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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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

Frost on the Common and sun on the walls

25 November 2017

Today there was a cold and frosty start as we crunched our way across a frozen Common to parkrun. The sparkling grass and the flaming trees under a brilliant blue sky were all very pretty but I don’t mind admitting my teeth were chattering as I waited around for the run to start. The blue sky was a definite bonus for the adventure I had planned later in the morning though.  Continue reading Frost on the Common and sun on the walls

Plans, disasters and a last look at the Bargate Centre

8 November 2017

For once I had a proper plan. There had been extensive research, route plotting,  notes taken and some very interesting stories ready to tell. CJ and I left home early feeling rather excited. We had a ferry to catch, the sky was blue, the sun was shining and it felt a little like a holiday. Then we got to the ticket office and it all went wrong.  Continue reading Plans, disasters and a last look at the Bargate Centre

Mist and other ephemeral things

2 November 2017

For my first walk of November I had the most glorious autumn morning. When I left Home the sky was blue and the sun was trying hard to burn off the morning mist as I crossed the railway bridge. On such a lovely day it was impossible not to walk along with a huge grin on my face, even if it did make me look like a loon. The plan was to walk into town to have a look at a new sculpture I’d heard about.  Continue reading Mist and other ephemeral things

Invasion of the giant snails and pest control

26 May 2017

The round of waiting rooms and blood tests is far from over but a steroid injection means Commando is feeling much better. It isn’t a cure, investigations are still ongoing, but, for now, he is making the most of it. In fact he’s become a little stir crazy. Word had it that the new Watermark Plaza had been invaded by giant rainbow coloured snails. In fact I kept seeing photos of them on Facebook so, today, I thought we could drive over and have a look at them for real before they all slithered off.  Continue reading Invasion of the giant snails and pest control

Hidden surprises in the medieval walls – first published 9 June 2014

Early June 2014 and I’d crossed the Itchen Bridge and walked along the seafront to God’s House Tower. There had been some vague notion of walking up towards West Quay when I started out but nothing you could actually call a plan. I stood, looking at the tower, partly marvelling at the way it had stood the test of time and changes, partly wondering where to go next. What I didn’t realise as I stood there, was that these old walls I’ve lived with all my life and grown to love could surprise me with things I’d never noticed before. Continue reading Hidden surprises in the medieval walls – first published 9 June 2014

Son et lumière

10 February 2017

Despite three days of resting my poor injured foot there was no way I was staying home tonight. Commando read an article in the Echo about a sound and light show at the new Watermark Development and CJ and I were eager to see it, even though we had no real idea what to expect. In normal circumstances we’d have walked over the Big Bridge into town but this evening, to avoid too much walking, we caught the bus.  Continue reading Son et lumière

Old walls and Watermark

5 January 2017

Our little tour around the inside of The Bargate  had been far shorter than CJ and I would have liked and it left us wanting more. Short of breaking into the rest of the building, which would have probably only resulted in us seeing the inside of a police cell, we decided to have a coffee instead. Normally this would mean a short walk to Costa on the High Street but, today, I had a better plan.  Continue reading Old walls and Watermark

The Bargate, inside and out

5 January 2017

With Commando now back at work and all the post Christmas and New Year clearing up done it was time to think about my first walk of the year. There were a host of possibilities but one stood out. While we were in Iceland CJ went for a wander into town on his own and discovered an art exhibition inside the Bargate. It isn’t every day you get the chance to see the most iconic symbol of our city from a new angle so he went inside. Only a small part of the building was open but it was still more than I had ever seen. Luckily, it turned out the art exhibition continued into the New Year so, today, I decided to check it out. Continue reading The Bargate, inside and out