23 January 2016
Commando grew up in Woolston, or at least in Itchen on its outskirts, so, after my little wander last week, we were discussing all the things I’d seen and the changes since he was a boy.
“It’s a shame they knocked down Woolston School,” I said, “I’d have liked to see the building.”
“It’s closed but they haven’t knocked it down,” he told me.
“Are you sure? I thought they had.”
“I drove past the other day and it was still there, just boarded up. Unless they bulldozed it last week I’m pretty sure it’s still standing.”
“Maybe I should go and have a look while I still can then.”
Commando left for his eight mile run as I left the house for my walk. As both walk and run would take about the same time and Commando was starting from the feather in Woolston, we agreed to meet later for lunch in Annie’s cafe. In contrast to my previous walk, it was a dull, damp day when I set off along Spring Road. This time I would start from the other end of Woolston, coming at it from the top of Portchester Road where the school is, or at least was.
We left Woolston while Philo was at junior school and little Bard in his first year at Woolston Infants, CJ was still a baby in a pushchair so remembers little of the place. Had we stayed, they’d have all ended up at Woolston school but, as it was, I’d had little reason to ever visit it and barely knew where it was. As it happened, it was hard to miss. A huge, tower like, structure dominated the corner of the road. The bottom windows were boarded up and green algae crept up the brickwork. It looked sad and unloved.
Later, Commando told me this monsterous block and the austere metal staircase I found around the corner weren’t even built when he studied there. The school he remembered started a little further along the road with a more traditional looking school building. From the little I’ve been able to find out, Woolston School began life in the 1930’s as an infant school. This building, with chimneys, sash windows and decorative bricks on the gable ends looks like it may have been built then.
Like Woolston, the school has seen a lot of changes over the years. From an infant school it became a boy’s senior school, then a mixed secondary school and finally, in 2006, a specialist language college for 11 to 16 year olds. This last change is a sign of the times. In the mid 90’s government initiatives encouraged secondary schools to specialise in certain areas to obtain extra funding. It seemed every school in the city was turning into a specialist academy in something or other and I wasn’t sure I approved. Surely they should be teaching everything equally, giving the local children a chance to find out what they excelled at and build on it? Why should one child have a better chance at the arts, or languages just by an accident of locality? What if the local school specialised in technology or mathematics when the child was a budding artist? Obviously, the rich could pick and choose where they lived and therefore, where they sent their children, but what about the rest of us? The scheme and the funding ended in 2010, but the specialist statuses have remained.
Despite the extra funding and almost eight hundred pupils, the school merged with the Grove Park Business and Enterprise College about a mile away in Weston in 2008. For Woolston it was the beginning of the end. The number of pupils doubled overnight and, at first, the school was operated in both buildings with the younger students in Weston and the older ones in Woolston. It wasn’t ideal and eventually, in 2011, with a new building in Weston almost complete, Woolston School finally closed.
An empty school seems a sad sight. As I walked back the way I’d come I looked up at the boarded windows, half hidden by overgrown shrubbery, and tried to imagine a young Commando inside with long, flowing hair, wearing a crisp white shirt with inky cuffs, sitting at a desk, maybe doodling or flicking screwed up balls of paper. A man walking past looked at me a little strangely so I felt compelled to explain why I was taking pictures.
“My husband went here,” I said, “and I thought I’d take some photos before they knock it down.”
“I heard it might be staying now,” he said. “With all the new houses in Centenery Quay, the council think they might need a school here.”
So maybe Woolston School will have a reprieve?
Apart from seeing the school and meeting Commando there wasn’t much of a plan. Maybe I’d take a wander down to the Archery Ground? When I got there though, the grass was slippery with mud. Commando would not thank me for muddy boots in the car later, so, yet again, I decided against a walk in the woods, much as I’d have liked one.
Instead I thought I’d take a wander to Obelisk Road to have a look at something else I missed on my last visit. On the way there I came upon a mystery. In Church Road, nestled between two houses near the junction with Obelisk Road, I spotted a large corrugated iron building, it looked like a giant shed. Given how many times I walked up and down this road when I lived in Woolston it seemed odd that I didn’t remember it. Then again, I was usually in charge of a pushchair and at least one small child so I suppose I had other things to divert my attention. It was quite magnificent in its dilapidation and I felt sure Commando would be able to tell me all about it. As it happened, he did remember it vaguely and thought it might once have been a car repair shop of some kind but that was all he could tell me.
Still wondering what the neighbours must think to have the massive wreck of a building beside their houses, I turned into Obelisk Road. This long straight road starts near the waterside on Victoria Road and runs almost as far as Mayfield Park. On my last walk I joined it about half way along which meant I missed out one rather splendid old building. It began life in around 1860 as Lankester’s store, owned by Augustus Lankester. Augustus’ grandfather was Henry Blomfield Lankester and his cousin William Goddard Lankester who ran an ironmongers. Later they would change their name to Lankester and Crook. This was to be the first of many stores in Southampton, selling groceries, wines, spirits and household goods. The shop was also a post office.
Now the old store is a dance studio, in fact I think it was when I lived in Woolston, but the imposing building hasn’t changed much. The rather grand brick and stone upper floor with a decorative clock as a centrepiece hardly seems to have changed at all and even some of the arched windows below remain. There was a branch of Lankester and Crook in Bitterne when I was a child, near the Red Lion, but I don’t remember ever going inside. They ceased trading in the 1980’s, probably because other, more modern stores had come along and people preferred the large supermarkets. People hark back to these lovely old shops and wish they were still around but they like to look at them rather than go inside and buy things.
As I made my way down towards the High Street and my rendezvous with Commando, I couldn’t help wondering if Woolston School really will get a reprieve? I wonder too, if we will feel the same fondness for the supermarkets and superstores of today in years to come when everyone does all their shopping on line and real shops have ceased to exist?