Southampton is a populous port city on the south coast where the Rivers Test and Itchen meet. Its deep water harbour proved ideal for medieval trade, military embarkation, liner launches, ferry terminals and most recently cruise ships, yet it's more somewhere tourists depart from than deliberately visit. What heritage remains is dotted amid a modern waterside conurbation, particularly along the mile from the civic centre to the docks, taking in shopping malls, parkland and a lot of flats along the way. I filled half a day. I could not have filled a weekend. [Visit Southampton][14 photos]
The docks bit
Southampton is still a busy port but in a functional rather than an attractive way. The Old Docks stick out in a giant triangle at the tip of the town and are generally inaccessible unless you work there or are sailing aboard something large. There were alas no huge cruise ships in port on Tuesday so I wasn't wowed, but sometimes the Queen Mary 2, Queen Elizabeth and Queen Victoria all turn up at once. The public pier at Town Quay provides access to the Isle of Wight - vehicles one side, foot passengers the other - and is also the embarkation point for the Hythe Ferry (no I didn't, I didn't have time, the ickle pierhead train will have to wait).
For other ships with something heavier to unload, especially containers, a much longer dock sprawls for miles along the Test. This was created by filling in the West Bay in the 1920s, a reclamation so large that the railway station suddenly found itself half a mile inland. The official best vantage point for watching comings and goings is Mayflower Park, a forgettable patch of grass beyond the ring road with a scrappy promenade and an optimistic ice cream van. I was blessed by the sight of a highly-stacked orange cargo ship sailing by against a backdrop of refinery chimneys, huge cranes and the silver dome of the Southampton Energy Recovery Facility. There'd probably be a better view from the former Royal Pier except that's now a highly-rated Indian restaurant, and even then only if you get a window seat.
The River Itchen's a bit more accessible, assuming you can find a gap in the boatyards, and tends to attract smaller masted bobbing craft. A particularly fine vantage point is the centre of the Itchen Bridge, a 1970s toll road that connects precipitously to the southwestern corner of the city. Its pavements are probably a less appealing walk on a blustery day, and seemingly only some of the emergency Help Points still work, but I did appreciate the Mr Menmosaic (Mr Calm) at the highest point. Downstream the Ocean Dock has been transformed into Ocean Village, a marina development brimming with premium dining and liner-shaped apartment blocks ideal for those who prefer to live within promenading distance of their motor yacht.
The old bit
Southampton supposedly has the longest surviving stretch of medieval walls in England (although technically not city walls because Southampton remained a town until the 1960s). Feel free to walk immediately alongside them, although not generally on them except in a couple of unrestricted places. The southwest corner by the Westgate (bending past a rowing boat embedded in the roadway) is probably the prettiest, and the eastern stub (wending between blocks of flats towards a friars' privy) the least alluring. The Arundel Tower has the best views, so long as your preferred architecture is giant shopping malls, and leads via a footbridge to a pensive mayoral statue that appears to be staring into Poundland.
The 'old town' is mostly postwar infill but does contain a few very old buildings you can go inside. The Tudor House with its jutting timberwork and knot garden has become a period museum, plus a cafe they're very keen to tell you can be accessed for free. The Medieval Merchant's House is owned by English Heritage and is insubstantial enough that entry is spring and summer weekends only. The seamen's church at Holy Cross was bombed in WW2 but was retained as roofless remains with buttons to press for memorial reminiscence. And as for the Bargate this magnificent gateway survives in squandered isolation partway down the high street, complete with guard lions out front and middle-of-the-road busker lurking within.
The shopping bit
Southampton has the best shops in Hampshire, not that you'd guess from the high street which is mostly tatty commercial leftovers. It gets a bit better north of Bargate in a part of town called Above Bar, and used to spread further east until the behemoth Debenhams was mothballed and sidelined the whole area. The focus is now the WestQuay shopping centre, a millennial monster heated by geothermal power on the site of the Pirelli Cable Works, and seemingly designed to be hard to find your way out of. It's recently been joined by a swooshy annexe for chain dining, cinemagoing and ten pin bowling, not to mention endless sheds for Dunelm, Asda and Matalan stretching back to the station. And all of this is here because extensive acres of former dock hinterland proved ripe for development, which means Southampton is fortunate enough to have its chief out-of-town shopping complex bang in the middle.
The civic bit
A cultural quarter has grown up around the Civic Centre, a 1930s admin block with long classical wings surmounted by a single thin clocktower. The east wing is now the O2 Guildhall hosting middling concerts and tribute acts, while the north wing hosts an art gallery above the library. This gallery hits well above its weight thanks to a century of carefully curated acquisitions, including a Gainsborough, a Monet and a Lowry, a roomful of gouaches by Sir Edward Burne-Jones and several contemporary pieces. I especially enjoyed Julian Perry's current exhibition based on rising sea levels and his eroding coastline triptych. What with the new John Hansard Gallery across the square, this month boasting diverse clay sculptures and debauched woodland animation, the city's cultural offering is strong.
Meanwhile the west wing houses the premier SeaCity Museum which is celebrating its tenth birthday this month. Its chief attraction is Southampton's Titanic Story, not just because the ship set off from here but because most of its (drowned) crew came from the city. Within the galleries are a sort-of mocked-up street, a double-sided 2D model, some pretend boilers to stoke and a wall of newspaper front pages. I suspect I did better than most by steering a simulated liner successfully out of Southampton Water, but (sigh) at the moment of confirmation the program flipped straight back to the start so I can't be certain. The actual sinking is represented by witness accounts from three survivors, i.e. audibly not visually, and the aftermath mainly reimagines the city's historic court rooms as the site of a public enquiry. It can't be easy to create an attraction when most of the relevant artefacts are at the bottom of the ocean, but what's here merely satisfies, not wows.
Part two is Gateway to the World, essentially a history of the port via merchants' and migrant's tales, and is much more the standard kind of municipal museum fare. Ditto Southampton Stories downstairs where broader themes are covered, including an impressively recent pandemic collection celebrating service and community. But both sections feel more like a bolt-on to Titanic than a draw in themselves, and probably don't get the local patronage they deserve thanks to a £9.50 pricetag. It's also not the most welcoming of buildings. A sign on the front door still inexplicably insists you pre-book before you enter, taking my money involved an agonisingly slow procedure and before I left they'd stuck up a ridiculous sign claiming to be Fully Booked when there were only five of us inside. The echoing midweek emptiness had all the hallmarks of an attraction the council thought would do better, and don't seem to be trying too hard to rescue.
Some other bits
• The main street from the Civic Centre to the docks has been branded The QE2 Mile and, although it leads to where the grand old lady once berthed, at no point lives up to any luxury expectations.
• Central Southampton is over-blessed with parks - essentially one large green flank subdivided into five separately-named quadrilaterals. Ideal for lounging, strolling, hanging, kickabouting, wisteria-watching and for scattering statues.
• Southampton's other big museum is Solent Sky which contains all sorts of aeroplanes, especially Spitfires because they were built in the city, but when closed it just looks like a giant corrugated shed with a lightship outside.
• Southampton is inordinately proud that Jane Austen lived here for a couple of years, and celebrates this with several plaques in underwhelming places where she once promenaded, went to the theatre, celebrated her birthday or set off on a boat trip. If you're interested, grab the trail leaflet before you arrive.
• Fans of listed 1960s reinforced concrete social housing resembling ocean liners will appreciate Wyndham Court being immediately outside the station.
• For my first Great British Rail Sale jaunt the tickets cost just £2.70 each way, the downside being I had to go indirect via Gatwick and it took two and a half hours.
• There are fourteen photos on Flickr - ancient, modern and maritime.
• Portsmouth's better, just saying.