City slicker / Southampton

Philip Hoare
Sunday 10 September 1995 23:02

Southampton's rich maritime heritage makes the city a fitting host for the annual International Boat Show which runs from 16 to 24 September

Ambience: Used to be known as "The Gateway to England", an epithet which, if employed nowadays, would generally be taken to be a reference to a supermarket "dahntahn". Southampton's maritime legacy is a clash of cultures: yachting types versus townie scruffs. The Itchen/Test River divide is an effective barrier between east and west Southampton: on the east is Botany Bay, famous as a holding point for transported convicts and for rumours of a gypsy mafia and protection racket; in the west, the chi-chi suburbs of Bassett and Chilworth, the worthy red-brick university settlement of Highfield, and less salubrious borough of Shirley eschew the heathens across the water.

Major events: The International Boat Show, Southampton Film Festival, Howard's Way tours.

Local dialect: Hampshire urban: "mush" for mate (derived from frequent visits by the French in medieval times - it's a corruption of "monsieur").

Associated alumni: King Canute (he is supposed to have commanded the tide to turn on the Solent's shores), Jane Austen (lived in Bedford Place), Patrick Garland, Benny Hill, and Richard Gere's girlfriend (she used to sell flowers in the High Street precinct).

Sights they'd like you to see: Ocean Village, ersatz replacement for the old liners' send-off point; nearby South-Western House was the hotel stopover for practically every celebrity of the between-the-wars period. The city emblem is the Bargate, a medieval remnant set on the High Street. Tudor House is a quaint timber-framed museum with an accurate recreation of a medieval garden. The city also boasts the oldest bowling green in the world, and an exceptionally good art gallery.

Sights they'd rather you didn't see: Derby Road, world-famous red-light district.

Nightlife: Pre-club drinkers assemble at the Lizard Lounge in Bedford Place, and invariably end up at The Rhino round the corner. Alternative venues include: Matt Le Tissier's timewarp nightclub, Celebration Plaza; The Hobbit, an ex-hippie hang-out now full of crustie crossovers and students; and various dodgy casinos and cocktail pubs. The Juniper Berry used to be the only gay pub, a role now largely taken over by the Magnum Club, which has no immediately-obvious redeeming features.

There are two theatres: the highbrow Nuffield, and the more populist Mayflower, which used to be known as the Gaumont and where Bette Davis, on a talk tour in the 1970s, famously took to the stage and declared in unequivocal tones, "what a dump". The most stylish venue however, is an excellent new architecture award-winning cinema, Harbour Lights.

Football: Played at The Dell, the smallest and quaintest ground of any major team, a veritable 1950s throwback, where one might encounter the likes of Leslie Thomas or Jonathan Meades watching the laziest/most gifted player in the league, Matt Le Tissier, amble/float about the pitch like a lost farmhand/mercurial messiah.

Fashion: Wharfside for Armani, patronised by football players of three counties, Andark for nautical gear, and the Bargate Centre for techno partywear.

Local government: Conducted from one of the best-looking town halls in the country, it is newly Labour, with a vengeance, but overruling apathy will put paid to Utopian dreams. Instead, fears of a south coast megatropolis loom, as the conurbations of Southampton and Portsmouth threaten to meet in one huge tarmac and concrete maze, and the city's Victorian heritage suffers wholesale demolition in favour of shoebox condominia.


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