Southampton Old Town Walking Tour, Southampton

Southampton Old Town Walking Tour (Self Guided), Southampton

Southampton is a bustling coastal city with the history going back all the way to the Stone Age. There are over 90 listed buildings and 30 ancient monuments in the Old Town, including medieval watch towers and dungeons, an array of churches, fine timber-framed Tudor houses, inns and hole-in-the-wall pubs. Despite heavy bombardment during WWII, much of Southampton's historic heritage survived the blasts, owing to which today visitors can experience what life was like back in the day by taking a lovely stroll down the cobbled streets of the old quarter.

The best place to start this journey is the Bargate (formerly the main gate of the city) – possibly Southampton’s most iconic structure, built around 1180. And of course, walking some of England’s best-preserved medieval Town Wall, nearly half of which still stands since the 15th century, is a must for any guest of Southampton. Among other places to visit, equally informative about Southampton’s past, are:

Red Lion Inn – a historic, half-timbered pub built at the turn of the 16th century;

Medieval Merchant's House – a restored property of a prosperous merchant, John Fortin; built circa 1290;

St. Michael's Church – Southampton's oldest church still in use; founded in 1070;

Tudor House and Garden – a former 15th-century property offering atmospheric insight into the lives of its residents over the years, plus a chance to witness something altogether paranormal, being one of city’s most haunted locations;

God's House Tower – a late 13th-century gatehouse.

If you genuinely love history and want to step back in time to see what Southampton’s Old Town has to offer, take this self-guided walk.
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Southampton Old Town Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Southampton Old Town Walking Tour
Guide Location: England » Southampton (See other walking tours in Southampton)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 12
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.9 Km or 1.2 Miles
Author: Maia
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Bargate
  • Southampton Town Wall
  • Holyrood Church
  • Red Lion Inn
  • Medieval Merchant's House
  • St. Michael's Church
  • Tudor House Museum & Garden
  • Tudor Merchant's Hall
  • Duke of Wellington Pub
  • Bugle Street
  • Wool House
  • God's House Tower

1) Bargate

Bargate is an impressive medieval gatehouse that was built around 1180. Located in the center of High Street, Bargate was the traditional entrance and main gateway to Southampton. Bargate is praised as the finest and most complex gateway in England.

Bargate was built with flint and stone. In 1280, builders added imposing drum towers on the north side. Then, in the early 1400s, the north front was added.

At some point during the 1400s, Southampton began using Bargate as a prison. Then, during the 16th century, Southampton's court leet started meeting in the Bargate.

The Bargate was used as Southhampton's guildhall and market for centuries. Visitors can still see the vaults where merchants stored wine.

The fabled lion sculptures were added during the 16th century. The lions are thought to symbolize the legend of Sir Bevois, who founded Southhampton. Sir Bevios is the subject of many heroic legends, including a legend that tells of Sir Bevois slaying two lions to protect a princess. The lions were restored in 2020.

Visitors will find 11 heraldic shields on the Bargate's north side. Unfortunately, the original shields decayed with time, and many attempts have been made to restore them.

In 1899, 1914, and 1923, council members debated demolishing Bargate to accommodate increasing road traffic. Instead, the town council decided to separate Bargate from the town walls.

During WWII, Bargate was used as an air-raid shelter.
Southampton Town Wall

2) Southampton Town Wall (must see)

Southampton has had some defensive structures since occupied by the Romans. French forces attacked Southampton in 1338. However, the defenses were not adequate.

Work on the new wall began in the 1360s. Eventually, the wall was 1.25 miles long and wholly enclosed Southampton. The impressive wall housed 29 towers and eight gates. The towers were built to house cannons, which was a new technology in the 1300s.

The walls were used for defense throughout the 15th century. By the 18th century, the walls and gatehouses fell into disrepair. More recently, efforts have been made to preserve these historic walls.

Today, about half of the length of the original walls is still visible. Only 13 of the original 29 towers and six of the original gates still stand. God's House Tower still stands and is one of the first urban buildings to be purpose-built to hold gunpowder weapons. God's House Tower is three stories high and is next to God's House Gate.

Arundel tower still stands and is a popular attraction. The west walls are home to a unique feature called The Arcades. They are a series of arches built in the 14th century to reinforce the original 12th and 13th-century walls.
Holyrood Church

3) Holyrood Church

Holyrood Church (or Holy Rood Church) was one of the original five churches serving the old walled town of Southampton. Built in 1320, the church was destroyed by Nazi bombing during the blitz in November 1940. In 1957 the shell of the church was dedicated as a memorial to the sailors of the Merchant Navy.

The first documentary evidence of the existence of Holyrood was in 1160 when Henry II granted the Chapels of St. Michael, Holyrood, St. Lawrence and All Saints' to the monks of St. Denys. The name of the church, "Holy Rood", indicates its Saxon origins.

Following the destruction of the church during WWII, the only parts of the church still standing are the tower at the south-western corner and the chancel at the eastern end, together with large parts of the north walls. The wooden spire was lost as was the great west window, whilst the central area of the church was completely destroyed. On the west face of the tower there is a memorial plaque to Charles Dibdin (1745–1814) described as a "native of Southampton, poet, dramatist and composer, author of Tom Bowling, Poor Jack and other sea songs". Above the plaque are the clock and church bells, which feature pre-1760 Quarter jacks, small figures that strike the quarters of each hour.

Inside the church, under the tower is a memorial fountain, erected in 1912–13 for those who lost their lives in the sinking of the RMS Titanic. The fountain is supported on four stone columns, with a curved pediment on each side with carvings depicting the "Titanic", surmounted by a four-columned cupola.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Red Lion Inn

4) Red Lion Inn

The Red Lion Inn is a historical pub, built in the late 15th and early 16th century. It is on the Campaign for Real Ale's National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors.

The half-timbered room known as the court room was the site of the trial of the conspirators in the Southampton Plot. This appears to be a local legend. The trial took place in 1415, about 75 years before the foundation of this building, and there is no documentary evidence from 1415 that the trial would locate it here. In any case, the plotters were imprisoned in the castle and it is unlikely that they were moved down the High Street for a trial in an inn when the castle afforded ample facilities. A mournful procession of ghosts reportedly sighted leaving from the inn has been linked to the plotters.

It has been claimed that the inn itself is haunted by a barmaid, described as being in her sixties and only visible above the knees, who reportedly drifts through the bar area.

During his exile after 1852, Juan Manuel de Rosas, the former governor of Buenos Aires in Argentina, used to frequent the place.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Medieval Merchant's House

5) Medieval Merchant's House

The Medieval Merchant's House is a restored late 13th-century building in Southampton. Built in about 1290 by John Fortin, a prosperous merchant, the house survived many centuries of domestic and commercial use largely intact. German bomb damage in 1940 revealed the medieval interior of the house, and in the 1980s it was restored to resemble its initial appearance and placed in the care of English Heritage, to be run as a tourist attraction.

The house is built to a medieval right-angle, narrow plan design, with an undercroft to store wine at a constant temperature, and a first-story bedchamber that projects out into the street to add additional space. Listed as a national historical monument, the building is architecturally significant because, as historian Glyn Coppack highlights, it is "the only building of its type to survive substantially as first built".
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
St. Michael's Church

6) St. Michael's Church

This impressive church is Southampton's oldest building still in use. St. Michael's Chruch was founded in 1070. Henry II gave the church to the monks of St. Denys, who administered the church until the 1537 Dissolution.

St. Michael's was enlarged during the 13th century as Southampton prospered. The first spire was added in the 15th century and renovated with an additional 9 feet in 1887. The spire is now 165 feet high.

While much of Southhampton was damaged during WWII, the church and spire escaped significant damage.

The East Window depicts Southampton's five medieval churches. Unfortunately, St. Michael's is the only one still standing. The West Window portrays St. Michael killing the dragon.

The unique font dates to the 12th century and was created from a single block of black marble.

One of the brass lecterns was rescued from Holyrood Church. This pulpit dates to the 14th or 15th century and is the most impressive in England. It depicts an eagle with separated wing feathers.

St. Michael's church is home to several tombs. The most famous tomb belongs to Sir Richard Lyster, who was the chief justice of the King's Bench. He was interred here in 1554.
Tudor House Museum & Garden

7) Tudor House Museum & Garden (must see)

Tudor House shows visitors what life in Southampton was like during Tudor times. Tudor House is one of Southampton's most important buildings and brings 800 years of history to life.

Instead of simply viewing objects in glass cases, the museum immerses visitors in history with beautiful presentations and interactive displays.

Visitors will start with an interactive presentation. Spirits from the past tell you about Tudor House and give you glimpses into its history.

The museum has many displays of artifacts from ancient history to the present. Visitors can admire a medieval jewel casket, Victorian stuffed birds, a pair of shoes from the 1920s. One of the more intriguing displays hosts glass panes painted with bird depictions.

The Book of Hours is one of the museum's most precious items. This very small book is very fragile and dates to around 1480. The Book of Hours is a hand-illustrated prayer book written in Flemish with Latin flourishes.

The sedan chair was a popular way for wealthy people to travel around town. A mid-18th-century sedan chair for hire is on display.

The penny-farthing bicycle is another popular item. This bicycle features one very large wheel and one very small wheel and was popular in the late 19th century.

Kids and adults alike will be amazed by the Tudor dollhouses, complete with opening doors and windows and small figures. Various displays recreate daily life in Tudor times. Visitors can see a historic kitchen and learn about food prep.

The gardens are beautiful and include ancient canons. The gardens have been planned to represent a garden from the 1500s and include formal pathways and low-cut hedges. On the way out of the museum and gardens, you can visit the small attic.

Why You Should Visit:
Tudor House dates back to 1348 when a wealthy merchant owned it. Different families have owned the house throughout the centuries, and today's visitors can enjoy a complete immersion into Southampton's history.

The Tudor House Cafe serves fabulous cream teas and gives visitors a gorgeous view of the gardens.
Tudor Merchant's Hall

8) Tudor Merchant's Hall

Hidden away amongst the Medieval old town walls of Southampton, this hall – currently known as Westgate Hall – was built before 1428, and originally stood in St Michael’s Square. Its upper floors were used as a cloth hall and the open arcaded ground floor as the town’s fish market.

By the 17th century, the building had become derelict. In 1634 it was sold, taken apart and moved to its present location to be used as a warehouse, whilst the arcade on the ground floor was walled up, creating the hall we see today.

Westgate Hall was restored in the 1970s to create a picture-perfect venue with its lovely vaulted ceilings and exposed beams contributing to an outstanding character. Now beautifully decorated, this 15th-century timber-framed venue is used for public gatherings such as civil marriages, wedding receptions, private parties, concerts, lectures, meetings and conferences.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Duke of Wellington Pub

9) Duke of Wellington Pub

The Duke of Wellington is a classic British pub. It serves real English ales in a historic building that seeps ambiance and authenticity.

The building is located on Bugle Street, one of the oldest and most historically relevant parts of town. The building was built in 1220 on top of Normal cellars and vaults. The first resident was Benedict Ace, one of the town's first mayors.

It wasn't until 1494 that the building became a public house. It was bought by Holland-born brewer Rowland Johnson, who called it Brew House. Then, of course, he started brewing his own ales and thusly began the city's first brewery.

In the 1600s, the pilgrims would have passed this pub on their way to board the Mayflower.

The pub has changed names several times over the years. It was first the Brew House, and then it became the Shipwrights Arms in honor of the many shipbuilders who patronized it. Finally, in 1815 it was named for the Duke of Wellington in honor of his victory in the Battle of Waterloo.

The Duke of Wellington is still a pub today. They have function rooms for rent and serve locally-made ales. It's an excellent place for some pub-grub, too. The burgers are well-regarded.
Bugle Street

10) Bugle Street

Bugle Street's name comes from the Latin word "Buculus," or young bull. It is sometimes called Bull Street, but it also refers to the bugle-horn, made initially from young bulls' horns.

The street runs from St. Michaels Square to the Town Quay. Upper Bugle Street was historically made up of Fish Street and Pepper Alley, connecting north from St Michaels Square to Simnel Street.

The street was one of the original laid out within the city's stone medieval walls. Today it is still lined with many historic and beautiful buildings.

Notable sights along the road include the Royal Southern Yacht Club on the south end. The building stands on the corner of Bugle and the pier. It was opened in 1846 and designed by architect Thomas Sandon Hack. The magnificent building centers around a state and ballroom. There was even an 11-gun battery for signaling the starts of races or for celebrating birthdays.

Other attractions along Bugle Street include the must-see Tudor House and the Duke of Wellington Pub.

Most of the other homes and businesses along the route were built between the 16th and 18th centuries. It has been said that Bugle Street is the best historic street in Southampton.
Wool House

11) Wool House

The Wool House is a medieval building in Southampton which was built to serve the wool trade. It has since had various uses.

The Wool House was built in the late 14th century to store wool for export to Italy. In the early 19th century it was used as a prison for Napoleonic French prisoners of war. The building was restored by Southampton City Corporation and adapted to house the Southampton Maritime Museum, which opened in June 1966 and moved to SeaCity Museum in January 2012. It is a Grade I listed historical building.

A plaque on the wall of The Wool House records its history.

During the early part of the 20th century, the premises were occupied by The Moonbeam Engineering Company Limited who built motor launches and later expanded to include the sale of wrought iron propellers and marine engines for export around the world. Edwin Moon used a corner of the workshop to realise his dream of constructing and flying an aircraft of his own design which he flew from land at North Stoneham in 1910, on fields which subsequently became Southampton International Airport.

The Maritime Museum, housed here from 1966 to 2012, documented the maritime heritage of Southampton and the Solent area, its history as a base for ocean liners and in particular its connections to RMS Titanic. After Maritime Museum moved to its new location in SeaCity Museum, the Wool House had a couple of tenants. It is currently a brewpub/restaurant.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
God's House Tower

12) God's House Tower

God's House Tower is a late 13th century gatehouse into the old town of Southampton. It stands at the south-east corner of the town walls and permitted access to the town from the Platform and Town Quay. It is now an arts and heritage venue, and has previously served as the town gaol and housed the Museum of Archaeology. The building is Grade I listed and a scheduled ancient monument.

The gatehouse and tower are built of stone "rubble" and are two or three story high. The arched gateway had a double portcullis, the grooves of which are still visible. The windows are described as "trefoil or cinquefoil headed lights". Under the main tower, the filled in arches of the tidal moat and sluices are visible on both the southern and northern flanks.

In the upper story of the Tower and the connecting gallery there are a series of two-light windows and keyhole-shaped gunports. These were unblocked in the late nineteenth century when the window tracery was also restored. The roof of the tower is modern.

The original gatehouse was a simple affair, built in the late 13th century and known as the Saltmarsh Gate, as it led to marshlands outside the town. Being close to God's House Hospital, which had been founded in 1168 by Gervase le Riche as a refuge for travelers, the gateway became known as the God's House gateway. Following the French raid on the town in 1338, the town's defense were strengthened and the gateway was reinforced.

The tower was further extended in 1417 by the addition of a two-story gallery and a three-story tower, to the east of the gateway; this was one of the earliest forts built specifically to carry cannon and had eight gunports and rooftop firing points.

By the start of the 17th century, the building had fallen into disrepair as the town no longer needed strong defense and in 1707 part of the building was being used as a house of correction. From 1786, it became the town gaol; at this time, the tower was known as the "Lambcote Tower". In 1855, a new prison was opened in Ascupart Street and the prison in the tower was closed.

Today God's House Tower houses an arts and heritage venue, with a permanent gallery about the history of the building. There are also two art galleries onsite showing contemporary art and important works from prestigious South Coast collections.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.

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