|RMS Titanic leaving Southampton by John Stewart|
Southampton was a coastal city I did not know well – save for a visit to Ordnance Survey’s hallowed offices in my first ever proper job – until Daughter No 1 took up residence there as a student.
The day we took her to the University halls of residence for the very first time was, predictably, full of sharp emotions and memory stabs.
Our collection of cavernous IKEA bags, long-time unregarded residents of the shoe cupboard, finally came into their own for moving day. Temporarily packed with bewildering items from Daughter No 1’s old and new existence, they played a key role in the home-uni transit arrangements.
The bags and holdalls had to be relayed to the car in shifts and then crow-barred into the boot and seat wells. Jackie over the road looked out on the scene and said that they had to deploy their trailer, more often used for scout camps, when they took their daughter to uni.
Last to come downstairs from DN1s bedroom was a family-size rucksack last used on her Reading Festival adventure, still flecked with mud from that right-of-passage adventure. “That one is mostly shoes”, remarked the Imelda Markos clone, with a casual wave of the hand, ignoring the newly-made crater the bag had just depressed in the dining room floor.
I left for college with nothing but a toothbrush and a packet of condoms. I never used either! (Boom! Boom!) Ok, slight exaggeration, but I certainly didn't have a clothes airer wedged over the back seat head-rests. “Can't you just hang your washing out the windows?” I pleaded.
We lost count of cars on the M3 with duvets, pillows and M&S bags crushed up against the rear windscreens of assorted 4x4s. Moving day. In all senses. My mate told me about a piece in the Torygraph in which a Dad was taking his daughter to uni. At one point she looked at her father and said 'You did alright you know'. He inflated with chest-swelling emotion and declared the moment to be worth more to him than any of her qualifications.
Anyway, there was none of that on our journey. As if to eek out a reaction, I casually asked what she would miss about Berko. "Maybe the cheap double gin and tonics in the Crown" she said.
The journey reminded me of a very different road trip almost exactly 19 years previously:
So very calmly and orderly, we call a cab. I didn’t think it would be like this. Mrs A was not long back from the hospital after a scan on our baby who is due today. She had turned breech and suddenly everything accelerates.
Our Star Car minicab arrives quickly. The driver, who is wearing a dubious leathery pork pie hat, helps us into the car. He’s very chatty. We tell him we want to go to the Delivery Suite at St George’s. He looks at us for a couple of seconds and then asks us if it’s for real as we seem very calm. I think he’s expecting screams of agony and panic.
“No”, we say very matter of factly, “This isn’t a practice!”
Little does he know that Mrs A’s waters are gushing all over his back seat! He’ll know it’s for real when the next passenger gets in.
Things then get a bit surreal.
“I’m hoping for some good news myself in the next few weeks”.
“Oh yeah, what’s that?” I say brightly. I bet he’s going to be a Grandad.
“Yeah, I’m hoping to have my vasectomy reversed!”
Where did that come from! There’s a pause while I swallow back the laughter. If Mrs A tries any harder to stop giggling she’ll give birth right there. What do you say? He must be in his late fifties.
“Oh really?” I tamely offer.
“Yeah, I had it done twenty-odd years ago after I’d had a few (unspecified) kids. The doctors reckon I’ve got a 60-70% chance of a successful reversal, but I reckon it’s better than that.” (How the hell does he know?)
So I get into the feel of things as well. Mrs A and I chip in with the odd question here and there as he proceeds to describe in reasonably graphic detail what the operation might involve. Ever made small talk about vasectomies? It’s quite a challenge. I have to pinch myself to remind me where we are going.
The journey passes in a flash. We get out of the car and everybody wishes everybody else good luck. It’s lovely.
Our current excursion ended when we were greeted by a very efficient uni Arrivals Team who helped us locate DN1s room in the cluster flat, provided a guided tour/dos and don’ts briefing and then worked out that the door pass-key didn’t work. They also lugged their fair share of the hundredweights of gear up to the first floor bedroom. Things have changed.
Some of the IKEA bags were going to come back with us, so we spent a good hour or so unpacking. This helpfully illuminated the nature of the priceless cargo we had hauled down the road.
“Swimming goggles? You haven’t worn these for five years!”
“I thought I might take up swimming again.”
Swiftly taken from my grasp and draped around the window.
“Reminds me of my 18th”
“Spotty bandana? Fake pirate’s hook?”
“Fancy dress parties, Dad!”
We met some of her new flat mates. They seemed fine. I knew that meeting them and deciding that the group harboured no obvious axe murderers would help me leave her behind with (a little) less anxiety.
We had to push her out the bedroom door when a few arrived in the flat together.
“Go make friends. Do your thing!”
She took a deep breath and strode towards them. Within a few moments, she’d arranged to go to clubbing that night. Her new friend and flat mate Vanessa had organised it all in about 45 seconds. Bit hasty I thought. Wouldn’t she want to stay in and cry for hours once we’d departed?
The moment came to go. There was a gurgle as I hugged her. Less an emotional reaction, more a cry of pain as I crushed a number of her more important vertebrae. Mrs A was more gentle. I suspected that DN1 had actually spent longer saying goodbye to the dog that morning.
On subsequent trips to Southampton, we gradually saw a little more of the city and is environs. Almost adjacent to her first year digs was the spankingly new Ocean Village development. Like many former docks, the site had recently been overhauled after a period of dereliction and now offered the sort of exclusive services and facilities that nearly every other port city has scrambled for: high-end balconied apartments, up market chain restaurant/bars and deep water anchorage for tall ships and large yachts.
It lies at the mouth of the River Itchen and was originally the site of Southampton's first working docks. The Outer Dock opened in 1842. The site became uneconomic after the war and lay dormant until the first phase of redevelopment in 1986. Ocean Village has since become a well known start and finish for round-the-world yacht races. After a period of stalled activity after the 2010 banking crash, the place was once again the subject of frenzied multimillion-pound building projects.
Some of the original warehousing can be seen set back from the complex and the rails for cranes and unloading gantries have been concreted in to the refurbished quay cobbles. Otherwise there is very little that screams ‘heritage’ and the basin is indistinguishable from similar regenerations that might be seen along Battersea Reach on the Thames, Paddington Basin or a poor imitation of Cardiff Bay. Obviously better than abandonment, but it is a pretty unremarkable and spirit-sapping transformation.
Maritime history flows through Southampton at every twist of its many rivers. Where the Test meets the Itchen is the former deep water White Star Dock. The Titanic set sail from here for New York on April 10, 1912 from Berth no 44.
The White Star Line had relocated their transatlantic operations from Liverpool to Southampton in 1907. It allowed Southampton to play host to the biggest vessels in the world. The berth was originally constructed to host Titanic and her two sister ships, the Olympic and the Britannic. At the time of the Titanic's departure, Southampton's economy was flourishing. It was established as Britain’s premier passenger port and had 23 steamship companies in operation. Some of these were crucially important, such as Royal Mail, Union Castle and American Lines.
The SeaCity Museum in the guildhall has a great photograph of Titanic departing Berth 44 amid clouds of smoke and steam, with mooring lines being cast off and five tiny tugs manoeuvring the vessel away and out of the dock.
Something that the museum rams home is that nowhere else felt the tragedy of the Titanic disaster like Southampton. The ship was carrying 700 crew members who came from the city. More than 500 local households lost a family member to the freezing north Atlantic.
One cold Spring morning I had a wander round the docks and terminals. Until 2005 one could get right up to Titanic’s berth and have a nosey. I’d have liked to do that, but revamped security amid increased terrorism concerns have closed access to the general public. It would still be possible for me to visit the berth by special arrangement if I wanted to, say, join, the British Titanic Society who have been known to organise boat trips to the berth.
Another option would have been to buy myself a round the world cruise ticket. Berth 44 is still used, alongside other termini for today’s luxury liners like Cunard’s mammoth Queen Mary 2. I just didn’t quite have time that morning.
I consoled myself with the knowledge that there wasn’t much left to see at Berth 44 anyway. The original sheds and cranes were badly damaged by German bombs in World War II. The dock was renamed Ocean Dock in 1922 and the terminal that replaced the war-damaged sheds at berth 44 was itself demolished in 1968. However, the exact same bollards against which RMS Titanic were moored remain in place. Painted a lurid orange in case anyone missed them.
This sense of re-invention and progress runs through a teeming concentration of passenger and container facilities that stretch miles from the Test/Itchen confluence upstream as far as Redbridge Causeway and the western banks of the Test. The ports are thriving and not much industrial archaeology has survived. Though I was pleased to see the Mayflower’s departure point is commemorated via the Pilgrim Fathers Memorial on Town Quay. A nice link with my trip to Harwich a few posts ago. The ship was chartered by a group now known as the Pilgrims in 1620 to sail to the New World to escape religious oppression. Now, over 30 million US citizens are descended from those who sailed there on the Mayflower. Various events, admittedly Covid-impacted, were delivered in 2020 to mark the 400th anniversary of its sailing.
The city centre has done a little better in terms of preserving its history than the port complex. The heart of the place dates from just after the Norman Conquest when the invaders used this site as the main link back to their lands in France. Bargate is the best remnant from this era. I sat outside an artisan coffee house on the broad High Street appreciating the crenelations and detailed stone carving of this imposing gateway. This was the main entrance to the walled town built somewhere around 1180.
I’d just emerged from another of the city’s heritage landmarks, the Star Hotel. During the early 1880s, the hotel was visited regularly by royalty and the Victoria room commemorates the then Princess Victoria’s visit here in 1831. However, my stay had embraced a more domestic experience. I’d had a shocking night’s kip. My room was the buffer zone for an extended family early-hours row that involved at least three rooms around me. Tucked under the covers, I genuinely feared for my wellbeing as some bloke seemingly outside my door shouted, ‘Where is he, where is he? Which room?’ I was just waiting for him to burst in and confront me over some indiscretion. Instead he found a different door, but the arguing went on for hours.
A decent chunk of the City Walls are intact and a stroll after my frothy, calming cappuccino gave a decent vantage point onto other parts of the medieval centre. It’s hardly Chester or York, to be fair. On the other hand, the city does not aspire to be a living museum, either. It is a reasonably affluent modern city, hosting cutting edge marine and communication industries alongside more traditional academic, service and retail sectors. And there are signs that the newer developments such as The Quays and the Bargate Quarter may undo some of the unspeakable architectural crimes of the 1960’s.
On some trips to visit DN1, aside from running diy repairs to her student hovel and dosing her up with vitamins, we’d take her out to visit the network of estuaries beyond the city. Hythe, on the western bank of the Test, just before the Fawley oil refinery, was an unexpected joy of Georgian Streets, sweeping riverscapes and a couple of decent pubs for lunch. I was delighted to learn that Sir Christopher Cockerell, the inventor of the Hovercraft lived here - an almost forgotten mode of transport that came up in my Isle of Wight post. We took the little train along Hythe pier and then realised that we could have been ferried here to the pier head across the Test, dodging cruise liners, from Southampton. Poor planning on my part.
Hythe also had a marina. Of course. On every trip to this part of the world, I was staggered at the amount of yachts of all sizes, high-end cruisers and various other expensive craft moored up at every possible harbour from Southampton onwards. The River Hamble estuary must be the absolute capital of yachting Britain. Places like Old Bursledon and Hamble itself provided us with excellent venues for eating, drinking and viewing these symbols of naked wealth parked in sheltered board-walked rectangles up and down the river. The games of ‘which boat would you have if money was no object’ easily lasted a couple of rounds of solid Golden Glory ale in the Jolly Sailors.
Another visit to Southampton was to review a band I liked at a venue called the Engine Rooms, a strange, modern warehouse gig tucked in amongst the container handling facilities in the port area. I persuaded DN1 to come along with me to ‘see the future of rock n roll’. She wasn’t impressed. The band were called The Answer. She was left wondering what on earth could have been the question.
Daughter No 1 had a blast at Uni. It was never in doubt. She may not have embraced classic hard rock in the way I had hoped, but she assimilated student behaviour remarkably effectively. On one of her first trips home, she came spluttering and retching out of the bathroom into my path. “You OK me dear?” I inquired. “Oh. Yeah, sorry. Just knocked back the mouthwash like it was a shot… [cough, cough]“. Good skills.
Another time, she was telling me that she’d stayed in one night to do some work whilst her flatmates had gone out. They came back late, drunk and lairy. DN1 gave up the pretence of trying to sleep and went to join them. She starting chatting to a bloke she’d never met and asked him how he knew the gang. “Oh, I don’t”, came the reply, “I’m just the Uber driver. They invited me in!”. The student life eh?