Don’t just park-and-cruise
To many Silver Travellers, Southampton means just one thing – no-fly cruising. But like all major ports, this Hampshire city has a rich trade and maritime history dating back centuries, not to mention a vibrant retail and restaurant scene. So I embarked on a land-based journey of discovery in the shadow of the cruise ships.
The city shoreline has shifted here over the centuries as land was gradually reclaimed to build new quays and port facilities. I stayed overnight in Oxford Street, which was once the hub of the maritime quarter, close to the Old Town. Today it is part of an attractive conservation area that buzzes with cafes and restaurants.
The White Star Tavern hasn’t always been an inn, the current building being an amalgamation of three individual properties into a boutique hotel with 13 attractive rooms and a bar/restaurant awarded 2AA Rosettes. The hotel has no car park, but there are plenty of public car parks around the city. Check out www.discoversouthampton.co.uk for options and an interactive parking map.
Biggest surprise for many first-time visitors is that Southampton isn’t on the sea, but positioned on a peninsula between the rivers Test to the west and Itchen in the east, 8 miles from the English Channel. The cruise docks and Isle of Wight ferries face the Test, whilst the Ocean Village marina and leisure area overlook the Itchen.
The city’s main visitor attractions lie in the Old Town near the docks, and in the Cultural Quarter to the north, some 15-20 minutes apart on foot. Unless of course you get distracted by the huge West Quay shopping centre which lies between the two.
Must-do attraction for anyone with limited time is the SeaCity Museum in the Cultural Quarter which showcases the people of Southampton and the city’s historic connections with the sea. At the heart of the museum is the story of the Titanic, which sailed from Southampton on 10 April 1912, striking an iceberg in the early hours of the 15 April and sinking in just three hours with the loss of more than 1500 lives. Of the 897 crew members, more than three-quarters came from a Southampton address.
It’s an instantly engaging exhibition with its mix of archive photos, background noises, and information panels. I was mesmerised by the three photos that captured the moment Titanic nearly collided with the New York in harbour. And by the pocket watch found on the body of a steward, the hands stopped at the exact moment it hit the water.
The interactive installations are fun for all ages too. Try ‘steering’ a ship down Southampton Water and ‘shovelling coal’ into a boiler. And the Disaster section is intensely moving with its eye-witness accounts of the evacuation and sinking, spoken by survivors who were children or teenagers at the time. Final memory? The memorial wall that gives the names, jobs, and – in some cases – photos of lost crew members. All poignant stuff.
Next door to SeaCity, I was captivated too by Southampton City Art Gallery, not just by its wonderful collection, but also by the fabulous Art Deco building. Based in Southampton’s Civic Centre, the central hall of the exhibition space features bold lines and painted arches, the artworks on show changing periodically.
The internationally renowned collection numbers some 5,000 works spanning eight centuries but the core collection is 20th century and contemporary art, so there’s something to delight everybody here from Lowry to Munnings, Degas to Gainsborough. If, like me, you love the Pre-Raphaelite artists, don’t miss the wood-panelled side room which features The Perseus Story by Burne-Jones. A young room guide kindly fetched a tablet which allowed me to interact with each painting.
Steering myself firmly past the retail temptations of West Quay, I headed through Bargate and into High Street which bisects the Old Town. Jane Austen lived here from 1807 to 1809, close to The Tudor House, a beautifully restored half-timbered house built in 1492. Discover the different owners of the house, its various uses, and fascinating restoration; enjoy the tranquil knot garden; and look down into King John’s Palace, a merchant’s house built of stone in the 1200s beside the then quayside.
But to really peel away the layers of Southampton’s history, I recommend joining a guided walk with See Southampton on Wednesday evenings, Saturdays, and Sundays. For 90 minutes, I discovered how the sophisticated Georgian spa town turned into the port we know today.
My eyes were opened to the history of the city walls (third longest medieval walls surviving in England); to the ruins of a Saxon Customs House; and the route of Jane Austen’s favourite walk. We visited the Barrel Vault deep below the High Street and the even larger Castle Vault in the city wall by Castle Water Gate, used to store imported wine under Henry II. There are many similar wine vaults beneath the Old Town, but they are only accessible with an accredited guide.
Today Castle Water Gate and the western city walls look over landscaped gardens to West Quay shopping centre, the Carnival UK offices, and an ever-changing backdrop of cruise ship arrivals. Skirt the ramparts towards the docks and you reach The Pig in the Wall, a delightfully informal restaurant with rooms where diners cosy up amongst gloriously mismatched furnishings and tableware, looked after by super-friendly staff. And there are tables outside for fine weather food and drink.