Woolston, a walk down memory lane

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15 January 2016

Friday morning was all blue sky and the first frost of the year. It was too nice not to be out walking So I thought I’d take a little wander back in time to a place I lived for seven years in the 1980’s. Once it was called Olafs tun, after the tenth century Viking leader Olaf I, who established a fortified tun on the east bank of the Itchen. Later this was adapted to Olvestune and this is how it was known in the Domesday Book. Finally it became Woolston, probably as a result of cargos of wool carried across the river from nearby Itchen Ferry Village. What little is left of Itchen Ferry Village is now part of Woolston.

So I marched down Peartree Avenue without stopping until I came to the railway bridge on Bridge Road where Woolston really begins. Most people would call the area above the bridge Woolston too although it is actually Itchen. When I was young this was the only bridge on Bridge Road, these days there is another right after it, the end of the Itchen Bridge, which opened in 1977 and made the old floating bridge obsolete.

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Woolston has changed a great deal since Olaf built his fort. The Itchen Ferry brought trade to the small hamlet, then, in 1836, the floating bridge came, crossing to Southampton became easier and Woolston got busier. In 1866, the railways arrived and the little village began to grow. This was where I started my tour. On  the other side of the railway bridge I walked along a small cutway to Garton Road and Woolston Railway Station.

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The grade II listed station building hasn’t changed much since it was built to serve the Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley. These days trains run through once an hour from Southampton to Portsmouth. Like most small stations, Woolston is now unmanned, with an automatic ticket machine at the gate. If you want to talk to a human being about your train, or need some help with your luggage this is a pain but it did mean I could walk onto the platform for a little mooch around.

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There was still frost on the roofs and some workmen were busily spraying weed killer about. Other than that I was alone on the platform. The boarded up windows of the old signal box gave the place a slight air of dilapidation, but the station itself was clean with nicely painted wrought iron work. It could easily have been very different. During the World War II air raids on the nearby Spitfire factory, the station along with a waiting train were hit. The station was damaged but it survived. Once there also was a large goods yard to the north of the station but this was closed in 1967 and the area is now modern housing.

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Thanks to the Spitfire factory, Woolston was badly bombed and much of it was destroyed but there are still some interesting old buildings. It wasn’t long before I came to the first of these. At the cross roads of Garton Road, Portchester Road and Manor Road South is the Masonic Hall. It’s an imposing building with what might once have been a round window on the gable end. Beneath this is decorative frieze with the emblem of the lodge, an eagle, and the name Clausentum, although it’s far from the Clausentum site. The hall was built in the late ninteenth century on an area known as Roselands Estate. Although very little information about Roselands exists, it’s likely it was the manor house that gave its name to Manor Road.

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A little further along, in Portchester Road, is the old Public Baths building. These were slipper baths used by local people who, in the main, had no bathrooms at home. It’s hard to imagine houses without bathrooms and inside toilets but many of the little cottages and terraces that grew up around the railway and the shipbuilding industries had none and the public baths undoubtedly made a welcome change from a tin bath in front of the fire. Today the building is still providing a service to the public giving advice on welfare benefits and employment law. It’s nice that they left the old signs in place as a reminder though.

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Thankful I didn’t have need of either service so I headed back towards Portmsouth Road. In the distance at the bottom of the road I could just make out the Itchen Bridge as I walked towards St Patrick’s Church. In my opinion WIlfred C Mangan’s 1938 built church isn’t particularly pretty but it did survive the blitz, despite being gutted and it is undoubtedly nicer than the 1909 corrugated iron church it replaced.

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Across the road were a couple of buildings far more familiar to me. The Bridge pub, once called the New Bridge Inn and, before that the Railway Inn I think, was the venue for my friend Libby’s eighteenth birthday party. Although I lived in Woolston, that was the only time I remember going inside but it was a memorable evening of dancing and fun. Sadly, this was to be her penultimate birthday so the memory is bittersweet. The other building, just along the road, was the library. Many happy hours were spent in there browsing the shelves and I was glad to see it hasn’t gone the way of so many other libraries.

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Rather than heading down to the High Street I turned around and made my way up Portsmouth Road towards the old doctor’s. The surgery I remember is long gone and a new fancy building stands in its place. Right across the road on the corner of Hazeleigh Avenue is another surgery in what was the fire station when I lived in Woolston. It seemed strange to see it without all the fire engines but fire stations are closing down almost as fast as libraries it seems.

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Of course they were a bit more modern in my day
Of course they were a bit more modern in my day

This is the posh part of Woolston, with large houses that have, in many cases, been turned into flats. It seems the further you get from the water, the larger the houses get and, at that point, I was walking away from the Itchen. If I kept going I’d end up in Sholing so I turned down Hazeleigh Avenue  towards Obelisk Road. There was a quick stop to look at Woolston Infants School where I used to stand in the playground waiting for Philo and then Bard to finish school. Memories came flooding back of little hands in mine, the faces of the other mothers, trips up and down the road pushing a pushchair. Happy days.

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Soon I was in Obelisk Road, named because it points directly from the river to the obelisk erected as a monument to Whig politician Charles James Fox in Mayfield Park. Directly in front of me was the Obelisk pub, affectionately called The Obbie by locals. It opened in the 1850’s as the Obelisk Inn on the opposite side of the road to the modern day pub. In 1900 the original pub closed and the current one opened, renamed as the Obelisk Hotel. It’s still a popular pub and remains largely unchanged. It even has the original beautifully etched glass in the doors and windows.

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Turning onto Bedford Avenue I was heading towards the southern border of Woolston, Swift Road and the Archery Ground. Whether the Archery Ground was ever used by actual archers remains a mystery but I like to think it was. Today it’s a grassy park surrounded by trees with a stream in the woods at its southern edge. On a different day I might have walked through the woods to Mayfield Park and Millers Pond but right now it’s likely to be very muddy. Besides, there was a lot more of Woolston to see.

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Swift Road is a road of two halves, a little like Woolston itself. The eastern end beside the Archery Ground is filled with large houses, many now converted into flats, much like those I’d left behind in Portsmouth Road. Across Archery Road it’s a different story. Heading down towards the water the  narrow road is lined by modest terraced houses and cottages, probably built for the shipbuilders who worked In the waterside shipyard.

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Before I left upmarket Woolston behind and returned to the modest terraced houses I knew best, there was one more detour along memory lane. At Church Road I turned. When I came to Woolston I was a first time mum with baby Philo in my arms. Thankfully, I wasn’t alone, my friend Mandy moved to the area at the same time and she too was a first time mum with a baby exactly the same age as Philo. We compared notes on their progress and quirks, feeling relieved when both did the same things, meaning whatever it was must be normal. When they both turned three and we were both expecting second babies we enrolled our boys in Playschool, giving us a welcome morning break each week. The Playschool was in Church Road in the Community Centre.

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The Community Centre, half way between our respective houses, was originally St Marks Infant School, built in 1872 on land donated by the Chamberlayne family. While our boys were having fun with the other children, we would walk down to Woolston High Street, buy cakes and retire to one or other of our houses for coffee and a chat, undisturbed by children. The cakes probably didn’t to a lot for the baby weight it took so long to lose but it was time we both looked forward to.

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Across the road from the Community Centre is the parish church, St Mark’s. The land for this was also donated by the Chamberlayne family and was consecrated in November 1863. It was designed by William White and built by Joseph Bull and Sons using Swanage, Bath, Tisburns and Corsham Down stone along with Bath and Devonshire marble. Originally it was planned to build a tower and spire in the north west corner but, in the end, this was only built to aisle height.

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Unfortunately, the church lacks a churchyard so there would be no looking at interesting graves. The reason for this omission is twofold, there wasn’t really enough land and the land there was was badly drained with salt water from the river a few feet below the surface. This would never have been a good place to be buried.

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With the church, my pleasant stroll down memory lane in the more salubrious part of Woolston had come to an end. The next part of my walk would take me back to the familiar terraced streets. Right about then I was wishing there was a Costa in Woolston. Still, I guess nowhere is perfect.

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Marie

Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

24 thoughts on “Woolston, a walk down memory lane”

  1. So many familiar landmarks and memories for me, Marie. 🙂 Among them, I had a Saturday job in Woolston Library in 1976-78. Mum and dad moved from Bitterne to St Anne’s Road in the early 80s and I had a flat in West Road throughout the 90s. My flat looked out onto the green at the back of Woolston Infant School. I used to enjoy the summer fayres the school held on the green back then. There was always a live band and country dancing! Although I lived in Bitterne throughout my childhood and, as you know, I was at school with you, it seems we were probably both living in the same vicinity again without knowing! It’s a small world!

    1. Wow, it really is a small world! I moved to Woolston in ’83 and back to Bitterne in ’91. Probably walked past your house thousands of times. It was a great place to live, lots of real characters and friendly people. We had a service lane at the back of our house and a lady called Lil used to feed all the stray cats from the Vospers yard.

  2. What a well-written post. I’m fairly familiar with Woolston (even that it was originally Olaf’s Tun: I did the signwriting- and logo-design for the short-lived Olaf’s Snooker Club, named after that connection, in Obelisk Rd in the 80s). My grandparents lived in Archery Grove since the 30s (that’s before they were grandparents!), so regular trips to Weston Shore, sometimes via Swift Road to see the Docks across the water, and more occasional trips to Archery Rec. were embedded in my childhood.
    Later I occupied a small premises off Victoria Rd. running a framing business (from about ’91 to ’95) and lived upstairs for a while. The shop more obvious, and joined to my portion, was M.R.Video, now a pedicure place, I think, on the corner of Lake Rd. My bit overlooked the yard of Cooper’s Coaches, also now no more .
    Sad to relate, I gather Woolston Library is set to vacate that nice building, to be replaced by one in the Centenary Quay development.
    I attended a friends’ mother’s wake inside the Masonic Hall, and hadn’t really noticed the building before then. Knew nothing of its history, and had presumed the Clausentum reference was the result of a move from somewhere in Bitterne Manor Also been to a Folk Festival at St Mark’s Community Centre.
    All in all, a lot of good and interesting memories triggered. Thanks.

    1. I remember Olaf’s Snooker Club well, it was at the end of our road. The Archery Ground was also somewhere I played when my sister lived in Weston. I remember M.R Video too. It’s a shame Woolston Linrary is moving but at least it isn’t closing for good. These days I live fairly near the Clausentum site so I thought it was odd the Masonic hall was called Clausentum. Perhaps it did move from there. Glad to have brought back some good memories for you. It did for me too.

    1. I think they’re closing the small fire stations and making the big ones bigger. At least I hope so. We still have two near us. Hope I don’t need them though. I really would love to see my old garden.

  3. Lovely walk down memory lane and all the old landmarks still standing , even if now used for different services . Lets hope New Woolston adds to the quality and offers ALL what it did once serve . My dad was born in Church road , worked at Supermarine and could relay a very good history of the area and it s locals. Well done Marie for really bringing Winter sunshine into ourlives x

    1. Gary, I’m glad you enjoyed following me on my little walk. I bet your Dad’s stories were interesting, you should share them some time. It’s a shame so many of these personal histories are lost because they are the history of our city too. It really does look as if Woolston is beginning to thrive again and I’m glad to see it. Long may it continue.

    2. I have to ask when your Dad was at Supermarine. An artist whose archive I manage was apprenticed in the drawing office there from 1947-52 (it may have been Vickers-Armstrong, then: I’ve not quite sorted out the changes of style, in my head). Name of Eric Meadus, locally renowned for his images of The Flower Roads but died, before fulfilling all his artistic promise, aged 39.. Worked alongside Alan Margetson, then from Winchester, still alive in Thornhill. Would be curious if yours had been in touch with either of these two.

  4. When I was a student in Edinburgh, I didn’t have a bath in either of my flats and made good use of the public baths. They were great, big tubs and as much hot water as you wanted.

  5. I reckon the library will be turned into flats when the new one opens down at the new development. It would be a lovely building to live in.
    I have only been to the Obelisk pub once for a quiz evening years ago, we did say about wandering round there during the summer but it didn’t happen.
    Just a couple of weeks ago the area by the train station was dense with bushes and now it’s all been chopped back, I was worried for the birds. It would be lovely if they could restore the old signal box.
    Lisa x

    1. You’re probably right about the flats, it’s a big house. Going to the library was one of my favourite things. We had little money so anything free was good and I love to read. The boys all had library tickets too and would choose books for bedtime. I noticed they’d cut back the shrubbery by the station, probably something to do with all the work on the bridge. The signal box could do with some loving care, it’s a pretty little building.

    1. It’s fun to speculate about them. I think the Archery Ground probably was once used for archery. As my son pointed out recently, it’s bowl shaped which would keep stray arrows from doing any damage. It’s nice to think it was a real archery ground anyway.

      1. Sorry Marie, I always press a wrong button! I was going to say that my Grandmother who lived with us was the Head Waitress at the Masonic Hall and I remember helping her set up tables when there was a meeting due and spent many hours sat is the kitchen. The Library was also a regular haunt for me as my Mum loved reading as well. I remember the little gate at the desk as you went in. I hope they don’t spoil the building when they redevelop but I assume it’s listed. As I got older I went to Harry & Betty Wilcocks Dancing Classes in the Ebenezar Hall almost opposite the library – it was knocked down when they built the new bridge. Thanks for the article, I may well trace your steps some time.

        1. Thank you for adding your memories. The Linrary building is listed so they won’t be able to knock it down thank goodness. I hope you do retrace my steps, it’s an interesting walk if you come from Woolston.

      2. Marie
        Just thought of something else. Archery Grove probably was used for archery as in medaeval times all males were required to practice archery so they would be able to defend the town as they would be called up if any invasion occurred. Obviously the pre-runner of National Service!

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