15 January 2016
Still smiling at memories of happy Playschool mornings I retraced my steps to Swift Road and carried on to its end at the shoreline on Victoria Road. Right on the corner is a wastewater treatment plant callied the Poo Farm by locals. It has been known to give the area a bit of an unfortunate pong from time to time. Recently it’s been extensively modernised so hopefully whiffy Woolston is a thing of the past. It certainly smelled fine when I passed today.
This terraced street is the beginning of the Woolston I know best. Until 2004 the massive Vosper Thorneycroft shipyard dominated the shore side of the road here. When I lived in Woolston, walks had to be timed around Vospers shifts and lunch breaks. Anyone not in the know could end up trapped in a street almost impassable, filled with men making their way to and from the shipyard. At the time Commando was one of them.
When the shipyard relocated to Portsmouth the streets became eerily quiet and many of the shops that relied on the shipwrights’ trade closed. Then the builders moved in and, little by little, the new houses and flats of Centenery Quay began to go up. They’re still building now. As a nice touch the new road names and some of the street art gives a nod to the Vosper Thorneycroft yard and keeps Woolston’s long shipbuilding history alive, if only in memory.
They’ve been building ships in Woolston since at least 1870 but it wasn’t until 1904 that John I Thorneycroft and Company bought the yard. Then, in 1966, Thorneycroft’s company merged with Vosper and Co to become Vosper Thorneycroft.
After the demise of the shipyard in 2004, the Victoria pub, much used by the shipwrights, looked doomed. It seemed it would go the way of so many other pubs, especially with the Ship Inn just a minute or two away. Recently though it seems to have undergone a regeneration with new paint in the shape of the flag of St George. Perhaps the people who’ve moved into the flats and houses have taken it to their hearts as their local.
A few of the old shops remain opposite the new buildings but many are derelict. One in particular, is half demolished, although the shop next to it, delapidated as it is, is still open. The contrast between the old and the new is stark and I can’t help wondering why someone hasn’t seen the potential of all those new residents with money to spend.
For a while there was a shiny new Co-op Supermarket. It was handy for chocolate milk when I was walking along the shore. It opened as Vosper’s closed and the original, small Co-op right behind my old house also closed. Then, in May last year, the new store suddenly disappeared. There were rumours the Lidl chain were taking it over but it seems they pulled out and Woolston residents have been left without a supermarket. The huge building currently stands empty, which seems a shame with so many people needing to buy food.
A chocolate milk would have been nice round about then. I’d been wandering around for an hour and a half after all. Before I hit the High Street I took a quick detour to look down my old road, just for old time’s sake. It’s been a while since I did that and it felt strange to think I’d once lived in one of those terraced houses. At the same time, it felt oddly like home and I could easily imagine myself walking up to the door and letting myself in. Of course, my key wouldn’t fit twenty five years later and the house, which has been extensively modernised since I left it, would be nothing like the one I remembered. It would have been fun to see my old garden though.
For a moment I thought about actually walking up the road, past my old house but that would have left me at the wrong end of the High Street so I turned and walked around the corner. As I did I wondered about some of the characters I knew back then. In the lane at the back of our terrace an elderly lady called Lil would feed all the stray cats from the Vosper’s yard. We called her Cat Lady Lil. Our cat, Tigger, used to take advantage and have a second meal. Then there was Bert next door who went to the pub on Christmas Day, forgetting he’d put giblets on the stove to cook. The smoke came under our floorboards and we saw it pouring out of Bert’s Windows. We called the fire brigade, thinking he was inside. A fireman somehow got into the house through a window that looked way too small. Then Bert came back, slightly the worse for wear, and wondered what all the fuss was about.
Recently Woolston High street underwent a drastic change. The busy road that was always lined with parked cars was turned into a one way street and the whole area turned into a twenty mile an hour zone. This certainly made it easier to drive down, at least in the one direction you now can, but it did cause major confusion. A loop of back road was used for traffic going from the shore towards Bridge Road but I’ve seen people trying to drive the wrong way more than once. Today was the first time I walked along it for a long time. The first thing that struck me was how colourful the shop fronts looked. Each shop seems to have been painted in pastel shades giving the street a quaint seaside air. Perhaps it’s been like that for a long time and I’ve never noticed when I’ve driven past. Maybe the sun highlighted it. Either way I like it.
Since the closure of the shipyard, the little High Street had begun to look down at heel. Familiar shops closed and remained empty. It felt as if Woolston was dying. With the building of Centenery Quay, even though it’s far from complete, I hoped the place would see a bit of a revival and new traders would be drawn to the area. As I strolled along this morning it felt as if it was finally happening. It wasn’t just the new paint, there really were less boarded up shops. Amongst the old friends like Lawrence’s chippy, Woolston Social Club, Wear Abouts, Williamsons Fabrics, Trevor Mitchell hairdressers, Martin’s Newsagent and my favourite cake shop, The Oven Door, there were new faces.
True, the 99p shop will never win a place in my heart in the way good old Woolies did but mostly it seems to be a step in the right direction. Pretty soon I’d reached the top of the High Street, where Victoria Road, bisected by Portsmouth Road, ends and becomes Bridge Road and then Peartree Avenue. The old Lloyds Bank building still stands on the corner unchanged while, opposite, the London Arms pub is just a memory, like the shipyard that once dominated the other end of the street. Obviously the people of Woolston frequented the bank more than the pub.
It was almost time to start the long climb home but first there were a few more things I wanted to see. Beyond the junction, the bottom end of Portsmouth Road slopes steeply down to the river. The old cinema, built in 1912, is still there, although it’s a bingo hall these days. The facade, with its mouldings hasn’t changed much though and I hope it stays that way. A few doors down is Chefs Chinese takeaway, known by most as Dave’s. My first ever Chinese meal came from there and, when we lived in Woolston, it was our favourite takeaway. When we were feeling rich we’d have Chinese food, when money was tight it would be curry chips. Dave’s had the best curry sauce I’ve ever tasted. As I passed my mouth was literally watering at the thought of it.
The road runs down to the river where the Cliff Hotel has stood since around 1839, although it was turned into flats in the 1980’s. Originally it was known as Jackman’s Hotel, after landlord Isaac Jackman. In the 1890’s it served as headquarters for the St Mary’s Football Club, now The Saints. The players must have come across the water on the Itchen Ferry or the floating bridge for their meetings.
This piece of waterside is where some of my fondest childhood memories lurk. Before the Itchen Bridge changed the face of Woolston forever this was the floating bridge terminus and I still remember the tingle of excitement I felt standing on the quay with buses coming and going watching the floating bridge coming towards me. For me it was a rare treat, although for Commando, who lived much nearer, it was commonplace. There’s almost nothing left now to show it was ever there, just a slipway, a tiny covered gate and some of the old workings saved as a reminder. Today I didn’t walk down to the water. That is a post I’ve already written after all.
Instead I walked back up the hill, stopping for a moment to look at Annie’s Cafe where Commando Senior liked to have a cooked breakfast. On one corner of Bridge Road there’s a funny little half shop. It used to look half derelict and sold bric a brack and junk I think. These days it’s been smartened up considerably but doesn’t seem to be in use. Before the blitz this was a branch of the National Provincial Bank. It was bombed out and this scrap of a building was all that was left. Rather than knock it down it seems to have been patched up and so it remains as a curiosity. I wish I knew more of its history.
Bridge Road was badly hit during the Southampton blitz so much of what you see today was built post war. The other corner was once the British Gas showroom where I’d go to pay my gas bill. British Gas showrooms are a thing of the past and it looks like some kind of convenience store now, although there’s no sign so I’m not sure.
No visit to Woolston is complete without stoping to admire the Millennium Garden, created by a local group to give the people of Wooslton something to be proud of. It was built in 2002 and is a beautiful landmark on the corner of Bridge Road next to the half shop on land that would have once been inside the National Provincial Bank. This is where the Itchen Spitfires meet and locally it has become known as simply The Feather, because of the ten metre tall metal and recycled glass feather sculpture and the stainless steel feather benches designed by Peter Codling.
The garden celebrates Woolston’s history of flight (the spitfire) and sail (the shipyard) with three landscaped areas representing land, sea and sky and the brick path is in the shape of a propellor. The bricks of the path and some of the surrounding area are inscribed with names, some of which belong to crew members of the Titanic who came from Woolston and local residents, including my late Mother and Father in Law. Around the perimeter are bike racks which represent both ship chains and the people of Woolston. The small garden is managed and maintained by the Woolston Community Association.
It’s a lovely place to sit and rest for a moment and I think it really is something for residents to be proud of. Today I did sit for a while enjoying the rare sunshine and thinking about all the changes I’d seen. Then it was time to start for home with a look at the bridge that changed the face of Woolston so drastically before I made my way through the tunnel under it to Peartree Avenue.
Of course, this was just a whistle stop tour of Woolston and is by no means all there is to see. Even so, it was good to have a wander around my old stomping ground where there are many good memories of the wonderful characters I knew and the rich history I once lived amidst.