Fire, demolition and disaster

10 March 2018

There aren’t many things sadder than a fire in a bookshop. Just after midday on  6 March the large Waterstones store in Above Bar caught fire. The city centre was brought to a standstill by thick black smoke as thousands of pounds worth of beautiful books burned. I wasn’t there but I saw a video on Facebook and felt like crying. 

Still from the Facebook video

Today CJ and I had errands in town. Our last walk this way had been in the snow, but that was long gone, melted away by almost non stop rain, leaving just a memory, thick mud everywhere and regrets about not walking in it more. On our travels we passed the burned out shop and paused to peer through the smoke blackened windows. Although I don’t have much money to buy books these days I often enjoy a wander through Waterstones. There wasn’t much to see inside today apart from blackness and glimpses of a window display all curled, ruined books and cuddly toys. The store was still closed. It’s possible it will never open again. This left me with a heavy heart, especially as it appears to have been a case of arson.

Once our errands were done we went for a wander around the outside of the old Bargate Centre to cheer ourselves up. The building is disappearing fast. Past the crumbling bricks and tangles of metal we could see inside the shells of the shops we once visited. Amid the excitement at the prospect of the new Bargate Quarter and the opening up of the forgotten walls there was a slight sadness. So many of our memories are being dismantled along with the building.

We will never take the cranky lifts from the car park again, or walk through the odd smelling blue painted corridors to the shops. There will be no more strolling through Sega World dragging children away from all the exciting games machines or watching Commando and CJ trying to grab a teddy on the claw crane.

The place holds so many happy memories. Browsing for perfume oils and wooden boxes in Smells Bells and Doodahs while the boys were spending pocket money in Game. A first experience of the World Wide Web with CJ on my lap in the Internet cafe on the ground floor. The boys pushing me onto the glass floor for a vertiginous walk to the main door. Chocolate orange milkshake in Shakeaway. All these are nostalgia for lost youth rather than the building, I have no doubt the new will be better than the old and I can hardly wait to see it finished.

We peeped through gaps in the perimeter fence to see the huge machines that are bringing about this change to the city. Amid the debris and puddles these giants seem like strange creatures with massive metal jaws feeding on the concrete and brick. The shopping centre is slowly being reduced to piles of twisted girders, nests of thick steel wires and muddy dust.

Talking about our memories of those happy days we turned back onto Hanover Buildings and crossed Queensway, heading for Hoglands Park and home. As we passed the corner of Debenhams some words etched into the marble of the building caught my eye. I must have passed this spot thousands of times but, somehow, I’ve never noticed them before.

This example of the Jamais Remarque phenomenon was a reminder that some of the past changes to the city were anything but exciting and were wrought by bombs rather than huge concrete munching machines. The huge Debenhams building we all take for granted was once a much grander affair and was called Edwin Jones.

The bombs that rained down on the town in late November and early December 1940 changed Southampton forever. The elegant Edwin Jones store was one casualty among many. There were fifty seven attacks on the town with more than  two thousand three hundred bombs, almost five hundred tonnes of high explosives, dropped and over thirty thousand incendiary devices. The worst of the raids occurred on 23 and 30 November and 1 December 1940. Much of the town centre was left in smoking ruins and the glow of the fires could be seen as far away as Cherbourg. Seven churches were lost and countless shops, factories and homes. Six hundred and thirty seven people lost their lives, eight hundred and ninety eight were seriously injured and many many more were hurt, made homeless or changed forever by what they witnessed.

The remains of the Edwin Jones store after the bombing

CJ and I crossed the road and walked through Hoglands Park, talking about the public air raid shelter that was once under it.  Just days before the Edwin Jones building was destroyed the shelter took a direct hit, killing all those sheltering inside. The horror of the blitz is slowly fading from the public consciousness. The generation who lived through it are dwindling and their stories are being lost. A few grainy photographs and stilted newspaper reports, written to keep the full details out of enemy hands, cannot convey what it must have been like to live through those dark days.

Those who survived coped by joking and singing as they sat in their shelters listening to the destruction all around.  Refusing to be beaten, they made up funny songs and slogans and shook their fists at the planes that tried to destroy them. CJ and I wondered how we would have coped and agreed we were glad we didn’t have to.

The remains of the public air raid shelter

As we walked on through St Mary’s a scrap of graffiti on the tower block in Golden Grove reminded us that we may never have to witness anything as horrific as the blitz but modern day disasters are beamed into our homes live and in colour every day. Things that happen hundreds, or thousands, of miles away, like the horrific destruction of the World Trade Centre or the Boxing Day tsunami traumatise us at second hand. Those few scrawled words, referring to the terrible inferno that destroyed Grenfell Tower and killed more than seventy people, were a reminder that the spirit of the blitz lives on.

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Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

10 thoughts on “Fire, demolition and disaster”

  1. I haven’t visited your blog in a while, Marie, and now here I see books on fire, an un-intentional (I hope) book burning. I hope the shop had good insurance. And how would one ascertain the value of books. Argh!

    1. I haven’t written much lately but the bookshop fire deserved a mention. Sadly it seems to have been a case of arson.

    1. I don’t understand why someone set the fire either. It breaks my heart to think of all those books. Our city was shaped by the bombs dropped during World a War II. As a child I remember serval bomb sites near my house. It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like but I think the dark humour got them through it,

  2. I’m sorry to hear about all that loss, both present and past. The loss of life is terrible, and the loss of a place with so many memories is sad, but you’re right–there’s something especially poignant about the loss of a bookstore. I know the odds are in this day and age that a brick-and-mortar bookstore with real live books is unlikely to be rebuilt, but here’s hoping your store defies the odds!

    1. The worst thing about the book shop fire is that someone set it deliberately. I don’t understand why someone would do that. There is another Waterstones in WestQuay so I doubt this one will reopen. Very sad.

  3. A nice read.yes,terrible the burning of Waterstones.And it happened before them when they had their bookstore in Hanover buildings some years ago.
    The story of the public shelter in Hoglands Park will not almost did as there didn’t used to be any thing to tell of it.But,I read about it first in a book from Southampton Library.Also,when Edwin Jones was bombed there were a hundred or so people in the basement.They all walked out unharmed when the all clear was sounded,even though the whole store had been demolished!

    1. I didn’t know there had been a previous Waterstones fire. There were some miraculous escapes during the blitz, but also some terrible losses. The public air raid shelter was one of the latter. Some of the eye witness reports I read were too distressing to repeat. There is a small plaque in the park commemorating the dead.

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