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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.