Mature Life Features

Cecil Scaglione, Editor

Sojourn in Southampton

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By Cecil Scaglione 996ce3c14235a270494190f6e455
Mature Life Features
   In a quiet stand of trees outside Old Town Southampton’s western wall is a testimonial to the heart and hardiness of those who sailed the Mayflower to North America. The monument overlooks the site where last-minute repairs were made to the creaking wine ship before its two-month voyage from England to New England in the fall of 1620.
     Since then, this waterfront community has been the port of departure for millions of emigres to Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and other parts of the world.
     The Mayflower saga is memorialized by a limestone tower topped by a copper replica of the ship that sailed with 104 Pilgrims and 30 crewmen to plant a colony. Anybody who can trace their ancestry to those original dissidents can have their name added to the plaque on the tower.
     This bustling port of a quarter of a million people that has played a major role in much of British history doesn’t appear on many travelers’ radar despite being less than an hour from the much-visited Stonehenge and its 5,000-year-old monoliths perched on the Salisbury Plain.
     It’s a leisurely train ride from Gatwick Airport midway between London and Brighton. The tracks trundle through suburbanized southern England sprinkled with glimpses of cattle and castles, horses and hothouses, and sheep, small towns and school soccer practices.
     Students from the research-driven University of Southampton and other local campuses give the city an up-to-the-minute air as you wander through and around its historic sights. Occupying a prominent position in downtown’s East Park is a tribute to those Southampton men who helped build the Titanic, which set sail from here on its disastrous 1912 maiden voyage, and stayed with her to the bottom. Among the many memorials to this legendary liner is a large stone pedestal crowned by a bronze angel with wings outstretched as it stands on the prow of a ship, a scene similar to that depicted by actress Kate Winslet in the 1997 Hollywood epic centred on the celebrated ship.
     The new city has been built around Old Town, which stretches south from the main business and shopping district. Entry is through Bargate, Southampton’s most recognizable landmark and the city’s main entrance for much of its history. The town began to bustle shortly after the Norman victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The gate was begun in the 12th century and completed in the 15th. The entrance was built just wide enough for a horse-drawn coach to squeeze through, and was a symbol of political power as well as a means of defense.
     Flanked by two lead lions said to protect the city, the gate was once the site of town council meetings, the local court, and road-toll collections. Shields mounted over the entrance represent prominent families that governed Southampton. There’s a life-sized statue of George III, the “Mad George” who “lost” the American colonies, standing in a niche over the entry.  A stone memorial just inside the gate bears a plaque recalling the havoc hurled here by German aircraft during World War Two.
     Guide Jean Watts explained that Southampton was blitzed badly because it housed a Spitfire factory as well as being a major seaport that eventually was the debarkation point for more than 3 million Allied troops for the invasion of Hitler-controlled Europe. Another reminder of how military and maritime matters mingle is the skeletal remains of Holyrood Church, where Crusaders worshiped on their way to the Holy Land. It was almost destroyed by enemy bombers in 1940 and serves as a reminder of Southampton sailors who lost there lives at sea.
     There’s a Walk the Walls tour that’s free and takes you over the roofs of sturdy merchants’ homes that formed the defensive barricade after a 14th-century French raid. It not only pulls visitors through history, it also offers them alluring panoramic views of the waterfront and draws them to the weekly market erected around the Bargate.
     Before leaving Old Town, we stopped at the Duke of Wellington, an Elizabethan-looking pub just inside the Westgate on the old walls, to sample fish and chips. Several years earlier, a guide at the Buckingham Palace stables advised us to avoid this British staple in London and go for it in seaside towns because the fish is fresher. The dish served here proved her advice was sound.
     For more details, visit southampton, gov.uk on the internet.
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Written by Cecil Scaglione

August 2, 2011 at 3:25 pm

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