I recently took some family members on a ‘guided tour’ of Southampton’s Old Town. They seemed to enjoy it and it turned out to be a lovely walk that took in some of Southampton’s most historic sites. In this post I am going to attempt to take you on a virtual tour of the Old Town, explaining the route we took and providing some information on the sights along the way. That way, if you like, you can use this as a guide and go out and do the walk yourself. If you’re not local, then you can still see a little bit of what Southampton has to offer as a historic and cultural city. The route itself is around 1.6 miles long but don’t worry, there are opportunities for breaks. This article contains a lot of photos!
Our walk begins at the Bargate. Possibly Southampton’s most iconic structure, the Bargate now stands right in the heart of the modern city. However, when construction began around the year 1180, this gate would have been the main entrance into the old town from the north, with its name coming from a literal bar that regulated entry. The Bargate was extended and expanded over the course of the following centuries, but its inner arch does date from the Norman period. If you look at the Bargate from the side with the two lions, you are looking at it from the north. Imagine how it would have looked in centuries gone by. These two lions date back to the 1740s (replacing a pair from the 1520s) and they were originally located on the other side of a small stone bridge that once spanned a ditch in front of the gate. Walls joined each side of the Bargate and then ran east and west away from it, towards Polymond Tower on north-east corner of the town, and Arundel Tower in the west. The wall that runs to Polymond Tower still exists but it’s somewhat hidden behind buildings and construction work at the moment. The walled town of Southampton – and the Bargate – would have been an imposing sight as one approached the town from the north.
Let us walk through the ancient gate. Every time I walk under this arch, I think of those who have gone before me. Kings, queens, noblemen, peasants, merchants, diplomats, soldiers, conspirators (more on them later), townsfolk, ancestors… We really are walking in the footsteps of history here. Leaving the cover of the gate, we now find ourselves inside the old town. On the south face of the Bargate you’ll see a statue of King George III in full Roman regalia, which was given to the town by the Marquess of Lansdowne in 1809. On the top of the Bargate there’s a bell which bears the date of 1605. In 1604, it was reported that the ‘watche bell at the barrgate is broken and geveth no sound’ and the bell you can see today is its replacement. The bell would ring at the end of each day, the town’s gates would be shut, and the night watchmen would go on duty.
Once upon a time, you would have seen the wall on either side of the gate. As the years went by, dwellings and shops were built up against these walls, eventually consuming them completely. In the 1930s, the adjoining medieval wall and the buildings that were attached to it were demolished to make a bypass for the trams, which previously had to pass through the Bargate itself, causing all sorts of traffic problems.
Head north, back through the Bargate, or go around it to study it from a different angle. We are now going to head west towards the Westquay shopping centre. On the left along Bargate Street you can see part of the medieval wall which would have once run all the way from the Bargate to the north-western corner of the walled town. Peering over the top of this wall is a statue of the fourteenth century Mayor of Southampton, John le Flemyng.
You can go up the stairs and walk along the bridge to Arundel Tower if you like, but we are going to stay this side of the wall for now. The thirteenth century Arundel Tower stands at the north-western corner of Southampton’s town walls. Enlarged in the fourteenth century, it would have once been much taller, providing archers and watchmen with fantastic views over the water, which once lapped up against its base. That’s right! If you didn’t know, the water once washed the western stretch of the walls here. It wasn’t until the land was reclaimed in the twentieth century that this area became dry land.
Go down the steps next to Arundel Tower as we can get a good view of the wall from ground level. If you can’t use the steps, there’s a ramp to the right. Remember, where you’re stood now would once have been water. Head south slightly to get a good view of the next tower on the circuit: Catchcold Tower. This tower was built in the fifteenth century to carry cannon and you can still see the three gun ports. Considering its exposed position, jutting out onto what was once a shoreline, it’s not difficult to imagine how the tower got its name. An anti-aircraft gun was placed on top of the tower during the Second World War and this represents the last time Southampton’s medieval walls were used for their intended purpose, which was to defend the town.
You’ll see some steps just beyond Catchcold Tower. ‘Forty Steps’ were added to the wall in the Victorian period to allow access from the top of the wall down to the shore. There are indeed forty steps, but we won’t climb them. You can if you like, as you can then go on top of Catchcold Tower and Arundel Tower (if it’s open). But once you’re done, come back down the steps and continue south along the bottom of the fourteenth century wall to a gate with an information board next to it.
This gate was part of Southampton Castle’s own quay, which was situated roughly where you’re stood. The king’s wine (amongst other things) could be brought here from France and then stored in vaults beyond the gate, which would have been within the castle’s grounds. If you take a step back and look beyond the top of the wall, you’ll be able to see a 1960s tower block. This was built on the site of the royal castle, which dated back to the Norman era but was demolished by the mid-seventeenth century. There is still an intact vault on the other side of the wall here, as well as the open remains of another.
Go to the end of the wall and admire what’s left of the castle’s thirteenth century garderobe tower (which is a nice way of saying ‘toilet block’). The tide would have definitely come in handy here. Climb up the steps. If you can’t use the steps, you can go back towards Westquay shopping centre where you can use the ramp by the restaurants to get back on top of the walls. Then double back on yourself, go past Catchcold Tower and down a street called Forest View until you reach the metal walkway. If you did climb the steps, you’ll now be on this metal walkway. The walkway takes you above the remains of one of the castle’s vaults. Looking at the tower block, you can see how close the vault and quay were to the castle itself. Now carry on towards the mock-Tudor pub called the Juniper Berry.
The Juniper Berry dates to the 1930s and it was built on the site of an older pub. This area was part of Southampton Castle’s square and it is called – you guessed it – Castle Square. In the early nineteenth century, the Marquess of Lansdowne (who had donated the statue of George III) decided to build his own castle on the site of the old one. Between 1806 and 1809, Jane Austen lived in Castle Square. Her house was probably located where the Juniper Berry is, for the top of the medieval wall ran along one side of her garden. That means if you stand somewhere between the Juniper Berry and the wall, you’re likely standing in Jane Austen’s garden and you are walking where she would have walked. Of course, her view over the wall would have been drastically different. In 1841, Sir Henry Charles Englefield described this view over the water as ‘enchanting’. After the land reclamation of the twentieth century, the view today is totally different. For more information on Jane Austen’s Southampton, please check out another post of mine: In Jane Austen’s Footsteps (all links open in new tabs).
Walk round the Juniper Berry into Castle Square, and then head left under the modern housing, onto Maddison Street. You’ll see a bit of wall and an arch at the end of this street and you’ll want to go through it.
You’re now in a car park, but if you look back at the arch you’ve just walked through, you’ll see Southampton Castle’s thirteenth century outer bailey wall. There would have been a ditch and an earth bank here and again, you’ll see the tower block on top of what was once the motte.
Follow the wall round to the left and at the end of the wall you’ll see the bases of two drum towers. The partially restored stonework marks the site of the main entrance into the castle from the town. Some steps through the old gate lead back to Castle Square via Castle Lane, and we’ll go up there shortly. If you look behind you, you’ll see Castle Lane lead back towards the High Street. In 1415, King Henry V was at Southampton Castle prior to his invasion of France. The ‘Southampton Plot’ is well documented, and in August 1415 the three conspirators were put on trial in Southampton Castle. Richard of Conisburgh, 3rd Earl of Cambridge, Sir Thomas Gray, and Henry Scrope, 3rd Baron Scrope of Masham, were found guilty of plotting against the king. They were ultimately led from the castle to the Bargate, where they were each beheaded. It’s likely that they were led through the castle’s main gate and down Castle Lane to the High Street. Right where you’re standing. Within a few days, Henry V would leave for France and ultimately Agincourt. More on his army later.
Continue up Castle Lane. On your right will be the former County Court building, which opened for business in 1851. Around that time there was a pub nearby called the Judges’ Arms, which I’m sure would have been popular with solicitors. Speaking of which, the three-storey red brick building opposite is called Lansdowne House. This was where the Marquess of Lansdowne’s widow lived after his death. In 1818, a solicitor named Edward Bryant took ownership of the house and his company eventually evolved into the firm of Paris Smith, who used to occupy this building and are still based in Southampton today.
Next to Lansdowne House is a former soft drinks manufactory, and a ghost sign can still be seen between the ground floor and first floor windows. This building is on the corner of Castle Lane and a little street called Lansdowne Hill, which leads to the appropriately named Castle House tower block. As we have learned, this tower block stands on the site of Southampton Castle, and the slight incline of Lansdowne Hill shows that, despite the ground having been levelled off since, it was once perched upon a motte.
It was King James I who sold off the royal castle in 1618 after many years of neglect, and the structure was subsequently pulled down. Just under two hundred years later, the Marquess of Lansdowne built his mock-Gothic ‘castle’ on the site. However, just a few years after that, in 1809, the same year Jane Austen vacated his grounds, the Marquess of Lansdowne died. His castle was sold off for building materials at an auction in 1815 and over the next few years it was demolished. The area was redeveloped but with the outer bailey wall, Castle Lane, and the slight hill, the site has somewhat been able to keep its shape. Don’t go up Lansdowne Hill, instead head towards the Juniper Berry and bear left down Upper Bugle Street.
You’ll reach a junction with the tower block on your left, and if you look up Hamtun Street you’ll see a mural on the brick wall that illustrates some of Southampton’s rich history. Head back to Upper Bugle Street, and continue to head south until you reach a pub called The Titanic.
On the left you’ll notice some old stonework with a red brick building on top, which is separated into two abodes. This old stonework is the Undercroft. On a proper tour with a group like the Southampton Tourist Guides Association you might get the chance to see the Undercroft properly, but right now you’ll have to make do with a description and a picture.
The Undercroft was built in the fourteenth century and back then it was part of a merchant’s shop, with a house on top of it. It has a groined roof with ornamental carvings covering the point where the ribs in the vaulted ceiling meet, and one of these is thought to depict Jesus. There is an old fireplace and the brick floor dates to the fifteenth century. When this area was being redeveloped in 1900, some of the town’s councillors argued for the demolition of this vault, with one calling it ‘ugly’. Thankfully, the motion was voted against and some of Southampton’s earliest council houses were built on top. Inside the vault, there is a hole in one of the walls and this is because the vault was used as an air raid shelter during the Second World War.
Running between the Undercroft and the Titanic pub is Simnel Street. As you can see, half of Simnel Street today is a small dead-end street, and the other half is a pedestrian walkway. Back in the late nineteenth century, this was one of Southampton’s most notorious streets. It was in the heart of a slum, packed with tumbledown dwellings, cheap lodging houses, rough pubs, and brothels. Drunkenness was commonplace, with booze-fuelled brawls happening at all hours. Women used the cheap lodging houses to carry on the world’s oldest profession and criminals preyed on the vulnerable. There were violent robberies, stabbings, the lot. This was your classic Victorian slum. It was cleared away in the 1890s and the area today is slightly more peaceful. We’ll head down the pedestrianised part of Simnel Street. Towards the end of the street you can admire the back of the town’s medieval wall on your left. On the other side of this wall are the Arcades.
The Arcades were built in the fourteenth century after French and Genoese forces raided the town in 1338. The invaders ran riot, burning buildings, cutting down townsfolk, and looting whatever they could. At this time, the shoreline here wasn’t as well defended as other parts of the town, and the foreign raiders had no difficulty in storming the town. King Edward III was furious and he ordered the town to be fully enclosed within high stone walls. The Arcades thus came into existence.
As you look at the Arcades, you’re now outside of the old walled town. There was a quay here, and beyond that was the water. Walk down the Arcades and about half way down, on the other side of the road, you will see an unassuming red brick wall with a lamp post in front of it. This wall is known as the ‘American Wall’ and if you look closely, you’ll see graffiti carved upon the brickwork. The more you look, the more you see. You will see the names of American soldiers and in some instances you’ll be able to see where they are from. The Americans carved their names into this wall in 1944 as Allied forces took the fight to the Nazis on the continent.
Between D-Day on 6 June 1944 and the end of the war, over three-and a half million Allied troops passed through Southampton, which had been one of the most important embarkation points for the Normandy landings. This included over two million American soldiers who passed through the port, and some of those left a legacy on this otherwise unremarkable brick wall. The Maritime Archaeology Trust has conducted some fantastic research into the names on the wall, and you can find out more information in the D-Day Stories From The Walls section of their website.
We’ll head on down the Arcades and you will see two arches. The first one gives you quite a nice view of St Michael’s Church, but we won’t go up there. We’ll go up the next one instead. Before we do, have a look at the stone wall just behind the arches. This wall belongs to the remains of a twelfth century Norman dwelling, and you’ll see two Norman windows above you. You’ll also see some blocked doorways. This house is called King John’s Palace and it has absolutely nothing to do with King John. It did, however, belong to one of Southampton’s most prominent citizens in the fourteenth century, the merchant John Wytegod who was Mayor of Southampton in the 1350s and 1360s. Wytegod’s house was on the quayside, giving him direct access to the town’s West Quay, which we’ll talk about later on. However, when the Arcades were built after the French and Genoese raid, this house was incorporated into the new defences. The doors were bricked up and arrow slits were added for the defence of the town. This can be seen quite clearly.
Let us go through the arch, on to Blue Anchor Lane.
This ancient thoroughfare which ran from St Michael’s Square down to the quayside is centuries old, but the name comes from the Blue Anchor Tavern, an eighteenth century pub that once stood on the lane.
The wall on your right belongs to King John’s Palace and another Norman window can be seen. There is also some interesting graffiti carved into the door here.
As we wind on up Blue Anchor Lane, St Michael’s Church will come into view as Tudor House emerges on your right. We will cross the road and stop for a moment on St Michael’s Square.
St Michael’s Church was founded by Norman settlers around the year 1070 and there are parts of the church tower that date to that time. During the French and Genoese raid of 1338, some townsfolk sought refuge inside this church. Some of the raiders forced their way in and slaughtered those who sheltered here.
Of course, the church has undergone many alterations since then, but of the five original post-Conquest churches that were located in the Old Town area, St Michael’s is the only one that remains. If the church is open, it’s definitely worth a look inside. St John’s, on French Street, was demolished in the early eighteenth century. St Lawrence’s Church on the High Street was demolished in the 1830s and rebuilt a few years later. However, that church was then demolished in the 1920s and it was replaced by a bank, which is now the Standing Order pub. All Saints’ Church, on the corner of Southampton High Street and East Street, was destroyed during the Blitz. Holyrood Church, on the corner of the High Street and Bernard Street, also took a direct hit when the Germans targeted the town in 1940.
Opposite St Michael’s Church, across the peaceful square, is Tudor House. Thanks to the efforts of a chap named William Spranger, this building survived the slum clearances of the late nineteenth century. It had been built between the years of 1491 and 1518, incorporating some older buildings, and Spranger spent years restoring the building, which had been previously occupied by a bookbinder and a dyer. By removing the stucco façade, Spranger tried to return the house to its original Tudor style and once he was done, in 1912, the restored building opened as a museum. It’s still a museum today and well worth a visit. Spranger also saved King John’s Palace, which can be seen properly by visiting the museum.
Facing Tudor House, if you look to your right, you’ll see Upper Bugle Street where we’ve already been, with the Undercroft, Simnel Street, and the site of the castle. We are going to go in the opposite direction and follow the road left from Tudor House, south down Bugle Street. On the left you’ll see St Joseph’s Roman Catholic church, which opened in 1845, and opposite the church on the right-hand side of the road are a number of interesting houses. My favourite is the one with the Dutch gable, built in the seventeenth century and then altered in the eighteenth.
Continue down Bugle Street until you get to the Duke of Wellington pub. On the house next to the pub you’ll see a black plaque on the wall and this means a Titanic crew member lived here prior to the voyage. One morning in April 1912, twenty-six-year-old Frank Alfred Parsons said goodbye to his wife, Edith, and stepped out on to the street here. Perhaps Edith stood in this doorway to watch him go. Frank would never return home.
You can find more of these plaques around town. I created this interactive Titanic Crew Map (link opens in a new tab) which shows all the crew members who either lived or lodged in Southampton prior to the voyage. There are 724 crew members represented and 542 of them lost their lives in the sinking.
The Duke of Wellington is one of Southampton’s oldest pubs. It can trace its history as a pub back to 1490, when a chap named Rowland Johnson began brewing beer here. The pub was built upon the foundations of an even older building, and Johnson called his establishment the Brewe House. It was later known as the Shipwrights’ Arms but after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the name was changed to the Duke of Wellington. The top floor of the building was completely destroyed during the Blitz but the damaged pub managed to stay open. It then closed for restoration in 1961 when the top of the pub was rebuilt to its original specification, and it reopened for business in 1963.
Opposite the Duke of Wellington is Westgate Street, at the bottom of which you’ll see another medieval gate and next to it, a hall. This hall – now called Westgate Hall – was originally located in St Michael’s Square where we’ve just been. The first floor was a cloth hall and underneath it was an open arcade, which was the town’s fish market. In 1634, the building was taken apart and moved to its present position, where the arcade on the ground floor was walled up, creating the hall we see today. It was restored in the 1970s and today it is used for things like lectures and weddings.
Next to Westgate Hall is the fourteenth century Westgate. This gate allowed access to and from Southampton’s West Quay, which was situated on the other side of the gate. Earlier, outside the Bargate, we stood where the Southampton Plot conspirators were beheaded after their trial in Southampton Castle back in 1415. Henry V had been present at the trial and afterwards he returned to Portchester Castle. That month, his army, which had been assembled at Southampton, boarded ships at West Quay and set off to invade France. Agincourt awaited them. As invasion weighed upon the minds of those men, they would have marched through this very gate to board the ships that would take them to France and death or glory.
Just over two hundred years later, in 1620, the Pilgrims were in Southampton. Some of them had made their way to Southampton on Mayflower, and they stayed in the town whilst they waited for their fellow travellers to arrive from Holland on board Speedwell. Speedwell arrived and in August 1620, the Pilgrims left Southampton together and set sail on their historic voyage to America. They would likely have walked through the Westgate on their way to the quay to board the ships that would take them to America. Speedwell was far from seaworthy and the party were forced to go into Dartmouth for repairs. They tried again, sailing a couple of hundred miles out into the Atlantic, but again they were forced to turn back, this time returning to Plymouth, where Speedwell was ultimately abandoned. Their next attempt, using only Mayflower, was successful.
Let us then walk through the Westgate, walking in the footsteps of the heroes of Agincourt and those Pilgrims who helped to shape a nation. In 1620, the year the Pilgrims departed Southampton, seven men were fined for leaving ‘tymber, planckes, masts & other wooden stuffe’ lying around here but now, four hundred years later, aside from the replica wooden ships set into the pavement, you’d do well to find any seafaring activity here. In the 1920s and 1930s, around four hundred acres of land was reclaimed when the Western Docks were created. Much of what you can see from this side of the Westgate was once water. If you look to the right, you’ll see the stretch of walls along which we have already walked. The water followed these walls up to Arundel Tower, after which the shoreline curved to the north-west, all the way to Southampton Central railway station and along to Millbrook.
Next to the Westgate is a boutique hotel, this was once a pub called the Royal Standard. The building was constructed as a private residence in the early nineteenth century, but it became the Royal Standard in 1866.
Head towards the roundabout and follow the wall as it curves round the corner to the left. We’re now at the south-western point of the old walled town, and we are about to follow the town’s southern boundary. Along the road here you’ll see two memorials, the Mary Ann Rogers Memorial and, slightly further along, the Mayflower Memorial.
SS Stella left Southampton in 1899 on a routine voyage to Guernsey but before reaching the Channel Island she hit a submerged granite reef and sank. The ‘women and children’ protocol was followed, but one stewardess named Mary Ann Rogers refused, instead offering her life jacket to somebody else. She also refused to board a lifeboat in case it became over capacity. Rogers died in the sinking whilst trying to help others and this memorial to her heroism was unveiled in 1901. Twelve years later, on the 293rd anniversary of the Pilgrims leaving Southampton on Mayflower and Speedwell, the Mayflower Memorial was unveiled by the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom. On the memorial you can see various plaques that have been added over the years, including some by the descendants of the Pilgrims themselves. The United States Army also added one in 1945.
Continuing along the road, you will see two striking buildings. The white building is the former clubhouse of the Royal Southern Yacht Club, which was built in 1846. Today, unfortunately, it stands empty. Next to it is the Wool House, which was built in the fourteenth century to store wool before export. Over the years it has had many uses, including a jail for French and Spanish prisoners of war, a garage, a workshop, and a maritime museum. Today, it is an excellent microbrewery and pub called the Dancing Man. If you do treat yourself to a beer or a coffee, do look out for the graffiti left by those prisoners.
Over the main road, which was once a quayside, you’ll see another white building. This was the old gatehouse to Southampton’s Royal Pier. The pier itself opened in 1833 and closed in 1979 before being mostly destroyed by fire. This gatehouse is now a restaurant called Kuti’s Brasserie. Mr Kuti has been serving award-winning food in Southampton since 1986 and in 2019 his restaurant won the prestigious Tiffin Cup competition at the House of Commons in London.
We’ll continue past the Wool House and we’ll cross French Street. Ahead of you is one of the old quayside warehouses. This one is known as Geddes Warehouse and it was built in 1866.
Heading down the left-hand side of this building, we now find ourselves on Porters Lane and down this lane, on the left, is Canute’s Palace. Canute was King of England from 1016 until 1035 and it is said that during this time, he wanted to prove to his courtiers that, whilst he was a king, he did not possess the power of God. He did this by commanding the tide to stop. Obviously, the tide came in and his feet got wet. Southampton is one of the places that claim the location of the story of Canute and the tide, but the story is apocryphal and it probably didn’t happen. This is not Canute’s palace, but it is very interesting in that it is the remains of a Norman merchant’s house, dating from the twelfth century.
At the end of Porters Lane, on the right, is the partially reconstructed remains of part of the town’s Watergate. This gate allowed access from the bottom of Southampton High Street (with the Bargate being at the top of the High Street) to Town Quay. The gate itself was fairly wide and low with rooms above it. It had fallen into disrepair by the early nineteenth century and it was demolished in 1804 but part of the gate’s western tower was incorporated into a building which became a hotel. When the hotel was demolished, the stonework was partially reconstructed, and this is the last remaining vestige of the town’s Watergate.
Looking back, you can see the curvature of the tower. The gate would have been situated to the right of it, as we look at it here.
We are going to cross the High Street and head down the historic Winkle Street.
At the end of this ancient street you will see an old gateway. On your left you will notice a church and on the right are the high walls of former quayside warehouses and the Platform Tavern pub.
The building on your left is the Church of St Julien. It began life as the chapel of the God’s House Hospital, a refuge for travellers and pilgrims which had been established in the twelfth century. The chapel, named after Julian the Hospitaller, the patron saint of pilgrims and travellers amongst other things, was founded around the same time. Since then it has undergone many changes. It is widely reported that after having his head chopped off outside the Bargate in 1415, Richard of Conisburgh, 3rd Earl of Cambridge was buried inside the church. In 1567, Queen Elizabeth I granted Protestant refugees from France and the Low Countries the use of the church, and it has thus become known as the ‘French church’. Elizabeth I was last in Southampton in 1591, and as she travelled through the Bargate, a contingent of these Protestant refugees approached her to thank her personally for her protection. To this day, once a year, the church hosts a service that is held entirely in French.
On the right is the back of the Platform Tavern pub. Part of Southampton’s southern stretch of medieval wall runs through this pub, which itself dates back to 1872. It can be seen on my Titanic Crew Map, since Irishman James McGrady stayed at the pub prior to joining Titanic’s crew as a first class steward. His was the last body to be recovered after the sinking.
The gate you can see at the end of the street goes by a few names, including Lambcote Gate, Saltmarsh Gate, and Bridewell Gate. It is perhaps best known as God’s House Gate, taking the name from the defunct hospital that stood nearby.
The gate, which stands on the south-eastern corner of the walled town, dates from the thirteenth century, although it was extended in the fourteenth. In those days, the land beyond the eastern stretch of wall was dominated by a salt marsh. Anybody who wanted to get a ferry across the River Itchen would have had to have passed this salt marsh and in order to do so, they would most likely have left the town through this gate. As we walk through the gate and admire the stonework and the double portcullis, consider the others who have done so over the centuries. Jane Austen almost certainly walked through this gate. There is something about walking though the Bargate, the Westgate, and God’s House Gate that is almost magical, like they are some kind of portal to the past.
We are now outside of the old town. On the left is the impressive God’s House Tower, built specifically to carry cannon in the fifteenth century. This fort has had many uses over the years. These days, God’s House Tower is a fantastic arts and heritage venue, with a museum and a great little café.
Beyond the tower, just round to the left, is Southampton Old Bowling Green, which claims to be the oldest in the world. Certainly, games were being played on this site during the days of God’s House Hospital. It is claimed that the first game of bowls was played here in 1299. Beyond this is Queen’s Park, formerly called Porter’s Meadow, and a part of the town that expanded rapidly with the construction of the docks here in the 1840s. We’ll leave that side of things for now, and head back through the gate, back into the old town. Turning right here, we can see the eastern stretch of Southampton’s walls. We’ll head up here, stopping at the first tower.
This is the Round Tower, which was built as a freestanding dovecote in the thirteenth century. When this stretch of wall was constructed in the fourteenth century, the dovecote was pressed into service. The back of the tower was demolished and the front was heightened, creating a new defensive position.
Further north is a small gate called Friary Gate. We’re now stood on the site of a friary which had been founded by the Franciscans (AKA the Order of Friars Minor) in the thirteenth century. The construction of the wall here cut the Franciscans off from their land which now lay beyond the wall and so this gate was added. Further north still are the remains of their reredorter, which is another posh name for ‘toilet block’. The site was sold after Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries and the friary was eventually demolished.
Head north, past the nice tiles that provide information and some images of what the friary may have been like. You’ll meet Briton Street, a main road. What remains of the eastern stretch of the wall basically ends here, with only a small bit still existing further north. We aren’t going to follow the old path of the walls north from here, but if we did, we’d eventually get to East Street. There was once a gate on East Street that allowed access between the town and the parish of St Mary’s, which was where the original Anglo-Saxon town of Hamwic or Hamtun was located. This gate was, rather predictably, called the Eastgate, but it was sold off for building materials in 1775 and subsequently demolished. From East Street, the wall would have continued north until it met Polymond Tower at the north-east corner of the town. But we are on Briton Street and we are going to head left, towards the High Street.
Once at the High Street, turn right and cross the road. We’re now looking north up the High Street, back towards the Bargate. Venture up the High Street slightly, but not too far. On the right, up ahead, you will see the grand old post office building, with its scars from the Blitz. Next to that is the former Oakley and Watling building, with its ornate decoration above the modern shopfront, and next to that is the Red Lion pub.
The Red Lion building, with its mock Tudor frontage, was built in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century. Underneath is a vault dating to the 12th century. The pub got its first license to sell alcohol in 1552, making it one of Southampton’s oldest pubs, along with the Duke of Wellington. Both pubs are definitely worth a visit if you have time.
However, we won’t be venturing that far up the High Street for now. If you have gone up to look at the Red Lion and its neighbours, then head back. Having turned right on to the High Street from Briton Street, we need to take the first left off the High Street, through a gap between the buildings. Ahead of you, you will see the Medieval Merchant’s House.
The Medieval Merchant’s House on French Street was built circa 1290. With a vaulted cellar underneath, a shopfront that opened out on to the street, and accommodation for the owner, it was the perfect place for a medieval merchant to conduct his or her trade. It has had various uses over the years. It became a pub called the Flag in 1820, and the pub’s name was later changed to the Bull’s Head. Having lost its license, it became a lodging house and, as others have suggested, a brothel, before it was damaged during the Blitz. You’ll notice a vacant plot of land next to it. There were similar houses here prior to 1940, but these were flattened by German bombs. The bomb damage to the Medieval Merchant’s House revealed its original medieval structure, and in the 1980s it was restored and returned to its medieval appearance. It’s now a museum run by English Heritage.
Between the building and the vacant plot is Vyse Lane, and looking down this ancient lane one can see the Duke of Wellington and the Westgate beyond it. We’ll turn right though, and head north up French Street towards the spire of St Michael’s. Technically, this northern part of French Street has been called Castle Way since the 1960s. You’ll now see the eastern end of St Michael’s Church and on your right will be George’s Restaurant.
Michael George Hannides came to Southampton from Cyprus in the 1930s with just a few pence to his name. To cut a long story short, Hannides worked extremely hard to save enough money to buy the food license from the lady he worked for and then, in 1940, he opened his own restaurant on the corner of French Street and St Michael’s Street. The restaurant quickly became a local favourite and George became an important part of the local community. French Street was widened in 1961 and the original George’s had to be demolished. However, the new restaurant was built close to the original and it opened a year later in 1962. Michael George Hannides died in 2004 at the age of ninety and Southampton lost one of its finest citizens. Today, the restaurant that he founded in 1940 is still run by his family and it is definitely worth a visit for lunch or dinner.
We will head down St Michael’s Street, walking in the opposite direction to St Michael’s Church. At the High Street, cross the road, and approach the ruins of Holyrood Church. Holyrood was built in 1320, replacing an older church that had stood nearby. One of its most notable claims to fame came in 1554, when Philip of Spain arrived in Southampton ahead of his marriage to Queen Mary at Winchester Cathedral.
Philip’s fleet dropped anchor in Southampton’s waters as he arrived with hundreds of noblemen, guards, and servants, and on the Friday he prayed at Holyrood Church. He stayed in the town over the weekend, even partaking in some English ale, and on the Monday he left to meet Mary for the first time. Two days after their first meeting, they got married.
On either side of the entrance to the church you can see two stone tablets which remember the men and boys who died during a large fire in 1837. You can read about the fire here: The 1837 Fire. One hundred and three years later, Southampton was on fire again, but for altogether different reasons. On 30 November 1940, Holyrood Church took a direct hit from a German bomb. The spire was knocked off and the church was gutted. However, unlike All Saints’ which was later demolished, the ruins of Holyrood were left to stand, and in 1957 they became a memorial to the Merchant Navy.
Today, the ruins still stand as a memorial and inside you can see various relics from the old church along with some modern plaques which commemorate those of the Merchant Navy who have given their lives in the service of their country, including the Southampton-born civilian merchant captain Charles Algernon Fryatt who was executed by the Germans in 1916. Under the tower is a memorial to Titanic’s crew, which was originally unveiled on Southampton Common in 1915. Leaving Holyrood Church, you’ll notice an anchor outside. This belonged to the QE2, the famous ocean liner that called Southampton home from her first voyage in 1969 to her last in 2008.
Our tour comes to an end outside Holyrood Church with one final suggestion from your humble guide. Opposite the church you’ll see a grand old building which dates to 1867. It was formerly a bank, but today it is the Robins Nest, a vintage, retro, and antiques emporium.
Many of the stalls have things that relate to Southampton and Hampshire but best of all, there’s a nice café in here, and I believe that this is the perfect way to finish a walk around Southampton’s Old Town.
I really hope you enjoyed this tour. There really is so much to see in Southampton and it is a city that has so much to offer.