2 November 2017
For my first walk of November I had the most glorious autumn morning. When I left Home the sky was blue and the sun was trying hard to burn off the morning mist as I crossed the railway bridge. On such a lovely day it was impossible not to walk along with a huge grin on my face, even if it did make me look like a loon. The plan was to walk into town to have a look at a new sculpture I’d heard about.
The river was as pretty as a picture, wisps of mist blurring the edges. The boats of Kemps Quay and the various wrecks reflected in the still, blue water. There was nowhere else I’d have rather been.
The tide was high and the gulls were lined up on the crumbling ruins of the old wooden jetty, as still as statues. The skeleton ship, or the little that’s left of it now, was half submerged. There are new boats on the water now, seemingly abandoned and waiting to take its place.
On the far side of the bridge I stopped to puzzle over a bright yellow canoe upended in a tiny front garden. It made an incongruous garden ornament and I wondered if the owners ever took it out on the river?
Past the painted shops and over the next railway bridge I walked in a daydream, thinking about paddling that yellow canoe on the misty river. Before I knew it I was looking across the road at the parks. A man was leaning on the lampost on the corner as I waited for the lights to change. The way he was clinging on I thought, for a moment, he was on roller skates and couldn’t keep his balance. When I crossed and got closer though I saw his face. His eyes were dead. He was so drunk or drugged he didn’t even know where he was. It all seemed a terrible waste of a beautiful day.
I crossed the parks enjoying the fluttering leaves and the bright autumn colours, wondering what would make someone want to blot it all out? Was reality really so bad? From where I wasn’t standing it looked pretty good, golden leaves, green grass and sunshine. What more could anyone ask?
In the precinct the wooden sheds that will soon be the Christmas Market were being put up. The whole place was filled with the smell of cut pine. It feels a little early to me but then I’m a bah humbug kind of girl.
The giant Ferris wheel has disappeared from behind the Bargate. It’s been replaced with a tall metal structure ready for the flying Santa. As I passed I wondered what the medieval citizens would have made of it all?
Following the line of the old walls, or at least where they once were, I made my way to Arundel Tower and the new Watermark Development. Legend has it that Sir Bevois, the mythical founder of Southampton, had a magical flying horse named Hirondelle. When Bevois died the horse flung himself from the tower in sorrow. Some say the tower is named after him. Close to the spot where he would have landed, had this been a true story, was the sculpture I’d walked to see.
Like the Ferris wheel, this sculpture is a temporary visitor to the city but the subject matter is close to my heart. On the grass at the foot of the tower is a model spitfire covered in bright red poppies. The contrast of poppies against grass alone makes it stand out but the sentiment behind it almost brought tears to my eyes.
Surely R J Mitchel would have been proud to see the plane he designed, here in this city, displayed in such a way? Such a fitting symbol of remembrance to all those who lost their lives fighting for freedom. It must have taken hours to place all those poppies so carefully but, despite a great deal of googling, I haven’t been able to find the name of the artist. Whoever it was deserves a huge pat on the back.
For quite some time I stood looking at the poppy plane in quiet contemplation. After a while I thought I’d make a circuit and walk up the forty steps to see what it looked like from above. Unfortunately, my plan was scuppered by another temporary addition to the city. In the new plaza beneath the medieval walls a seasonal ice rink is being built. The whole area was fenced off and the steps were inaccessible.
It was disappointing but, undaunted, I walked back up the steps and into the car park. If I couldn’t climb the forty steps I’d climb to the top of the tower instead and look down from there. The view I got was well worth huffing my way up the steep spiral staircase for. The poppy plane was directly below me and I could see along the line of the old walls to Bargate. I even had a seagull companion, sitting on the top of a lamppost to keep me company.
For once it seemed my mission had been completed with no great drama, or even any getting lost. It was time to head for home, or at least a takeaway coffee from Costa. As I crossed the rickety bridge I stopped every now and then to look back at the poppy plane. Once the old walls would have stretched from the tower I’d climbed all the way to Bargate and beyond. In fact they completely encircled the medieval town and defended it against invasion from the French.
On 4 October 1338, while the citizens were all at mass, fifty French ships, from Picardy, Normandy, Spain and Genoa, sailed unnoticed up Southampton Water. They beached near the West Quay, and rampaged through the town, setting buildings alight, raping and pillaging. England was at war with France but these were not soldiers, they were pirates, intent on stealing what they could and leaving quickly. Even the king’s wine stocks were stolen from the vaults beneath the castle. It was a bleak day for Southampton town.
The king was furious, not least because of the loss of his wine, and ordered walls to be built to fortify the town. As I crossed the gap where those very walls were bulldozed to make way for traffic, I mused on their impermanenance. They may have been several feet thick, stood up to the invading French and even the German bombs, but it seemed they were not impervious to progress.
Today the line of those old walls is marked by a row of cobbles and Bargate stands isolated, a gate without a wall. Past generations didn’t value the walls or the history of the city and Bargate itself was only saved by the skin of its teeth. Thankfully, my generation seems to be trying to incorporate the historic walls into the modern city rather than destroying them. The new plaza, built where the sea would once have lapped the shore, is an example of this. The walls along Western Esplanade were once almost forgotten. Buildings were built against them and, in recent years, they looked out over a desolate weed filled car park. Now they are a feature of the plaza, the new restaurants look out on them and events like the ice rink and light shows make people take notice.
Even Bargate, the most prominent reminder of the city’s heritage, has become a feature in more modern celebrations. The Ferris wheel recently lit it up and gave people a new perspective and, as I passed today, I saw Santa’s sleigh getting ready to bring wonder to the children’s eyes in a few weeks.
With a much needed coffee in my hand I walked down East Street heading for the Itchen Bridge. The city’s first indoor shopping centre used to stand at the end of this street. Built in the 1970’s, the huge concrete building with a large car park on the roof, closed off the end of East Street and changed the face of the city. It was never popular with shoppers though and, like most people, I remember it more as a place to pass through than somewhere to shop. In 2013 I watched from my penthouse office as it was slowly demolished. At the time I looked forward to watching the new building being built. The plans for a new supermarket turned out to be as ephemeral as the building itself though and knocking down was as far as it got. Now it’s a desolate, weed filled place with an interesting view. Apparently building work will soon be starting, or so they say. Personally, I won’t be holding my breath.
Thinking about the impermanence of all the things we think are permanent, I crossed Chantry Bridge. The cityscape behind it is ever changing. Some landmarks, like the spire of St Mary’s Church, have stood for centuries, others just a few decades. How long any will remain is anyone’s guess but I will enjoy them all while they’re there.
Then it was onwards, over my second bridge of the day. As I looked down into the blue water of the Itchen, it occurred to me that this was probably the most permanent of all the things I’d seen today. Ever flowing, never still, it is always changing but always there. The river was there long before the medieval walls were built, before the Roman settlement of Clausentum and it will stil be there long after most of what we’ve built on its banks has crumbled to dust.
As I plodded the last mile or so across the green and up the hill I caught glimpses of the landmarks I’d been walking amongst earlier. I couldn’t help wondering what the scene would look like a hundred years from now. How much will have gone and how much will have been built? I guess I’ll never know.
Please see my copyright information before you copy or use any of the above words or pictures.