Walking the medieval city walls of Southampton
The last time I walked the walls was when the boys were at school. In fact I think it was part of a school history project. Living in a city packed to the gills with history, I tend to forget about it most of the time. There are bits I stroll past on a regular basis but I don’t really think about them. Other bits I’ve barely even seen, despite living here all my life.
Before I set off I dug out my sunglasses because it was the most glorious sunny morning. I made good time over the New Bridge and along the waterfront. Storming past the old South Western Hotel, an imposing edifice of stone columns and arches. Once the grandest hotel in Southampton, most of the Titanic’s first class passengers stayed there before embarking. The hotel has had many incarnations since those days, used as offices by Britsh Rail, television studios and now luxury flats and a night club called, imaginatively, Dock Gate Four.
God’s House Tower, Southampton
I hardly registerd Queens Park or the oldest bowling green in the world (apparently) in use since 1299. I was eager to get to God’s House Tower, my first glimpse of the old walls. The tower was one of the many gates to the old town of Southampton, looking up at it I realised I was actually standing outside the town on what were once marshes. Most of today’s waterfront is land reclaimed from the sea and, back in the thirteenth century, when the tower was built, the sea would have come right up to the walls at high tide. In fact there was once a water mill under the tower. Today the tower stands empty but it’s had its share of uses, it was once the headquarters of the Town Gunner, the town gaol, later the Harbour Board used it for storage and it also housed a mortuary. Until recently it was open as a museum, now it stands empty, until someone decides to use it for something else I guess.
Canute’s Palace, Southampton
I walked around the tower, peering through arches at little streets I would explore later. Crossing the road I marvelled at the way the old walls and the modern city stand side by side, the tower was flanked by two bright red telephone boxes (you don’t see too many of those these days) while, in the distance, traffic roared past the Royal Pier. Once this would all have been sea. Leaving Town Quay for a while I walked down Porters Lane and wandered through the ruins of Canute’s Palace. The Norse king was proclaimed King of England right here in Southampton in 1016 and it was on this very sea front that he commanded the waves to turn back. We all know how that one ended.
So I wandered through the ruined palace, down stone steps into a large, now roofless, room. There was a tiny archway
in one corner so I went to investigate. Either people were much shorter back then or they spent a lot of time with bruises on their foreheads. Through the arch I stepped down into another smaller room, probably used as a store room as, even when new, the ground floor would have been a trifle damp with the sea coming right up to the outer walls. The walls were green with moss and, sprouting between the stones, an impressive collection of ferns. There were more rooms and I wandered around them all before strolling through a lovely little garden where I spotted my first open daffodil of the year, a clump of three tiny dwarf narcissus. Undoubtedly this was more palace than house and probably owned by a very rich merchant, but it seems unlikely to have belonged to King Canute as it was built in the tenth century long after his death.
The Woolhouse, Southampton Medieval Walls
The path through the garden led me back out onto Town Quay, almost opposite the pier, which, incidentally, is a rather good Thai restaurant called Kuti’s now, part owned by ex Southampton footballer Francis Benali. I had a meal there some time ago with my Mad House team and actually spent a while chatting to him. Right opposite the pier is The Woolhouse, the only surviving medieval warehouse in the city today. It was built by the monks of Beaulieu Abbey just across the water in the New Forest and used to store wool, an important commodity back in medieval times. The beautifully restored house is used as a museum but it wasn’t open today, even if I’d had time to visit.
Passing The Woolhouse, I took a quick detour to the registry office behind it. This is the scene of one of my better decisions, marrying the wonderful Commando. It may only be a registry office and not a pretty little church but, with the old walls on one side and the pretty little brick arches beside them it makes for some nice wedding photos. I stopped for a while, remembering how nervous I’d been on my wedding day, how we’d stood beside a white Rolls Royce (belonging to the wedding party before us I hasten to add) and had our photo taken before we went inside to make our promises.
Back on Town Quay I stopped for a moment to take a photo of the Mayflower Memorial, commemorating the very spot where the Pilgrim Fathers boarded the Mayflower and set sail to make new lives in America back in 1620. American tourists love this historic country which is strange when their forefathers made the preparations for their journey and embarked in Southampton to get away from it.
Once I’d taken my photo I doubled back and walked along Cuckoo Lane to stand looking out over the pier, the water and Mayflower Park wondering how many other Sotonians had stood on the same spot looking out to sea. On Bonfire Night there is always a huge firework display on a barge in the water here. We used to take the boys and stand along the walls here to watch. Memories came flooding back of cold November nights, wrapped up against the frosty air gasping at the brilliant flashes in the sky.
Southampton’s medieval walls, Western Esplanade
Leaving Cuckoo Lane behind, I turned the corner with a glance across the road at the entrance to the Docks and turned to walk the part of the walls I know best. Western Esplanade runs from today’s waterfront up to West Quay shopping centre. To my left was the Grand DeVere Hotel and The Quays swimming baths. The Quays was built on the site of the old Central Baths, the place I learned to swim as a child. Every week my friend Liz and I, along with her mum and her little brother, David, would walk down the forty steps from the centre of town and along these walls to our swimming lessons. Happy days when we’d go for our swim then get picked up by Liz’s Dad in his car, listening to Not In Front Of The Children on the radio on the way home to a baked potato covered in butter.
The walls here are almost complete, the first row of arches belong to the Tudor Merchants Hall and right beside it is The Westgate. This gate was built to defend the town after raids by the French in the fourteenth century. The gate would have had a strong portcullis and, just below the imprpressively crenelated roof top, on either side of the top window there are gun ports. Henry V and his troops walked through this gate to embark for the battle of Agincourt and the Pilgrim Fathers also walked under the portcullis to embark on the Mayflower.
Passing the Pig in the Wall hotel, and the sailing boat that stands beside the road to remind us that this was once a quay with sea and boats, I decided to take a short detour along Blue Anchor lane beside the Norman House. It was off my route but it was too tempting to miss, besides, this walk was turning into a stroll, all thought of speed forgotten in the joy of rediscovering my city. The little lane, paved in stones worn smooth from centuries of feet, is much as it must have been when all of Southampton was inside those stone walls. If I half closed my eyes and ignored the trappings of the twenty first century, street lamps, houses to my left and a big orange barrier leaned up against the wall, I could almost imagine I was back in the old town. I suspect it smells a bit better today though.
There was a second lane running beside the ancient one, a modern walkway past some new town houses. The path was marked private but I sneaked along it anyway, down some steps back, through another arch and outside the walls again. The long stretch of walls I strolled along next were once a row of merchants houses but, after a raid by the French, the King ordered all the windows and doors to be bricked up and the houses turned into a fortified arcade. Looking closely it’s easy to see the blocked doors and windows of the original houses. Standing right beneath the arches and looking up I could see the machiolations where missiles, maybe even boiling oil, was dropped on would be invaders. I remember Liz’s brother David being very interested in them.
Something I was quite interested in was the Garderobe. This was a kind of medieval toilet (so now you know why I’m interested) said to be the first flushing toilet ever! Built for the Queen (not Elizabeth II, I hasten to add) in the fourteenth century, it used to be a tower, at the top there would have been a room with a row of wooden seats. Well you can guess what the seats were for, but cleverly, the waste products went down into the sluice below where the tide would come and wash them away. All that is left today is the sluice, probably not the most attractive part but it’s nice to know the Queen had a warm wooden seat to sit on to do her business. I found myself wondering what the Queen’s toilet was like, did she have a medieval toilet roll holder and somewhere to wash her hands? Somehow I doubt it.
Now I was standing outside the west wall of the castle, built for King William just after the Norman Conquest. Sadly not much remains of the castle today but it was once large and impressive, somewhere for the King to live when he was in the town. David was fascinated with the tiny barred window at ground level where his mother told him prisoners were locked in dungeons to await their death as the incoming tide rushed in and drowned them. In actual fact the truth is a lot less gruesome, although we all believed her at the time, it was actually the window to a wine vault. Back then Southampton was the main port in England to import wine. Maybe that’s why so many of my friends love a glass or five, it’s in their blood, perhaps their ancestors worked in the vaults and had the occasional sneaky sip, or five.
The castle Watergate still stands today, with a restored wooden door and portcullis. I could almost imagine King William stepping out to inspect his wine shipment. A little way along from the Watergate the Forty Steps lead down from the ramparts of the castle to what would have been the shore until the land was reclaimed in the 1920’s. These were not there in William’s day, they were built in the late nineteenth century to make it easier for the fashionable people of the day to walk down to the shore and along the promenade. At the end of the eighteenth century Southampton was a popular spa resort, and walking along the promenade was a favourite pastime, Jane Austen being one if its fans. I imagine she would have loved the Forty Steps had she lived to see them.
Walking under Catchcold Tower, so named because so many sentries caught colds while on duty there, and Arundel Tower I climbed the modern steps to West Quay. On my walk today I didn’t have a single snack with me. It wasn’t that I forgot, but I knew I would be in ‘town’ and the temptation of coffee was going to be too great to resist, so I decided there would be just one treat, a latte when I got to West Quay. That way I could enjoy it without feeling guilty. So, with my coffee in my hand, I strolled along the top of the ramparts, looked down the Forty Steps for old times sakes and, forcing myself to wait for my first sip of coffee, walked right along the ramparts, looking over the edge at the path I’d just taken. Retracing my steps I sat in the little garden between the walls and the car park and enjoyed the sun on my face as I savoured very drop of wonderful silky smooth latte.
With the last drop of coffee gone I climbed the worn steps to Catchcold Tower and stood where so many sentries must have shivered, with the cold sea wind blowing in their faces. Further along the ramparts I climbed Arundel Tower using the modern day spiral staircase. I stopped for a moment to look through one of the arrow slits at the round tower of West Quay shopping centre, the modern and the ancient mirroring each other. Carfeully descending the stone steps I crossed the bridge, a slender modern affair spanning the gap in the old stone walls created by the new road. On the far side, looking over the wall, a bronze statue of the late fourteenth century mayor stands peering over the wall.
The Bargate – Southampton medieval walls
Before I descended to street level again I looked across at the Bargate, surrounded by market stalls and shoppers, and tried to imagine the wall that was once between it and where I stood, a space now occupied by Burger King. The Bargate is something instantly recognisable to everyone in this City, in fact it’s the symbol of the city. This gate and the hall above it, were built in the early thirteenth century. The hall was used as a guildhall, later as a courtroom. It stayed a courtroom until just before the second Second World War, when the civic centre was built, with the rooms below being used as a prison. People passing in or out of the town through the Bargate would have to stop to pay taxes, custom on goods entering or leaving and a toll. I suspect the people walking through didn’t feel as fond of those arches as we do today.
To get to the North face of wall I had to walk down a cutway and behind the shops. Behind this wall the ordinary working people of the town lived. When they built the Bargate Centre shopping Mal they uncovered evidence of brewers, butchers, bakers, fishmongers, barbers, apothecaries, surgeons. smiths, leather works, everything a town needs. Today it’s a lonely corner where no one much goes but then it would have been a loud, smelly hive of activity and the real heart of the town where all the important things were made. I felt quite at home there.
Back of the Walls, Southampton
From there I walked the road called Back of the Walls, the final part of my tour of the outer defences of the old town. Past the site of the Franciscan Friary where the walls of the modern building have tiled murals depicting the friars. Along the outside of the old wall here there used to be a ditch, filled with rubbish, sewage and goodness knows what else. Today I enjoyed trotting along with the green grass and the wall beside me the blue sky overhead and the sun in my face. Back then it was probably a smelly, filthy place. All that’s left of the Friary today, apart from the murals, is the section of wall and Friary Gate.
The medieval French Church and its connections it’s the Southampton plot
Before long I was almost back where I started, behind God’s House Tower. Walking down Winkle Street I passed the French Church St Julien’s. This is the church where The Earl of Cambridge was buried. He was executed outside the Bargate for his part in the, so called, Southampton Plot, a plan to kill Henry V before he and his troops set sail for the Battle of Agincourt. I love the irony that it is a French church, the sign is even written in French, yet this was a battle against the French. There was a lot of irony involved in the whole thing though because, when Henry and his small army defeated the much larger French army, he married Catherine, the French Kings daughter and became heir to the French throne. Another irony being that the executed Earl of Cambridge was the grandfather of King Edward IV and King Richard III kings that came after Henry. What a complicated history we have.
After that, I turned up the High Street towards the back of the Bargate where I spotted the most outlandishly quirky wrought iron gate depicting grapes, the sun, musical notes, a sea of spoons and a shoal of fish and fish bones. I have no idea what it was all about but I loved it. It’s just the sort of thing I’d have on my house, well, maybe without the fish bones.
Medieval Merchant’s House
On another quick detour I took a photo of the Medieval Merchants House. This funny little house is much loved by foreign tourists, particularly Americans. There are often people in costume paid to walk up and down outside during the summer. Sadly there were none today. It is quite quaint with its black timbers and white, daub and wattle walls, a barrel hanging above the upstairs barred window. These days it’s a museum, although I’ve never been inside.
The Red Lion Pub
Soon I was passing the Red Lion Pub, the oldest pub in the city and one with a long history. This building was a pub when the old walls were new and it’s seen it’s share of historic events. Henry V drank there before he left for Agincourt and it is reputed to have more than twenty resident ghosts. I gave it a miss today and carried on to the Bargate. I did have a little peek through the door, which was open, but I saw no sign of a single ghost. How disappointing!
Walking through the arch into Above Bar my tour of the old walls came to an end.