Hidden surprises in the medieval walls – first published 9 June 2014

Early June 2014 and I’d crossed the Itchen Bridge and walked along the seafront to God’s House Tower. There had been some vague notion of walking up towards West Quay when I started out but nothing you could actually call a plan. I stood, looking at the tower, partly marvelling at the way it had stood the test of time and changes, partly wondering where to go next. What I didn’t realise as I stood there, was that these old walls I’ve lived with all my life and grown to love could surprise me with things I’d never noticed before.

9 June 2014

Last February I took you on a walk round the Medieval  town walls, so I’ve written quite a bit about their history already. I’m not going to bore you by going over it all again, but I make no apologies for waffling on a bit about some things because I think they need to be remembered and celebrated. God’s House Tower is one of them.

The original incarnation of the tower was built as a gatehouse to the new quay in the late 13th century. After the French raid of 1338 the defences were reinforced and it became one of the earliest forts built to carry cannon. Then, in the early 15th century, a two story gallery and three story tower were added to provide artillery cover and protect the sluices to the water mill underneath. As with most of the old walls, when you look closely you can see bricked up doors and windows. Until that moment I’d never noticed the door on the East face was set in a bricked up arch though.

In the end I decided to go through the real arch into Winkle Street. This was mainly because I like the way this narrow street still has a medieval feel to it and I can imagine a portcullis above me and a guard watching me pass. If you look closely at the arch you can even see where the portcullis used to be. Winkle street is a hotchpotch of ancient buildings side by side with more modern ones just like the medieval town was. Yes, there are bins outside some buildings and someone has left an old beer can beside the wall in the arch but, let’s face it, the medieval streets would have been strewn with rubbish, running with excrement and alive with beggars and rats. The fact it is still lived in and used adds to the feel of authenticity.

Through the stone arch you can see the French Church, St Juilen’s with its tower, minus a steeple these days. The street is so narrow it’s almost impossible to take a photograph of the church as a whole other than this. The best I could manage was a shot looking back around the side of the tower. The church was the chapel of the Hospital of St Julien, an almshouse and hostel for pilgrims on the way to Canterbury, known as God’s House. It’s known as the French Church because, from 16th century until 1939, it was mostly used by French Protestants. Sadly it’s closed to the public, although I’d like a look inside. The Earl of Cambridge was buried under the altar after he was executed for his part in the ‘Southampton Plot’ to murder Henry V before the battle of Agincourt. I wonder if there is a plaque? After all, Cambridge’s grandson was Richard III.

Watchbell Tower and Canute’s Palace stand at the end of Winkle Street. Here the vista spread out before me seemed like a strange time warp with modern buildings and restaurants on the waterfront, phone boxes next to ancient walls, an expanse of wild flowers and the Victorian warehouse building in the distance. The warehouse would probably bear closer inspection at some point, built in 1903 it now stores the City’s archeological collection.

I wandered along Porters lane, glancing at the ruins of Canute’s Palace before stopping for a quick look at the gardens. Standing behind the one complete wall shaded by a convenient tree I could almost imagine the palace still stood. In the midst of all the traffic chaos and road works the French garden is an oasis of peace. Right now it is filled with purple alliums and I bent to capture them, knowing they will soon fade.

The Woolhouse on the corner of French Street is the only surviving medieval warehouse in the city. Built after the French raid by Cistercian monks it was used to store wool (obviously). During the Seven Years War and the Napoleonic war French prisoners were kept there and it has been used as a museum and art gallery. Amid much controversy, plans have been approved to turn it into a micro brewery in the near future. Once it’s open I will take you on a tour inside. Hopefully they will also serve coffee!

This was where the dithering began again. Should I walk up the High Street, up French Street, Bugle Street, or along the old walls? Each had something to offer. The hunted Red Lion pub called me from the High Street, the Tudor House from French Street, more ancient pubs and the merchants house from Bugle street… The old walls shouted loudest so off I went with a quick look over at the pier, surrounded by barriers and trenches like something out of World War One except I don’t think they had orange plastic barriers back then.

Normally I walk along the front of the walls past the Mayflower memorial but this time I took the high path along the battlements, looking down at the memorial and, further along the small memorial to Titanic stewardess, Mary Anne Roberts who saved passengers but perished herself. Looking down towards the docks the road work chaos was still evident and, to get a better look, I climbed up the steps to walk along the battlements above the arcades.

Looking out through the crenellations, I could see more piles of earth in front of Mayflower Park and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of orange cones. The people who make those cones must make a fortune. Further along I looked down on the glass pyramid of the Grand Devere Hotel where we had breakfast meetings when I worked at Dream Factory.

From this vantage point I also had a marvellous view of Westgate Hall and, when I walked right to the end, I was standing right in front of the door to the upper story. What a shame someone has seen fit to add some pointless graffiti. One day I might try to get a look inside.

With one last longing look at the front door I left Westgate Hall behind and walked through the arch onto Western Esplanade. Of course I couldn’t resist a peek back through the arch from the outside looking in. Glancing towards the replica medieval cargo boat I could see WestQuay in the distance and my thoughts, as ever, turned to coffee.

As I walked I looked up the the arches that I have been walking past all my life. There were the high windows, the machicolations where stones or boiling oil could be dropped on enemies, bricked up windows and doors from a time when these were individual houses, before the wall was built, I’ve seen them all so many times before I hardly look at them any more.

I peeked up the winding Blue Anchor Lane past Tudor House Museum. I peered through a narrow slit into what was once someone’s living room or maybe a garden. When I looked up again I could hardly believe my eyes. There were shells embedded in the top of one of the arches! The more I looked the more of them I saw.

How did the shells get there? I’ve tried to find out but to no avail. I know a rudimentary kind of mortar was used to build the walls, did the seashells get mixed up in it by accident or were they put there as decoration? Perhaps this wall was once covered with them like a shimmering mother of pear entrance to the town? It all goes to show, even with something you’ve seen a million times, if you look hard enough you can always see something new.

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

4 thoughts on “Hidden surprises in the medieval walls – first published 9 June 2014”

  1. I love this walk and do it often. Your photos are wonderful. The French still use St Julian’s it was given over to them by Queen Elizabeth including the alms houses behind it. Some of the Southampton volunteers do walks around Southampton and include St Julian’s with all its history.

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