1 March 2015
Before the medieval town of Southampton was even thought of, or the villages of Hawick and Hamtun that came before it, there was a Stone Age settlement on a wooded bend of the banks of the River Itchen about three miles from Southampton Water. In AD 43, the Romans invaded Britain and, around thirty years later, built the fortress settlement of Clausentum on the spot. The sharp bend in the river enclosing a promontory of land made it easy to defend the site with just a wall and two ditches and inside this enclosure wooden huts and wharves were built. On Sunday morning, I thought I’d explore what little remains of Clausentum, I didn’t have far to walk because my village grew up around it.
It was a perfect blue sky day with bright sun and, wrapped up well against the chill, I strolled down the Main Road towards the river without a care in the world. This road follows the line of the old Roman road between Claustentum and Wickham and I couldn’t help imagining ghostly legions of marching centurions. These days the road is almost always busy with traffic, even on a Sunday morning, so I turned off at the earliest opportunity. Traffic wasn’t the only reason for this detour, I was making for Vespasian Road, named after the Roman Emperor at the time Clausentum was built. On the corner, where the defensive ditch would once have been there is the strangest house, incongruous beside all the normal properties around it. Built in the style of a Martello Tower, it actually dates from the mid nineteenth century.
After a little wondering what it must be like to live in a castle, even if only a pretend one, I carried on, knowing from the old maps I’d been looking at that I was now inside the enclosure of what was once Clausentum. The River Itchen hides behind the houses of Vespasian Road and most of them have jetties and boats. There was even a boat in the street as I approached the fancy flats of Swan Quay. A little further on I seneaked down the side of the Vespasian Quay flats wondering if the clanging of the rigging against the masts in the boatyard beside them disturbed the residents. As the water came into view I was dwarfed by a large orange crane, not that it takes a great deal to dwarf me.
The view across the river was breathtaking, and I’m not just talking about the wind whipping up off the water. The bright sun shone on the muddle of little boats moored behind the houses enhancing the cheerful colours of the hulls. The blue sky reflected on the choppy river and, as boats bobbed, the sun danced on the waves and threw sparkling light on everything. To my right I could see the blue of the railway bridge I have looked at so often from the other side and, across the river, the backs of all the little houses I pass on my walk to work. When I stand on the slipway by the Millennium Flats, this is what I’m looking out at.
Sneaking down the side of the flats I’d hoped the path would lead me around the other side and back to the road. When I came to the corner though it was a dead end, albeit a very pretty one looking out over a long jetty where two white and blue canoes were tied up. On the far shore I could just make out the boardwalk and, on the other side of the jetty, an interesting looking wreck. There was nothing for it but to turn back and retrace my steps. At least I didn’t get caught by any of the flat owners and have to pretend I was lost. Still with all the practice I’ve had of actually being lost I think I could have been quite convincing.
Back on the road I met with some Sea Cadets practicing marching outside their base in front of the jetty. Hopefully I didn’t put them off too much when I skirted round them. As it was I also had to make my way round another boat parked in the road before I reached the entrance to the grounds of the manor. These grounds have yielded masses of Saxon artefacts, uncovered during a series of archeological excavations that began in the 1790’s when the first Northam Bridge was built. Finds include lead pigs From the Vespasian era, traces of timbered houses and wooden wharves along with masses of pottery and the odd coin. What I really wanted a closer look at though, was the wreck.
It’s an iron boat of some kind and I haven’t been able to find out anything about it but it looks interesting. Something else I couldn’t find out about was the odd, crumbling concrete structure I had to climb down from to get to the shore. Obviously it isn’t Roman and I’m thinking it’s either the remains of a jetty or some kind of war time look out post, maybe even an anti aircraft emplacement. These walks often bring up more questions than answers but maybe someone, somewhere knows something.
As natural shoreline is at a premium along this part of the Itchen I thought I’d make the most of it and walk along to the end even if the shingle was slippery and covered with seaweed. As I slipped and slid I thought about the people who once lived in Clausentum. The archeologists have pieced together enough to say with some certainty that a wooden palisade was built in around AD 150 and, within twenty years, the first stone buildings went up. Around AD 350 a bath house with four rooms was built and the whole area was enclosed by a stone wall. Most of the evidence is now in various museums in the city, including four Roman milestones, a bronze Hercules and an altar dedicated to the Celtic goddess Ancasta from the temple that was once there. Two milestones were even found built into a garden wall somewhere nearby.
In around AD 700, when the Anglo Saxons settled across the river and founded Hamwick in the area now known as St Mary’s it’s thought Clausentum had been abandoned for around 300 years. The stones of the Clausentum buildings were used to build a Manor House, first mentioned in the Bishop of Winchester’s register in the late eleventh century. As I trudged along the shingle I could just see it through the trees. The house is barely visible from the road and part of the reason for my walk was to try to get a better look.
At the back of the house there’s a sloping bank with wooden defences against the high spring tides. This is high enough that I could hardly see over but, in one spot, the wood had broken away creating a convenient step for me. This might be seen as trespassing by some but I climbed anyway. Whether the low stone wall I could make out is part of the bath house or the fortified wall that still remain there I couldn’t tell but I’d like to think so. They should probably get that wood fixed as the spring tides are coming.
The name Bitterne comes from the Old English words byht and ærn meaning house near a bend and the Manor House and surrounding area is still called Bitterne Manor. The Bishop of Winchester mentioned it because he used it as a distribution centre for wine and salt, which was panned from the river. Back then the Manor House was also a farm and was surrounded by parkland. After the Black Death in 1348 it became harder to find farm labourers so the house was rented out and the farmland parcelled up and let to tenant farmers.
Eventually, in 1802, the Bishop of Winchester sold the lease to a Mr Simpson who rebuilt the house using the original stones and filled in the defensive Roman ditch. The new Northam Bridge gave it a convenient connection to the town of Southampton although there was a toll to pay to cross. In 1818 the house was sold to James Stuart Hall. Directly across the main road, Steuart Road, where Pappy once lived, is possibly a reflection of this or it may refer to Sir Steuart MacNaughten who purchased the house in 1863. The house passed through several generations of the MacNaughten family until it was damaged during bombing raids in World War II. Lettice MacNaughten, who was living there and taking in paying guests, scurried off to Guildford to stay with her sister and refused to return. In the end it was sold to architect Herbert Collins who restored the building and converted it into fourteen flats.
From the lawn, or in my case the shore, there are wonderful views across the river. In fact, if anyone is ever standing there at eight thirtyish in the morning they might well see me strolling along the path below the Millennium Flats, stopping once in a while to take a photo. Looking out, I could make out the grassy bank the flats sit on, the blue railings I walk beside and even the yellow catamaran, a bright dot by the slipway.
Part of the grounds have now been turned into a park, the same one I stood and wished I could walk through on Friday morning. Now I did have time to walk through it and I strolled the trail through the trees thinking of the Romans and the people who came before them who once called this home. Did they wander through the dappled shade of trees here? Some were certainly buried here. A Bronze Age cremation site and Roman burials have been found over the years, perhaps there are still bones under the ground. There was also a gatehouse but it was derelict for years and was demolished in the 1950’s as far as I can make out. It would be nice to say I stumbled upon old stones or found a glittering coin but all I saw was a rotten tree that almost looked like a seat and some skeletonised sycamore keys.
Once I’d explored as much as I could I made my way to the blue gates with a last look down towards the river. After a quick stop to peer through the gates of the Manor House I set off to my next objective. Beside the Manor and grounds is a new swanky apartment complex called Clausentum Quay and my success at sneaking earlier at Vespasian Quay had given me the confidence to try the same thing again in the hope of getting one last glimpse of the back of Bitterne Manor House and maybe some ruins.
When I actually got there I nearly had second thoughts, it was far swankier than I’d expected. Steeling myself, I walked under the arch to the wooden decking behind the flats. At this point house envy almost overtook me when I saw that some flats had wide glass doors and balconies or terraces overlooking the river. Imagine eating breakfast looking out at that view. Walking to the end of the decking I looked back the way I’d come and peeked around the corner. Although I could see the Manor House the view was disappointgly devoid of ruins. If I want to see more of beginnings of this city, I’ll obviously have to befriend someone who lives in the Manor or buy an apartment there. Somehow I think they’re a little out of my price range.