Hamwic: Redux

Sad to say, this post will not be about the ignitable core of my new pork candle: not a euphemism!  That particular product remains stuck in development (and at odds with my mostly vegetarian lifestyle – I’m not sure ‘facon’ would work as well).

Hamwic (aka Hamtun) was the name of the original Saxon village which over time has migrated westwards but somehow gained the prefix ‘south’ to become Southampton.  The city has a surprising amount of surviving heritage – the Luftwaffe and subsequent town planners failed to destroy it all (though they deserve some sort of commendation for their efforts).  I must admit that I have only really discovered this ‘hidden’ heritage through the need to find somewhere novel to take visitors (once I’d exhausted the possibilities offered by the Common).

The city has a surprisingly complete and solid city wall: built, as you might imagine, to keep the dastardly French at bay (though they may have had some justification for their raids: dodgy, biased scales and the export of Plantagenet troops to reclaim their French holdings might have riled them, just a tad).  Until surprisingly recently, the western and southern walls gave out directly onto the sea (I’ve seen the painting to prove it!): today it overlooks the docks, an ugly dual-carriageway and a range of retail parks (I’m not entirely sure this is progress – but the cruise ships would have struggled to moor against the old quayside).

The city also contains some surprising survivals: including merchant’s houses from the 13th and 16th centuries – but has buildings (or sizeable fragments thereof) going back to the Normans.  The Medieval Merchant’s gaff was ‘revealed’ when the bombs cleared away many of its neighbours – though I couldn’t, in general, recommend aerial bombardment as an archeological tool (it lacks the discernment of hand trowel and brush).  Both contain museums and a variety of local artefacts of which my favourite was a hot cross bun in the Tudor House.  It was described as ‘very old’ by a visitor who visited when the museum opened in 1912, so it is now exceeding old and does look a little wan and rather hard: it certainly isn’t hot and has lost its cross (if ever it had one), but it is still clearly a bun (and has been preserved, incorruptible – which may make it a saint among buns).

Perhaps the city’s most distinctive (if most hidden) feature is the extensive vaults which lie beneath the old town.  In ye olden days, Southampton was the main centre for the import of wine for much of the country (at least as far north as Nottingham) and many properties had vaults beneath to keep the product fresh.  I believe twenty or so (from an original 50 ish) survive and I have now been to seven (and peered into the gloom of a couple more).  Five of these came on the excellent Vaults Tour which leaves from the Tudor Merchant’s House and provides a fascinating insight into the city’s past: I think these happen only rarely, but are well worth catching if you can.  Fascinatingly, many of the vaults came as the Medieval equivalent of a ‘flat-pack’ – though it must be said that not all the builders were of the best quality and the instructions have not always been followed to the letter (or at all).  One vault, and the one in which I have spent the most time, has clearly been recycled from an earlier vault and is decidedly gerry-built: though as it has outlived most of the rest of the city, one can’t be too critical.

Several of the vaults can be hired for events and, indeed, the upcoming Music in the City festival (OK, day: how many days make a festival, I wonder?) will use many as venues.  A chap with a significant anniversary on the horizon could consider using them for some sort of celebration (or wake), but they are unheated and lacking in anywhere to recline which might make them a challenge for less hardy celebrants in February (even in balmy West Hamwic).

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