Sunday strolling Southampton streets – first published 17 August 2014

It was a normal Sunday morning in mid August 2014. Commando was out for a training run of seven and a half miles and I decided to go for a walk. The only plan was to visit the big new Sainsbury’s for a few things they don’t stock in the one in the village. Other than that I thought I’d just have a wander and see where I ended up. Yes, I know I’m always banging on about planning walks, blah, blah, blah and I very rarely actually do it but sometimes just wandering aimlessly is actually fun.

17 August 2014

When I set out today I hadn’t even decided whether to go via the Big Bridge and Horseshoe Bridge or Cobden Bridge. I let the traffic decide for me. When I got to the very bottom of the Big Hill the traffic lights changed so I made for Cobden Bridge. This took me past the station where, back in my teens, I used to catch a train for work every morning. Back then there was a jolly station master who said good morning and good evening. These days it’s unmanned, which seems quite sad. Even so, the old building, built in the 1860’s, has its charm. Bitterne station is actually a mile away from Bitterne village at the top of the hill but, when the railway was planned, the line was supposed to run right through the middle of the village. It would certainly be a different place today if it did.

On I went, past Mac’s old flat and along the road that winds along the river’s edge. There were beautiful Hibiscus Syriacus, also called tree mallow or rose mallow, in a garden I passed. Not quite as exotic as the hibiscus in Lanzarote but something else I’d like in my garden. The houses along here have moorings across the road and much of the river is hidden by high fences and gates smothered with clematis vitalba, or old mans beard, much to the delight of the local bees. From time to time there are fleeting glimpses of little boats, ramshackle boat houses and the bridge.

When I reached Cobden bridge I decided to walk on the Riverside Park side for a change. The wind was howling in my ears and the park was spread out below me. In the distance I could see white specks of swans gathered by the little jetty. On the far side I stopped and looked over the side at the houseboats I see when I walk through the park. The half sunken one right by the bridge with its upside down horseshoe was a sad sight. I guess the owner’s luck ran out.

Walking through St Denys I was surprised to see a banana tree in a small front garden. Palms may grow quite well here on the south coast but bananas!? I wonder if they get fruit? Soon I was at the giant Sainsbury’s and I’d bought my few bits and pieces. It was time to decide where to go next. There were so many options I dithered for a few moments. In the end I started off along the High Street rather aimlessly.

My first flat was in Portswood so, once upon a time, I knew this high street very well. Of course this was back in the early 1980’s and things have changed. Nothing looked familiar. Then I came to a Costa Coffee on the corner of the road I used to walk down on my weekly food shopping trips. As far as I can see this is a vast improvement on whatever was there before (frankly I can’t remember now). My coffee was free because I had enough points on my Costa card which probably says I drink far too much Costa coffee.

With coffee in hand I turned towards my old flat. Memories flooded back of struggling along clutching heavy bags of shopping. New blocks of flats jostled with the familiar bottle bank and big old Georgian houses with gardens full of flowers. Orange and deep purple buddleia and white dogwood berries caught my eye. At the end of the road I turned away from my flat and came to new territory. Since I lived there a new dual carriageway has cut a swathe along the railway line, making everything unrecognisable.

Once I’d crossed the new road I’d stepped from the land of memories back to 2014. Horseshoe Bridge and my office was a few yards away. It was too soon to turn for home so I headed towards Bevois Valley, named after Bevis of Hampton, a folk hero who’s story I may tell you one day. Each side road became a possible route in my aimless wandering and the sense of time travel as I walked once familiar streets was amplified when an ancient bus, probably dating for the 1970’s or 1980’s passed by. Sadly I wasn’t quick enough with the camera to capture the destination board on the front. It said The Dell, the old Southampton football stadium where I watched my first ever match, now modern luxury flats and houses.

Here the domes of the Sikh temple Singh Sabha Gurdwara caught my eye so I kept going forwards, up the hill towards The Rockstone where Bard cooks. This area is a melting pot of different cultures, with streets of tiny Victorian terraces, modern blocks of student accommodation and mosques, temples and churches crammed in side by side.

When I reached the beautiful St Luke’s Church, built in the 1850’s, I knew I was getting a little too close to the old Mad House building for comfort. The church was badly damaged during the Southampton blitz and remained empty for many years until, in 1971, the Sikh community purchased it and turned it into a temple. After a couple of photos of the church come temple I turned back towards the river.

Here cramped terraces give way to large Georgian mansions. It has the appearance of wealth and luxury but most are now converted into flats and bedsitters. Memories of a bedsit party back when Commando and I were mere acquaintances sprang into my head. On I went looking down side streets trying to decide where to go next and not quite sure where each one led. At the end of one street I spotted an interesting looking church I couldn’t quite place. Of course I couldn’t resist so I headed towards it.

As I got closer I realised it was the chapel of the Royal South Hants Hospital. I know it well because, when she had her radiotherapy, Mother’s hospital window overlooked it. The chapel, a bequest from Miss Dowling, a patient, was built in 1857 on the site of the hospital laundry. The architects Hinve and Bedborough waived their fees. Originally the hospital was joined to the chapel but that part of the hospital has long since been demolished and replaced by modern buildings leaving a door half way up the side wall where patients once came and went.

The windows were what interested me I do like a nice stained glass window. Sadly the building is ensconced in scaffolding and barriers with no entry to the public. If only I’d been able to go inside and get the full effect of light on coloured glass I might have discovered an even more beautiful window hidden at the back of the building. This was added in the 1950’s, replacing a bomb damaged wall and, apparently, depicts Florence Nightingale who once worked at the RSH. It is a memorial to Fred Wooley, secretary of the Titanic Relief Fund, preacher and once both Mayor and Alderman of the city. A return trip is in order.

Turning into the warren of streets around the war zone I used to navigate each day when I worked at Mad House I found myself in the infamous red light district. This is one of the less desirable locations in town. In fact a TV documentary titled Immigration Street is planned about it. Several houses sported posters in the windows showing the owners displeasure with this idea. They fear it will stigmatise the area. Personally I think it might be interesting but then I don’t have to live there.

Not really wishing to spend any longer on those streets than I had to, I turned back to the main road and headed for home. Soon I was passing the stadium and walking over the railway bridge. A loud group of motorcycles came along the road, reminding me of the joy of setting out in a group of bikes towards the forest on a weekend back in the day.

Dark clouds were gathering in front of me so, mindful of the heavy showers we’ve had this last week, I stopped my meandering and pushed for home. It was a wise move. No sooner had I shut the door behind me than the rain started to fall with a vengeance. I hope those bikers managed to out ride it.

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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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