8 December 2017
The main road running through Bitterne Village is thought to roughly follow the Roman Road connecting Clausentum with Chichester and Winchester. In the last century or so, traffic on the modern road has gone from a handful of horse drawn vehicles to a steady stream of cars, buses and huge lorries. Accidents are commonplace, congestion is the norm and, for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians alike, it isn’t the most fun place to be.
Last month a leaflet came through our door telling us about planned improvements to the route into and out of Southampton between the M27 Junction and Six Dials. There were statistics about the number of accidents, the poor air quality and the impact congestion has on the motorway junction. None of this was news to us. Unfortunately, neither the leaflet, or the web link it contained were all that clear on exactly what was proposed.
Amongst all the waffle about supporting economic growth, air quality, safety and maximising sustainable travel, we managed to work out the changes would centre around the railway bridge near Bitterne Station, the railway bridge at Northam and the junction at Six Dials. Although details were sketchy to say the least, and work isn’t going to start for a couple of years, I thought I should probably document what this stretch of road is like now, before everything changes.
The morning started off cold, crisp and bright, the roads and pavements glittering with frost. It looked like it was going to be a lovely day so Commando had gone out on a bike ride. By the time CJ and I had finished our errands in the village the sky had started to cloud over. When we got to the junction by the railway Station, the first of the areas that were going to change, a big black cloud had appeared ahead of us. It made me wonder if I should have worn a more waterproof coat.
The bridge crosses the railway line just south of Bitterne Station and, like the station, was probably built in the mid 1880’s. Since then it has been widened twice, once in 1920, when the railway line went from a single to a double track and again in 1932. Even so the road here narrows and can’t really cope with two lanes of traffic. The pavements on either side are also very narrow and slightly claustrophobic because of the metal railings along the kerb. The plan is to build a separate footpath and cycle lane between the bridge and the railway station. Quite how this would work or exactly where it would be are a mystery. We peered down MacNaughton Road towards the station trying to imagine where they would put a bridge and hoping they wouldn’t have to cut down the tree on the corner to do it.
If we’re right about the plans, the new footpath will only be on one side of the road. While taking away the footpath on either side of the bridge will certainly make the road wider, it will mean pedestrians and cyclists have to cross the main road a great deal more than they do now. As there is a school just below the bridge on the side that will not have a footpath, this is a definite concern. Hopefully the planners will have a clever solution tho this problem.
The old railway bridge isn’t particularly pretty, but I do have fond memories of it. It was a feature of my regular walks with Pappy when I was very young. We’d stand on the bridge and he’d lift me onto the parapet to watch the trains. Back then a mixture of steam and diesel trains ran through the village and we’d play a game, guessing which would be next. The steam trains were my favourites. I loved to see the puffs of steam and the chug, chug, chug as they left the station. Today there were no trains at all as we passed by, just an ominous looking black cloud in the distance.
“If anything falls out of that cloud I’m pretty sure it isn’t going to be rain,” I said as we carried on towards Northam Bridge. “It’s far too cold for rain and that cloud is far too black. Hopefully Dad will get home before whatever it is starts.”
As if the weather gods had been listening in, the first few sleety spots began to fall within minutes. We walked on, hoping it would soon pass.
By the time we reached Bitterne Manor, the site of the Roman town of Clausentum, it was sleeting hard and I’d begun to wonder if I should have put my yaktrax in my pocket. There seemed to be a band of lighter sky ahead though so we were hopeful it would soon be over. There is nothing much left of Clausentum now, apart from fragments of a second century bath house third century fortified walls, both of which are in the grounds of Bitterne Manor House and not open to the public. Some say the ghosts of Roman soldiers can be seen wandering along the road but I’ve never seen one, although they could explain the high number of traffic accidents on this sweeping bend. In fact the accident that gave me whiplash happened at the traffic lights here.
Just beyond Bitterne Manor House is Northam Bridge. Walking across in the sleet with no shelter from houses and the wind blowing up off the river wasn’t a pleasant prospect. We stopped for a while and looked at the wrecks of boats hoping the sleet would ease off. From the path along the edge of the Centurion Industrial Park, named no doubt for those Roman soldiers, we had a good view of the boardwalk and the building work going on on the demolished TV studio.
The sleet continued and, in the end, we had to brave the bridge. We marched, heads down, the sleet like needles in our faces. It was a relief to get to the far side. We stopped for a moment to look at the progress on the building site and wonder what would become of the desolate park once the new houses were built. Hopefully it will become a little less desolate and a little more loved.
By the time we crossed the road opposite the painted shops it did seem to be easing a little. By the time we reached the first of the Northam monkey puzzle trees the sleet had stopped and there was blue sky ahead. Most Sotonians of my generation will remember sitting on the bus holding their breath between the two monkey puzzle trees on trips into town. Where this superstition came from and what was supposed to happen if you ignored it is a mystery but we all did it. The trees were in the gardens of two old terraced houses a few doors apart. When the houses were demolished to build new flats the trees were such landmarks they were saved. Perhaps children still hold their breath today?
Almost opposite is another landmark, the Northam gasometers. Southampton was one of the first towns to have a gas supply. When gas street lighting arrived in around 1820, a local firm, Barlow Brothers, built a gasworks in Northam. Two huge gasometers were built, one in 1909 and a second in 1935, to store the gas and prevent fluctuations at times of peak demand. In years past the huge drums would go up and down, depending on how much gas was being used in the town.
These days there are more effective ways to store gas so the gasometers are no longer needed. Southern Gas Networks would like to demolish them to avoid the cost of maintaining the old structures. The problem is, they are locally listed buildings and, so far, all applications to demolish them have been refused. While some would say they are an eyesore, they are part of the city’s history and they have a certain austere industrial beauty, especially on days like today with a spectacular sky behind them.
Although the council believe there may be the remains of an Anglo Saxon settlement beneath the gasometers, including a burial site, its likely the days of the gasometers are numbered. With that in mind, I took several photos as we passed by. They may not be the prettiest landmarks but they’re worth documenting.
Just past the gasometers is the Northam Railway Bridge, carrying the main road across the main Southwestern Railway lines past St Mary’s Stadium. The bridge was built in 1908 with arched latticed girder webs, one on the north side and two on the south. Like the gasometers, the bridge has an austere beauty.
The problem the bridge causes to the flow of traffic is easy to see. The dual carriageway narrows to two single lanes here and it is often the scene of large traffic jams, especially during rush hour. The scheme to improve the road includes a plan to demolish this bridge and replace it with a wider, two lane bridge with improved pedestrian and cycling facilities. In terms of driving in and out of the city this is good news but it will be sad to say goodbye to the old bridge all the same.
We were now approaching the final part of the big road changes, passing the shoal sculpture at the eastern end of Old Northam Road. Normally we’d be on the opposite side of the road, as we would have been for all of this walk. In fact, crossing the railway bridge and getting onto Old Northam Road as it runs parallel to the main road is always a bit of a relief as it means saying goodbye to the worst of the traffic. It also means we can use the underpass to cross Six Dials, one of the busiest crossroads in the city.
Today though, our aim was to actually see Six Dials rather than go under it so we kept going forward, past the bus stop I used to use when I worked at the Mad House and across Brintons Road. This gave us a good view of the backs of the old terraced houses and shops here, a reminder of how the city once looked.
This junction is called Six Dials because six Roads used to meet here. Today there are only four as St Marys Road and Nichols Road are now dead ends. Even so, there are so many different lanes of traffic, all controlled by traffic lights, it’s a confusing place to drive if you don’t know the city and impossible for pedestrians to cross.
Six Dials has always been a busy and confusing junction and I’m not sure if there is any way to change this. Back in the 1930’s a brave policeman used to stand in the centre of the junction and direct the traffic. The poor bobbies had a hard job. So much traffic whizzed around them it must have been difficult for them to see what was happening and for the drivers to see the policeman, especially as trams also crossed the junction. With six roads converging and six sets of stop lines to watch, it’s a wonder none of them were killed. I’m fairly sure none of the modern traffic police would want to do the job.
One morning in 1938 people driving in and out of the town got a huge shock when Southampton’s first roundabout sprang up overnight. They must have wondered what on earth was going on when they came to the junction and were confronted with a ring of white wooden fencing and lots of Keep Left signs. There’d been no warning and no one knew what to do. They’d never seen a roundabout before.
Southampton is often used to test out new traffic management measures, like the strange fences that appeared on roundabouts a couple of years back. In this case the town was behind the times though, as there had been roundabouts in other parts of the country since 1909. Even so, it’s hard to imagine what it must have felt like to be confronted by a roundabout for the first time with no idea of the rules for using one. Understandably, there was confusion. Many drivers stopped at the halt lines just as they’d a always done. Luckily a traffic policeman was there to keep the traffic flowing.
Once the rush hour had passed, things calmed down a little but it was a less than perfect solution to the problem junction. For one, the trams still had to go straight across the roundabout and a few confused car drivers followed them. There was also a pedestrian crossing running through the middle, although I’m not sure I’d have been brave enough to use it.
Time passed and people got used to the new fangled roundabout. The fences were removed and replaced by an island. The policemen were no longer needed at Six Dials. Pretty soon there were roundabouts springing up everywhere and nowadays everyone knows they have to give way to the right. Well, some people seem to anyway… It may have been the first roundabout in Southampton but now it’s a thing of the past, replaced by lots of traffic lights. It seems there are two certain things in this city, at least on the roads, traffic jams and changes.
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