2 April 2019
Annoyingly, my plan to walk to town and meet a friend for coffee was scuppered by torrential rain. The walk went by the wayside and I caught a bus. Despite the rain though, I couldn’t resist a quick dash through the enchanted park where the magnolias were in bloom. The heavy rain had left puddles of petals on the ground, like a mirror image of the blooming branches.
There were a couple of other things I wanted to see before I met my friend. The first was the progress on the new Bargate Quarter. On a different day I might have walked the perimeter, peering through fences and over walls. Today was seriously wet, windy and cold though, so I contented myself with a peek through the Perspex viewing window. Frankly, I couldn’t see much progress. In fact I couldn’t see much of anything. If the archaeologists were still working, they had taken a break, along with the builders. Not that I blame them.
The other thing I wanted to see was a little easier to find. The Bargate is the most famous building in Southampton and a symbol of the city. Standing on the north side of the medieval gate you are actually outside the old town of Southampton. Once there would have been a moat, otherwise known as the town ditch, and a stone bridge to cross to get to the barred gate. The entrance was guarded by sentries but they weren’t the only thing guarding the gate. On the north side of the bridge there were two lions made of wood.
These lions represented an important part of the legend of Sir Bevois, who is said to have founded the town of Southampton. Bevois was the son of Guy, the count of Hampton, and his unwilling wife, Murdina, a Scottish princess. Murdina, along with her lover, Doon, murdered Guy and sold poor Bevois to slave merchants. He ended up in Armenia. It was here that he fell in love with the beautiful princess Josian. One of the many heroic deeds he performed was to rescue Josian from two lions who had killed his friend Sir Boniface and trapped her in a cave. Bevois killed the lions and later returned to England to found the town.
Wood does not weather very well and, in around 1743, the two Tudor lions were replaced with lead sculptures, probably made by John Cheere of London. Shortly afterwards the ditch come moat was filled in and the new lions were moved closer to the gate. The Bargate lions are the oldest statues in the city but, sadly, nothing lasts forever.
Towards the end of September last year a council worker discovered the tail of one of the lions had fallen off and was laying on the ground. This was not, as some people have suggested, an act of vandalism. The tail was taken off to be examined and corrosion of the internal iron structure was found to be the problem. Two hundred and seventy odd years of standing guard in all weathers had taken their toll. In fact, the same lion has a rather alarming looking crack across his back.
Of course, simply sticking the tail back on isn’t going to solve the problem. The council are currently consulting experts on the best way to preserve and repair the poor old lion. Hopefully they’ll find a way and the lion and his tail will soon be reunited.
By now the rain was beginning to seep through the hood of my thin coat and I was feeling quite cold. My friend was due to arrive in a few minutes so I took shelter under the Bargate Arch, walking through one of the little side gates next to the lions. Standing beneath the Bargate arch I’m always aware of the history around me, the number of feet that have walked this way over the centuries.