Thursday, 18 June 2020

From Romsey Abbey to Southampton docks

This is the latest in a series of posts about my journey around England in a camper van in 1990. Read an introduction to this drawing journey around England here.

[Bracketed sections like this have been added in 2020.] 

Knocking at an old farmhouse near Romsey, I’m told by a correct, middle-aged woman that I can park overnight in the track to their house but that her husband will be back soon and will want to meet me. The temptation is to say that I only want to camp overnight rather than marry their daughter, but by the time I’ve put the roof up he has swung around the corner in his Range Rover and stopped by the back of the van.

Touring vans have not had the best of publicity around the south of England recently and, apart from the running battles with travellers around Stonehenge at summer solstice time, there are farmers who have resorted to court injunctions to move on unwelcome convoys, and outbursts to local papers on the subject of the damage they were left with. A solitary van is often seen as the thin end of the wedge by landowners – let one in and more will follow – which is probably why the husband is now bearing down on me as if I had pitched camp in the middle of his croquet lawn.

I get out to meet him halfway, surprise him by shaking his hand and try to persuade him I am not someone he ought to be moving on. I summon all my efforts into coming across as respectable as I can be, and he calms before too many blood vessels are burst. I know I have made a reasonable impression when he comes out to see me again later while I’m washing up to invite me in to the house for coffee and a glass of port. “We don’t like to think of you up here on your own,” he says.

Soon I am sitting in a huge wheel-backed chair with a cat on my lap, glass of port in hand, listening to their worries about their daughter’s boyfriend, who has just arrived to take her off to a party to the sounds of much wheel spinning in the drive.

This is still commuter heartland. He is a solicitor dividing his time between London, Bristol and New York. She fusses around him, a woman apparently given to Good Works. The kitchen’s working surfaces are as clean as an operating table. There are three cars lined up in the drive.

We chat about Romsey (top image) and Lord Mountbatten of Burma, who lived in Broadlands on the edge of the town until he was blown up by IRA terrorists on his yacht in 1979. You can’t be in Romsey for too long before his name crops up. He was obviously very popular here and could be found occasionally drinking in the town’s pubs and getting up to the sort of thing that goes down well with the locals.

“The whole town went into mourning when he died,” the husband said, leaning against the Aga, “and there were these great public shows of grief. So much so that the shopkeepers all had black window displays as a sign of respect.” They laugh at the thought of something that occurs to them both at the same time. “Even the lingerie shop got involved – they filled their windows with black underwear.”

Leaving early in the morning – the night only disturbed by the daughter arriving home in the early hours as I am unburdening myself of too many cups of filter coffee, momentarily flashing my shadow across the farmhouse wall – I head up into the town.

James Hobbs, Market Square, Palmerston statue, Romsey, 1990

In the market place it is a surprise to find that rather than Mountbatten it is a statue of Lord Palmerston, twice prime minister, whose family had previously owned Broadlands, that gazes out over the square. On the corner of one building hangs a bracket that was used to hang Cromwellians in 1642. The building now houses the local Conservative club, in which there is a lot of activity.

[The statue of Palmerston – who favoured the abolition of slavery – seems safe from toppling during this time of scrutiny of the UK's historic and current racism.]

Romsey Abbey is a thing of beauty and certainly a bargain at £100, the price paid by the town when it was sold at the Dissolution, even at index-linked prices. Inside there is time to see the Anglo-Saxon rood screen and the rather gruesome tress of hair found in a Saxon coffin, but, talking to a helper in the Abbey it isn’t long before she too gets around to Mountbatten. He is still a great unifying force in the town. There is a large stone to his memory inside.

James Hobbs, Romsey Abbey, 1990

She directs me down to a bridge on the way out of town where you can get a good view of Broadlands, the large porticoed house where he lived. It will be open to the public later in the day, but for now I have to make do with the view photographers with long lenses had when Charles and Diana spent their honeymoon here in 1981.

When I reached the bridge there was every reason to suppose she’d been pulling my leg, because no large mansion was visible. An elderly man walking his dog stopped to help me.

“Come down this way and you’ll see it – I’ve spent hours here myself painting it,” and he leads me further down. His surprise is apparent when he too can see nothing of it through the bluish morning haze into the sun. It is as if it has disappeared.

“You know,” he says, “it used to be there.”


James Hobbs, Southampton docks, 1990

Southampton is almost like Istanbul from the docks, if less busy. People are on their way down to the ferry to cross the water to Hythe from which chimneys puncture the sky like minarets. “Come Dancing” a battered sign announces from the next pier, a warm welcome from a tangled mess of girders and barbed wire. There is peeling paint and high fences, no unauthorised entry. It would be an eyesore in many places but here it can almost be overlooked. Cranes are everywhere and there is the great container port further up. There is little traffic today apart from a tug and a vast tanker.

The ferry is about to leave, and confusing its destination of Hythe with Ryde on the Isle of Wight, I quickly get a ticket and jump on board. Instead of the Isle of Wight I get a quick trip across Southampton Water and back. It is less momentous than other voyages that have started out from here. For 500 years it was one of the country’s leading ports, with massive city defences facing out to sea. Ships left from here for the Napoleonic wars, the Mayflower in 1620 before stopping off at Plymouth, and going into passenger transport in a yet bigger way at the beginning of this century, the White Star and Cunard Lines ran from here.

So a short trip on a ferry is a token gesture even if I did get back almost before I’d left. On board there are bicycles stacked, and work suits and ties have been discarded for shorts and trainers for the ride home to the far bank. Its passengers sit with the resignation that comes from commuting, but there is the sun, a cool breeze and even the occasional shower of spray, a class above your average ride home on the underground. Most sit inside to shelter from it, locked into books or personal stereos. I am reminded of a ferry ride up the Bosporus when shortly after leaving Istanbul a young man moved among the packed benches taking off his artificial limbs one by one waving them above his head in an attempt to collect money. I wonder here if they would even raise their eyes from their books. 

Everyone gets out at Hythe’s long pier except me, and nobody boards except the ticket collector’s granddaughter, who he chases around the deck. We, meanwhile, chase the real Isle of Wight ferry as it returns to Southampton. Ocean Village is a part of the waterfront with a typically 1980s look, a new development packaged as a place to be seen flaunting boom-time spoils. It’s like a scene from the Boat Show, except here it goes on all year. There are shops and bars to go along the jetties, a scene of conspicuous consumption that was built as a playground for those riding high on a succession of tax cuts.

But the tax cuts could never go on forever and it is as if the party is moving on to somewhere else now. Things are evidently not so easy. Among the trendy cocktail bars near Canute’s Pavilion are the empty shells of shops and ‘To Let’ notices that have been left by the receding economic tide.

James Hobbs, Southampton docks, 1990

Less conspicuous and more enduring is the sight of a couple come to sit in the sun by the old "Come Dancing" pier - eyes closed, faces looking up, ample white flesh on show where clothing has been peeled back to feel the warmth. Another tanker passes down Southampton Water. Children eat ice creams rocking forwards and back on their bicycles while a dog sniffs around them.

At the bank to get some money before I leave, the cash machine gobbles up my card and slides its cover abruptly over the keys. The bank is shut and I have this horrible feeling it could be weeks yet before a new bank card finally catches up with me.

James Hobbs, 1990

Read on: Football violence in Bournemouth

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