Where exactly is it? Southampton is the metropolis closest to the New Forest, most famous for its Titanic connections. It may not be a weekend destination you’ve considered, but it’s only 80 minutes from Waterloo (providing the trains aren’t as messed up as they were on our trip) and it’s benefiting from huge investments and a rebuilding programme. In short, it’s a fascinating place.
What can I do? The tourist board call it ‘City of Surprises’ – and we’re inclined to agree. Sure, it was heavily bombed in WWII and not an immediately easy place to love as you first step off the train – but persist and you’ll be rewarded. Start in the Old Town’s tangle of historic streets –the Tudor House is a notable museum – where there’s a good stretch of medieval walls; the city has the longest surviving in the UK.
Walk towards the 1338-built Westgate and the Medieval Merchants House up to Bargate, the ancient gate built in 1180. Then head back down to the Town Quay and along to the swanky superyachts of the marina, past the Canute Chambers, where a plaque explains that relatives waited for news about Titanic (549 locals died).
Some sights? Absolutely. Stroll through the leafy parks to the City Art Gallery, at the tip of the scrubbed-up cultural quarter, displaying Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings (until 6th May) as part of a UK-wide summer celebration of 500 years since his death. There are also huge names like Gormley, Walter Sickert and Maggi Hambling. Nearby is the John Hansard contemporary art gallery and the main city museum, which tells the story of the Titanic.
Don’t Miss: Dancing Man (see main pic, above). Housed in a 14th century brick-and-timber Wool House, this waterside brewery and restaurant is a must for strong IPAs and Sunday roasts. Nearby, Oxford Street’s restaurants are locally acclaimed, including Oxford’s Brasserie, Carnicero (we gobbled fine medium-rare rump here) and the Grand Café, where guests stayed before boarding the Titanic. For coffee, tiny cafe The Docks is a deservedly award-winning artisan beans joint with tasty sweet-tooth delights (like a crème egg brownie) and friendly staff.
A pub crawl? Hell, yeah. After the Dancing Man, make for the Old Town for memorabilia, pictures and local-pub mateyness at The Titanic (Simnel Street), where much of the crew drank – allegedly. Then it’s back to the characterful 12th-century Duke Of Wellington (Bugle St), restored post-war, with beamed ceilings, roaring fire, leather arm chairs and the gentle thrum of elderly inebriation.
Nearby is the Red Lion (55 High St), its interior astonishing, with half-timber-framed vaulted ceiling, known as the court room, and crusaders in armour teetering on the vast inglenook (there’s even a parrot in a cage).
Carry on to Oxford Street for more history, at both The Grapes and lively LGBT pub The London Tavern, with its eye-catching tiled bottle-green exterior (and rowdy Sunday night drag). Finally, don’t miss tiny craft beer haven Caskaway Tasting Rooms, where a host of Hogarthian figures might be sitting baggy-eyed from an afternoon on the strong local ales, as they were on our twilight visit. And the owner is both knowledgeable and super-friendly.
Southampton is 80 minutes from Waterloo by train. Double rooms at Room2 from £89 per night. Book at: room2.com
Main image: Dancing Man Brewery (SE)