For a city break by the sea Southampton offers the weekend visitor much to dip into, from fascinating maritime heritage to world class galleries and museums, along with good eating options and a luxury spa, as Anne-Claire Heels discovers
Port cities have a unique character that comes from looking outwards, a kind of international heritage all their own. On the Hampshire coast, Southampton is synonymous with the heady hustle and bustle of sea travel, from the ocean-going liners of yesteryear to the sleek cruise ships of the present day, as well as huge container ships, troop ships in times of war, and ferries plying their trade. Ships have brought in people and goods to the city from all over the world – invaders and traders, importers and exporters, pleasure travellers and those whose work depends on them.
That ongoing story is writ large all over this vibrant city. From its medieval walls, Mayflower Theatre and Titanic memorial to its busy modern ferry and cruise terminals, the sea makes its presence felt everywhere. And, like all great maritime cities, Southampton is forever evolving and developing. It has a very young population, given that there’s more than one university in town. The city centre boasts plenty of shopping, restaurants and hotels to cater for all those visitors, travellers and residents, and redundant docks have been transformed into shiny new marinas designed with leisure in mind. It’s also one of the greenest cities in the country – you’re always near a well-kept park for some leafy shade. There are museums and galleries that can hold their own anywhere, too. No wonder then that Southampton is bidding for UK City of Culture status in 2025. If you’ve never checked it out, be prepared the best kind of surprise.
5PM WINDING DOWN
We arrive at the sleek Southampton Harbour Hotel in the Ocean Village Marina to a friendly welcome and decide a visit to the HarSpa would be just the ticket after a sticky hot car journey. Refreshed after some time in the pool and hydrotherapy pool, it’s the perfect evening for an aperitif in the roof-top HarBar, which has a terrace with panoramic views over the marina and out across Southampton Water. What views!
6.30PM TIME FOR DINNER
Next, it’s down to the hotel’s award-winning restaurant, The Jetty, for dinner. This definitely feels like somewhere special, but not at all stuffy or overly formal. Floor-to-ceiling windows look straight out at the pleasure boats, the colour scheme with its mix of teal, mustard and grey feels fresh and modern, while the various different designs and sizes of chairs and sofas plus eclectic light fittings all add to the stylish mix. Then there’s the food – chef patron Alex Aitken favours seasonal locally sourced ingredients, and what a menu he presents. I start with plump Poole Bay oysters in a tempura batter with a dipping sauce and they absolutely melt in the mouth. For my main course I opt for poached halibut with lobster ravioli, shellfish bisque, sorrel creamed leeks and lobster oil, and it’s one of the most delicious fish dishes I’ve ever tasted. A dessert of white chocolate crème parfait, strawberry and mint sorbet and pink peppercorn shortbread rounds off what’s been a memorable meal from start to finish (0238 1103777, harbourhotels.co.uk/southampton/eat-and-drink/the-jetty).
10am STEAMING AROUND
We board the SS Shieldhall where our friendly and engaging guide, Nigel, shows us around. Shieldhall is the largest working steamship in Britain today. Built in 1955 (along the lines of a 1920s steamer) as a sludge boat for Glasgow Corporation, the vessel had a somewhat surprising secondary role carrying day-trippers, before being sold to Southern Water in the ‘70s, then rescued from certain scrapping by the charity which now looks after her, in 1988. Today, Shieldhall has a permanent home in Southampton Docks, and offers various trips from June to September each year, including Solent cruises, music cruises, trips to the Isle of Wight and Poole, and to visit various events such as the Southampton Boat Show, Bournemouth Air Show and Cowes Week. Visitors are free to explore all areas of this ship, and yes that means all – including the bridge with its array of interesting instruments and the engine room and boiler room where the temperature can reach 43˚C. All 20 volunteer crew are generous with their time and happy to answer questions and show you around. The ship is also available to book for weddings, parties or meetings. See the website for the sailing programme and prices for 2022 (ss-shieldhall.co.uk).
12.30pm PIGGING OUT
The Pig in the Wall is the latest venue from the people behind the famous Pig in the nearby New Forest. This Pig has 12 boutique bedrooms and a relaxed ‘deli-dining’ restaurant tucked into the city walls between the cruise terminals and the main shopping area. Ingredients are sourced from the kitchen garden of The Pig in Brockenhurst, or within the local area if they can’t do it themselves, and the ethos is ‘reuse, recycle, repurpose’. The vibe is laidback vintage, but as the weather’s dry we opt to sit outside and watch the world go by. We tuck into a lovely light lunch of confit duck salad and smoked salmon with pickled cucumber and a cider dressing (0345 2259494, thepighotel.com/in-the-wall)
2PM ART TO AMAZE
I love to look at art, to see for myself a great artwork by one of the world’s most famous artists, or discover something new by an artist I’ve not come across before. It’s always such a stimulating experience, and Southampton City Art Gallery is often described as one of the best outside of London and has close connections to the capital’s National Gallery. I visit to see an exhibition celebrating those links, Creating a National Collection, and I’m not disappointed. In this beautiful Art Deco space, pieces by artists including Maggi Hambling, Antony Gormley and Paula Rego sit alongside paintings from Monet and Gainsborough. Also running at the time of my visit this summer was a thought-provoking exhibition called Face of Britain, by contemporary artist Nahem Shoa, whose work is new to me. I lose myself for a few hours, soaking up all these wonderful pieces. Closed Sundays, free entry (0238 0834536, southamptoncityartgallery.com).
5PM ILLUSTRIOUS PARKS
We’re walking back to Ocean Village Marina from the Cultural Quarter via the city centre parks when the heavens open for a torrential downpour. The irony that I’m wearing a T-shirt that reads ‘Endless Summer’ is not lost on me…. Before we scurry for a taxi, we’ve walked through Watts Park, where a statue commemorates Southampton son Isaac Watts, a famous 18th-century hymn writer; East Park, where there is a moving memorial to the crew of the ill-fated Titanic, the majority of whom came from the city and were lost when the ship went down; and Palmerston Park, with its rhododendrons and azaleas, named in honour of 19th-century Prime Minister Viscount Palmerston. Southampton’s central parks have Grade II* listed status on the Historic England Register of Parks and Gardens of special historic interest, recognising their importance as examples of early municipal parks whose layout and design is still substantially intact. They continue, as always intended, to be an oasis of green in this busy city (southampton.gov.uk).
7.30PM EATING AT ENNIO’S
In a converted Victorian warehouse on Town Quay – where ships once unloaded their goods from their anchorage before the land was reclaimed and the sea driven further out – is Ennio’s. This 100-seater Italian restaurant was voted the best in Hampshire by Italy’s oldest and most widely read newspaper, Corriere Della Sera, so you can be sure you’re in for a treat. The eatery prides itself on producing authentic Italian dishes, using quality ingredients. I enjoy a very tasty starter of Cozze alla Calabrese (steamed mussels, spicy n’duja sausage, local asparagus, shallots, white wine and cream)
followed by Fegato alla Veneziana – pan-fried calves liver and crisp smoked bacon with caramelised onion croquette, broad beans, and garlic and thyme jus. I’m only sorry I have no room left for dessert – the dark chocolate tart with honey & fig ice cream and a gingerbread crumble makes my mouth water, but I resist (ennios.co.uk).
10.30AM A WALK THROUGH HISTORY
I’m a bit of a history geek so this morning sees us meeting up with Godfrey, one of See Southampton’s award-winning guides, for a walking tour of the Old Town. The walk lasts an hour and half but I could happily have spent a day listening to our knowledgeable guide imparting information on the city’s colourful history. We wander round the medieval walls with their gates and towers, originally built to protect the town from attack by land, then extended to protect it from those who would attack from the sea. We pass a bowling club established in the 1200s and hear about valuable trades that flourished here, from the importing of wine to the exporting of wool (and discover that in the 1400s most wool packers would have been women). We see the impressive Tudor House, dating to the late 15th century, and learn of Southampton’s connections to the Mayflower and the Titanic; a pub where three brothers due to be crew members on the latter stayed drinking too long on sailing day in 1912 and luckily missed the deadline to board the doomed White Star liner. Equally fascinating, we find out that Southampton was a fashionable spa town in the 1700s and home to Jane Austen for a few years when she lived with her brother in Castle Square. We’re keen to hear about the city’s important role in the production of Spitfires in World War II. ‘More history than you ever imagined’ says the flyer for See Southampton – we definitely agree – this tour is not to be missed. Thursdays (in summer) Saturdays & Sundays, check website for times (£6pp, seesouthampton.co.uk).
1PM TITANIC TALES
Continuing our history theme, the SeaCity Museum is also a must. In particular, the section entitled ‘Southampton’s Titanic Story’ details the lives of the ship’s crew, most of whom came from the city or were based there. ‘The town that crewed a ship, a ship that sailed to disaster, the disaster that became a legend’ says the introductory panel, and the exhibition takes you through the event via moving personal stories, an interactive model of the vessel, and a 1930s court room which plays testimonies from the enquiry held after that famous sinking. Most sobering, I thought, was a room where the floor is covered in a map of Southampton, with a red dot on each house that lost a family member on that fateful night in the icy North Atlantic – there are more than 500 dots. Book online in advance, open daily, 10am-4pm, a family ticket for two adults and three children costs £27 (seacitymuseum.co.uk).
4.30PM TRAIN ON THE PIER
From the Town Quay foot passengers can take the little Hythe Ferry across Southampton Water (getting a look at the enormous visiting cruise ships on the way) to the village of Hythe on the edge of the New Forest. It’s believed there’s been a ferry crossing here since the 1500s. The ferry docks at Hythe Pier, which is home to the world’s oldest, continually running pier railway. Introduced in 1922, this small green train still rattles along the pier today, and your ferry ticket includes the short train ride. Hythe itself has a pretty Georgian high street – grab some fish and chips or an ice cream – and a marina development on the waterfront (adult return £7.50, hytheferry.co.uk). From here, our final stop, it’s time to bid farewell to Southampton, but I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface. Like so many travellers before us, there will have to be a return trip.
NEED TO KNOW
coast stayed at Southampton Harbour Hotel & Spa, which is situated in Ocean Village Marina and has a striking ‘super-yacht’ design. This fabulous five-star hotel boasts a luxury spa, award-winning restaurant and sixth-floor roof-top destination bar, HarBar, with terrific views. Prices for double rooms start from £210 including breakfast (023 8110 3456; harbourhotel.co.uk/southampton).