The big idea

Well, it’s nothing more and nothing less than life on the ocean wave.

While Southampton played a major part in maritime history, and the Old Town captures perfectly this sea-faring tradition,  the city’s  also been the starting point for many a glamorous voyage over time, a tradition that is continuing apace today with its reputation as the cruise capital of the country; indeed on course to be the cruise capital of Europe.

And with that comes a sense of adventure; of exotic climes and amazing places just waiting to be discovered; of getting away from everyday life into an unknown world; and, of course, escape. But not until you’ve discovered Southampton itself…

Maritime history

With its location of strategic importance on the south coast, and the unusual double tides – a quirk of local geography - it’s no wonder that Southampton came to be a significant maritime centre. It was from here in 1415 that King Henry V’s army invaded France, which led to the Battle of Agincourt; and it was from here that the Pilgrim Fathers sailed for the New World in 1620, before unexpectedly stopping in Plymouth. And, more recently, it’s where the American Army based its troop movement centre in World War II; some 2 million US troops for the D-day landings (and it’s not just seacraft in Southampton, mind; the most famous plane in English history, the Spitfire, was built nearby; must be something in the air).

Gateway to the world

But, ever since the White Star Line started sailing from here in 1907, Southampton’s main claim to fame has been, and still is, as the cruise capital of the UK. Many of the most glamorous liners in history have sailed from here, including the Queen Mary, the QEII, the Mauretania and the Canberra – and of course the ill-fated Titanic sailed from here in 1912. Today it’s on course to be the largest cruise port in Europe, with 800,000 people a year travelling here to join a cruise.
But it’s not just about the big liners; Southampton was the port for all the old mail boats and is now the home of sailing, with the annual Southampton Boat Show attracting visitors from around the world; and with the renowned River Hamble and Cowes on the Isle of Wight so close by it’s a sailors paradise.

A rich entertainment offer

And if your image of cruise ships is an endless round of entertainers, you don’t actually need to bother even getting on board; there’s plenty in the city itself. With some of the leading venues in the region Southampton can boast two magnificent theatres, including the Mayflower Theatre, the largest in the south of England, and a range of other concert halls and one-off venues (such the art house cinema, Harbour Lights Picture House); and three superb art galleries, the highlight of which has to be the internationally-renowned City Art Gallery, with 3800 works of art covering six centuries of European art, from Italian Renaissance to 21st century contemporary art via 19th century French Impressionism.

The essence

Glamorous voyages

Who it’s ideal for/ how it can make you feel

Seeking new horizons? Want to see a bit of the world? Fancy a bit of an adventure?

Southamptonis one of those cities that can broaden your horizons. It’s impossible not to spend time wandering around the historic Old Town, smelling the sea and gazing at those huge and glamorous cruise ships and not be inspired to try something different.

As such, it’s perfect for anybody wanting inspiration or a change.

The interesting bits in the history

During Roman times, the settlement here was on the banks of the River Itchen and called Clausentum, but by Saxon times it had become the town of Hamwic- it stood where St Marys Church now stands. However, after the heavy Viking raids of the 9th and 10th centuries, the Saxons moved out to higher ground, and the town suffered decline. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, Southampton prospered as it became the major port for travel between Winchester and Normandy, and French people moved into the town, in areas such as, rather unsurprisingly, French Street

By the 13th century, Southampton was fully established as a port, mainly exporting wool and importing wine from France and Spain; it’s believed that much of the prosperity of the town at the time was based on wine. However, following an attack by the French in 1338, the King commanded that the city walls should be reinforced.

By 1415, the roles were reversed, and Henry V’s army set sail to France, which in turn led to the Battle of Agincourt. During this time Southampton also had a significant ship-building industry, building several ships for the king.

1620 would see another historic voyage leave from Southampton, when the Pilgrim Fathers sailed from here to discover the New World. Then in the 18th century, with the discovery of chalybeate springs, Southampton actually became a spa town- it was frequented by Prince Frederick and his 3 sons who ‘took the waters’- and was popular for bathing by the sea, both of which would attract further money and prosperity to the town.

It was during Victorian times however that Southampton was really on the up-and-up. Although the bathing had declined and Brighton was by then the premier seaside resort in the area, the town was extended, The Southampton Dock Company was formed in 1835, and the docks were completed in 1842- just two years after the London to Southampton Railway was completed. Paddle steamers were operating to the Isle of Wight and France. Good transport links and its location on the coast meant that Southampton became one of the main emigrant stations, giving rise to its status as the gateway to the Empire.
The 20th century saw Southampton rise to prominence as the place for the mighty passenger liners, with many of the most well-known ships sailing from here. It was, however, in 1912 that the ill-fated RMS Titanic sailed from here on its maiden voyage. Although we all know this was the greatest maritime tragedy ever seen, it is worth reflecting what effect the disaster had on Southampton – most of the crew were from here, and over 500 people from the city lost their lives (and Southampton doesn’t forget: to mark the centenary in 2012 a new Sea City Museum will be opened).

In 1959, the world’s first hovercraft flight took place here, and two years later car ferries to France began. In 1964, Southampton was granted city status and continued to boom as the starting point for trips of a lifetime.

How to experience Southampton

Traditionally the heart of Southampton was down by the quaysides. Down there, the Old Town was surrounded by walls, with the Town Quay to the south and the famous Bargate marking the northern entrance to the walled city. Hence, now the area to the south of Bargate is known as Below Bar; the area above, Above Bar.

Let’s start Above Bar with a visit to the City Art Gallery; displaying six centuries of European art, plus an ever-changing series of exhibitions to keep the offer fresh. The area also includes the city’s Central Library, the Archives, the Mayflower Theatre and the Guildhall- a veritable Cultural Quarter.  From here pop over the road to one of the city’s seven parks, West Park (five of the parks are joined up-making a large ‘central park’ effect- and with it, making Southampton one of the greenest cities in the country). While strolling round check out the Cenopath – designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, this was the model on which the London Cenotaph was based. Next door, heading east, is the East Park (unsurprising really). As well as neatly-laid out gardens, stop and reflect at the RMS Titanic Engineers Memorial. Unveiled in 1914, two years after the tragedy, it’s a measure of the impact it had on the city that 100,000 people attended the unveiling.

From here, heading south towards the docks and marina are another three adjoining parks: Palmerston Park, named after the British Prime Minister, with a suitable memorial to the Viscount himself; Houndwell Park, with a well-equipped play area; and the much larger Hoglands Park, the ‘village green’ of the central parks, with its cricket squares and skate park.

At Palmerston Park, cut onto Above Bar Street; this is the central shopping area- down on the left-hand side you can find the entrance to WestQuay, Southampton’s newest shopping complex, with 90 stores and restaurants spread over three storeys.
Further down Above Bar you’ll find the Bargate itself; over 800 years old, this impressive structure is one of the finest medieval gateways in Britain. The statue above the arches is of George III, and the rooms above the gate have at various times served as the town’s guildhall, a jail, and the police headquarters; nowadays they house a modern art gallery. This marks the start of the impressive Old Town, with over 90 listed buildings and 45 ancient monuments. 

From here locate the Old Town Walls to the west of the Bargate, and follow their line down to Town Quay- along the way there’s a number of Old Town information boards bringing Southampton’s history to life. Towards the Quay you’ll come across the Mayflower memorial (look at the top for a replica of the ship itself, as well as plaques commemorating the Pilgrim Fathers and the 2 million American troops who left Southampton during World War II- apparently, if you can prove your ancestry back to the pilgrims you can add a plaque as well); and just over the road is Mayflower Park, a popular waterfront park, and a cracking viewing point for those majestic cruise ships.  Just along from the park is Town Quay marina, and the departure point for the Hythe and Isle of Wight ferries.

Head back over the Town Quay road to the Wool House (the Maritime Museum until end 2011; when the displays move to the Sea City Museum, opening in 2012).  Previously a warehouse for wool, and then later a prison for French prisoners of war-you can still see their carved names on the first floor beams-this holds a great collection of local maritime history, including a moving Titanic Story.

Afterwards, head into the Old Town up Bugle Street. On this street you’ll find the grade I listed Tudor House, the city’s most important historic house, and opposite in St Michael’s Square is St Michael’s church, the city’s oldest building. This remarkable survivor, the only Old Town parish church left standing post war, allegedly survived because its spire was a useful navigation point for enemy pilots. 

Now look for the ‘Duke of Boot’ - what the locals call the Duke of Wellington pub; opposite you’ll find Westgate Street and the Westgate itself, scene of many important moments in history; it was through here in 1415 that Henry V left for Agincourt; and in 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers embarked on their historic trip on the Mayflower headed for America.

Next door is the recently refurbished Westgate Hall (previously the Tudor Merchants Hall); when looking at this fine old building, bear in mind (a) it’s not from Tudor times (it was older, from medieval times), (b) it wasn’t a Merchants hall (it was previously a fish market) and (c) it wasn’t even built here (it was moved wholesale from just up the road!).  

Over the way in French Street also look out for The Medieval Merchants House, built in the 13th century by a wealthy Southampton merchant who traded with Bordeaux, it’s now kitted out with replica period furnishings, to give you a flavour of the city’s early development.

After mooching round the Old Town stroll along Briton Street, and find Lower Canal Walk on the right hand side; down here is Southampton Old Bowling Green, the oldest in the country. At the end of Briton Street head up to the Oxford Street area; this is where you’ll find a wide range of bars, bistros and restaurants. This area was bought in Norman times by a Frenchman, who left it to Richard the Lionheart, who left it to his brother King John; over time it was passed to Queen Philippa, to help her start her new college, Queens, in Oxford: that’s why there are several streets in the area such as Oxford Street, John Street and Queens Park.
After suitable refreshments, head out towards Ocean Village, the marina famous for hosting the start and/or finish for many around-the-world yacht races; here you’ve got the Royal Southampton Yacht Club overlooking the marina, a variety of bars and restaurants, two cinemas and, nearby, the impressive Solent Sky Aviation Museum, home of the great Sanderson Flying Boats, and Britain’s most famous fighter plane, the Spitfire.

So there you have it; maritime history by the bucketful mixed with the glamour of the cruise ships and marinas. A fascinating city with a great story to experience.

When to visit

City pics