Southampton – A Fascinating 800 Years of History

Peter Morrell and his wife are charmed by the perfect blend of heritage and modernity in this bustling port city

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I must start by declaring an interest. I was born and educated in Southampton and left when I was 17. Returning recently, I observed it with a different ‘eye’, fully appreciating the well-preserved relics of its long history, and the rich cultural and culinary allure which has evolved since I departed.

This could almost be a tale of two cities, a medieval town enclosed by walls, fortifications and gatehouses, and a modern area with a cultural quarter, retail outlets, and plethora of places to eat.

Southampton is a place of embarkation, and two of the world’s most historic voyages, the journey of the Mayflower carrying the Pilgrim Fathers to America, and the maiden voyage of the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic both started from the port. It was also the departure point for American troops involved in the  D-Day landings. In total 3.5 million soldiers passed through the port en route to France in WWII.

Before starting on our own voyage of discovery we enjoyed an excellent meze lunch at The Real Greek restaurant. Great service, and delicious food gave us a good introduction to the city’s culinary scene, and a bonus was the extensive views of the old walls from both the inside and al fresco dining areas.

After walking through the impressive West Quay shopping mall, our first attraction was the SeaCity museum. The museum has three permanent exhibitions. Southampton Stories, highlighting events that shaped the city. Gateway to the World, which tells the 2000-year maritime story of Southampton, from Roman times to the present day, English wool was an important export, and wine was imported and stored in an extensive network of Medieval vaults The third exhibition is The Titanic Story. This exhibition has been very well designed and looks at the tragedy through the eyes of individuals.

High unemployment in turn of the 20th century Southampton persuaded many residents to work as crew on the doomed ship. We follow the lives of these people, many of whom were amongst the 1500 who died. There are audio interviews with survivors which vividly describe the night of 14th April 1912. One of the galleries has two points of interest, firstly it highlights specific facts which emerged during the Board of Trade enquiry into the disaster. For example, was the ship travelling too fast, and why did the lookout not have binoculars? The second point of interest is that the room used is the old County Court, the ornate Judge’s bench and defendant’s dock are still there. You can download a Titanic Trail Map here… which guides you to the sites and memorials in the city associated with the Titanic.

A five-minute walk from the museum is the city’s Art Gallery, with its grand, cathedral like interior. There is a permanent exhibition of the powerful Perseus series by the Pre-Raphaelite, Victorian artist Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. A range of genres are on display, from the Renaissance to the Contemporary, and Surrealism to 18th and 19th century French and British artists. One of my favourites was the 1873 painting by James Tissot, The Captain’s Daughter.

Leaving the gallery, we passed the Southampton Guildhall, a grand pillared edifice, it is part of the same building as the SeaCity museum and the Art Gallery. The entire complex is the Civic Centre, an ambitious municipal building. Built in Classical style of Portland stone, it was designed by Ernest Berry Webber, who topped it with the 157-foot-high Kimber’s Clock Tower, and was completed in 1939.

The area around the Civic Centre is the Cultural Quarter, and we took the opportunity to look at the John Hansard Gallery, part of the Southampton University. It is a contemporary art gallery providing inclusive, collaborative, and open spaces for reflection, excitement, challenge and developing potential. We watched several thought-provoking videos while we were there.

A short diversion north took us to an impressive memorial dedicated to the Engineer Officers onboard the Titanic, none of whom survived. Built of grey granite and bronze, it is 30 feet long, 20 feet high and weighs over 60 tons. There are also memorials to the Titanic Musicians and the Titanic Postal Workers nearby.

Southampton is a very green city, and the Engineers memorial is in East Park, from here we walked south through the park to Palmerston Park, Houndwell Park, and Hoglands Park which brought us very close to our hotel.

We were staying in the historic White Star Tavern located on entertainment rich Oxford Street, near the docks in the old town. The Tavern, once known as the Alliance Hotel, was built in the 19th century, and part of its claim to fame is that Titanic passengers stayed there before boarding on 12th April 1912. Its location is ideal, the staff are very friendly and welcoming, and the décor in the public areas and the bedrooms is immaculate. Our room was very comfortable with king size bed, en suite bathroom, Nespresso machine, ironing board and mini bar.

We dined there in the evening, and the food was very good. Our shared charcuterie board starter was very satisfying, as was my wife’s fish dish and my fully loaded beef burgers. A real treat was the ice cream made with Buffalo Milk by Laverstoke Park Farm in Hampshire. There was a good selection of wines, and the service team were very helpful.

In the morning, after a hearty ‘full English’ at the hotel we left our luggage in the strong room before a day of exploration in the old town. We walked towards the docks and immediately found Queens Park which featured a monument to General Gordon of Khartoum. A road running off to the left is called Canute Road and leads to the place where it is claimed King Canute proved that even Kings could not hold back the tide. A nearby plaque proclaims ‘Near this spot AD 1028 Canute reproved his courtiers’.

We turned right and immediately stumbled across the Southampton Old Bowling Green, the world’s oldest, that was founded in 1299. Next to the club is God’s House Tower, a very well-preserved Medieval building from 1189. It’s been through many iterations, a defensive fort, the city gaol, a mortuary, and warehouse. It has recently been sensitively restored and is now a new arts and heritage venue. (Open Friday to Sunday) Passing through a stone archway we were standing next to St Julien’s church, built in 1190. Originally the God’s House Tower chapel, it is still open for prayer.

A few steps further on we found the Watergate ruin, the southern entrance to the city from the Town Quay. A plaque describes how Jane Austen and her family took a ferry from the Quay to a village called Hythe, on Southampton Water. There is still a ferry service to the village.

Jane Austen has many connections to Southampton and lived in the city for a while. During her lifetime Southampton was a fashionable spa town and boasted an iron-rich Chalybeate spring and sea bathing facilities. Georgian architecture in the city is a reminder of those golden days. You can download a Jane Austen Heritage Trail here…

Turning another corner, we were next to the ruins of a large house, known as Canute’s Palace. Unfortunately it’s not a palace or the King’s residence. However, it still has a pedigree, as a Norman merchant’s house, built in the late 12th century.

Further on was the Wool House, built in the 14th century. Originally a warehouse, it held Napoleonic French prisoners of war in the 19th century, and is now a craft brewery called The Dancing Man. Across the road is the Royal Pier Gatehouse, a piece of Victorian flummery which is now an Indian Restaurant called Kuti’s. Rishi Sunak was once a waiter there.

The next stop was the Mayflower Memorial, a 50-foot-high column of Portland stone, capped with a model of the Mayflower. On 15th August 1620 Mayflower left Southampton with the Speedwell. As the two ships sailed down the English Channel the Speedwell sprung a leak, and both ships put into Plymouth. Only the Mayflower was judged seaworthy and continued its journey alone to America.

Following the extensive walls brought us to Westgate, a fortified gate. We walked through the arch into a charming square. Turning into Bugle Street we arrived at Tudor House, a well restored Tudor Merchant’s house. Our tour started in the banqueting hall with a well imagined sound and video presentation of the building’s history. We then walked at leisure through the gardens which has a cannon on top of the city walls, From this vantage point we could look down into the ruins of King John’s Palace, again not a palace but a merchant’s house. Back inside there are reconstructions of the Tudor and Victorian kitchens, it’s very atmospheric, with fascinating displays, Tudor costumes for children to try on, and some walls had evidence of old graffiti.

Opposite Tudor House is St Michael’s Church, founded in 1070. A wander through the lanes of what was Southampton Castle, past the K6 Gallery housed in two telephone boxes, and a short walk through the new town took us to the grand finale, the Bargate, the completely intact main gate into the old city.

What we liked about this visit was the serendipity, every few steps revealed a centuries old point of interest. Couple this with the vibrant culinary scene, and compelling cultural attractions makes it the ideal short break destination.

Fact Box

South Western Railway run a regular service from London Waterloo, the journey time is 75-80 minutes.

The White Star Tavern. Rooms rates at the White Star start from around £120 per night for two with breakfast

The Real Greek

SeaCity Museum

Southampton Art Gallery

The John Hansard Gallery

God’s House Tower

Tudor House

The K6 Gallery

Titanic Trail Map

Jane Austen Heritage Trail

Visit Southampton

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