Southampton – City Of The Sea

Cruise Liner in Southampton

Situated at the northern tip of Southampton Water which leads directly into the Solent and lying on the rivers Test and Itchen, it was almost inevitable that Southampton would become a port and always have strong links with the sea and all kinds of boating. With excellent shelter and accessibility in all weathers and tides, it also has an excellent strategic position close to the main international shipping lanes. It is less than 100 nautical miles from mainland Europe and for thousands of years people have arrived at or left the British Isles through Southampton. Many travelled as traders, others were seeking refuge, some settled, while others just passed through, giving the city a culturally varied population with origins across the UK and the wider world.

It was after the Norman Conquest in 1066 that Southampton became the major port of transit between Winchester, (the capital of England at that time) and Normandy. By the 13th century it was particularly involved in the import of French wine in exchange for English wool and cloth. The Town Quay is the original public quay dating from this time. The trade in cloth was unfortunately the cause of the Black Death reaching England in 1348, via the merchant ships calling at the city. The town was sacked and plundered in 1338 by French, Genoese and Monegasque ships under the command of Charles Grimaldi, which resulted in the walls being built on the orders of Edward III. Later several new fortifications along Southampton Water and the Solent were constructed which meant that Southampton was not so reliant on its own fortifications.

HMS Grace Dieu (Henry V’s famous warship)

In the Middle Ages, shipbuilding became an important industry for the city and HMS Grace Dieu (Henry V’s famous warship), was built here in 1418. Another famous ship, the Mayflower departed from Southampton in 1620, taking the Pilgrim Fathers on their voyage to the New World.

During the 18th century Southampton was used for military embarkation during wars with the French, the Crimean War and the Boer War and it became a major centre for treating POWs and the returning wounded, as well as being central to preparations for the invasion of France. It was designated the No.1 Military Embarkation port during the Great War and from 1904 to 2004 the Thornycroft shipbuilding yard was a major employer in the area, building and repairing ships used in the two World Wars.

The city’s Eastern Docks were built in the 1830’s by land reclamation of the mud flats between the river estuaries. The Southampton Docks company was formed in 1835 and the first dock opened in 1842, with subsequent expansion through the next few decades. The Western Docks date from the 1930s when the Southern Railway Company commissioned another land reclamation and dredging project. When the railway link became operational in 1840 Southampton was justly known as The Gateway to the Empire. In 1938 the area also became home to the flying boats of Imperial Airways. The Supermarine Spitfire was designed and developed here, the designer, R J Mitchell, living in the Portswood area of the city. During World War II components for Mulberry Harbour (the portable harbour assembled off the coast of Normandy in 1944) were built in Southampton and the docks handled the military cargo to keep the Allied forces supplied, making the city a prime target of German bombing raids.

The transfer of White Star Line’s transatlantic express service from Liverpool to Southampton in 1907 established Southampton as Britain’s premier passenger port. The White Star Dock (later known as Ocean Dock) opened in 1911 and it was from berth 44 that the Titanic departed from Southampton on 10th April 1912. Five of the crew were from the city, as well as about a third of those who died in the tragedy.

RMS Queen Elizabeth 2

The first half of the 20th century saw the heyday of the cruise ships and today Southampton still remains home to luxury cruise ships, as well as being the largest freight port on the Channel coast and the fourth largest UK port by tonnage. In 1968 Southampton Container Terminals first opened and has continued to develop and expand. Southampton Water has the benefit of a double high tide, giving 17 hours of high water each day and resulting in a longer window for ships to enter and leave the port. The presence of a deep main channel and the fact that all the berths are tidal and lock free mean that there is unhindered access for the world’s largest vessels. Today many of the world’s biggest cruise ships can regularly be seen there including vessels from Royal Caribbean and Carnival Corporation with its brands including P&O, Cunard Line and Princess Cruises. Cunard have a special link with the city. Their RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 left there for the final time in November 2008, amid celebrations and fireworks and Cunard ships are regularly launched from Southampton, often being named by members of the Royal Family. P&O Cruises’ 175th anniversary celebrations saw all seven of the company’s liners, Adonia, Arcadia, Aurora, Azura, Oceana, Oriana and Ventur, visiting Southampton in a single day and leaving in a procession on 3rd July 2012.

Southampton is home to the headquarters of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Marine Accident Investigation Branch of the Department for Transport and for the cruise operator Carnival UK.

Southampton used to be home to a number of ferry services to the continent, including San Sebastian, Lisbon, Tangier and Casablanca. Some of these relocated to Portsmouth, but Town Quay remains the terminus for three internal ferry services. A car ferry and a fast catamaran passenger service, operated by Red Funnel, provide links to East Cowes and Cowes, on the Isle of Wight, while the third ferry provides a passenger service to Hythe, on the opposite side of Southampton Water.

The annual PSP Southampton Boat Show is an iconic event held every September. It runs for just over a week at Mayflower Park on the city’s waterfront and has been held there since 1968, with over 600 exhibitors.

Another nautical institution is the Sea City Museum which tells the story of the city, the lives of the people and their historic connections with the sea, tracing its development from small stone age settlements, into a walled medieval town and on through the ages to its present state. It features a large Titanic exhibition where visitors can find out about the Titanic disaster and view an interactive model of the doomed vessel. They can trace the sequence of events on that fatal day when the vessel struck an iceberg, through oral testimonies from survivors and discover what it was like to live in the city in 1912 when it was home to around 23 steamship companies.

The city is a Mecca for yachting and water sports and from 1989 to 2001 the Whitbread Around the World Yacht Race (now known as the Volvo Ocean Race) was based in the Ocean Village marina, redeveloped from part of the eastern docks. There are a host of sailing and water sports clubs in the area as well as sailing schools offering a good range of RYA courses. Situated where it is, with good road, rail and air links and close to the relatively sheltered Southampton Water and the Solent, there is little wonder that Southampton’s relationship with the sea has been long and successful. Future plans will hopefully ensure that this continues and that the proposed developments will reconnect the city centre to the waterfront, guaranteeing that it remains a true “city of the sea”.

Author – Dee White

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