Walk the wet walls

17 October 2019

When Kim said she was missing our walks and asked if we could do some more, I was quite surprised. I thought she’d be glad to see the back of me now the Clarendon Marathon was over. Of course, I was more than happy to go for a walk with her. My chest was slowly getting better and her legs had more or less recovered from the marathon so we arranged to meet outside WestQuay this morning for a short but interesting recovery walk.

According to the weather report it was going to be a showery day, so I’d planned a walk of Southampton’s medieval walls.. it was a short, relatively flat walk and there’d be plenty of places to wait out the showers and even have a coffee. Like most people who live in Southampton, Kim hadn’t walked the walls for years and years, so I thought she might enjoy it.

As always, I arrived early. The precinct was all colourful leaves overhung by a patchy blue and grey sky. Those showers were going to keep us on our toes. Typically, just as I spotted Kim walking towards me, the first rain drops began to fall. Would any of our walks ever be dry? Luckily we both had waterproof coats.

Fairly confident the rain would soon stop, we set off towards Western Esplanade. My plan was to walk two loops of the walls, one outside, the other inside with maybe a little detour down to Cross House on the way. We were starting outside the walls where the sea once lapped against the stones. Since the Watermark Development has been built, this is probably one of the most visited sections of the wall. The paving of the plaza is a reminder of the waves that once broke here and little fountains periodically erupt for children to dance through. Today, the water was all falling from the sky. We marched past Arundel and Catchcold towers, past the forty steps and on to the Castle Watergate.

The castle is long gone but this thirteenth or fourteenth century gate was once the entrance to it from Castle Quay. The Quay belonged to the king. Supplies, mostly of wine, were landed here and carried to the castle vaults, just behind the wall, or up to the castle via a stairway. The rain was teeming down so we didn’t stop long, although Kim quite liked the idea of the vaults full of wine.

We passed the garderobe, the first flushing toilet in the town. It was raining too hard to get my phone out and take a photo but I told Kim how this had once been a thirteenth century three story tower containing the toilet facilities for the castle. The waste from these rather rudimentary loos, would have fallen down to a sluice in the base of the tower where the sea came up and flushed everything away. Today, all that remains is this sluice. The tower was demolished in the late nineteenth century when medieval history was valued less.

When we set off I’d expected the rain to be a transient thing but it was proving very stubborn. In fact it was getting harder by the moment. We reached Blue Anchor Lane and discovered a mini river was running down it. This seemed like a great time to stop for a cup of coffee in Tudor House. We could sit in the little cafe and look out at the pretty garden and dry out a bit. We waded up the lane against the tide of water looking forward to coffee and maybe a cake. It wasn’t to be though, Tudor House was closed.

Luckily, I had a plan B. We hurried along, heads down against the now torrential rain past Westgate and the American Wall. Thankfully, my plan B coffee stop was just around the corner…

This was most certainly not our lucky day though. Just like Tudor House, the doors of the Dancing Man Brewery, otherwise known as the Wool House, were firmly closed. It was time for plan C, God’s House Tower.

My last visit to Gods House was November 2017, just before it closed for refurbishment. Now it was due to reopen, with a brand new cafe and a special introductory price for tower tours. From what I’d read, today was the opening day. At least it would be dry inside…

First though, we had to get there. We marched along Porters Lane, past Canute’s Palace and the ruined tower where Watergate used to be. On a nicer day we could have strolled through the gardens here and peered into Quilters Vault but we were far too interested in getting out of the rain.

Across the road we headed down Winkle Street. Gods House was now in sight and the buildings provided some degree of shelter so we slowed down a little. I pointed out the French Church and the Gods House almshouse hidden behind it. We even paused to look at some of the funny faces hidden here. Where they came from is a mystery but they always make me smile.

The door to Gods House Tower was closed but, from what I’d read, the cafe was on the other side of the gate, near the Oldest Bowling Green in the World. We went through the gate full of hope…

Outside the gate we found a new door and a pile of rubble. The door was firmly shut and the rubble didn’t seem to bode well. With a sinking feeling we walked to the rear of the building. There was another door here but it too was closed and surrounded by a makeshift fence. There was a tantalising view of the new cafe building but there would be no coffee and tower tour for us today. Disappointing didn’t even cover it.

We were now a long way from any other cafe and the rain didn’t look like stopping any time soon. Whatever happened we had to head back to the High Street and we both agreed we might as well follow the walls to get there.

We strode along Friar’s Walk, barely pausing to look at the Dovecote and the Friar’s Gate. This part of the wall was new to Kim and it seemed a shame it was so wet she couldn’t appreciate it properly.

Along Back Of The Walls we discovered a wonderful new sculpture fence in front of the new buildings that have sprung up there. If only it hadn’t been raining so much we might have stopped for a closer look.

When we reached East Street we could have headed for the High Street and Costa. The new fangled locks on the toilet doors there, very difficult to open with the code on your receipt especially if your eyesight isn’t good, have annoyed me so much I’m boycotting the place though. Besides, I thought we might walk along Queensway and peer through the viewing windows to see what was happening in the Bargate Quarter Development. As it happened the windows were too wet to be of much use but I headed towards York Walk, partly from habit. Since the building work got underway I haven’t walked this way and I was sure we wouldn’t get very far but I thought I might be able to show Kim part of Polymond Tower.

The tower was mostly obscured by scaffolding but, surprisingly, the gate to York Walk was open. This has never been the nicest part of the wall walk. The rubbish strewn alley filled with large wheelie bins is not a great advert for the city. The new development is set to change all this and make this part of the wall more accessible and, hopefully, tidier. Work seems to have stalled at the moment but today we did at least get a glimpse of the walls in a kind of before with hope of an after soon kind of way.

We peered through the wire clad gate at the inside of the tower and walked along the scaffold clad walls. We passed the old entrance to the Bargate Centre, where large red gates block access and hold a promise for the future. It’s a promise I’m impatient to see fulfilled.

Further along we peeked through an arrow slit at more neglected walls and a building site beyond. The passageway that once led back onto the High Street has long disappeared, along with most of the buildings there. We climbed the steps and looked back along the line of the wall. If only the work was finished…

We had to scoot round into Hanover Buildings and squeeze along the side of the hoardings to get back to the High Street. The rain was really teeming down by this time and the poor Bargate looked rather sad and wet. The thought of walking the inner walls really wasn’t very appealing.

We both agreed we would complete the circuit of the outer walls and leave the rest for another day. We climbed the steps to the rickety bridge and headed towards Arundel Tower. The poor mayor on the bridge was so wet he looked as if he was crying. I knew exactly how he must feel.

Our walk of the walls ended with a view of the flats that stand on the site of Southampton Castle. Now it really was time to get inside and have a coffee. Luckily, the cafe inside WestQuay wasn’t closed, although, given the morning we’d had, I wouldn’t have been surprised if it was.

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9 thoughts on “Walk the wet walls”

  1. To find three cafes closed is really unlucky! I always boycott Costa (and Starbucks) as I much prefer to give my custom to a small privately owned business.
    I have walked the walls before but many years ago – I really must make time to do it again though I don’t think it will ne this side of Christmas. The sculpture fence definitely looks worth a closer look.

    1. When I worked in town I walked the walls in my lunch hour quite often. It never gets boring to me. It really wasn’t our lucky day this time though,

  2. A great memory and time to spare many thoughts for the builders of those ancient and magnificent walls around the town, as it was at that time, and the part that they played.

  3. Where are you Marie?
    I have enjoyed your explorations and thoughtful strolls around Southampton, my old hometown of 30 years ago. I don’t get down there often these days but your explorations bring back memories of a different town than it is today (before it became a city, even).
    Thank you for taking the time to record your experiences and discoveries. I hope you continue to do so.

    1. Hi. I haven’t written anything this year, partly because of the lockdown. Going for long walks has been more difficult than it usually is. I have also been researching my family history and am writing something about my grandfather’s life at the end of WW1. It has taken up most of my spare time. Whether it will be published is another matter but it feels like an important project to me. I will try to get back to blog posts when I can though. I hope you are staying safe and well.

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