20 September 2017
When I woke up to blue sky I knew exactly where I wanted to go today. Blue sky and sea go together like chocolate and orange. Ok, so it was only a tiny little bit of blue sky amongst quite a lot of cloud but still, beggars can’t be choosers in late September.
Things were looking very green as CJ and I wandered along the woodland path towards the shore. The last green gasp of summer before the autumn colours. We found scabious growing beside the path, a splash of lilac to brighten the morning. The bees had found it too. Later, when I looked at my photos, I realised bees are a lot cuddlier than you’d think when you get close up.
We stopped briefly at the Millennium Garden to capture the feather sculpture standing proud against a little of the blue sky that had called us there. Usually when I’m here the place is crowded with Spitfires. It seemed strangely empty without them.
We stopped again at the library to say a quick hello to Glint, the rhino from the Go Rhinos trail who’s found a permanent home there. He looked very happy with the bright colours all around reflected in his shining mirror mosaic, but I remember him best in Guildhall Square with the buildings and people dancing across his skin.
Usually we’d walk straight down Victoria Road towards the shore but today we decided to wander through Centerary Quay, the new development on the old Vosper Thorneycroft site. When I lived in Woolston this was a bustling shipyard. Commando worked there for a while. After more than a hundred years of shipbuilding on the River Itchen, the yard closed on 2003. It took years to clear the thirty one acre site. Progress was delayed by the unexpectedly complex removal of harmful materials and pollutants, this had been industrial land after all, and a specialist firm was called in.
Finally, in 2010, the building work began. This was a prime waterside site and the first buildings to go up were three bedroomed terraced houses. Next came flats. CJ did some labouring work on them a few years ago. In 2016 phase three opened, a new library, restaurants, shops, a nursery and a public plaza. The whole area seems to be ever changing and, although I’ve driven through many times, seen the library and had coffee there twice, I’ve never really stopped to have a proper look at the plaza. Today it was time to put that right.
Although it is always sad to see the decline of an industry and the consequent loss of jobs, for the residents of Woolston, this new development can only be a good thing. It has given the area a much needed boost, with new road layouts, and a smartened up High Street. One of the things I like about the new streets and buildings is the way they have kept the history of the place alive with street names like John Thorneycroft Road, Vosper Road, Foundary Court and Joiners Mews. Even the new eateries are reminders of the past with restaurants named Vospers and Supermarine.
The latest buildings encircle an oval plaza with tree filled planters. CJ and I were enthralled by the space, both of us taking photos from several viewpoints. We were especially taken with a breathtaking bronze sculpture by Chris Wilson called Gateway. The shape is interesting, the artist says it was based on a globe and the prow of a ship but it reminds me a little of the giant anchors around the city. The patina of verdigris echoes the colour of the sea and the sculpture is etched with a map of the coastline and swirling waves, wonderfully tactile. This is a celebration of Woolston, the City of Southampton and it’s maritime history.
A closer look at the sculpture revealed models of boats sailing up and down the waves of the inner arc. These celebrate the ships going in and out of the port over the years and include the Titanic with its four distinctive funnels. Sadly this was too high for me to get a clear photo. Completing the picture, the pinnacle of the sculpture has a selection of buildings from the city including the Bargate. Again these were too high for me to get clear photos but I loved the whole thing, from the concept, to the shape, colour and detail.
Down some steps there is an area overlooking the water. The blue sky had disappeared by this time and the wind was getting up making it feel a little chilly, but we thought we’d get a coffee and a cake and sit out on the terrace to enjoy the view anyway.
As it was it didn’t quite turn out that way. The cafe wasn’t full but the service was painfully slow. When Commando rang my mobile I lost my place in the queue and the elderly ladies who’d shoved their way in front of me were clutching menus. So far it had taken about ten minutes for one person to be served coffee. An order for food was going to take days. Then I noticed a sign saying the card machine wasn’t working. If I tried hard enough I could probably just about scrape together enough cash for two coffees but, by then, I’d gone off the whole idea.
In a decidedly grumpy mood now, I stomped my way down to the shore. Along the way I grumbled to CJ about old ladies with no manners, Commando’s bad timing and the generally rubbish service in the cafe.
“The coffee is very expensive in there anyway,” CJ said to console me, “and the owner is the guy that was so rude to Dad at Skyride. Besides, I didn’t fancy any of those cakes.”
The sound of the waves, the salty air and the dramatic sky, soon pulled me out of my grump.
The grass where the old Rolling Mills once stood had been freshly cut. The smell, mingled with the salty aroma of sea, was divine. CJ and I strolled across the grass and rested on the wooden benches for a while drinking it in. It was too late in the season for the wildflower area to provide any interest but the giant cruise ship across the water, the cut grass smell and the sound of the sea more than made up for it.
We didn’t stop long, just five minutes or so. We both felt in need of sustenance because we’d missed our coffee and cake treat. Luckily I knew just the thing to give us a boost. We hurried along the promenade, with a quick stop to look at the last of the dog roses, to the ice cream van in the far car park. The scattered coins in the bottom of my bag were just enough for a large cone each.
On the way to my favourite bench with our treasure we saw the litter collecting man working away near the entrance to West Wood. If anyone deserves a medal he does. He isn’t a council worker, just an ordinary man who wants to keep the shore clean and he’s out in all weathers. What a hero.
We ate our ice creams looking at the remains of the dead tree that finally fell a while back. The view may have changed a little now it’s gone but this is still my favourite spot for a contemplative rest. As we sat eating a tiny patch of blue sky broke through the turmoil of dark clouds. The sun peeked through and sparkled on the sea. Across the water the towers and spires of Fawley will soon be changing too. After more than forty years generating power for the area, the power station closed in 2013. Like the Woolston waterside, the area is going to be regenerated, with new a marina, restaurants and housing. There are plans to turn the giant chimney into a viewing tower with a restaurant. What wonderful views there would be.
By the time we were ready to move again the patch of blue sky seemed to have grown, echoing the blue of the flats on International Way. Originally I’d planned to turn around and walk back the way we’d come, hoping to get home before rain began to fall. Now I changed my mind. The return of the blue sky had set a new idea in motion.
Instead of walking back along the promenade we turned off and headed along the gravel trail towards the flats. As the buildings got nearer the wind from the shore dropped. In 2012 these tower blocks got a much needed make over. I watched with interest on my walks along the shore as they slowly went from boring grey to shades of blue.
Usually I stick to the promenade on my walks here so I don’t get to see the sky scrapers up close. Today I discovered paint wasn’t the only change to these tall buildings. The entrances have all been given interesting steel panels with cut out designs and there are little gardens with seats and sculptures. While I’m not sure I’d want to live with my feet so far from the ground, these changes must have made it so much nicer for the residents and they certainly have enviable views from their windows.
As we wove between the towers, heading towards the next part of our journey, we craned our necks upwards to look at the windows in the sky. Each of the blocks is painted a different tone of sky blue, graduated from dark to light to reflect the changing colour of the sky. Now the clouds had parted, we decided today was a Harvre Towers kind of sky.
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