper Orwell Street (the pub closed in 1923).

The Shoulder of Mutton on the corner of Upper Orwell Street and Eagle Street is today a café (it was a pub until 1904), and on the final corner the oldest public house in Ipswich still operating: the Spread Eagle – Ipswich’s only outlet for the Grain Brewery of Harleston, Norfolk.

Lower Orwell Street was parallel to Shire Hall Yard, which was just inside the ramparts; between the two was the Shire Hall, which gives an indication of the civic importance of the area.

The Shire Hall was a large and nearly square building erected in 1699 by voluntary subscription, probably built by the carpenter Joseph Clarke (it closely resembled the Unitarian Meeting House).

The Shire Hall was, as well as the administrative centre, a courthouse with two distinct courtrooms and a room for the Grand Jury. These functions moved to the new County Hall in St Helen’s Street in 1837.

Probably the most important historical site in Lower Orwell Street is the car park to the former Gym & Trim, described by Historic England as home to the buried remains of the medieval town defences, and a section of fourteenth century precinct wall to the Dominican friary, a scheduled ancient monument. Similar foundations could be seen in the basement of Martin & Newby before it closed.

Blackfriars monastery was founded in 1263 by Henry III and stood in Foundation Street until the dissolution in 1538.

Once the friars had been dispersed, the remaining buildings were put to good use by the townsfolk of Ipswich.

Functions included Christ’s Hospital (est 1572), school rooms for Ipswich School, which, until 1612, had been based in Felaw’s House across the road.

In 1851 the school moved to Henley Road and became Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School.

The warehouses to the east side of Lower Orwell Street are home to a furniture store and to a former bowling alley that has been converted into a pool and snooker club.

Lower Orwell Street is no longer the merchants’ quarter. There are no big houses built to serve both as warehouses and domestic residences; the area is no longer reliant on the docks for its wealth and well-being.

It is simply lost between the car parks and the traffic – today a quiet, empty, back street.