However you arrive, it may not seem an appealing city. Cranes and piles of coloured containers run for miles as you approach, with glimpses of the monstrous ferries towering over them all. Even on foot, there are few places to get near the water even when right up to it. Southampton can therefore feel very industrial (it is after all a working port and ferry terminal), known as a place to leave from but not linger.
The other area known to visitors is its bland short shopping street, part 1930s, part post war and modern, now augmented by a huge silvery area of shopping mall – again further blandness in architecture and in yet more chain stores.
As a city with 2 universities and Hampshire’s largest town, one expects some kind of nightlife, perhaps (one surmises) more geared to boisterous partiers than too much that’s cultural – though one may have heard of the Guildhall for concerts. Some many have ventured to the Mayflower Theatre (named after the locally passing Pilgrim Fathers’ ship), close to the station, whose 1930s interior stages West End touring shows.
But that is not all of Southampton. When shopping, you can’t help (I should hope) notice a large medieval gatehouse in the street. Note too that the shields face you, suggesting this is the outside of the gate. And logically, there should be something the other side of it. Bargate is the main gate of a well preserved stretch of a half mile circuit of town walls; its position as a port has made Southampton significant if not large, vulnerable if not venerable. Near the gate are information boards inviting you to join the overlapping Jane Austen trail (who lived here and visited her naval brother) and the walk round the walls.
Southampton suffered badly in the war, but what’s most disappointing is that many of the buildings around the old town are new, but are still not sympathetic. There’s been a chance to fill in the bomb holes, to undo postwar damage, and yet they have used it to make more. The Old Town (a bit like Great Yarmouth’s) feels a piecemeal treasure hunt rather than treasure chest among housing schemes but little facilities. This time, the homes seem aimed at the higher end of the market, but their scale and style is wrong for the medieval enclave in which they reside.
The walls are not the longest stretch in the country but they are some of the best preserved. There’s short section where you can walk on them, around the shivery named Catchcold Tower, close to Bargate. This gate houses art exhibitions. These same people are responsible for shows in the vaults, making imaginative use of these medieval cellars, of which Southampton has an impressive collection. You can get leaflets and go on tours. Along the walls you encounter at least 2 other gates, and three timbered buildings. The Westgate Hall is open only for private hire now; the Merchants House is rarely open, but is an early medieval house managed by English Heritage; and the Tudor House is owned by the council had a refurb c2012. It has a period garden and café open to non visitors – one of the few in the area. You can get a joint ticket from the Seacity Museum, which I will speak of shortly.
There are two other timbered buildings, both pubs – the Red Lion and Duke of Wellington. There are two stone structures – the remains of a Norman house known as Canute’s Palace, and the old Wool Store. This woolstore is near the Quay and used to be the Maritime Museum appropriately for something close to the water’s edge. It has a wonderful timbered roof. Since SeaCity museum, away from the water (irony anyone) opened in time for the Titanic Centenary, this lovely medieval storehouse has stood empty.
There is one other museum, also in a stone medieval building, called God’s House Tower. It is a museum of archaeology and also comprises part of the walls. You can get tours and leaflets/booklets for a full description of the rest of these.
Southampton’s not strong on churches. One has a little spire than makes a feature of the garden pictures of the Tudor House that all the leaflets have; and the other is bombed out. Southampton never had a cathedral or major monastic building and there’s nothing in the centre that’s very noteworthy – the only other ecclesiastical building I can think of is a church by the Mayflower – more remarkable for its conversion into a restaurant and bar than in its own right.
Three other buildings around the docks stand out – a former hotel by the dockside rail station; a port authority building in red brick with a cupola dome; and the Indian domed pierhead, now a Thai restaurant.
There are a few bars dotted round the old town, a few in a well advertised area called Oxford Street, but in reality the offering there is quite small. Ocean Village isn’t what it sounds – a few modern flats by a multiplex and what is probably Southampton’s most interesting new building – the Harbourlights Picturehouse. It is a glass building inspired by a ships’ prow, but the cafe is less inspiring and the programme of this arts cinema is quite mainstream. It’s also a hike to the station or back into the centre, which doesn’t seem appealing to do in the dark.
Janey danced here apparently
Following the Jane Austen tour, you realise what different town this once was, being a fashionable (ie classy) resort in her day. One of the key spots for Regency bathers is now glorious view of a chain store and carpark. But there are some early 19th C terraces around the rail station and Bedford St, a street marketing itself as one of independents shops and lively nightlife.
There is one last building in central Southampton that deserves a mention, the Civic Centre. Having been in it for the SeaCity Museum and art gallery (it also has the Guildhall concert hall), I really appreciate the variety inside this landmark white building: distinctively 1930s, drawing on previous styles but with a dose of art deco. The courtroom at the end of SeaCity (used about the Titanic’s aftermath) has a kind of Egyptian ceiling; elsewhere there are coffered domes and gentle undulating rhythms hinting at Romanesque. There is a new extension to the Guildhall, still the town’s library and administrative HQ, in the same stone, connoting ocean waves. The museum is mostly about the Titanic and Southampton’s general relationship to the sea. The entrance fee is worth it in terms of amount to see, but it’s very noisy and the special exhibition seemed like a collection of memorabilia rather than saying anything new. Once again, a bit too child orientated (not that it stopped me pressing the buttons or trying my hand at boiler stoking), and the interactive model of the ship was not what I expected.
Driving north out of Southampton you come to the Common, which changed my view of the city. Although there’s a park by the Guildhall and another small one near the ferries, this is a very large green lung, with a visitor centre and further on, the university with its public art gallery.
Southampton does have several arts venues within its boundaries (eg Eastleigh Point; the Nuffield Theatre) and an area of independents in a suburb, such as October Books in Portswood, a multicultural area (both ethnically and occupationally) close to the above known for its music venues.
So although Soton may seem a little drab and functional, this isn’t a full and fair picture and it’s worth going south of the shops to find the old town and north to see other districts to find a city with considerable intrigue.