If I’m completely honest I wasn’t thrilled when my employer told me I was off to Southampton this week. The distance played a part; the 300 mile drive was going to consume a big part of my Sunday, but aside from that the place itself didn’t have any positive associations. I’ve only been on two prior occasions; once flying in before then driving onto a different location, and the other, driving in before sailing onto a different location. You get the picture; I’d never felt the need to linger. Consequently, when I had no choice but to spend some time here as a result of my work, I had my eyes opened. Given the port’s location as an ideal embarkation point for Normandy and the success of the invasion that took place in 1066 it was bound to prosper at least in the short-term, so no surprises that Southampton achieved significance then. In fact, that prosperity continued long after the Normans had blended into our multi-cultural cocktail, the strange tidal patterns of the Solent giving the town a competitive edge for those trading by sea. What is more surprising is how much of the history remains, and what’s more, remains largely intact. You don’t have to walk far to encounter Medieval, Tudor, Regency and Victorian buildings, liberally peppered amongst the more modern constructions.
Like any other city, Southampton has seen its fair share of 21st Century carpetbaggers; the property developers building block after block of modern apartments, which here doubtless provide temporary accommodation for those needing a base of operations for their sailing exploits.
The affluence hasn’t percolated however, I was approached by more beggars on my stay than I can recall since I visited Nairobi or Kathmandu. The pubs are invariably out of the ordinary, with fascinating stories to tell. The Duke of Wellington goes back some 800 years, the Red Lion likewise, but with the added interest that Henry V held the trial of three conspirators in the building before sailing to Agincourt. The conspirators were not so lucky and were executed at the Bargate, an entrance to the old town which is also intact.
There there is the Juniper Berry, standing in the spot where Jane Austen lived, and the Grapes, a pub notorious for the fact that a handful of guests became so drunk there that they missed the departure of their ship. Nothing very remarkable there, but for the fact that the ship was The Titanic. Never has a hangover been so welcome. The Mayflower and the QEII are other maritime celebrities with strong associations. Even the hotel in which I find myself has played host to both Benjamin Franklin and Queen Victoria in its day. I just wish they’d decorated since. It seems then that I was wrong to underestimate Southampton. There’s more to the place than a football team that witnessed the golden years of Mick Channon.