My earliest memories of Southampton itself are taking trips with my grandma on the bus via Northern Bridge or the more exciting route to Woolston and over The Floating Bridge. We would sit excitedly on the front seat at the top of a red double decker, if we could. I know my grandpa on my father’s side had a grocer’s shop just below the Bargate in East Street before the shop was pulled down to make way for the tram lines, so my dad says, but I wasn’t around then.
We would love to walk up or down the forty steps, browse in Owen and Owen but my favourite shop of all was the chocolate shop, which I think was near the Bargate too. Easter time was the best of all when grandma would treat us to a chocolate Easter rabbit, which I think was made in that very store; Just thinking about it brings that sweet tantalising smell to mind, as I think of pushing my nose into the glass window display to chose the one I wanted.
When we were a bit older we just loved to shop in Southampton, especially for clothes. Our grandma had so much patience. Without going to Oxford Street, Southampton was the best shopping centre we knew and it’s still pretty good from recent experience. (I couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride when we visited Waterstones in West Quay Shopping Centre last year and found my novel Riduna for sale on the bookshelves!)
Often we would walk down to the pier and stroll in Mayflower Park, which commemorates the famous ship’s departure to America from that very spot. A couple of times we even took the little passenger ferry to Hythe, on one occasion getting a fantastic view of the bow of The QE2, towering above us as we journeyed across Southampton Water to the farthest shore. We would walk along the wooden pier one way to the tiny village, have a cup of tea and then take the little train back along the wooden platform to catch a later ferry back. I’m not sure whether it’s still called the Hotspur now, that little ferry, but it certainly still runs regularly for commuters, shoppers and day trippers wanting to avoid the long drive from the edge of The New Forest to Southampton.
Another longer trip was of course to the Isle of Wight and our favourite mode of transport was the Hovercraft which left from the hard just the other side of the Floating Bridge. On one occasion we took a circuitous route, taking the bus to Woolston, The Floating Bridge over the River Itchen, the Hovercraft to Ryde, the ferry back to Portsmouth and then the train from Portsmouth back to Woolston. Whew!
When researching for Riduna I spent many happy hours in the local archives of Southampton Library, aptly in the basement I recall, but I also visited The Seaman’s Mission, who were so helpful and allowed me to browse through their archives too.
I love the way old and new blends together cheek by jowl in the City Centre of Southampton. The new developments have improved the areas between the small museum at the harbour and the main shopping area, making pleasant walkways passing surprisingly old inns, dotted between the newer residential blocks. In Harriet’s day, the heroine of my story, this area would have been the slums of Southampton, but now I imagine it is quite sought after, being so close to the town centre and also the harbour.