28 November 2017
Today was CJ’s birthday. It was also a beautiful, blue sky, late autumn day so what better way to celebrate than with a little walk and a nice lunch? As CJ is fond of both history and graffiti, I thought I had just the walk for him. As for the lunch, neither of us had a clue where to eat but, as our walk would end up in town, we’d be fairly spoilt for choice.
We set off across Cobden Bridge mirroring my old walk to work at the bus mines. All the little boats bobbing about on the blue green river gave the impression of a summer’s day but the temperature was more like winter. We stopped briefly on the middle of the bridge to take a photo then scurried to the other side, our ears burning from the cold wind. There was one more stop to capture the wonderfully delapidated Dyer Brothers building and then we turned off into Priory Road, thankful of the shelter of the houses.
The tide was low when we came to the slipway where I often saw a family of swans on my morning journeys. Today there were only a few gulls scattered between mud and water. Here the river, ruffled by the biting breeze, was dark blue, and rippled like watered silk.
Most of the moorings behind the Millennium Flats were empty and the boats that were there were not ones I recognised. There were no swans there either but a family of ducks were making a fearful din as we passed. The bank beside the steps, stripped of trees and shrubs towards the end of my bus mine days, looked bare and sad. Nothing much has grown back and I still can’t understand why the trees had to be massacred.
On Horseshoe Bridge the familiarity of my old walk to work ended with a snap of a train passing beneath us. Now we were headed towards Bevois Mount, reputed to be either the burial mound of Bevois of Hampton or a hill built by him to defend the city against the Danes, or maybe the Normans, any real facts have long been lost. The story of Sir Bevois dates from a twelfth century Anglo Norman Romantic ballad and is irrevocably entwined with the story of Southampton.
According to the legend, Bevois (or Bevis, or Beavis medieval spelling being what it is) was the son of Guy, the Earl of Hampton and his unwilling bride, Murdina, who also happened to be a witch. Rejected by his mother, Bevois was passed off to wet nurses and nannies until she finally plotted to get rid of both her husband and son for good. With the help of her lover, Murdure, she killed Sir Guy and sold young Bevois into slavery in Armenia.
Luckily, Emryn, the King of Armenia, took Bevois under his wing and gave him a magical flying horse called Hirondelle and a magical sword called Morglay. He also gave him the hand of his daughter, Princess Josian, who Bevois rescued from two lions. Bevois used the sword to tame the giant, Ascupart, who became his squire and the three returned to England where Bevois founded the town of Southampton.
Bevois, Josian and Ascupart performed many heroic deeds, including, some say, building Arundel Tower and naming it after his horse. When Bevois was close to death, he climbed to the top of the tower and threw his magical sword. Wherever it landed was where he wished to be buried. That place, they say, was Bevois Mount. As this is almost a mile and a half away it must have been a very magical sword!
In 1723 Charles Mordaunt, third Earl of Peterborough combined Padwell Farm and land from St Denys Priory to build an estate. The land included the artificial mound, supposedly built by Bevois, and Mordaunt made a feature of it in his extensive and beautiful gardens. He called the estate Bevois Mount, in memory of the legend. Bevois Mount House stood somewhere near the junction of Lodge Road and Cedar Road. By the time I’d finished telling CJ the legend we were walking on Mordaunt’s land. In fact we were standing in front of a new mural depicting him.
The painting was commissioned by the Bevois Mount History Group, formed by four former teachers, Ally Hayes, Fiona Barnes, Wendy Stokes and John Hayward who are all from the Bevois Mount area and have a love of history. The artist was Slam Daniels from Woolston, who also painted the murals in St Mary’s Street and the underpass near the Holyrood Estate. Money was raised for the project by raffles, quiz nights and events at the nearby Guide Dog Pub.
The nobleman and military leader might not be everyone’s cup of tea. He was a Whig, opposed to King James, and conspired with William of Orange in the invasion of England. When William became king Mordaunt was made Privy Councillor, First Lord of the Treasury and Earl of Monmouth but he made bad descisions and ended up in the Tower of London for a while. Later he was Commander in Chief of land forces in the War of the Spanish Succession but, by all accounts, he despised Archduke Charles who, through his efforts, became King of Spain. In fact he hated all foreigners, was eccentric and easily swayed by a pretty face. Despite several positions of high office including Colonel of the Royal Horse Guards and Knight of the Garter, he fell out of favour when George I came to the throne.
Despite his undoubted faults Mordaunt turned Bevois Mount into a thing of beauty. The gardens were a wonderous wilderness with a labarynth of paths, a vineyard, bowling green and parterre below the mound and a summerhouse with a cellar beneath at the summit. When the summerhouse was built part of a human skeleton was uncovered. Perhaps it was Sir Bevois, although no one seems to know what became of it.
Of course the house and the gardens are long gone now and we carried on along Earls road, slowly climbing towards the mount trying to imagine what they must once have been like. In typical fashion, we hadn’t got very far before an interesting building caught my eye and had me wandering off the route I’d planned. The single story brick building had an interesting octagonal tower, topped by a cupola on thin blue columns. At the very pinnacle a copper weather cock seemed to glow in the cold sunlight.
The large arched doorway suggested it might once have been a Church or a School but neither of us could decided which and there was nothing to tell us even when we got up close. Later I discovered it was actually a listed building and had once been St Faith’s Mission Hall. Today it’s used as the Southampton Chinese Christian Church Centre.
Although Mordaunt had fallen out of favour with the King by the time he came to Southampton, he was popular with the writers, musicians and artists of his time and often entertained famous guests at Bevois Mount House, including Voltaire, Thomas Grey, Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. His second wife was Anastasia Robinson an opera singer and favourite of Handel. He was proud of his wonderfully landscaped gardens and would take his guests up onto the mount when the tide was high so they could enjoy the view across the Itchen from the top. Pope was especially fond of walking through the grounds and, in 1735, after Mordaunt died, he helped Anastasia complete the gardens. He especially loved the summerhouse and, in a letter, said “I write this from the most beautiful Top of a Hill I ever saw, a little house that overlooks the Sea, Southampton & the Isle of Wight; where I study, write, and have what Leisure I please.”
After Anastasia died the Bevois Mount Estate was sold to William Betts, who built the Royal Pier and the Stag Gates at the estate entrance near the junction of Lodge Road and The Avenue. In the mid nineteenth century Betts sold the estate to J H Wolff, a shipping agent. Wolff soon began to develop the land for housing. Sadly neither the summerhouse or Bevois’ mound survived. Both the artificial mound and the rock beneath it was quarried to build the roads and houses that now occupy the land. As for the house, it became a School for a while, then a student hostel. In World War I it was a prisoner of war camp and in the 1940’s it was finally demolished.
These days the view of the river is interrupted by the houses Wolff built but, as we climbed higher, we could see the gasometers and the top of St Mary’s Stadium, if not the river. Bevois Mount is still a steep hill, as our calves can attest, but, before all the quarrying, it would have been much steeper. Ordinance Survey maps of 1846 show that the ground rose from twenty six to seventy feet. It’s probable that the artificial mound, created by Bevois or not, was on a natural spur of high ground and this is what remains today. The reason for all our climbing was another mural, right at the top of the hill.
This was also painted by Slam Daniels and commissioned but the Bevois Mount History Group. It covers three houses and is a record of the local history. The first house we came to was painted with a suffragette, the Titanic and a horse drawn bus, all things we might have seen in the city in another time. It also has a quote by Alexander Pope. The second building has a map dating from 1905 and Sir Bevois himself, standing in a doorway. The third house has a beautiful depiction of the stag gates. We stopped for quite some time looking at the detail of the mural and taking photographs.
We were now at the top of what is left of Bevois Mount and, with our mission completed, it was time to head into town for lunch. As we walked down The Avenue we should have been deciding where to eat. Instead we were talking about the Roman coins found at the top of Bevois Hill and the suggestion that there was a connection with those and the ones found at Clausentum. Some say the coins indicate a Roman watch station in both places. The mystery over who built the mound may never be solved but, when we reached Above Bar, I suddenly had a good idea about where to eat lunch. So far the day had been all about history so it seemed our lunch date should continue the theme and the most historic place I could think of was the Woolhouse.
On the way there we took a short detour to see if work had started on the demolition of the Bargate Centre. What we found there was a giant machine eating away at the car park. A workman was spraying an arc of water to keep the dust down, creating rainbows everywhere, although my camera didn’t do a very good job of capturing them. We stood watching for a while, each remembering all the Sunday morning adventures that began in this car park, half sad and half excited at what the future would hold.
From there it was a short walk along Back of the Walls to our destination, with a quick shot of the birthday boy along the way. Our lunch in the Woolhouse was the perfect end to a great morning. The wonderful old building was once empty and in danger of falling into disrepair but, against a certain amount of objection, it was taken over but the Dancing Man Brewery. Now it’s open to the public and filled to the brim with interesting things and wonderful food. Hopefully, this is how God’s House Tower will be in a year or so.
The perfect birthday treat ended with a surprise visit from Bard, who joined us for coffee on his way to work. As we drank we talked about the things we’d seen and the ever changing face of the city. Bevois Mount and House, like so many of the grand old buildings of the past, were victims of progress and a growing population. We all agreed that some buildings derseved to be preserved and, looking around us, it seemed the best way to preserve history is to keep it alive and useful. The Woolhouse is a fine example of how well this can work, hopefully, God’s House Tower will soon be another. Now if only the powers that be could see their way to doing something similar with The Bargate…
Please see my copyright information before you copy or use any of the above words or pictures.