Southampton’s Old Town is a place often overlooked. But what does lurk beyond the Bargate?
Above Bar Street is probably the most vibrant street in our city. Regular fun fairs, markets and events occur in this beating artery. Even when these spectacles are not taking place the entire area is filled with shoppers going about their business. And at one end, framed by the street itself, is the monument that gives the road its name. Approximately 830 years young, the Bargate marks the entrance into the Old Town of Southampton. It is now dwarfed by the city it spawned and is now not only surrounded by the town’s walls but also by a mass of more modern developments. Beyond it also marks the start of Southampton’s medieval heart – the Old Town.
If you were to take a stroll through the Old Town, you would have difficulty in finding a street without a listed building, a story to tell or a relic from the past. Hidden within it are the foundations of the city’s economy, education, religion and culture. So where can you find them?
Well a good place to start is the High Street, running from below the Bargate right down to the seafront at Town Quay. As well as the Bargate itself you can find Holy Rood church, which was bombed in 1940 and is now a memorial to the Merchant Navy. Within it you can find one of the many memorials to the RMS Titanic, a fireplace from Netley Abbey a few miles south of the city (see if you can spot it) and outside you can find the anchor of the QE2, a ship close to the heart of many a city resident.
Further down the road are two sites that should appeal to the student. One is the former site of the Hartley Institute, which back in 1862 opened its doors to higher education learners and academics. 152 years later it still does, although now under the guise of the University of Southampton and with a very different brand of student than existed back then. The other site is the Red Lion pub which has been on this spot in Southampton since 1148 – that’s an awful lot of pints. Complete with its own ghosts, it’s certainly different from the usual student haunts.
There’s much to see on this one street alone, but there is yet more to see below. Only open at certain times of the year, the entire Old Town is built upon a huge number of medieval cellars and vaults. Many can be seen on street corners, down steps or through railings and many more are under the premises that still line the streets – a relic of Southampton’s old wine trade economy.
Beyond the main High Street, these hidden gems continue. In the former French part of town (marked today by the likes of French and Bugle streets) you can find many more interesting structures. The Medieval Merchant’s House museum in French Street allows you to walk in the footsteps of those earlier wine merchants, whilst the Tudor House Museum in St. Michael’s Square charts the entire history of Southampton through this one house. Opposite can be found St. Michael’s Church, which has stood for the past 900 years and whose spire is easy to spot across the city centre.
Far and away one of the most rewarding ways to explore the old town is to walk the walls that surround them. In many places they remain an impressive and formidable sight, even if they have been much diminished by time in places.
As any visitor could tell you, there is much to see. The feel you get by walking through the old town is one of history intermingling with modernity; modern developments are fairly plentiful thanks to the area receiving a pounding in the Southampton Blitz. If anything this part of town does not get anywhere near enough people visiting it as it should. In many areas the streets are wide and public squares are plentiful, but unfortunately they remain empty. Equally many of the buildings lie dormant, businesses not confident they will get the footfall and historic destinations unused, with a lack of distinct purpose. There are many buildings like this, from the numerous vaults to the Wool House and God’s House Tower, the last two formerly museums before their collections were moved to the SeaCity Museum in 2012. Their location in this medieval city made them difficult to reach by family car and budget cuts left their futures uncertain.
Thankfully steps are now being taken to improve the image of the area. The council renovated the Tudor House Museum completely over several years, with the end result opening again in 2011, and it has spent time and money making the areas look nicer. The history of the city is proudly found on various boards around the old walls and embedded in plaques running down the High Street. The Wool house may be given a new lease of life as a micro-brewery and God’s House Tower as an arts and heritage venue.
Southampton’s Old Town has been left forgotten too long by the people of Southampton. It is high time we remembered it again.
Your City is the Wessex Scene’s series looking into the great city we call home. See more articles here.