2 January 2016
As the last walk of 2015 was an old favourite I’d planned to go somewhere new for the first walk of 2016. In fact I even had an idea where but weather warnings and the need to stay home to wait for a delivery meant this went out the window. The rain poured down. The delivery was vital. Our washing machine died on Christmas Even and the new one was due to arrive at some unspecified point between seven and two. Commando was soaked to the skin when he returned from his Parkrun. Maybe I’d wait until tomorrow…
The machine arrived at lunchtime, just as the rain stopped. There was no guarantee it wouldn’t start again and it was too late for the walk I’d planned but I wanted to get out anyway, especially as I’d promised to try to walk two thousand miles in 2016. Obviously a short walk close to home was in order. Then it occurred to me that I often talk about walking up to the village but I have never actually written much about it. So there you have it, a whistle stop tour of my village.
Some time ago I wrote about Bitterne Manor and its rich history. This was where the seed that would one day become Southampton was sown with the Roman settlement of Clausentum. My village is also called Bitterne, coming from the old English for bend in the river, but it’s about a mile away from the site of Clausentum at the top of the hill, which is actually the eastern shoulder of the lower Itchen valley, although both are often lumped together, along with Bitterne Park, where Riverside Park is, as one entity.
Bitterne Village is relatively new, in 1665 there were just fifteen houses, including Bitterne Manor House on the site of Clausentum and Peartree House in what is now called Peartree. There were just seventy five people living in the area and, aside from the big houses, they lived in farm workers cottages. This was farm land but, between 1860 and 1890, more big houses were built. Then, in 1896, David Lance arrived and built Chessel House right at the top of the hill overlooking Chessel Bay. The hill soon became known as Lances Hill and it was Lance who orchestrated the building of Northam Bridge and the bridge over the Hamble at Bursledon to provide better access to his Land. The bridges were completed in 1801 along with a road linking both. The junction where this new road met the new road to Botley became Bitterne Village.
The road that runs up Lances Hill was opened as a toll road with toll gates at Northam Bridge, Hedge End and on Lances Hill. The toll house was at the bottom of the steep part of the hill and, although the the toll was lifted in 1929, the house is still there. My walk today began by passing it. The long porch that once protected the toll collectors has now gone, as has the toll gate (thank goodness), but the house is much the same. Back then the road was made of packed dirt though and this house stood alone. Looking at old postcards I’m amazed at how rural the area was but this was much as it was when Pappy arrived here from Oxfordshire.
Opposite the toll house is another road that would have once skirted the Chessel Estate. This is called Little Lances Hill and I’ve always liked the look of the houses on the bottom corner although they’re a tad too close to the road for my liking. In fact I once had a rather nasty motorcycle accident right at this spot when I slid down the road at high speed. Thankfully I survived, mostly due to luck, my leathers and crash helmet. The bike came off worse than I did. At this point I was not technically in the Village, to get there I would have to walk up to the top of the Hill.
When I was a child Bitterne Road went straight up Lances Hill and right through the centre of the village where it divided in front of the Red Lion pub. The right fork went towards Bursledon and the bridge there and the other headed off towards Hedge End and Botley. The road was always busy with Bitterne High Street and the junction often becoming a bottleneck for traffic. In the 1980’s, while I was living in Woolston, a huge bypass was built to increase traffic flow. When I came back to Bitterne I hardly recognised the place and I still sometimes feel as if someone moved all the landmark buildings about when I wasn’t looking.
Nowadays cars can only drive down the steepest part of the hill, apart from one lane going up which is open only to buses and taxis. The bypass takes traffic up towards the village where it skirts around in a loop. To achieve this some of the Victorian cottages and the old post office were demolished along with a few of the houses on one side of the hill. Sadly, a large swathe of Hum Hole was also swallowed up by the new road and I often think there must have been a better way to bypass the village.
Normally I would just march right up the hill to the shops but, although I did need to get milk, today I wanted to look at some of the more interesting houses in the back streets so I decided to walk through Hum Hole instead. This may not have been one of my better plans. At first things seemed to be going well and I walked down into the mysterious dip and back up the other side. At the top I discovered a birch tree had fallen across the path. By the looks of it it had simply rotted through at the bottom but it was easy enough to clamber over. All well and good until I realised I’d dropped my canvas shopping bag at some point. After I’d retraced my steps right back to the entrance to Hum Hole, picked up the offending bag and clambered back up again I was getting a touch warm.
The next part of the walk is one of two dirt trails. One comes out on the bypass road near the top of the hill, the second, longer trail emerges on a back street which eventually leads further along, close to where I wanted to be. Sadly I hadn’t reckoned with the mud, sucking at my boots and sliding under my feet. Somehow I made it in one piece, albeit with muddy boots.
Still I was in the village and, once I’d crossed the road, I set off along the warren of little back streets. During the 1950’s many of the Victorian cottages were demolished and replaced by modern housing, more went, along with at least one pub, when the bypass was built but I knew there were still a few interesting looking houses left. The first place I came to was one of the remaining pubs, the Fox and Hounds.
This pub started life as a house but was turned into the Coopers Arms in 1860. Around twenty years later it took on its present name because the local hunt used to meet outside. Once, many, many years ago I had a drink and a game of pool there, or maybe it was billiards, either way I’m sure I lost because I was rubbish. It was a small, very traditional pub. It doesn’t look like it’s changed much and I like the fact that the original tiled sign is still on the wall outside.
These are not streets I walk very often but my aim was to take pictures of a few of the older houses to give a feel for what the village was once like. The first of these was one I once passed often, back in the days when I had a temporary job nearby with my good friend Mac. On the face of it, it’s an unremarkable Victorian cottage but it is remarkable to me because, unlike most of the houses in the area, it hasn’t been modernised. In fact it’s in a state of wonderful dilapidation which makes it interesting in my opinion.
Unlike modern housing developments which are rows and rows of houses all the same with no real character, the houses in the village are a mixed bunch. There are many of these square cottages but, mixed in amongst them are larger, slightly grander houses, pretty little bungalows and, of course, modern housing. It makes for an interesting walk if you like looking at different styles of architecture.
The next pub I came to was the Humble Plumb. When I was young this was called the Commercial Inn because it’s on Commercial Road. As far as I can tell that was the name it had when it first opened back in 1912 and it remained the Commercial Inn until it closed in 1978. Six years later it reopened as Charlie Brown’s, reputedly because this was the landlord’s name. The name was changed again after a refit when, allegedly, a worker asked what the pub was going to be called when it reopened. The answer was “don’t ask me, I’m just a humble plumb (plumber).” This, of course may be fabricated. I have never been inside in any of its incarnations but I’m told it’s a great pub.
If you think I’m a little obsessed with the village pubs it’s because there were once rather a lot more of them. A pub tends to be the heart of an English village, or at least it once did. Unfortunately, rising costs, a poor economic climate and a change in the way people find their entertainment means this is fast changing and pubs are closing down all over the country. Around the corner I came to a case in point. The Percy Arms opened at the end of the nineteenth century but closed in 2010. It’s now a pharmacy but at least they left the pub sign up which is a nice touch.
Commercial Road once had more than its fair share of pubs. Along with the Commercial Inn and the Percy Arms there was the John Barleycorn, demolished in 1983 to make way for the new health centre which is itself now under threat of closure.
By this time it was beginning to rain again so I thought I’d best make my way back to the High Street and get my shopping. When they built the bypass they thoughtfully put in an underpass which meant I didn’t have to brave crossing the road. The underpass has a rather attractive, if a little damaged, mural of a red lion, which brings me to the next pub.
Once upon a time there were at least three pubs in the High Street. The Carpenters arms, opened in the 1830’s, was demolished when the Ritz Cinema was built in 1921. The cinema was then demolished to make way for Sainsbury’s supermarket. The Angel Inn, a coaching house, was built in the 1840’s and I suspect this was the pub Mother left me outside in my pram, causing a massive row when Dad came past and found me. It stood next to the new supermarket until the supermarket was expanded in 1972 and it was swallowed up. Now the Red Lion is the only High Street pub remaining. It opened in the 1830’s as a staging post for travellers on route to Chichester and occupied the spot where the two roads divided. Back then there were stables for the horses to rest while the travellers had a drink or stayed overnight.
In the 1860’s the pub was enlarged, basically by building a whole new pub on the front of the old one. Behind the pub there used to be a cutway, the Red Lion Cut with a small tobacconist and a barbershop, at least that’s what I remember. When the bypass was built the red lion statue, which was on top of the shops in Red Lion Cut, was moved into the precinct in pride of place.
So I stood in front of the pub with my hood pulled up against the rain trying to picture it as it had once been. It was almost impossible to reconcile the image in front of me with the one in my mind where the road ran either side of the pub and buses and cars sped past. So much has changed in the village since I was a child it hardly seems the same place at all.