Beware the stinking fish

“Beware my Laura (she would often say) Beware of the insipid Vanities and idle Dissipations of the Metropolis of England; Beware of the unmeaning Luxuries of Bath and of the stinking fish of Southampton.”

Jane Austen, Love and Friendship

Summer last year saw Mrs. P and I travel the country in search of Jane Austen. We went to Chawton, where she lived and stayed in Winchester, where she died. We decided to stop for a night in Southampton before coming home. Southampton was a town that Jane Austen knew well. She lived there twice: the first time when she went to school there; the second after moving away from Bath following the death of her father.

Plaque marking the site of Jane Austen’s school, in a very soggy Southampton

It was drizzly and grey when we arrived. We had a room at the Dolpnin Hotel: a large building, much extended over the years. We were given a lovely room in what we were told was the ‘old part of the hotel’ by the very nice staff that greeted us. Mrs. P, as usual took to the room and put on the telly and the kettle. I went for a wander but didn’t go far: the rain made walking unpleasant and the town drear and dull. There were a variety of take aways, an amusement arcade – always a bad sign but this one, strangely, also did tanning. I was suspicious. Further down the road was a strip club, or as it called itself, a gentleman’s club with pole dancing. It was all a bit grotty and a bit run down.

I gave up on the idea of scouting out somewhere for dinner and headed back to the hotel. I asked the young woman behind the reception desk if I might see the ballroom. “yes of course” she replied, in a way that suggested she had been asked this many times before. The Austen Suite, it is now called, split into two rooms for corporate meetings but can be, they told me, joined into one long ballroom for weddings and other functions. Jane attended a dance at the Dolphin on her 18th birthday. Her brother, Frank brought her here in 1793. It seemed a bit sad and lacking in character but I don’t suppose there’s much call for balls these days. Decorative fire places were hidden behind flipcharts, there were jugs of water on the table and plates of biscuits covered in cling-film. It was decorated nicely, though, in Regency stripe and would still make a lovely venue for a wedding or a birthday.

The Ballroom, Dolphin Hotel, Southampton

I collected Mrs. P. and we headed for the hotel bar. It was tiny. There were not enough tables to accomodate the number of people that wanted to use it. We got our drinks and went and sat in the hotel reception, a little dejectedly: it wasn’t the most convivial space for a drink. A constant stream of people were coming and going, checking in and walking past us to get to the lifts. After about ten minutes, however, the barman approached us. A table was free and he was holding it for us, God bless him. He was trying to run the busy bar on his own and he couldn’t possibly manage it. People were waiting for drinks and food. Wherever I travel in Britain, this is always the problem. There aren’t enough staff to deal with the number of people that want to use a restaurant or bar. We don’t complain, of course, after all, it’s not their fault and their lives are hard enough as it is. We eventually got our order… and it was fantastic! It’s not how I would normally choose to spend and evening: fizzy lager and football on the telly but for simple, pub fare it was really, really good.

Breakfast was very good too: buffet style, which is the norm in large hotels, but they brought us fresh tea and coffee. It was fascinating to watch people coming and going. It seemed to me that most people were staying at the hotel before taking a cruise; there were all sorts of people coming and going with suitcases and trollies, using that sort of hurried walk that you see a lot in airports. I have never been on a cruise; I’ve never really understood them. The boats look like floating shopping malls. I think I would feel trapped on one of those things: give me an open topped car, lunch in a pub and long country walk. Each to their own, I suppose.

Modern housing development and medieval city walls stand side-by-side.

There is a walking route, available from the City of Southampton Society, which takes you round landmarks in the City that Austen would have known. I say she would have known them but the City would be completely unrecognisable to her now. Having been an extremely busy port, Southampton was the target of heavy bombing by the Luftwaffe. It was also home to the Supermarine aircraft factory which, once it started producing Spitfires, was high on the Nazis hit list. The bombing was relentless and continued night and day with some 45,000 buildings destroyed.

The Bargate, part of the city wall that still stands, was near to the site of the School Jane attended, though its precise location is unknown. She was here for only a short time, as an outbreak of typhus closed the school down. The walk then takes you west, towards a bright, modern shopping centre. There is a very nice Waterstone’s on the site of the botanical gardens, where the Austens came for a daily walk, and I spent a few moments browsing in here. There is a flight of stairs to the top of the city wall, which eventually led me to Castle Square. Here, where the Juniper Berry pub now stands was Jane’s Southampton home. The Austen family had lived happily in Bath, where they moved when Jane’s father, the Reverend George Austen, had retired. Here, Jane and Cassandra were able to live the high life in a town that was once the hub of Regency society. After her father’s death, however, Jane and her sister Cassandra, both of whom where unmarried and left without inheritance, had to find a new place to live. Complete with their mother. They lived in several places throughout the country, renting houses on gifts of money from the Austen sons, who had all pledged to keep their mother and sisters safe. They ended up in Southampton in 1806.

The Juniper Berry Inn. Built on the site of Jane Austen’s house.

As luck would have it I arrived at The Juniper Berry at midday, just as it was opening for lunchtime. It was friendly enough but with an elderley, and very ‘local’ clientele. They had real ale but neither pump was working, the landlord working hard to fix it. I had a Guinness and very nice it was too. The lounge bar was quite pleasant, and quiet and empty. There was some nice, warm wood panelling and old photographs on the walls. A good selection of books by the fireplace too, which is always a welcome sight in a pub.

From here, the walk wound through the town towards the docks, past the Medieval Merchant’s House, past the site of the Theatre Royal, where Jane spent many happy evenings, transformed, in what looks like the 1960s, into a characterless block of flats. Further towards the waterside, some further sections of the wall remain. The shore has been built up in the last 200 years and a road curves around the outside of the wall where water once would have lapped. On the far side, enormous ships, like floating tower-blocks, waited for their cargo to be loaded before moving on to the sea. The Water Gate, where Jane embarked on a trip to Hythe, is now a fair distance inland, as is the park, known locally as ‘The Beach, where the Austens once strolled by the water and Frank Austen went ice skating in the winter.

God’s House Tower, Southampton

From here, it was straightforward to pick up the high street again and walk back to the Dolphin Hotel. Here I was to meet Mrs. P, who had been exploring the local shopping opportunites.

It was bright sunshine now, and getting rather hot. The rain of the previous day had subsided and what had appeared to be grotty take-aways now seemed like vibrant pavement cafes: people sat outside in the sunshine and chatted. I was now in the heart of a multicultural oasis in the heart of the city. Even the amusement arcade seemed slightly less suspicious. It’s amazing what a little sunshine can do.

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