The Bargate, inside and out

5 January 2017

With Commando now back at work and all the post Christmas and New Year clearing up done it was time to think about my first walk of the year. There were a host of possibilities but one stood out. While we were in Iceland CJ went for a wander into town on his own and discovered an art exhibition inside the Bargate. It isn’t every day you get the chance to see the most iconic symbol of our city from a new angle so he went inside. Only a small part of the building was open but it was still more than I had ever seen. Luckily, it turned out the art exhibition continued into the New Year so, today, I decided to check it out.

As we walked up the High Street towards the mediaeval gate I breathed a sigh of relief to see an open door to the right of the main Bargate arch. Until then I’d been half afraid we’d find it closed. Before we ventured inside we stopped for a moment to admire this familiar landmark, lit by the low winter sun.

Since people first settled at the confluence of the rivers Itchen and Test, Southampton, or Hamtun as it was then called, has been a port. The Saxons built earth ramparts and ditches to protect the town and, after the Norman Conquest in 1066, work began to improve these fortifications. Back then the town was an important port for the import of French wine and the export of English wool. The first of the stone fortifications to be built was the Bargate arch. Constructed between 1175 and 1200, it formed the core of the north gate of the walled town of Southampton.

Over a period of three hundred years or so, the walls, made largely of Isle of Wight limestone and flint, went up. For the citizens it must have felt a little like living in a building site but, eventually, the town was encircled by one and a half miles of stone walls with seven main gateways and twenty nine towers. About half remain today but most modern Sotonians pass by without really loohing at them.

Standing, as we were, on the south side of the gate, we could see the small tower on the far left of the crenellations, containing the watch, or curfew bell. This was added in 1605 and would ring out each evening when the huge gate was shut. Those whose business took them outside the town would be wise to heed the warning. If they were outside when the gate shut there was no getting back home that night. A century later a sundial was added above the central arch, just in case anyone should be in any doubt about the time.

With a tingle of excitement we finally went through the open doorway and slowly began to climb the steep stone steps. As we descended we looked out at the modern town through a trio of narrow recessed windows set at intervals on the stairs. In medieval times, without the benefit of electricity, these would have let in scant light making this a dark and probably scary climb.

Through the arch at the top we found a barred gateway to our right. Once this would have led onto the battlements of the walls where guards patrolled, keeping the city safe and impenetrable. Now it leads nowhere and those battlements and the wall below them are long gone, demolished to make way for traffic in the 1930’s. At the time there were calls to demolish the whole Bargate. Thankfully it was saved but, with a little more foresight and appreciation of the history of these ancient walls, we might have been able to walk all the way along them today.

Over the years the Bargate has been used for many things. In medieval times taxes were collected at the gate, along with a toll for crossing the drawbridge. The rooms above were used as a guildhall and courtroom and the ground floor was a prison. During the sixteenth century the Court Leet held their meetings here then, in 1836, when Southampton’s police force was established, it served as police headquarters and the upper rooms were used as a prison. By the 1950’s the old building had become a museum of local history. Sadly, apart from the odd art exhibition, it has been closed to the public for many years. It seems a terrible shame that Sotonians rarely have the chance to see inside the symbol of their city.

Opposite the now defunct gateway to the battlements was a large wooden door with metal studs. Beyond was a small room of white painted stud walls, a desk where information about the art show was being given out and a further two plain rooms. There was just one exhibit, an auditory piece rather than a painting, by Eileen Simpson and Ben White. Called Auditory Learning, it was a series of sounds that trigger audio fragments and went completely over my head. In truth, neither of us were there for the artwork but we went into the tiny, bare room to listen anyway, feeling a little as if we were there under false pretences.

With our duty done, we explored the main room. Disappointingly, the white studwork covered all the old stonework but for one arched window. This was one of the four windows on the south face of the building, added in the thirteenth century and restored in Victorian times with a stained glass city crest in the little trefoil window above. All my life I’ve looked at those windows from the outside, now I could hardly believe I was standing on the inside looking out through the diamond leaded glass. It more than made up for the starkness of the rest of the room.

Through the old, mottled glass the High Street seemed like a sepia photograph come to life. The buildings were blurred and distorted, the people moving about below reduced to shadows. I could have been looking out on any time in the city’s long history and I liked the fact that, despite all the changes that have undoubtedly happened since Bargate was built, the view from this window remains much the same.

When I finally dragged myself away from the window I turned my attention to the oak panel on the opposite wall. This, I knew, was one of the oak panels painted with images of Sir Bevis of Hampton and the giant Ascupart. Originally they were mounted on the columns on either side of the Bargate arch for a visit by Queen Elizabeth I. The idea of such history right in front of me was breathtaking, even if the Tudor varnish is now so dark I could hardly tell whether I was looking at Sir Bevis or Ascupart.

The panels cost the town two pounds and five shillings, with the five shillings going to the painter. Back then this was probably a princely sum. Apparently, it would be possible to remove the varnish that now hides his work rather than protecting it. Unfortunately, this would cost around twenty thousand pounds so I doubt it will ever happen. Despite not really being able to make out the painting, even standing close enough to touch it, I took a photo. Later, at home, with a great deal of playing around, I was able to reveal I’d been looking at Sir Bevis all along.

Now we’d seen all the room had to offer we headed back to the little reception area. We’d been so eager earlier we’d hardly given it a second glance. Luckily, we didn’t make the same mistake on the way out. On the wall above the reception desk was a beautifully carved wooden police sign, perhaps from the days when this was a police station.

Even more interesting was the statue in a niche of the old stone wall. This was something I’d heard about many times but never seen. The statue is of Queen Anne. Made of coad stone (a man made stone), and it once stood in the niche above the south face of the Bargate, just above the arch. In 1809, poor Anne was usurped and replaced by the statue of King George III that stands there to this day. As if the indignity of being relegated to the inside of the Bargate, where hardly anyone would ever see her, wasn’t bad enough, the poor queen also had her arm broken off when a crowd watching a play inside the building got a little overexcited. Even with her broken arm, it seems a shame she has such a lonely existence these days. After all, the Venus de Milo has two arms missing and it hasn’t hurt her career any. It would be nice if she could be displayed where more people could see her, better still, it would be nice if the whole of the Bargate was opened to the public all the time.

Now it was almost time to leave but, outside the huge wooden door, there was still one more thing to see. Directly opposite the top of the stairs there was a small chamber, not large enough to be called a room. Inside it were two windows. One, inside a multifoil arch, was square and looking out towards the Bargate Centre. The other was more an arrow slit than a window. It was recessed inside a Gothic arch and seemed to look out towards Above Bar. A close look at the former showed it had once been painted green. Perhaps all the inner walls were once painted?

Now it really was time to go. It seemed a shame that we couldn’t have seen more of the old building but some was better than none. Even so, we were half reluctant to leave. We stood at the top of the stairs, looking at the ancient stonework and trying to imagine what it must have been like in its heyday. Then, very slowly, we began to descend.

About a quarter of the way down something dripped from high in the ceiling out of sight, narrowly missing my head, and landed with a plop on the stair in front of me. Looking closely at the stone I saw a patch of white calcite and a wet patch where the drip had landed. Obviously, somewhere on the roof there must be a small leak and the water is picking up minerals as it trickles through the limestone, trying hard to form a stalactite.

All too soon we reached the bottom of the steps and the barred arch where the medieval word meets the modern day. Outside people were going about their business, dashing about clutching shopping bags. I wondered how many of them noticed the stone gateway they passed by and how many had ever been inside it?

Now we were back where we started, standing at the top of the High Street looking at the south face of the Bargate. The statue of King George III stood in his niche as he has all my life. He was gifted to the city by the second Marquis of Lansdowne in 1809 and is said to bear “no mean likeness to his majesty,” even though he is dressed as a Roman emperor. Looking up at him I tried to imagine poor Anne with her broken arm standing in his place.

We walked through the arch towards Above Bar, passing between the drum towers, added in the thirteenth century when the northern town wall was built. The towers were part of the town defences and have long, thin arrow loops where once guards must have stood, ready to see off any attackers to the town. It must have been a dark, boring job, standing in those small, cramped towers with a bow and arrows waiting for something to happen.

Just in front of the inner curve of the towers are two side arches added in the late 1700’s for pedestrians. Back then, of course, the walls still stretched around the town, almost unbroken. These extra gates must have been a welcome improvement, giving pedestrians somewhere to stand out of the way of coaches and carriages as they passed through the main arch.

On the north side of the arch I stopped to look up at the shields, added in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and still waiting refurbishment. They were put in place to honour various parliamentary representatives, leading burgesses and benefactors of Southampton but time and weather has faded them beyond all recognition. They were earmarked for restoration as part of the recent work to replace defective mortar but, so far, there is no sign of work on them. Perhaps it’s all going on behind the scenes somewhere?

Now we could look back at the most recognisable face of The Bargate, the one seen by visitors to the town for the last eight hundred years or so. Of course it didn’t always look as it does today. Originally there would have been a wide moat with a bridge to cross and a portcullis to pass through, if the guards allowed and you paid your taxes and tolls. The facade of the building more or less as we know it today dates from the late fourteenth century when the building was extended between the drum towers. Machiolations were added for extra protections, along with a rooftop gun platform.

On either side of the gate, standing guard over the old town, are the two oldest statues in the city. The two rampant lions represent those in the story of Sir Bevis. Legend has it that two lions killed Bevis’ friend Sir Boniface and trapped the Lady Josian, the love of his life, in a cave. After a fierce struggle, Sir Bevis killed the lions, or so the story goes. The first lion statues were made of wood in 1522 in preparation for a visit by King Charles V of Spain. By 1743 they were not faring too well and the current lions, made of lead, replaced them.

Our visit to The Bargate was now well and truly over. With one last, sad look at the stonework where the walls were torn down in the 1930’s, we turned to leave.

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

16 thoughts on “The Bargate, inside and out”

  1. I wonder how many people must have stood with rubber knees trying not to faint as they waited to get through that gate. It must have been a harrowing experience, especially if you were up to no good.
    It’s an amazing piece of history and I hope nobody ever thinks of tearing it down.

    1. In the early twentieth century it was going to be knocked down several times but was reprieved. It’s hard to imagine the city without it. I often think of all the people who walked through the gate over the centuries and it was amazing to go inside. There were actually public executions in front of the gate in medieval times too.

  2. Thank you for your insight into our Bargate, I would love to go inside again. I went in as a child and there were no studded walls then it was all natural. i can remember a penny farthing against one of the walls and a few old relics but not much more..They could do so much more with this historic building. sadly our councils dont seem to appreciate our History a much as other citys do.

    1. Although I’ve lived in Southampton all my life, this was my first time inside Bargate. I wish I’d seen it when it was a museum. I agree, our council don’t seem to appreciate the history of the cit as much as they could but we do have some wonderful walls and Sea City Museum, Tudor House, The Medieval Merchant’s House and the Solent Sky museum are worth a look as is the Woolhouse, now a micro brewery.

  3. I’m so jealous. I’ve never been inside. Perhaps there will be other exhibitions in the future. It looks as if this one was in conjunction with something at the Art Gallery.

    1. So glad you enjoyed it. I really wish I’d been able to see more of the building but going inside at all was a huge priveledge.

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