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The Present Past: Southampton Castle

Please note this post is full of images. Southampton Castle, with walls ending at the sea, has been a fort, a place for markets, and played host to royal visitors. It stands today in ruins, various pieces of walls dotted around the edge of the current city.

What’s most interesting about Southampton Castle, from a visitor’s perspective, is that the walls being as they are, the modern city has simply been built around what remains. The result is that there is no entry fee and the walls are just another part of the place. And you can hardly blame the council for building inside the walls, the area is rather big and without it the city would have to stretch over further land in order to accommodate so many people. Indeed the city has already reclaimed land from the sea and what is great about the castle walls is that they form a reminder of how far the water originally came to. Eating in a restaurant by the dock gates, I couldn’t help but feel peculiar at the thought that not so long ago the area I sat in was occupied by water. It’s a good job time travel hasn’t been achieved or else a person could get a nasty shock – I can’t say that eating sandwiches whilst swimming for the shore would be my cup of tea, and as for my cup of tea it would be…

Being a ruin over a massive area, it would be difficult to prescribe a tourist entrance and history-centric walking route. If you wanted to get as close as possible to one, you would likely wish to start at the Bargate, which is positioned in the centre of the town’s shopping district, at the end of the High Street. And of course, given that the area is built up, there isn’t access to every single section of wall as parts are inside in the grounds of blocks of flats.

The good thing is that the rough area of the castle is still apparent – the four sides simple to find (generally), and it’s easy enough to walk around the whole area without getting too lost; this is providing you find out in advance which parts no longer have walls, you walk in more or less a straight line, and, for those wanting only the castle, you know which of the structures you encounter are “it”. I must say, however, that although there are a couple of signs saying “walk the walls”, the castle as a whole isn’t a tourist attraction. I didn’t see any groups looking around and passers by eyed me strangely when I took out the camera. As such I couldn’t recommend a special trip to Southampton unless you wanted to see the city anyway, or if you’re barmy like me and want to see every last castle in Britain.

So, in order to align with the unusualness of the ruins, I will take you on a tour starting from the docks rather than the Bargate. It’s the way round I went anyway. We can consider ourselves pirate raiders instead of kings on an inspection, which will surely be much more fun. And, due to the nature explained a hundred times already, be prepared for a few notes about other historical sites within the castle grounds because there is only so much one can write about sections of stone wall. Talking of captives, the castle was reportedly never used as a jail. Just as well; it seems Southampton contains enough ghosts without the addition of angry sailors in chains. I suppose I’m never going to be able to write about historic sites without discussing spirits.

It’s difficult to describe the castle in the way you normally would another, so I will begin with the south wall, the right-hand side of it that leads towards the corner. This section is known as Watergate and it’s definitely a highlight owing to how much still survives. What’s there is a section of wall that newer buildings have been built against – I questioned safety, but my boyfriend said that if the wall had survived since the 1200s it’s likely the safest structure around – and then behind it are a couple of rooms. In other words there is the exterior wall with a little of the inner side still standing, and then, in what would have been the interior, you cross a busy road and see walls making two rooms. That the four walls still stand makes for quite an atmosphere, and there is enough there to deduce that it was either a chapel (high church-like window) or a hall (wall scones). That there is traffic everywhere and that you are basically in an alleyway behind a line of restaurants is surprisingly rather special. It makes you realise just how much the past and present intertwine, how people have used the same space and each era has made it their own.

A little further inland is an archaeological dig that you can’t enter, so now we walk out of the hall and back across the road. You can choose to either walk along the main road or cross to the car park – both lead to the same place but via different doors. The main road to a gate, the car park to another wall – the east wall. We choose the car park.

Through the park and splitting it from a block of beautiful flats is the east wall and an additional gate. The gate was created, as the plaque says, as an entrance to the castle for a monastery left outside when the walls were built. Further inland is another tower, which was used as a house years later, and as the walls then only continue a little before another break we turn right from the monastery gate and continue down towards the docks again. It’s all very confusing in text, and unfortunately just as confusing in real life. Here the walls lead to the tower I said the main road would take us to had we chosen it, and the walls again join on to modern restaurants. An old church building is down another alleyway. If you look from the exterior side through the tower gate, and if the sun has gone down, you can almost imagine yourself on a dark street, Dickens style.

Now we head all the way back along the exterior side, past Watergate, to walk the road before coming to a roundabout. Before the roundabout, note the Maritime Museum. It’s old too.

Westgate. The gate itself leads into a residential square that contains a medieval merchant’s office. The building originally stood elsewhere but was packed up when it was realised that this “elsewhere” was right in front of a church and right in front of a house, one front one back. You wouldn’t call those builders back in a hurry.

Here you can walk along the winding streets that feel old fashioned despite the modernity or you can walk back to the exterior of the gate. In the streets you will find the afore mentioned church and house, Tudor House, and another merchant’s building that is known to be haunted.

Finally, if walking through the streets, you come to an intersection and a pub called Juniper Berry. Remember I said in my report of Netley Abbey that Jane Austen was everywhere I went? Well she’s turned up again, the pub boasts a plaque proclaiming that the plot of land once supported a house Austen stayed in. I know Austen lived in the south of England, but this is getting silly. I’d like to think she found the change of building insulting but she’s probably in there drinking and playing on the slot machines, trying to make up for all the royalties she’s lost since her books became classics post-humorously.

Walk around the pub’s exterior and towards the west castle wall you see in front of you. You have to cross a bridge that takes you over the ruins of what was first the Great Hall (according to what I could find) and then a cellar. Some of the stone arches still stand. The room is too unstable for visitors and you can’t get any closer unless you’re a resident of the houses behind it, but when you continue down the other side of the bridge you can at least view the garderobe. Why is viewing a medieval toilet so fascinating?

We’ve walked in a circle now, so turn towards the direction that Juniper Berry is in and we’ll continue towards the shopping district. Along the wall behind you are arches that have been blocked up, shop fronts of traders. And, although you can’t see it unless you pay to look around the Tudor House I spoke off, there is a Norman house, too.

When you reach the shopping district there is a tower with steps you can use to walk along the top. The Bargate (the photograph at the top of this post) stands in the centre of the street, the entrance to the castle which now marks the end of the main shopping district and the start of a line of smaller shops and restaurants. The room in the Bargate is used as an art gallery, open to the public.

The Bargate does not end our journey – however only the most persistent explorer will realise this, and I wasn’t one until the last moment. Down an alleyway and in line with the Bargate but hidden behind shops is York Gate, the last of the remains of the east side of the north wall. Conveniently nestled in-between a break in the wall is an entrance to a rather desolate shopping centre. The walls of the castle here cover up some unsightly electrical hubs. Truly history has aided the future.

And that ends our tour of the castle. If you wish you can tour the roads around that tower with the stairs, but it’s not particularly interesting. What is interesting is that the Bargate is a sort of accidental marker for the most haunted part of the city – interesting because the ghosts came long after the castle fell into disuse. The castle area plays host to many; a medieval pub boasts 22 of them. The pub was the setting for a council and welcomed Henry V to its rooms.

One can’t say that a visit to Southampton Castle is particularly entertaining or memorable; indeed one can’t really say they’ve “visited” the castle at all, caught up as it is with the modern buildings. But for the historian prepared for disappointment, or the obsessed Jane Austen fan, it is perhaps worth it.

I am that historian, and yet aside from the added history that came with the city in general, for example The Titanic, I cannot say it was worth it. In regards to the castle alone I’m very glad to be able to tick it off my list and move on. History it may have but it is lacking.

And the country thought so too. It was abandoned by the 1400s.

The rest of my photos. If you want to see them full size, right click and open them in a new window/tab.

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January 30, 2013, 1:47 am

What gorgeous photos! You are making me miss England so much.


January 30, 2013, 9:19 pm

I love when you do these posts! Please keep them up :-) I really want to live in a cozy old house one day – I love them.


January 31, 2013, 1:51 pm

I am really impressed with your dedication to search out all the parts of Southampton Castle that survive, and you’ve taken some wonderful photographs. My mother lives on the south coast and we often pop into Southampton to go shopping in West Quay. I have never ventured much further meaning I have only ever seen Bargate.


February 3, 2013, 11:07 pm

Jenny: Thank you! I apologise for making you miss it – I know what that’s like (with other countries of course). That said, maybe it will spur you to return when you can?

Aarti: Thank you! This is the last of the ones I have written, though I’ve about three/four more collections of photos ready. Just awaiting the inspiration to write them.

Jessica: I just hope I did get them all! There was one other section I didn’t add, however I’m not sure it counts or not and unfortunately I can’t go back to get a picture (God’s Tower I think it is). Most of the shops are in front of the Bargate so you didn’t miss much :)


February 4, 2013, 8:57 pm

How interesting — thank you for the tour! Austen does seem to get around, doesn’t she? Everyone proclaims to have a little piece of her! Definitely need to plan another visit to England soon.



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