"A City Searching For An Identity" Top 5 Page for this destination Southampton by johngayton

Southampton Travel Guide: 175 reviews and 362 photos

For the past couple of thousand years Southampton has been one of England's main ports. In Roman times it was a fortified town called Clausentum (the enclosure) and was strategically important due its position at the top of what is now known as Southampton Water. This location allowed shipping access up the relatively deep channel into the heart of southern England.

Following the retreat of the Romans the Saxons developed the town as a major port (with an estimated 5,000 inhabitants it was one of the largest towns in the country) exporting mainly wool and importing wine. During this period the town became known as Hamtun, which evolved to become Southampton. Subsequently the County became known as Southamptonshire, and then, officially in 1956, simply Hampshire.

Following the Norman conquest the town became heavily fortified and by the end of the 14th century the city walls took much of the structure that remains today. At that time the walls and the the city's castle formed the docks and quays, facing the water on two sides whilst a moat protected the landward faces.

The next few hundred years saw the town's fortunes seesaw as first it gained, then lost, the monopoly to export tin and lead, then was granted the exclusive right to import Malmsey wine from France which kept it active as a port.

The Napoleonic wars were pivotal in Southampton's resurgence as it was one of the main embarkation ports for the troops whilst the port imports diversified to include coal, building materials and grain. Wine too was still a major import but now from Spain and Portugal.

The medieval town grew into a modern manufacturing centre, with appropriately shipbuilding becoming one of the main industries and during the mid 1700's was briefly popular as a seaside spa resort before losing favour to the up and coming Brighton.

In the 19th and 20th centuries the port developed as a passenger terminal, it was from here that the ill-fated Titanic departed, and the town was substantially cleaned up with the introduction of piped water supplies and a modern sewerage system.

Trade and industry prospered and during World War I the town was designated as the #1 Military Embarkation Point through which over 8 million troops passed on their way to the continent.

During World War II the town was once again a major military base and was targetted by German bombers which resulted in much of the centre being razed in 1941 and 42. Following D-Day the port was instrumental in the logistical supply route to Europe and the dock facilities substantially expanded.

Post-war planners did the town few favours aesthetically with rebuilding being almost haphazard. Much of the Medieval and Georgian centre had been severely damaged but unlike Plymouth, for example, there was no real plan for the town's rehabilitation.

In 1964 the town was awarded city status and once again the 60's and 70's planners paid scant regard to the city's historical legacy.

The resulting present-day Southampton really is a mish-mash of conflicting architectures and styles. The traffic planners seemed to have the idea that the car is king and so the centre is a chaos of main roads with the inner ring road surrounding the few oases of relative calm.

There are though signs that the city is trying to establish an identity for itself. The pedestrianisation of the centre is being expanded and the Medieval city walls and buildings gradually being renovated and restored.

The more modern developments, such as the West Quay shopping mall, completed in 2000, attempt to reestablish a balance between old and new. The Victorian gardens, which occupy a crescent of much of the eastern part of the city centre, have escaped the developer's ravages and provide a welcome escape from the ubiquitous infernal-combusting engined machines.

The seafront too is experiencing a renaissance with a modern marina and improved hotels and restaurants - although the pier looks as if it's ready for complete demolition!

All-in-all, despite its incongruities, Southampton is a lively, friendly and multi-cultural city and one which is definitely going forward in the right direction (or maybe going backward?) it just needs a bit more TLC.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Friendly, Lively and Cosmopolitan
  • Cons:Comes Across As Uncared For
  • In a nutshell:Is the past the future or vice versa?
  • Last visit to Southampton: Jun 2010
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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Reviews (12)

Comments (3)

  • ettiewyn's Profile Photo
    May 7, 2011 at 9:37 AM

    Fantastic page about Southampton, very useful tips esp. about transportation! Thank you!

  • Nemorino's Profile Photo
    Jun 30, 2010 at 5:07 AM

    An interesting and sympathetic view of Southampton with all its warts and incongruities. I've been there several times, but only to catch the ferry to the Isle of Wight.

  • Fesl's Profile Photo
    Jun 25, 2010 at 4:17 PM

    great page !


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