8 November 2017
For once I had a proper plan. There had been extensive research, route plotting, notes taken and some very interesting stories ready to tell. CJ and I left home early feeling rather excited. We had a ferry to catch, the sky was blue, the sun was shining and it felt a little like a holiday. Then we got to the ticket office and it all went wrong.
“The winter timetable started this week and there isn’t a ferry for almost an hour,” the lady in the ticket office said handing me the new timetable.
This was not good news. With just one ferry an hour instead of the two I’d seen on the online timetable, seeing everything would be a stretch. CJ and I had a quick discussion. We decided it would be better to shelve our plans rather than twiddle our thumbs for an hour and end up with a rushed walk and one eye on the clock for the ferry home. It was disappointing but there wasn’t much we could do about it.
With our plans in tatters we plodded up the High Street to get a coffee and think what to do next. As we walked past Canute’s Palace the moon was hanging in the clear blue sky and it seemed a waste not to have a walk of some kind. Over coffee we talked about where we might go. As we were in town anyway, CJ wanted to have a look at the poppy covered Spitfire before it disappeared. It wasn’t much of a plan or much of a walk but it was the best we could come up with.
As I’d already seen the spitfire, I knew the best vantage point was from Arundel Tower so we walked over the rickety bridge and CJ leaned over the wall and took photos. While he was snapping away I climbed to the top of the tower to have a look at the Christmas ice rink. When I was last here there wasn’t much to see but today there was a huge expanse of soon to be ice.
We climbed down from the tower and went for a closer look at the spitfire sitting at the base. Before the land was reclaimed to build the docks, this was really the town’s west quay and the sea would have lapped at these walls, although it’s hard to imagine it now.
The new Watermark building and the plaza have really breathed life into Western Esplanade and I love the way the old and the new work together. For many years this felt like a forgotten area, the medieval walls seemed hidden away and hemmed in by a shabby old factory and then a shabby old car park. Now the walls are being used and appreciated as never before.
We walked through the plaza talking about all the positive changes to the city in the last few years. Although some people don’t like the modern building with its waves of steel, I think it’s a vast improvement on what came before and it reminds me a little of some of the interesting buildings I saw in Barcelona. There the old sits happily beside the new and I don’t see why our own city can’t be the same.
All our talk about the changes had got me thinking about some changes yet to come. The Bargate Centre, built in 1989, is due to be demolished in the near future. The plans for the area look almost as exciting as the Watermark Development but I thought it might be worth having a look at the old building before it was gone for good. Normally we’d have climbed the forty steps, or Albion Stairs as they are properly named. They were cut into the walls in 1853 to give access to what was then a beach but they have been temporarily closed to make way for the ice rink. Luckily the stairs beside the garderobe were still open so we climbed them instead.
The garderobe was actually the castle lavatory, flushed by the sea, and in medieval times, we’d have been entering Southampton castle. Sadly it was sold off to property speculators in 1618 and demolished. Some of the masonry was reused to strengthen the town walls during the Third English Civil War. Now an unimpressive block of flats stands on the site, and the arches of the keep are mostly hidden by a car park.
Southampton’s walls were built between 1180 and 1380 and covered around one and a quarter miles, encircling the old town. The western walls we’d just left were the final ones to be built, following the French raid of 1338. When they were completed there were eight gates and twenty nine towers, effectively closing the town. Today around half of the walls, including thirteen of the original towers and six gates are still standing, making them some of the most complete medieval town walls in the country. Now were we heading for the oldest part of the walls, Bargate and Eastgate.
The Bargate is impossible to miss although some people may not know it’s significance or its history. It was once the northern entrance to the town and, over the years, was used as a prison, a Guildhall and a police station. Bargate May be known to all but most people never see the northern and eastern walls. Past generations didn’t value the medieval walls. They knocked them down willy nilly to make way for traffic and even once talked about tearing down Bargate itself. Today, the eastern walls are tucked away down a narrow alley between shops, mostly forgotten and partly inaccessible.
The buildings along the west quay of the town were all owned by rich merchants or were part of the castle walls but the Bargate Shopping Centre was built on the area where the ordinary people lived and worked. This was where the pots were made, the bread baked and the horses shod. The walls still stand but they have a very neglected feel about them. The shops backing onto them store their rubbish bins in the alley and cars are parked beside the walls giving the area a neglected, almost sinister feel.
This air of neglect is not helped by the derelict shopping centre built so close as to be almost touching the walls in places. Once it was a bustling place, filled with specialist shops catering mainly to younger people. On Sunday outings we always parked in the car park there and the boys would beg a few coins to play on the machines in the Sega Park arcade. CJ was particularly fond of the machine with a grabbing hand filled with cuddly toys, while Bard and Philo battled on driving games or shooting games. The Internet cafe on the ground floor was where I had my first introduction to the World Wide Web and many of the shops were technology related. The boys would run through the atrium daring me to walk on the glass floor with views of the lower level and joking about it taking my weight. Sometimes we’d stop in Shakeaway for a drink or browse the shops looking at games, skateboards and scooters or buying trainers.
Although the shopping centre was not unattractive and was popular with young people, it slowly fell into decline. No money was spent on refurbishments and the management made public comments discouraging older people from visiting. In the end this lack of investment and foresight led to many of the shops closing and, in February 2013, the last shop closed for good. For a couple of years the car park remained open and we still walked through the empty shopping centre on our regular visits to town. It all seemed a sad waste of resources.
Once the doors were boarded up fanciful plans came and went but nothing actually happened apart from a gradual decline in the state of the building. When I learned it was to be demolished, one of my main fears was that the old walls would be damaged in the process. As we walked along York Walk, we were alarmed to see scaffolding around the walls beside Polymond Tower. Thankfully, a closer look showed this was to protect the walls from the demolition work that appears to be about to start. There were men in high vis jackets and hard hats clambering about everywhere.
After years of nothing happening and ambitious plans coming to nought, these forgotten walls are finally going to be revealed. The latest plans for a pedestrianised street with shops and housing seem to have the walls in pride of place. This is just as it should be in my opinion and I look forward to watching as the area changes.
Back in 2015, when I explored the area and wrote about the history of Polymond Tower and this stretch of the walls I peered through the locked gates and wished I could get inside to poke around. Now it seems as if that dream may become a reality in the near future. According to the planners, it will be two years before the building work is complete but I will be keeping a close eye on the proceedings. If the Watermark Development is anything to go by, it will be well worth the wait.
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