24 May 2015
My rendezvous with Panda was the entrance to WestQuay so I found an empty seat with a good view and sat to wait and watch. The South American pan pipe players had set up a little further along the precinct so it was a pleasant wait, if short. I’d hardly had time to get comfortable before I spotted Panda. Eleven in the morning is a little too early for lunch and our planned venue wouldn’t open until midday so, once we’d done with all the hugging and greetings, we set off through the Bargate, past the piano accordion playing busker to Costa for pre lunch coffee.
For almost an hour we sat at one of the tables on the street, sipping coffee and swapping news. As always, Panda had way more news to impart than me because she reads my blog and knows, more or less, what I’ve been up to, at least all the things I write about here. It was a laughter filled hour but at least they couldn’t throw us out for disturbing the other customers because we were already outside.
With the coffees long gone and the sky clouding over a little we left. We strolled down the High Street, still chatting, mostly about how lucky we were to live in such a beautiful and historic city. Our lunch venue was the Wool House, a part of that history. The only surviving freestanding medieval warehouse in Southampton, it was built in the Middle Ages when Southampton was a leading wool port. Back then there were several wool houses but this is the only one to survive. No one knows exactly when it was built but it was certainly at some point shortly after the French Raid of 1338.
The raid happened on a quiet Sunday morning when most of the citizens of Southampton were in church. No one noticed the fleet of fifty galleys sailing quietly up Southampton Water. When they landed, a mass of French soldiers and Genoese mercenaries streamed onto the shore and stormed the town. They burned buildings, looted the town and massacred the people who tried to stop them. The town’s defences, which consisted mainly of a castle, Bargate, Eastgate and stone houses along the western shore had proved woefully inadequate. King Edward III ordered the gaps to be filled and the town completely enclosed. Some of the existing buildings were incorporated into the new walls. The Wool House was either one of those buildings or was built as part of the improved defences.
We reached the Wool House on the stroke of twelve. It would be my first ever time inside. Between 1966 and 2011 the Wool House was used as a Maritime Museum and for a while it was used to host the occasional exhibition or event but, somehow, I’d never managed to visit either. Last year, in a controversial move, the Council gave permission to the Dancing Man Brewery, owners of the Platform Tavern behind St Julien’s Church, to open the historic building as a micro brewery and pub. There was, of course, a public outcry, even a website devoted to persuading people to object to the planning permission. The naysayers said we had enough pubs in the city. They said the building would be ruined and our heritage sold down the river and lost.
Personally, having read exactly what was planned, I thought it sounded like a great idea. The building was in need of repairs that the council couldn’t afford. Eventually it would crumble and be lost unless decisive action was taken. This plan killed two birds with one stone. The Dancing Man Brewery were going to fund the vital repairs and maintain the building and, once this was done, it would be open to the people of Southampton for free, or at least the price of a coffee or a pint of beer. Win, win as far as I could tell. It opened at the end of February and this was the first chance I’d had to visit. A serious case of priority malfunction obviously.
The massive oak doors were shut but a couple sat outside at one of the tables and I could see lights on inside. How often have I stood outside those closed doors wishing I could go inside in the past? I didn’t have to wait long, hardly enough for the anticipation to build, before the doors opened. Panda went ahead of me while I recorded the moment for prosterity.
No one knows for sure who financed the building. Some say the monks of Beaulieu built it, others point to a weathly merchant, Thomas Middleton. Either way it was built as a secure store for huge bales of wool from all over England bound for Flanders and Italy where they would be made into cloth. As I stood in the doorway I tried to imagine what it must have been like back then with medieval warehousemen moving the wool bales in and out, carts coming and going, merchants haggling over prices.
At first glance the dominant feature is the beautiful spiral staircase sweeping gracefully up to the second floor. Of course this is not an original feature and, as far as I can tell, was added in the 1960’s when the building was used as the Maritime Museum. Then there are the wonderfully cracked and pitted beams still standing strong after more than seven centuries and the ancient stone of the walls themselves. We stood and gawped, open mouthed, hardly able to take it all in.
Feeling slightly bemused, we wandered up to the bar, eyes darting this way and that at all the interesting things scattered about the room. It seemed only polite to ask if it was alright to take photos but the staff were very welcoming, encouraging us to have a look around. The walls were lined with beautiful watercolours of city landmarks painted by local artists. Each had a discreet price tag should anyone wish to buy one. There were little sculptures and knick knacks everywhere, some modern but many reminders of the different incarnations the building has undergone over the centuries. If I’d been on my own I’d still be there now taking photos and I’d never have got any lunch.
As we wandered I thought about all the changes the old stone walls had seen and the stories they could tell if they could speak. Finally we came full circle, back to the foot of the spiral staircase where a Victorian crane, once used in the docks, made me think of Commando and how much he would have loved to see it. Slowly we climbed to the second floor.
Upstairs we had a breathtaking view of the old, Spanish chestnut roof beams. To me the beautiful modern lighting with assorted bare bulbs hanging at varying levels is the perfect complement, although I’m sure the moaners would disagree. The large window over the door overlooks the docks, a view that might have been better had the sky not clouded over since we’d been inside. Back when this was a warehouse, the window would have been the loading door. Bales of wool and later, when the export of wool was banned in favour of woven cloth, boxes of alum, used as a fixative for fabric dyes, would have been lowered from here onto carts bound for the docks.
Upstairs our wanderings continued. Amongst the pictures and curios we found evidence of the next incarnation of the building. In the eighteenth century it became a prison, first housing prisoners of the War of Spanish Succession and later, in the ninteenth century, French prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars. Carved in the stone window surround are the names of two prisoners, Francois Dries and Thomas Lasis. In 1711, when they carved those names they ensured their memories would live on even if they did not.
With the Napoleonic Wars over there was no need of such a large prison and, in 1850, the building became a warehouse once more, this time storing seed and corn for merchant John Bennett a commission agent for and international trading network and later Jeffrey and Lewis, corn merchants. Then, in 1904, it passed into the hands of the Carron Iron Foundry, a Scottish firm who manufactured cannons for war ships and domestic equipment.
Four years on another manufacturer took over the building. Moonbeam Engineering, owned by Edwin Moon, built motor launches, propellers and marine engines, using the old Wool House as a workshop. Edwin’s son, also called Edwin, had dreams of flight rather than sailing and, in a corner of the workshop, built a monoplane, Moonbeam. It took two attempts to get it right but, in 1910, his first successful flight in Moonbeam II was from the North Stoneham Farm Meadows that would later become Southampton Airport. A first for the airport as well as Edwin Moon.
When the Moon Family finally sold the building in 1925 it went from a workshop back to its original use as a store, being used by various haulage and transport companies. It wasn’t until 1966 that the building became publicly owned when Southampton Council restored it and turned it into a museum.
Finally, having made a complete circuit of both downstairs and upstairs, Panda and I found a table in front of the loading door window and checked out the menu. We both plumped for a smokey bacon, brie & grilled tomato baguette at a very reasonable price, along with another coffee because you can never have too much coffee. Panda had mentioned my blog when we first came in and, whIle we waited for our food, I was invited up to the staff area for a better view of the building. Of course I jumped at the chance.
A wrought iron spiral staircase led to a small mezzanine right up amongst the wooden rafters. The views were worth the climb and I was told of the thousands of pounds that has been spent repairing the crumbling roof alone. The staff seem to have a real pride in the place and it’s obvious that all concerned love the old building and want to preserve it. Sadly, public funding can only do so much and a building of this age needs investment to keep it from deteriorating. The naysayers may not like this but it’s a fact of life and it seems to me that the current tenants are the best thing that has happened to the Wool House in a very long time.
When it arrived, our food was perfect, although there was far too much for me to eat, and the coffee was good. With such interesting and historic surroundings, attentive, happy staff and the best of company and conversation it was the perfect lunch. To all the people who fought to stop the Dancing Man Brewery taking over the old Wool House, I’d say, go and see for yourselves, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. It will certainly not be my last visit. In fact, it may become my favourite place to have coffee when I’m in town and CJ is already asking me to take him.