The tale of the disappearing castle – first published 9 June 2014

An engraving of Southampton Castle

Back when I was walking towards Hurst Castle on that never ending shingle bank I said I was a little disappointed it wasn’t a real castle. Yes, I know it was technically a castle, or at least a fort but, for me, a castle is a tall thing with crenellations, towers and battlements. Maybe this is a byproduct of living in Southampton all my life where things like that are commonplace. The thing is, Southampton doesn’t actually have a castle any more but it did once. In early June 2014 I went to look at the spot it once stood. 

9 June 2014

I knew the castle used to be on a hill behind the walls at the WestQuay end of Western Esplanade, I even knew it’s still possible to visit the vaults although I’ve never done it. What I didn’t know was the steel steps up to the top of the walls just past Simnel Street lead up to where it had once been. I’ve never been up those steps before but, today, I decided to see where they led and found I was looking down into the old castle cellar. I could see the holes where wooden joists must once have been and the stone arches below. I could see more steps leading down to them but not how to get to them. More investigation is needed when I have more time I think.

Along the top of the walls towards Portland Terrace and West Quay, I passed the Juniper Berry pub, on the site of the house Jane Austen lived in during the two years she spent in Southampton. The narrow street where her garden would have been leads to a car park these days and the old castle arches and walls run along one end. If only I’d had more time I might have explored further but there were miles still to cover so I contented myself with a look down towards the forty steps and the towers. Now this is what a castle should look like in my opinion.

The original castle was a wooden motte and bailey design built after the Norman Conquest and, towards the end of the 12th century, the wood was mostly replaced by stone. Sadly, a century later it was in decline until the French raids in the 1370’s, after which Richard II ordered extensive rebuilding. Once the works were complete it was one of the best defended castles in the country, even equipped with a cannon which was quite an innovation back then. Henry V and Queen Elizabeth I both stayed there and it was acclaimed for its beauty.

A Mott and Bailey Castle – Reconstructed keep at Lütjenburg, Germany from Wikimedia Cumulus

Chateau de Gisors, France from Wikimedia by Anabase4

By the 16th Century it was rather the worse for wear. Stones were taken to be used for the town walls and the castle walls began to crumble. Eventually, in 1618, James I sold it off to George Gollop, a local merchant who built a windmill on the Mott. During the English Civil War even more of the stones were taken for the town walls. Slowly, the lovely castle disintegrated. Then things got really surreal. In about 1805 the Marquis of Landsdowne came into possession of the land, decided Southampton really ought to have a proper castle and set about building one. It was much admired by Jane Austen who rented her own house from the marquis.

Perhaps it was no more than a folly but I almost wish it was still standing. Sadly, the marquis died in 1809 and, in 1816, his widow sold it. In 1818 it was demolished, the mound lowered and the site redeveloped. The castle simply disappeared, as Edward, Jane Austin’s nephew, said, “it vanished like the baseless fabric of a dream.”

Anther engraving of the castle

As it is I have to content myself with the towers and gates of the medieval city walls. It is hardly a hardship, especially when there is always something new to see, like the shells I found or the little plants that insinuate themselves between the stones.

With all the excitement of my castle find, I’d almost forgotten my dire need of coffee but, standing at the top of the forty steps with West Quay in sight, I remembered. A quick walk across the car park with a glance at the last tower, Arundel, and the steps leading to the rickety bridge, I left the walls behind me and dashed towards a tower of a different kind, WestQuay and Costa.

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

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