5 April 2016
The building work was almost finished. There was a shed base at the end of the garden, the wall was built and the boring repointing was all done. We were still waiting for a skip to be delivered and the potting shed hadn’t even been ordered never mind built but still, patience is a virtue, right? Anyhow, all that is another post altogether. With no builder and no skip due today I could get out for a walk. It was sorely needed. Unfortunately, as I had an appointment in town, it wasn’t going to be a very exciting one but you can’t have everything eh? Anyway, it was probably time I checked out what was happening with the repairs to the Bargate.
So, with CJ accompanying me because he smelled a coffee in it for him, it was over the Big Bridge and into town. The sky was grey, as was the river but being out walking was way better than being stuck at home so I was happy enough. We saw yet another fallen tree just after we passed the stadium. Storm Katie has a lot to answer for but at least it was only a small tree this time.
The appointment was soon dealt with and, as I was in the area, I thought I’d wander along Platform Road to the High Street. It’s been a while since I gave the old walls a perusal.
“Wasn’t that a hotel once?” CJ asked as we passed South Western House.
“It was,” I told him. “All the rich Titanic passengers stayed there. The terminus station was right next to it, it’s the casino now, and they could go from the train, through a covered walkway, to the hotel without getting wet if it was raining. After that it was the BBC studios and then British Rail took it over as a data input centre.”
“Didn’t you work there after you left college?”
“Sadly not. The data input centre moved to Overline House by Central Station a while before I started there. My colleagues often said how nice it was inside South Western House though. I did go inside once when it was a night club but I’ve never seen the rooms.”
On the other side of Queens Park we stopped to admire the old Admiralty House building. Built in 1902, it started life as the General Post Office for the docks. For a post office it’s certainly a very grand building with stone columns and dressings, three pediments triangular at either end and curved in the centre. The Windows on the first floor are all rounded and the doors at either end have round headed arches. All the mail for the ships passed through there, including the mail for RMS Titanic. These days it’s fancy apartments but at least the building has been saved. What a grand place to live!
Next we came to a slightly less prestigious address, Gods House Tower. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it was somewhere you’d avoid living in at all costs at one time. The thirteenth century tower was once a gatehouse, allowing access to the walled town from Town Quay. In the fifteenth century a tower and two story gallery were added to the original gate. Beneath the tower was a tidal moat and a water mill and the gallery was used to store gunpowder and gunshot. By the seventeenth century the building had become the Town Gaol so the heavy wooden door was one most citizens would not want to pass through.
By the late 1800’s the building was being used by the Harbour Board as a storage facility but, in 1961, it became the Museum of Archeology. Sadly, the museum closed in 2011 and the door has remained shut ever since so all we could do was look at it a little wistfully and hope that one day the plans to reopen it come to fruition. We could walk through the old town gate into Winkle Street though and this was exactly what we did.
Of necessity, this was a very well defended gate with a double portcullis to protect the town from attack by sea. We stood for a while, looking up at the grooves from which huge wooden barred gates would have been lowered, effective shutting up the town. Back then there would have undoubtedly been guards to challenge us.
On the other side we were in Winkle Street. To our right was Back of the Walls and the old sign for the Museum of Archeology, giving the false impression we might still go inside. We carried on ahead though. Something about the narrow medieval lane with its mixture of old stone and patchwork of crumbling brick makes me think I might almost be stepping back in time. Up on a high windowledge a sparrow was singing, he seemed to like it there too. The window below had a red metal date stone reading 1822.
“I wonder what GAM stands for?” CJ asked. I had no idea but later Googling tells me it probably stands for George Atherley, mayor at the time and the date was probably when the stables that once stood there were turned into the current building, Solent House.
Further along, at the back of the Platform Tavern, is a wonderful wrought iron gate I’ve often admired. It leads to a small alcove filled with junk but I can’t help thinking such a work of art, with the sun, vines, dancing men, musical notes and a whole shoal of fish, should be somewhere far more prominent. In fact I’d like it in my garden.
The lane is a wonderful mingling of the old, the very old and the new with the ancient stone, bright pink pub walls, old brick arches and modern steel doors. It feels like one of the city’s hidden gems, tucked away behind Gods House and Town Quay. I can easily imagine the guards at the gate and a steady stream of carts and people heading for the quay.
In medieval times this would have been a bustling place, full of people coming and going between Gods House gate and the Water Gate at the end of Porters Lane. Today the Water Gate tower is a crumbling ruin, the gate long gone, as are the porters and their carts piled with wine and wool heading in and out of the town. Above the red telephone boxes on the corner a pigeon watched us from a tiny crevice below the arches of the ruin. We left him to his cubby hole and turned along the lane.
Once a rich merchant lived behind the walls here and the decaying remnants of his house are still there. Beyond them we could see the May and Wade warehouse. Last time we came this way it was covered with scaffolding and CJ wanted to have a look but I had other ideas. Behind the house there is a park filled with French plants and I wanted to see what was in flower. First though CJ insisted on having a closer look at the building.
The main part of the house, known as Canute’s Palace although it was built between 1170-1200 long after the famous king’s time, is still mostly standing. We went through the crumbling arch of the door and looked up at windows and doorways marvelling that some wooden lintels had managed to survive. In the far corner steps lead down a short passageway to a blocked off door.
“I wonder where it lead?” CJ asked.
“I’m pretty sure I know,” I said, “and I’ll show you if you like.”
So I led him through the gardens to a flat topped building on the corner of the High Street. This is the thirteenth century Black Vault, or Quilter’s Vault, although it was not used by people wielding needles and stitching fabric together. Once it was the cellar of the Royal George Hotel, whose landlady, Eliza Quilter was a no nonsense kind of lady who kept order with a big stick. The pub was destroyed during the blitz but it’s said you can still hear her banging that stick today if you listen carefully.
Unfortunately, the building is behind a strong wrought iron fence and our vaults tour last year didn’t include it. All we could do was peer through at the trantalising barred doors and windows and wish we could get inside. It seems to me there are far too many interesting places in this city that I can’t get into. Maybe I need to become an archaeologist. Anyhow, although I’m not entirely sure, I think the door at the end of the passageway in Canute’s Palace, probably has a tunnel behind it connecting to these vaults. Of course I could be wrong but the merchant had to have somewhere to store all his wares.
In the end we were so enthralled by the vault we hardly gave the gardens a look. It was only as we stepped onto the High Street that I remembered they were what I’d come this way for. CJ was eager to get going though so all they got was a cursory glance which was a shame because they were filled with flowers. In the end all I managed was a couple of quick shots before CJ’s tutting and foot tapping dragged me away. Even so, I was surprised to spot a sign declaring this Town Quay Park. I always thought it was called the French Garden. Seeing how often I sat in this park when I worked at Silver Helm I’m surprised I’d never noticed it before. Perhaps it’s new.
There was a bit more squirming and grumbling when I stopped near the Tudor Merchants house to photograph some graffiti, a tiger with human hands (goodness knows what that’s about). Nearby was a strange sign with the sun peeking from behind a black cloud, a whirlwind and a smiling rain drop with a snow flake in his mouth. It more or less sums up my recent walks but I’m not sure what it means. CJ said it was a sticker and thought it was more graffiti but I thought it was something the council put up because it said Old Town Southampton. It didn’t seem like much of an advert though.
He virtually dragged me past Holyrood with a sharp reminder that we’d actually come to see the Bargate. He was probably right, I’m far too easily distracted. In the end there wasn’t much to see though. The place was completely covered with scaffolding and some kind of blue netting. We could hardly see a single brick. There was a lot of noise and a cloud of stone dust coming from the side nearest the Bargate Centre so obviously something is going on. Hopefully the workmen know what an important building this is and are going to take good care of it.
So that was that. We will just have to wait for the great unveiling when the work is done. There was nothing left to do but head for home. CJ didn’t even bother with the complaining when I stopped for a few flower photos in the enchanted park but he did eye the dark sky a little nervously.
Please see my copyright information before you copy or use any of the above words or pictures.