After my historical wanderings last weekend it was a touch ironic that the next post from my deceased blog’s archives should be a walk of the medieval Southampton walls. Back in mid February 2013 the history of this city was something I half took for granted. Yes I knew about it, I couldn’t help it as I walked past so much of it every day, but it had been many years since I took the wall walk…
16 February 2013
Last night I planned an eight mile walk but as I drifted off to sleep my mind wandered over it and found it sadly lacking. It was more of the same and I wanted something different, so, over breakfast, I had another think and came up with just that. Today I’d incorporate the Walk of the Walls into my little jaunt. The last time I walked the medieval Southampton walls the boys were at school. In fact I think it was part of a school history project. Living in a city packed to the gills with history, I tend to forget about it most of the time. There are bits I stroll past on a regular basis but I don’t really think about them. Other bits I’ve barely even seen, despite living here all my life.
Eager to reach God’s House Tower, I made good time over the New Bridge and along the waterfront. Storming past the South Western Hotel, I hardly registerd Queens Park or the oldest bowling green in the world. The thirteenth century tower was one of the seven gates to the old town of Southampton and I was standing outside the town on what were once marshes. Most of today’s waterfront is land reclaimed from the sea and, back in the thirteenth century, the sea came right up to the walls at high tide. In fact there was once a water mill under the tower. It has been the headquarters of the Town Gunner, the town gaol, Harbour Board storage and a mortuary. Until recently it was open as a museum, now it stands empty, until someone decides to use it for something else. So I walked around the tower, peering through arches at little streets I’d explore later. Crossing the road I marvelled at the way the old walls and the modern city stand side by side.
The next tower, Watchbell or Canute’s Tower was flanked by two bright red telephone boxes. Traffic roared past where once there’d have been sea. Built around 1321 it was a watchtower with a bell to be rung in the event of an attack. The bell was removed in the early 1700’s. Much of the tower and the watergate was demolished in the early 1800’s.
Leaving Town Quay for a while I walked down Porters Lane and wandered through the ruins of the tower and Canute’s Palace. The Norse king was proclaimed King of England right here in Southampton in 1016 and it was at this very sea front that he commanded the waves to turn back. We all know how that one ended.
So I wandered through the ruined tower, down stone steps into a large, now roofless, room. There was a tiny archway in one corner so I went to investigate. Through a low arch I stepped down into another smaller room, probably used as a store room as, even when new, the ground floor would have been damp with the sea coming right up to the outer walls. They were green with moss and, sprouting between the stones, was an impressive collection of ferns.
Across the road, in Canute’s Palace, actually a rich merchant’s house rather than a palace, there were more rooms and I wandered around them all before strolling through a lovely little garden. Undoubtedly this was owned by a very wealthy merchant, but it seems unlikely to have belonged to King Canute as it was built in the tenth century long after his death.
The path through the garden led me back out onto Town Quay, almost opposite the pier, now a Thai restaurant called Kuti’s part owned by ex Southampton footballer Francis Benali. Opposite is The Woolhouse, the only surviving medieval warehouse in the city. It was probably built by the monks of Beaulieu Abbey and used to store wool, an important commodity back in medieval times.
On Town Quay I stopped for a moment to take a photo of the Mayflower Memorial, commemorating the spot where, in 1620, the Pilgrim Fathers boarded the Mayflower and set sail to make new lives in America. American tourists love this historic country which is strange when their forefathers were so keen to get away from it.
Once I’d taken my photo I doubled back along Cuckoo Lane to stand looking out over the pier, the water and Mayflower Park wondering how many other Sotonians had stood on the same spot looking out to sea. On Bonfire Night there’s always a huge firework display on a barge in the water. We used to take the boys and stand along the walls here to watch. Memories came flooding back of cold November nights, wrapped up against the frosty air gasping at the brilliant flashes in the sky.
Around the corner I turned to walk the part of the walls I know best. Western Esplanade runs from today’s waterfront up to WestQuay shopping centre. To my left was the Grand DeVere Hotel and The Quays swimming baths. The Quays was built on the site of the old Central Baths, I learned to swim there. Every week my friend Liz and I, along with her mum and her little brother, David, would walk down the forty steps from the centre of town and along these walls to our swimming lessons. Happy days when we’d go for our swim then get picked up by Liz’s Dad in his car, listening to Not In Front Of The Children on the radio on the way home to a baked potato covered in butter.
The walls here are almost complete. Once they were a row of merchants houses but, after a raid by the French, the King ordered all the windows and doors to be bricked up and the houses turned into a fortified arcade. Standing right beneath the arches and looking up I could see the machicolations where missiles, maybe even boiling oil, was dropped on would be invaders. I remember Liz’s brother David being very interested in them.
Beside these is The Westgate. This gate was built to defend the town after raids by the French in the fourteenth century. The gate would have had a strong portcullis and on either side of the top window, below the crenelated roof, there are gun ports. Henry V and his troops walked through this gate to embark for the battle of Agincourt and the Pilgrim Fathers walked under the portcullis to embark on the Mayflower.
Something I was quite interested in was the Garderobe, a kind of medieval toilet (so now you know why I’m interested) said to be the first flushing toilet ever! Built for the Queen in the fourteenth century, it used to be a tower, at the top there was a room with a row of wooden seats. Well you can guess what the seats were for, but cleverly, the waste products went down into the sluice below where the tide would come and wash them away. All that’s left today is the sluice, probably not the most attractive part but it’s nice to know the Queen had a warm wooden seat to sit on to do her business. I found myself wondering what the Queen’s toilet was like, did she have a medieval toilet roll holder and somewhere to wash her hands? Somehow I doubt it.
Behind the next stretch of wall there was a castle, built for King William just after the Norman Conquest. Sadly nothing remains of it today but it was once impressive, somewhere for the King to live when he was in town. David was fascinated with the tiny barred window at ground level where his mother told him prisoners were locked in dungeons to await death as the tide rushed in. The truth is a lot less gruesome, although we all believed her at the time, it was actually the window to a wine vault. Back then Southampton was the main port in England to import wine. Maybe that’s why so many of my friends love a glass or five, it’s in their blood, perhaps their ancestors worked in the vaults and had the occasional sneaky sip, or five.
The castle Watergate still stands today, with a restored wooden door and portcullis. I could almost imagine King William stepping out to inspect his wine shipment. A little way along from the Watergate the Forty Steps lead down from the ramparts to what would have been the shore until the land was reclaimed in the 1920’s. These were built in the late nineteenth century to make it easier for the fashionable people of the day to walk down to the shore and along the promenade. In the eighteenth century Southampton was a popular spa resort, and walking along the promenade was a favourite pastime, Jane Austen being one of its fans. I imagine she would have loved the Forty Steps had she lived to see them.
Walking under Catchcold Tower, so named because so many sentries caught colds while on duty there, and Arundel Tower I climbed the modern steps to West Quay. Today I didn’t have a single snack with me because I knew I would be in ‘town’ and the temptation of coffee was going to be too great to resist. There would be just one treat, a latte when I got to WestQuay. That way I could enjoy it without feeling guilty. So, with my coffee in my hand, I strolled along the top of the ramparts, looked down the Forty Steps for old time’s sakes and, forcing myself to wait for my first sip of coffee, walked right along the ramparts, looking over the edge at the path I’d just taken. Retracing my steps I sat in the little garden between the walls and the car park and enjoyed the sun on my face as I savoured every drop of wonderful silky smooth latte.
With the last drop of coffee gone I climbed the worn steps to Catchcold Tower and stood where so many sentries must have shivered, with the cold sea wind blowing in the faces. Further along the ramparts I climbed Arundel Tower using the modern spiral staircase. Carfeully descending the stone steps I crossed the bridge, a slender modern affair spanning the gap in the old stone walls created by the new road. On the far side, looking over the wall, a bronze statue of the late fourteenth century mayor stands peering over the wall.
Before I descended to street level again I looked across at Bargate, surrounded by market stalls and shoppers, and tried to imagine the wall that was once between it and where I stood, a space now occupied by Burger King.
To get to the North face of wall I had to walk down a cutway and behind the shops. Behind this wall the ordinary working people of the town lived. When they built the Bargate Centre shopping Mal they uncovered evidence of brewers, butchers, bakers, fishmongers, barbers, apothecaries, surgeons. smiths, leather works, everything a town needs. Today it’s a lonely corner where no one much goes but then it would have been a loud, smelly hive of activity and the real heart of the town where all the important things were made. I felt quite at home there.
From there I walked the road called Back of the Walls, the final part of my tour of the outer defences of the old town. Past the site of the Franciscan Friary where the walls of the modern building have tiled murals depicting the friars. Along the outside the stone of the old wall here there used to be a ditch, filled with rubbish, sewage and goodness knows what else. Today I enjoyed trotting along with the green grass, the wall beside me the blue sky overhead and the sun in my face. Back then it was probably a smelly, filthy place. All that’s left of the Friary today, apart from the murals, is the section of wall and Friary Gate.
Before long I was almost back where I started, behind God’s House Tower. My walk of the walls was over but not the end of my walk for the day…