A lion’s tail

2 April 2019

Annoyingly, my plan to walk to town and meet a friend for coffee was scuppered by torrential rain. The walk went by the wayside and I caught a bus. Despite the rain though, I couldn’t resist a quick dash through the enchanted park where the magnolias were in bloom. The heavy rain had left puddles of petals on the ground, like a mirror image of the blooming branches.

There were a couple of other things I wanted to see before I met my friend. The first was the progress on the new Bargate Quarter. On a different day I might have walked the perimeter, peering through fences and over walls. Today was seriously wet, windy and cold though, so I contented myself with a peek through the Perspex viewing window. Frankly, I couldn’t see much progress. In fact I couldn’t see much of anything. If the archaeologists were still working, they had taken a break, along with the builders. Not that I blame them.

The other thing I wanted to see was a little easier to find. The Bargate is the most famous building in Southampton and a symbol of the city. Standing on the north side of the medieval gate you are actually outside the old town of Southampton. Once there would have been a moat, otherwise known as the town ditch, and a stone bridge to cross to get to the barred gate. The entrance was guarded by sentries but they weren’t the only thing guarding the gate. On the north side of the bridge there were two lions made of wood.

These lions represented an important part of the legend of Sir Bevois, who is said to have founded the town of Southampton. Bevois was the son of Guy, the count of Hampton, and his unwilling wife, Murdina, a Scottish princess. Murdina, along with her lover, Doon, murdered Guy and sold poor Bevois to slave merchants. He ended up in Armenia. It was here that he fell in love with the beautiful princess Josian. One of the many heroic deeds he performed was to rescue Josian from two lions who had killed his friend Sir Boniface and trapped her in a cave. Bevois killed the lions and later returned to England to found the town.

Wood does not weather very well and, in around 1743, the two Tudor lions were replaced with lead sculptures, probably made by John Cheere of London. Shortly afterwards the ditch come moat was filled in and the new lions were moved closer to the gate. The Bargate lions are the oldest statues in the city but, sadly, nothing lasts forever.

Towards the end of September last year a council worker discovered the tail of one of the lions had fallen off and was laying on the ground. This was not, as some people have suggested, an act of vandalism. The tail was taken off to be examined and corrosion of the internal iron structure was found to be the problem. Two hundred and seventy odd years of standing guard in all weathers had taken their toll. In fact, the same lion has a rather alarming looking crack across his back.

Of course, simply sticking the tail back on isn’t going to solve the problem. The council are currently consulting experts on the best way to preserve and repair the poor old lion. Hopefully they’ll find a way and the lion and his tail will soon be reunited.


By now the rain was beginning to seep through the hood of my thin coat and I was feeling quite cold. My friend was due to arrive in a few minutes so I took shelter under the Bargate Arch, walking through one of the little side gates next to the lions. Standing beneath the Bargate arch I’m always aware of the history around me, the number of feet that have walked this way over the centuries.

The city is changing rapidly right now. The new Watermark development has been a great success and I hold out a great deal of hope for the Bargate Quarter when it is finished. The one thing that never really changes is the gate itself, even if the poor lions have seen better days. Long may this continue.

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A progress report on the Bargate Quarter

26 February 2019

Today I had some business in town and, when I’d finished, I thought I’d have a look at the progress on the Bargate Quarter. By all accounts exciting things were happening there, although work wasn’t quite going to plan. In fact, the scheduled opening date of autumn 2019, now looks overly ambitious. In the circumstances, this was understandable but the online grumbling about the development was disappointing, depressing and downright frustrating.

The sky was blue, the sun was out, it was, I later discover, the hottest February day on record. Even though I’d left home for the three mile walk to town rather overdressed and was, by now, way too hot, the parks made me smile as I unbuttoned my coat, unwound my scarf and walked through. Winter is slowly losing it battle against spring. While most branches are still bare there are flowers bursting on the camellias and daffodil clumps brightening the grass.

The ribbon of beautifully tended parks running through the city centre from Chapel to London Road was once the Lammas lands surrounding the old walled town. This common land was used to grow crops by Southampton’s Medieval residents from spring until August each year. After the harvest the cattle and other animals grazed there.

Between 1854 and 1866, the common land was slowly turned into the beautiful, award winning, parks we have today. As I strolled through I couldn’t help wondering if the Victorian residents moaned as much about the changes as today’s keyboard warriors do? Did they gripe about the public money being spent on laying paths, planting shrubs or erecting statues of prominent citizens like Palmerston? Did they despise every new building and hark back to the good old days of stocks, public hangings and the town ditch overflowing with sewage? Maybe they did. Humans, at least some of them, seem particularly resistant to change.

Like the changing of the seasons, change in the city is inevitable. The needs of the population are not static and some buildings and amenities outlive their usefulness or popularity. Some change comes from changed attitudes, stocks, gallows, zoos and bird aviaries are no longer seen as acceptable and sewage thrown into town ditches is now known to be unhealthy. The Victorians cleared away overcrowded and crumbling slum tenaments after several gruesome deaths. Those who lived in them were probably not too happy and some, undoubtedly, ended up on the streets or in the workhouse. Poverty and homelessness were not wiped out. They still exist today but we now have shelters, benefits and food banks instead of workhouses. Whether they work any better remains to be seen.

In the early 1900’s the growth of motorised transport saw parts of the medieval town walls torn down to make way for roads. We may look back and lament some of the casualties but the people at the time saw it as progress. Today we cherish our medieval history and call it a tourist attraction. Even so, some of the destruction, like the forty steps, cut into the walls in 1853, are as useful today as they were back then.

Some change is driven by simple economics, when the dance halls, ice rinks, pubs, arcades and cinemas fall out of favour and stop earning their owners money, they disappear. Today’s young people get their entertainment in different ways and spend their money in different places.

Other change comes from war and disaster. There is no doubt that both have shaped the face of our city. The blitz left Southampton burning bright enough to be seen from Cherbourg and the town centre in ruins. A few pre war buildings, like Alfred Waterhouse’s turn of the century Prudential Assurance Building in Above Bar, survived, along with the walls that weren’t torn down. Most did not.

Today our city centre is filled with mostly post war or modern buildings. Some are architecturally quite attractive, others, put up in haste to replace the wartime destruction, not so much. Even they are not immune to change. Businesses rise and fall. Shops open and, either thrive, or close as the fashions and needs of the people dictate. Disasters happen, like the fire in Waterstones bookshop a while back. The scorched shop is now up for rent. Books have fallen out of favour,

As I walked through the quiet, weekday morning, precinct I thought about all the changes I’d seen there in my lifetime. Once this was a busy road, filled with traffic. Crossing wasn’t always easy and sitting outside on the pavement to watch the world go by or have a coffee was unheard of. Pedestrianisation made this part of Above Bar a quieter and more relaxing place. Now there are trees where once there were buses and cars, and places to sit in the sun.

Of course the changes never stop. The first walled beds and seating areas have gone and the whole place seems lighter and more open now. Even so, some people would rather it had stayed as it was. The shops have changed too reflecting the spending habits of the twenty first century. Some, like Woolworths, I miss myself but, if people don’t buy then shops will close. At the bottom of the precinct more change is happening. It seems that the concrete barriers, erected after terrorist attacks in other cities, are being replaced with something more permanent and, hopefully, more attractive. The world changes and the city changes with it.

February 2018 the concrete blocks

The Bargate, newly cleaned and repaired, stands as it has since the twelfth century, watching over it all while everything around it slowly evolves. The most recent change is the demolition of the relatively modern Bargate Shopping Centre, built in 1989. In its day, the Internet cafe, games arcade and specialist teen oriented shops were popular but times and fashions changed and it became a ghost town.

Inside Bargate Shopping Centre May 2013
Our last walk through Bargate Shopping Centre May 2013

The post war shops have been demolished too and, while some complain about their loss, they were never especially beautiful and hid a whole section of the remaining medieval wall. Most people don’t even know Polymond Tower, York Gate and the walls adjoining them even exist and those, like me, who do and ventured down the narrow back alley to see them did not have a pleasant visit.

February 2018 the shops and shopping centre before they were demolished
February 2015

Along with the parked cars and overflowing rubbish bins, the narrow back alley was often home to drunks and worse. It never felt the safest place to walk. Then there was Bargate Shopping Centre, built so close to the wall it was touching it in places. Often I would peer through the locked gates and arrow slits and wish it was possible to walk inside. Of course the piles of rubbish, old bikes and other unpleasant things would need to be cleared out first.

February 2015, the back of the a Bargate Shopping Centre
February 2015, Polymond Tower
November 2017
November 2017

Now the Bargate Shopping Centre and the shops beside it have gone, apart from the marble art nouveau facade that was once the frontage of Burtons. This is being saved and incorporated into the new buildings. Those who mourn are really just looking back with nostalgia at their youth and not the buildings they haven’t visited since those heady days. They forget that each generation has it’s own pursuits and fashions. Time marches on and the world changes.

A peeep through the plastic glass opening in the hoardings revealed a landscape of gravel, dirt and debris, along with a new view all the way to Debenhams. The old walls are hidden for the moment behind protective boards and scaffolding but, in time, they will be revealed in all their glory. No doubt the naysayers, like those who protested at a lumpy car park being built over to create the Watermark Development, will soon be enjoying a stroll, a browse and maybe a meal there. Personally, I can’t wait and I’m sure the Bargate, if it had human feelings, would be pleased to be reunited with some of its adjoining walls.

My wait will now be a little longer but I’m not grumbling. Any building work in the centre of the city is accompanied by archeological investigation. In this case, the demolition of the shops on Queensway, has revealed some interesting artefacts and work has been halted while the archaeologists investigate further. This is just as it should be. The history will be uncovered and preserved and then the work will begin again.

When I left the Bargate behind I walked down East Street and along the back of the old Bargate Shopping Centre to see what I could see. Through the wire fence I spotted the archaeologists working away amid the remnants of the old shops. What they’d uncovered I couldn’t tell but I’m sure it’s interesting.

Over the red hoardings I could just see the top of the Bargate. It’s a view of the iconic building I’ve never seen before and it suddenly seemed much closer than it had before. Thinking I might get a better view from Hanover Buildings, I carried on to the bottom of East Street and walked along Queensway. Here I discovered another viewing window. Through it the footprints of the old shops were easy to see but, if there was anything of archeological interest there, I couldn’t tell.

Around the corner, behind Hanover Buildings, I got a different view of the same thing. There was a time when I often strolled along York Walk, past all the rubbish and parked cars to look at Polymond Tower and the walls. Right now all that’s visible is one edge of the tower and the flag flying on top of the Bargate. Soon though, it will be a whole new walk.

Of course, the new Bargate Quarter development will also have shops, restaurants and apartments. The developers are business people and wouldn’t be investing in such an ambitious project unless there was money to be made from it. There were shops and restaurants there before though, so it’s hardly a big difference.

The biggest grumble seems to be that some of the accommodation will be for students. For some reason there are people who strongly object to the young people studying at our universities to become the scientists, doctors and teachers of the future. They certainly don’t want to see them living in the city and blame every party, piece of litter and social problem on them. Like most young people, they’re not all angels but, surely, it’s far better they live in purpose built halls of residence than share large houses elsewhere, houses that could be used by families. They certainly contribute to the local economy, even if the money they spend comes from their parents.

In my eyes, the new development, like the Watermark, is, on balance, a good thing. As for the moaners, I guess they just like to have something to gripe about. I’m very glad I don’t live in their world.

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Autumn leaves and a special guest

14 November 2018

Meeting a friend today for coffee was the perfect excuse for a stroll through the enchanted park to look at the autumn colour. A little bird had told me there was a very special visitor in town too so I was keeping my eyes peeled in case I saw him.

Continue reading Autumn leaves and a special guest

On a mission

13 September 2018

Today CJ and I were on a mission. In August the renovations on the Royal Victoria Country Park chapel were finally completed. Although we were both itching to go and visit, we both agreed it was best to wait until the school summer holidays were over and the initial burst of visitors had subsided before checking it out. This was not something we wanted to rush around in a crowd. So, we set off bright and fairly early for what would be the longest walk I’ve taken since my back troubles began.  Continue reading On a mission

Gravehunting, a photographer’s story

8 September 2018

Several months ago I saw a photograph of Francis Godolphin Osbourne Stuart’s grave on a Facebook local history page and discovered it was hidden somewhere in the Old Cemetery. This little bit of knowledge set off a search that would take up my Saturday mornings for the whole of the summer. The Old Cemetery is huge and maze like. This summer it was also very overgrown. With no idea of where the grave was it was never going to be easy but a walk in the Old Cemetery is never a hardship.  Continue reading Gravehunting, a photographer’s story

Titanic tales from Bitterne Village

4 September 2018

When RMS Titanic sank hardly any area of Southampton was untouched by the tragedy. Earlier CJ and I explored the streets of Bitterne where some of the crew of the ship once lived. Now, we were at the top of the hill in Bitterne Village, looking for three more houses. A lot has changed since 1912. Many houses were lost in the 1980’s when  Bitterne bypass was built, others were demolished to build the Bitterne Leisure Centre, the Bitterne Library a Health Centre and a large doctor’s practice. Whether we would find any of the houses we were looking for intact remained to be seen.  Continue reading Titanic tales from Bitterne Village

Titanic tales from the Bitterne crew

4 September 2018

When the world’s most luxurious liner began recruiting crew on 6 April 1912, it seemed like a dream come true for the people of Southampton. After the national coal strike, unemployment in the city was high and families were living hand to mouth on charity handouts. The dream turned to a nightmare on 15 April when, five days into its maiden voyage, Titanic, the unsinkable ship, sank. Over five hundred households in the town lost at least one family member. Today, armed with details from a crew list published in the Daily Echo, CJ and I decided to explore some of their stories. Continue reading Titanic tales from the Bitterne crew

Below Bar deckchairs

31 July 2018

CJ and I had spent the morning walking in large circles up and down town from the precinct to Bedford Place looking for giant deckchairs. So far, with quite a lot of doubling back and grumbling from CJ, we’d found all the chairs at the top end of town. Now we had a proper map, rather than a badly cropped photo on my phone, the Below Bar chairs should be a little easier to find. In fact, I’d already seen the next three on the list on a shopping trip with Commando at the weekend.  Continue reading Below Bar deckchairs

Giant deckchairs and a beach in the city

31 July 2018

There is a giant deckchair trail going on in the city centre, part of an event called Seaside in the Square, centred around Guildhall Square where GO! Southampton have set up a beach, including imported golden sand. The event, planned to coincide with the school summer holidays, includes live music, beach yoga and an outdoor cinema in the evenings. The trail looked like a lot of fun so, today, CJ and I thought we’d go and check it out ourselves. We certainly had the weather for it. Continue reading Giant deckchairs and a beach in the city

Inspecting the damage

28 July 2018

This morning, while Commando was running round parkrun, I went back to the Old Cemetery for a closer look at the fire damage. According to the Echo, not always the most factually accurate of local newspapers, two Titanic memorials were damaged by the fire, along with a World War I grave belonging to Kate Trodd, a nurse who served in the Voluntary Aid Detachment. Whether I’d be able to locate any of these damaged graves remained to be seen.  Continue reading Inspecting the damage