Southampton – Renaissance City

Peter Morrell goes back to the city of his birth and is amazed by the physical, social and cultural improvements that have taken place

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Southampton has a history of people and things departing. Henry V embarked from the city on his way to Agincourt, the Mayflower set out for the New World, the Titanic sailed on its first and last voyage, U.S. troops travelled to the Normandy Beaches and when my education finished I left for a career in London.

I recently returned to Southampton looking at it through the prism of my memories. The town had been heavily bombed during WWII and large tracts of land were still undeveloped. The unloading of ships by dockers was being replaced with containerised traffic and there was a dearth of social and cultural venues.

Fast forward a few decades and the changes have been immense. I went back to a city full of energy and brimming with confidence. My two day stay completely changed my perspective, it’s a thriving retail hub, has got lots of bars and restaurants, a rapidly developing cultural scene and a history that will hold the attention of even the most demanding visitor. What was fascinating was that despite having been educated in the city I learnt so much about its heritage on the trip which is only now being brought to the surface.


The comfortable rail journey from London Waterloo takes about 80 minutes and there are dozens of trains a day. From the station it was a brisk walk to my hotel, Ennio’s, a boutique property sat on the Town Quay in an old converted warehouse. Each room is quirkily different and they are all well-appointed, If you’re hungry then the hotel has an award winning Italian restaurant.

A few minutes walk away from the hotel use to be a pub I occasionally visited called the Royal Standard tucked in to the medieval walls. To my surprise it and the adjoining Georgian house is now the Pig in the Wall, another boutique hotel with beautifully designed rooms, some with remnants of the old walls still showing. A brief lunch there with items selected from their deli counter was a welcome break before setting off to the SeaCity Museum in the west wing of the rather grand Civic Centre.

SeaCity Museum

One of the permanent exhibitions in the Museum tells the story of the Titanic tragedy from the human perspective. Walking around this well assembled expo gives you the opportunity to discover a wealth of interesting facts about the people involved, many from Southampton, and the events that happened on that fateful night.

Leaving the SeaCity Museum I passed the City Art Gallery in the Civic Cente’s north wing, it has a well endowed collection of some 3500 works and is classified as a Designated Collection denoting its national importance. I was heading for a very exciting new arts project which meant crossing the very impressive Guildhall Square. Once hemmed in by post war shop development it is now a large open plaza dominated on one side by the imposing portico of The Guildhall with it’s six towering Ionic columns.

The Cultural Quarter

The entire area has been re-designated as the Cultural Quarter and my next destination was across the Square, Studio 144. This is two brand new, purpose built facilities that will support three distinct activities supported by two world-class arts organisations. The Nuffield Southampton Theatres will look after the custom designed performing arts spaces and the John Hansard Gallery, part of the University of Southampton will curate a rolling program of temporary exhibitions in the visual arts facility. In addition and into the heart of the city centre for the first time, will be media and film specialists City Eye who will share the space.

Dinner and a Show

There was just time for dinner before going to the theatre, even the Grand Cafe where I dined had a history that is intertwined with the City. It’s located in the old South Western Hotel almost in sight of Berth 44 where the Titanic sailed from. For many of the ship’s passengers it would have been where they ate their ‘last supper’ on dry land. After a meal of ham hock terrine and fish and chips my onward journey was far less dramatic. A short taxi ride took me to the Nuffield Theatre on the city’s university campus for a performance of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black.

Encouragingly there was a packed audience to see Stephen Mallatratt’s stage adaptation with a gripping production by Robin Herford. Everyone left the theatre happy and probably a little frightened given the content of the play, but the large numbers proved the appetite for culture.

Tudor House

This had been an intense but rewarding first day in my home city and I slept soundly in anticipation of day two. My first stop after breakfast was the historic Tudor House, built in the 15th century and subject to major renovation at the end of the 19th. I had been to the House as a child but the entire visitor experience is now totally different. It starts with an immersive experience, not unlike A Woman in Black, which describes the history of Tudor House and sets the scene before you tak a look at the exhibits.

The City Walking Tour

A wandered up the High Street passing Holy Rood church, now left as a shell in memory of lost merchant navy sailors, to meet Godfrey Collyer who works with See Southampton which has devised a series of city walking tours. Godfrey was a font of all knowledge and it was on this tour I learnt so much.

We started at the Bargate, the well-preserved main gate into the old city. It was in front of this building that four traitors were hung after trying to depose Henry V. We toured the medieval walls, some of the longest and best preserved in the UK and heard that the wealth of the city had come from the export of wool to the weavers in Flanders and the import of wine from France. The city has a plethora of wine cellars and were used extensively during the war as air raid shelters.

In Georgian times a spring of Chalybeate, iron rich water was discovered and Southampton became a fashionable spa town boasting the most attractive High Street in England. One of the city’s more notable residents during that time was Jane Austen.

The Dancing Man

As the tour neared it’s end we passed a red brick wall which still bears the graffiti of G.I.s waiting to embark for the D Day landings. We finished our tour almost next to the monument marking the departure of the Mayflower in a characterful craft brewery, The Dancing Man, is housed in an atmospheric 14th century wool warehouse. I chatted with the ebullient co-owner and head brewer Aidan Lavin who is producing some very inventive beers. I particularly liked his American style Big Casino and a much lighter ‘session’ IPA.

My trip was over and had found that the changes to the city had been enormous, when I left all those years ago the decision was clear-cut, if I had to make the same choice today it would be much more difficult.

Southampton is an ideal destination for a short break, it’s easy to get to, offers lots of cultural interest and has got plenty of places to eat and drink.

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