The train to Southampton was surprisingly full for a Saturday morning as we set off from Brighton- so we weren’t the only ones preparing to play curious tourists in the port town that we’d pull into in a couple of hours, or so we thought. We didn’t wonder about the crowds too long as the train glided out of the station, passing quaint old buildings and cottages with well-kept gardens as it gathered speed; it jolted through the salubrious green countryside dotted with horses and cattle, the fields sloping skywards to form knolls on top of which sat grey stone mansions (or castles, as we chose to call them).
The stations we passed had fanciful names; but it probably doesn’t take much to call a place on the coast ‘[insert name]-On-Sea’. They conjured up images of peaceful, sleepy villages basking in the sunshine, a prospect not difficult to imagine with the serene, blue cloudless sky providing the perfect contrast to the blazing, multi-coloured splendour of autumn leaves.
We knew we were approaching Southampton as large white boats, motorised monsters, came into view, moored close to one another on the surface of the backwaters. No roughly-hewn, elegantly drifting catamarans here; the grace of those country boats was only distantly approached by the lone sailboat on the placid waters. A tunnel later, we found ourselves deposited at Southampton Central, and tumbling right into surging crowds. As if on cue, a chant swelled up in the air, and a collective flash of enlightenment told us that Brighton & Hove Albion FC was playing Southampton in a league match that day. We couldn’t have chosen a better day to exhibit our solidarity with the blue-and-white jerseyed throngs that jostled around us on the platform, only to be outnumbered promptly by the red-and-white-clad supporters of the home team the moment they stepped out of the station.
The grey ramparts of the ancient town walls, built to protect Southampton from invaders, stand absurdly juxtaposed against the more modern structures of malls and fancy eateries; however, the predators can’t match their charm. Several old structures were destroyed during World War II, and some of the walls fell to expansion. However, large sections still remain intact and, importantly, graffiti-free. The views from vantage points like Arundel Tower are restricted and not very enchanting, thanks to the high-rise buildings, ferries and traffic signals that inconveniently obscure what could have made for spectacular, picture-perfect scenery.
One of my ‘missions’ in Southampton was to visit sites that commemorated Jane Austen’s sojourn here (never mind that I was the laughing-stock of the group for my ridiculous, quite blind enthusiasm). Beginning with a wild-goose chase based on hearsay, we stumbled upon a hotel whose ballroom Austen turned eighteen in (Hotel Dolphin), a part of town where she stayed with her family (Castle Square- with a plaque bearing a grocer’s apostrophe- rather inappropriate, I’d have said, but for the fact that she named one of her novels Love and Freindship (sic)), and the site of what used to be the Theatre Royal, visited by the Austens on September 14, 1807.
The paved streets, the quintessential English pubs, and the quiet narrow aisles that run beside the magnificent St. Michael’s Church (supposedly dating back to 1070 AD) effortlessly take you back in time; for someone whose elementary knowledge of England comes mainly from literature, I could quite visualise a highwayman galloping on his horse to meet his love at the window of an inn. The voices of the choir practising inside the church floated out into the dark lane, spiritual and ethereal. The ruins of Holy Rood Church, Bargate and various other buildings and memorials in town tell different stories from the past; they commemorate those who sailed out on the Mayflower and the victims of the ill-fated Titanic. The town pulsates with history, while simultaneously embracing all that is new. It is unfortunate that high-rise buildings now occupy the site where a medieval castle stood formerly. However, strolling through the streets is a fantastic experience in itself if you enjoy history, for you never know what lies around the next corner. If you don’t stumble upon a piece of history, you walk into a vibrant flea-market with a merry-go-round and a makeshift ice-skating rink. You’re hardly safe from being surprised (as Mrs Rachel Lynde would say), and this is perhaps the best thing about ambling through unknown towns without a map, cell phones safely tucked away to keep the Internet from playing spoilsport.
As we headed for the bus-stop to catch the shuttle that would take us back to the station, we were treated to a spectacular sunset, the rich rose tints of twilight spreading generously across sky and river. It was easily the most beautiful sunset I’ve seen in England this far, and I’m quite convinced it is something about the geography of Falmer that deprives it of such glorious sunsets. On the train, we watched the sun go down in full splendour, casting its eerie colours on the boats and disappearing soon afterwards into the complete darkness of the early English dusk. I returned home happy, one place ticked off the list in my head. I might choose to go back to Southampton sometime, to visit the New Forest (remember Captain Marryat’s Children?) and the Isle of Wight (only if I’m convinced that it isn’t Sentosa-like commercial). It’s like seeing the books I’ve read and the dreams I’ve had come to life- and all in the best manner possible.