Woolston waterside, back to my roots

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Published by

Marie

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

30 thoughts on “Woolston waterside, back to my roots”

  1. Another lovely walk from the old to the new ! Wonder if in years to come the NEW will be remembered with so much passion . Will there be the landmarks of Vospers , the old cinema / bingo hall , and old favourites like The London arms as we know it . Nice to see Lawrence is still frying a tasty treat . Dont think 99p max will stay in what was icon Woolworth s , The little cheese shop where we first got introduced to Cathedral city , Whittaker the chemist , Bartlett s on Bridge road and the kids heaven of Keith Paul , Clasper s and Palmer s cycle shop . Keswick road now a car park , where once the rows of terrace homes stood .

    1. The 99p stores are not my favourite places. I’d far rather have Woolies with the pick and mix! I’m glad some of the old shops have survived and it does look like new businesses are coming in. The lovely paintwork on the shops really brightens things up too. It was looking very down at heel before. I’m still undecided about the one way system. It’s much easier to drive down to the shore but I don’t like the coming back along Keswick Road, either a right turn and uphill to the traffic lights or along to the Yacht and a horrible junction at the end onto Peartree Avenue. I’ve seen several people trying to drive the wrong way in both directions. Still, I suppose progress is better than stagnation and the Millennium Garden is beautiful, a real landmark.

    2. The name Keith Paul leaps out from your reply as one of those things you didn’t know you knew. We used to come from Bitterne to go there. Were they a clothes’ shop? Or toys? Can’t dredge it back!

      1. Keith Paul was a toy shop I seem to remember. We were very strapped for cash when we lived in Woolston though so my poor boys hardly go to go in there. When the Teenage Mutant Turtle craze hit and the toys wer £10 each I made up knitting patterns and knitted them some. Oddly they were the envy of their friends and I ended up knitting many more.

    1. My friend lived right opposite the Poo Farm and, when the wind was in the right direction and on certain days, it was rather smelly. The new, improved plant is supposed to be odour free. Fingers crossed. It was a beautiful day and it’s a nice location on the waterside.

  2. It’s amazing how much a place can change over the course of a lifetime.
    Living on the seashore must have been great. I have a two hour drive to our seashore so I don’t see it very often. It would be great to leave the house and find it within walking distance. You were lucky!

    1. Even now I’m only three miles away, just over half an hour’s walk. It was good to be able to walk out the door and be on the shore in ten minutes though. I used to pick up seaweed for my compost heap while the boys were skimming stones or collecting shells. Woolston has changed a great deal since I lived there but it’s still a nice place.

  3. Another really evocative posting. I’d not noticed the St George’s flag livery on The Victoria, and was very familiar with that particular patch below Obelisk Rd.
    I read that the Co-op were planning to pull out if Lidl set up (within the Quay development, not in their store) so I assumed they’d upped sticks because they thought that plan was going ahead.
    The little half-building where the Provincial Bank was had been a sort-of unofficial protest notice-board for ages, also a default wild garden, on the roof, etc. Looks much smarter now (and as if someone might be going to occupy, given the obscured windows).
    It’s only November/October i was last down there, but (unless i was one of those drivers going the wrong way along Vic. Rd.!) the gyratory’s been set in train since then. BTW, if it’s one-way, surely drivers going in “both” directions can’t be wrong, can they: only those going against the official flow? 🙂
    The Millennium Garden designs are the most imaginative urban sculptures I know of in Southampton, a city crying out for some really decent, go-ahead, public art. Manage to be personal and local, while maintaining a grand outlook.

    1. The Victiria looks splendid with its flag. For a while I thought it was going to close. As for Co-op, I heard Lidl were all set to move into the Co-op building but there was a dispute about permission to cut down some trees so they pulled out. Right now it is just an unofficial car park by the look of it. I remember that protest notice board on the half shop and the greenery sprouting from the roof but can’t remember the detail. I was hoping someone would know more as I’m sure it’s an interesting story.

      The one way system is very new. When I say people going the wrong way in both directions I mean the wrong way up Victoria road (away from the shore) and the wrong way along Keswick Road (towards the shore). They have also made Johns Road one way (away from the shore) apart from the first part into the Co-op car park. It is very confusing even with the signs, because we are all so used to it how it was.

      The Millennium Garden is one of the best things to happen to Woolston in recent years. When the sun shines it’s truly beautiful.

  4. This made me a bit sad. Woolston is the backbone of Southampton. Like a cage-fighter always being knocked down and rising up again. It is rising up again and not leaving much trace of its wonderful past. Just memories and ghosts. When I lived abroad I kept having this recurring dream about it, but it had this huge sand-dune of a beach and people would be queueing at the Floating Bridge. I realise now that it was a symbol of belonging to Southampton and not where I was living.

    1. I love your analogy of the cage fighter. Woolston has certainly seen many battles in its time and many changes. It always gets back up again though and it seems to be doing that right now, albeit a little battered and bruised. My Woolston days were happy ones, in the main. We had no money and our house was cold and in need of modernisation we couldn’t really afford but there was much to do there with the shore so close by and a walk across the bridge to Kingsland Market every week. I still dream about it too.

        1. I got all my veggies there and every week I’d get a pig’s trotter and cook it up for stock. We used to have the meat in sandwiches and make gravy or stew from the stock.

  5. A lovely selection of photos and a very positive overview of Woolston and the changes visible there. I notice you often call the section of Victoria Road that passes the shop “High Street”. Is that a traditional name for this road among older Woolston residents? You did not have time to walk up Portsmouth Road past the Bridge Approach bus stops as far as St Anne’s Road to comment on the Woolston comprehensive school building or up Obelisk Road to look at the survival of the Lankester and Crooks building or the Obelisk pub.. Next time perhaps?

    1. I have always called that part of Victoria Road the High Street but I’m not sure if it’s the correct name. On this walk I’d didn’t get as far as the old comprehensive school. I had heard it had been knocked down but a drive yesterday proved otherwise so I will have to go back before it goes forever. In the previous post I did walk as far as the Obelisk pub and then on to Swift Road. The Lankaster and Crooks building got missed out I’m afraid. Another thing I will have to go back for as it is still there.

  6. A great read. I still live local but lived in Johns Road for a few years in the mid 90’s as a 12/13 year old and Remember Lil and Bert etc. Lil also used to feed the Pigeons everyday. Great local characters.
    Anyone remember Sparkies and Chasey’s?

    On another note I still think The Southampton Council should celebrate and embrace Woolstons efforts in the war and have a large Spitfire monument or a bust of Reginald J Mitchell either in Woolston or in Southampton High Street. Let’s face it, The Supermarine / Spitfire and Woolston/Southampton workers played a vital role in the war. Let’s show visitors to Southampton how proud we are!

    1. We moved out before you lived there but I remember Soarkies and Chasesy. My boys were always up and down Cox’s Lane on their bikes.

  7. I loved the photos and memories.Earlier days too when we had a vicarage opposite the woolston Sation and summer fetes before it was sold to Dibbens the builders merchants,
    The dances in The New and Old Peartree Halls,the Rachabite Hall opposite the library!

  8. Thank you very much for this. Your walk this time started where I was born and grew up, right opposite the “Poo Farm ” in Victoria Road. Yes it certainly did pong. That row of houses were built, I was told, for the coastguards and later were taken over by Southern Railway. Our next door neighbour was the son of a coastguard and born there at the beginning of the 20th century when the houses were new but in the 1950s most of the tenants were railway workers. In the mid sixties the entire row of, I believe, 37 houses were sold for about £24,000 in total to a development company and gradually sold off as tenants moved on.

    My dad used to use the Vic but never the Ship for some reason. I well remember rushing past Thorney’s to avoid the crowds being let out at the end of the day and cutting through the gardens of the canteen, under the flowering cherry trees, to the number 5 bus stop outside the Ladybird factory in Obelisk road to go to school.

    I left Woolston finally in 1977 to get married and work in London but last year we retired and came back to Hampshire. As soon as the weather improves we plan a little nostalgic walk of our own to see how the old place has changed.

    Thanks again.

    1. I’m glad to bring back happy memories Karen. My friend lived in one of the houses right opposite the Poo Farm. Some days it was fine but if the wind was blowing the wrong way it could be horrible. I didn’t know the houses were originally coast guard cottages. How interesting. I hope you have a happy retirement and enjoy your wander around Woolston. It’s changed a fair bit since the mid 70’s.

  9. A very interesting reminiscence Karen. The Ladybird factory you mention became a night club, of all things, and was later demolished and replaced by flats. The city buses no longer run along Obelisk Road, although the bus stop pole remains.

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