1 March 2018
In the battle between parks and walls the walls won. The snow seemed to be getting harder so staying close to nice warm shops and cafes seemed the sensible thing to do. The precinct was almost deserted. All the really sensible people were probably in WestQuay enjoying the warm and dry. We walked past and headed straight for Bargate. There was less snow than I’d hoped but the medieval gateway stood on an island of white with flurries of fat flakes fluttering all around it.
Once upon a time the gate really did stand on an island and those snowflakes would have been falling into the town moat, crossed by a fixed stone bridge. The two lead lion guardsmen used to stand at the northern end of the bridge but were moved a little closer to the gate in around 1758 when the ditch come moat was filled in. If lead lions had feelings these would probably be wishing they’d been moved inside the building in the warm like the paintings of Sir Bevois and Ascupart we saw on our visit last year.
We do not get much snow here on the south coast but, over the last eight hundred or so years, the Bargate and the medieval walls have weathered a few epic snow storms. One of the most memorable snowfalls the city has witnessed happened in 1908. Surprisingly, it came in late April with four days of heavy snow in southern England and such a ferocious blizzard on April 25 a cruiser called Gladiator sank in Southampton Water after colliding with another ship. The snow was fourteen and a half inches deep back then, deeper than I’ve ever seen.
Although the snow was falling harder and harder, there seemed little danger of it getting deep enough to leave us stranded in town so we headed off towards Western Esplanade and the new plaza. There was a thin smattering of white on the grassy bank beneath Arundel Tower where, legend has it, Sir Bevois’ horse Hirondel flung himself in grief when his master died.
In the plaza the snow had been blown against the base of the walls in a wavy line that looked much like it must have before the land was reclaimed to enlarge the docks and the tide used to lap against the stones. The wind was cold and laden with snow so we didn’t stand still too long.
We’d hoped to find some measure of shelter on the plaza but the wind, funnelled between the walls and the new Watermark building, swirled the snow around us. It seemed to be coming from every direction at once. We thought about climbing the forty steps to the battlements but the idea of standing on Catchcold tower suddenly seemed unappealing.
There may not have been much snow on the ground but there was enough battering us from above to make it fairly unpleasant. Close to the bottom of the steps someone had built what must be the smallest snowman I’ve ever seen. It had two tiny twigs for arms and the two penny coins pushed into its chest suggested it might actually have been a snow woman.
With snow and wind buffeting us, we walked along the base of the walls towards the sea. We passed the castle vault, where the king once stored his wine, then the Watergate, slowly turning into snowmen ourselves as the snow stuck to our coats and hats. The further we went the worse it seemed to be getting. Walking the whole of the walls seemed less and less appealing.
When we reached Simnel Street and the arcades, it was tempting to turn towards the High Street where we could duck into Costa and get warm. Simnel Street is one of the oldest streets in the city. It was also once one of the most dilapidated and overcrowded. The street was narrow, the ancient buildings with their medieval foundations and centuries old old beams were less than six feet apart in some places. Many were lodging houses lived in by some of the poorest and most disreputable people in the town. Most properties were so dilapidated they were only prevented from collapsing by wooden beams stretched across the street just above head height propping one house up against its neighbour.
Simnel Street was intersected by a series of narrow alleys and courts, often filled with prostitutes and the scene of drunken fights, making it a dark and dangerous place to walk at night. It was here, in the slums of Southampton, that Ellen Wren, born in Shirley in 1847, lived and died. Ellen came from a large and impoverished family. By her mid twenties she was living in a one bedroomed attic in Simnel Street, working as a washerwoman and part time prostitute. She had many brushes with the law, mostly for drunkenness and fighting. In September 1894, after drinking so much gin she passed out, she choked on her own vomit and died. In itself, her death was nothing unusual, but the fact that her body wasn’t found until her landlord came to collect the rent many days later caused an outcry. The smell of rotting rubbish and human waste was so overpowering no one had noticed the smell of poor Ellen’s rotting corpse. The circumstances of her death caused such a furore it became the catalyst for the demolition of the slums and changed Simnel Street forever.
Tempting as Costas was, I wanted to walk a little further to see how another of the town’s old streets looked with a sprinkling of snow. It was a short cold walk to the thirteenth century Postern Gate, one of the more modest gates in the old walls. The wooden boat beside the wall, a reminder of a time when this was the shoreline, was completely encased in snow.
Blue Anchor Lane never disappoints. Looking through the gate it’s easy to imagine what it must have been like in medieval Southampton with carts rumbling up and down piled high with all manner of goods going to and from the port. Today, with the flagstones of the lane covered in sparkling snow it was especially magical. Originally called Lord’s Lane, and then Wytegod’s Lane, after John Wytegod, the fourteenth century merchant and Southampton Mayor, the steep, winding lane was renamed in the eighteenth century after the Blue Anchor Inn which once stood here.
The inn is long gone but the house John Wytegod lived in survives. These days it’s called King John’s Palace and is the oldest part of the Tudor House museum. The house was built in the 1180’s, long before the walls were even thought of. After the French raid of 1338 the doors and windows of the houses along the shore were bricked up and became part of the new defensive wall. If you look closely you can still see their outline today. The homeowners were probably none too happy to lose their sea views or their front doors leading onto the quayside.
Of course the windows and doors inside the walls remained, or new ones were created, and, as we trudged up the narrow lane, I stopped to peek through one window into part of the mayors house. The roof has long gone and the snow was fluttering down into what must to once have been a rather fancy room.
It was far too cold to stand for long peering through windows so we climbed to the top of the lane into St Michael’s Square. With so much falling snow, the pavements were slowly disappearing. Even from across the square I could see the door of St Michael’s Church was open. Although CJ and I had a wander around inside back in 2015 the thought of going inside and getting out of the snow was very tempting. St Michael’s Church was built in 1070 and is the oldest church in the city. It’s also only one the the five original churches in the old town still used as a place of worship today.
After a moment or two of shivery dithering we decided to give the church vist a miss. We both felt in need of a coffee to wrap our frozen fingers around and there would be none in the church. We might have got our wish in the Tudor House coffee shop on the other side of the square if the door had been open. It was quite a disappointment to see it closed because I’d have liked to have seen what the lovely Tudor garden looked like covered in snow.
With our coffe options severely limited on the square, we walked down Church Lane, the narrow passageway beside the church, and then along St Michael’s Street to the High Street. We were heading for Costa but neither of us could resist a quick stop to look through the ruined doorway of Holyrood Church.
Holyrood is one of the five original old town churches. It was built in 1320 and was used by crusaders en route to the Holy Land, soldiers heading for Agincourt in 1415 and Philip II of Spain in 1554 on his way to marry Queen Mary at Winchester Cathedral. It was also popular with local people and was ‘the’ place to see in the New Year. Sadly, on 30 November 1940, it was destroyed during the terrible night of bombing that saw eight hundred high explosive bombs and nine thousand incendiaries dropped on the town centre. Today the remains of the church stand as a memorial to the sailors of the Merchant Navy. Looking through the door to see the snow falling in what was once the inside of the church seemed very poignant.
We left the church and the snow behind for a while and retired to Costa to warm ourselves and shake off the worst of the snow coating our clothes. It was a short, but welcome break from the cold but we were soon back out on the street and the snow was still falling as we walked through the Bargate arch and out of the old town.
The cold kept us marching at top speed and we’d soon reached Guildhall Square. By then the snow seemed to be easing off a little but it was still bitterly cold. We carried on to the Cenotaph and the Titanic Engineers Memorial, snapping photos of each with a coating of snow as we passed.
At the start of our walk we’d expected the snow quickly to melt away and had dithered over whether to walk the walls or walk through the parks before it disappeared. In fact the snow hadn’t stopped falling all morning but, now we had the chance to walk through the parks, we were too cold to enjoy them properly. In the end we decided to give Watts Park a miss and head towards home through Andrews Park.
The water in the ponds of the alpine garden was frozen solid. Hopefully the fish and newts that live there have survived, although I don’t envy them their home in the cold water. The Peace Fountain was frozen too, although the fountain itself wasn’t turned on.
We took the snow covered path through the centre of the park, passing Richard Andrews statue, which had a dusting of snow. By this time we were so cold even the idea of seeing the enchanted park in the snow couldn’t tempt us. We’d been walking around in the snow for more than two hours and, despite many layers of clothes, hats, scarves, gloves and the thick waterproof hooded coat I wore in Iceland, the cold had seeped sp deeply into my bones it felt like I’d never get warm again.
Instead of carrying on through the parks, we turned past the Pavillion Cafe and began to head towards home. We got as far as St Mary’s. The snow was getting harder again and the thought of walking across Northam Bridge for a second time was too much to bear. At Old Northam Road we turned left through the subway and caught the bus the rest of the way home.
In the end it wasn’t the melting of the snow that brought our walk to an end, but our own lack of tollerence to the cold.
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