Southampton and me

One of the questions I posed in my post about why we went to Hampshire was, could we replicate the picture of me standing outside the Central Library in 1978? Answer: yes we could! A few things have changed about the building – the stonework has certainly had a clean – and more has changed about me, but I’m recognisably the same woman standing in the same place.

This was taken on the Sunday when I was exploring with John – the library was closed, but I was able to get inside the next day. More on that later: after the photo opportunity above, we set off to walk round the medieval walls of the old town, seen below.

Southampton Old Town

In the 18th century, Southampton was a fashionable spa and seaside resort whose visitors included Jane Austen – there were several information boards commemorating this, of which I’ve included a couple of examples in the gallery above. The walls would originally have been right on the shore – in the picture with me, you can just see the Forty Steps in the background, which were constructed 150 years ago to take visitors down to the beach. The building with the arched doorway and stars in the window, the old Wool House, is now a brewery and restaurant called The Dancing Man – I can report it does a very good Sunday roast lunch (meat and vegetarian).

Tudor House

Within the walls, we visited the Tudor House and Garden, originally built in 1492 by John Dawtry. It’s an impressive little museum which tells you about the house and some of its previous residents such as a Tudor lawyer, an artist and a Victorian bonnet maker.

Monuments, murals and memorials

In the gallery above are two of a series of wall plaques on the site of an old Franciscan Friary, a 1970s mural in ceramic and concrete celebrating Southampton’s maritime history, and a 2013 mural just round the corner which has a similar theme.

In the gallery below is another selection, including two memorials related to the Titanic which set sail from Southampton, and the ruins of Holyrood, known as the Sailor’s Church. This dated from 1320, was bombed in 1940, and is now preserved as a memorial garden to those who served in the Merchant Navy and lost their lives at sea.

The Cultural Quarter

Guildhall at night

My clearest memory of Southampton, because I worked there, is the Civic Centre, a grade II* listed building (1939) which in my day housed the City Council, Art Gallery, and Library, as well as the Courts. The first three are still there, but the Courts have been replaced by the SeaCity Museum and the former Guildhall is an O2 venue. The whole complex stands at the centre of what is known as the Cultural Quarter.

On the Monday of our long weekend, John went off to his meetings at Southampton University and I was left to explore on my own. This was my big moment – I could look at the library where I began my career 40 years ago. It has been transformed. Although the exterior is the same, the dark interior and enclosed rooms I remember are now light and open, including the staircase up to the excellent Art Gallery which has been yarn-bombed by residents of a local Care Home. I loved it.

I also visited SeaCity which had a very moving Titanic exhibition with lots of personal stories. On our walk the previous day, we passed The Grapes Public House where some members of the Titanic crew had stayed too long on the day of departure and missed the boat. The story was in the museum too.

There were some light moments amongst the sadness: for example, the replica of a 2nd Class cabin with a quote from a stewardess who said “It was impossibly for myself or the steward to enter the cabin to wait upon the occupants unless both of then climbed into the berth”, and the toilets. I mentioned before that the museum was in the old Courts (with a modern extension which, externally, looked like a series of ships’ prows). The Ladies and Gents were housed in the old cells’ corridor, complete with original doors.

And finally …

A couple of amusing tales to finish. How’s this for a vegetarian meal? We arrived at our hotel in Southampton just before they stopped serving food on the Friday evening. The only vegetarian option was Carrot and Avocado, described as cumin-roasted carrots and smashed avocado with coriander and lemon. I expected a dainty sort of salad-plate with baby carrots maybe, but I have never seen such enormous carrots as these! The flavours were as described and, I admit, delicious, but that’s a lot of carrot. I’m afraid I balked at the side of mashed carrot which John took to accompany his almost-vegetation-free burger.

Just before I left for the airport, I decided to track down one last memory. When I arrived to start work in Southampton I had never been there at all – my interview had been in Winchester. I lived for the first couple of weeks in the YWCA, en route to which the taxi from the station took me past the Civic Centre with its distinctive clock tower, as seen in one of the photos above. Some time later, we arrived at the YWCA. It seemed like quite a journey. The next day, I left the hostel to find out how to get a bus back into town. I walked to the corner and what did I see? That clock tower, just a few minutes’ walk down the road! I remember the feeling of shock that the taxi driver had cheated me, but was that memory real?

These days, Google keeps me on track. It seemed to think the YWCA still existed, and the general direction seemed right. When I got there, I didn’t recognise the hostel which had been completely rebuilt, but I walked to the corner and saw –

The clock tower! The taxi driver had, indeed, taken me a very long way round. What a mean way to treat an obvious stranger to the town. However, I didn’t let it colour my impressions, either then or now, and I left for home happy to have reacquainted myself with a pivotal time in my past.