Southampton Port.

Southampton Port.Pixabay / CC

East Hampshire is often overlooked, as tourists are drawn to the delights of the New Forest in the west, but the coast and countryside, towns, and villages around Southampton are worth exploring too. With marinas, ocean views, historic buildings, museums, and beautiful countryside, the area has a lot to offer.

Rural attractions

Take a hilly walk through the South Downs, where the peaks offer views across miles of stunning countryside. Visit the River Hamble Country Park, a vast nature reserve with diverse habitats and miles of woodland paths running alongside the river. There you can watch canoe races, yachts, and keep an eye out for wildlife, such as squirrels and deer. Manor Farm, located within the country park, is a great place for anyone who loves animals, with plenty of hands-on experiences to be had.

The Royal Victoria Country Park, in Netley, is a 200-acre park comprising mature woodland and open parkland where visitors can watch cruise ships sail past as they head out to sea. 

From 1863 until 1966 the Royal Victoria Hospital stood in the park. It was an old military hospital but it fell into disrepair after a flood and two fires so the council demolished it, leaving just the hospital church standing. It is now a museum, which explores medicinal treatments of the past.

 Royal Victoria Country Park, in Netley.

Royal Victoria Country Park, in Netley.

The hospital took in many casualties during the First World War and again during the Second. After that, it was under-utilized and became a financial burden. Today, you can see some of the medical and rehabilitation equipment used in its heyday. The exhibition about the lunatic asylum is particularly interesting. It operated from the hospital, treating soldiers suffering from shell shock with electric shock therapy. This treatment was considered effective as it was then, but it would be considered barbaric today.

Explore the nearby ruins of Netley Abbey where you learn about the lives of Cistercian monks who founded the monastery in 1239.

Itchen Valley Country Park is another beautiful landscape with meadows and heathland, as well as plenty of woodlands. There are coloured paths and cycle routes, “Go Ape” climbing rigs, a café, and cycle trails.

Lakeside Country Park, near Eastleigh, has three beautiful lakes and is a haven for anyone who enjoys spending time beside water. Take a walk, admire the wildlife, or book a canoeing-session. The country park is well known for its miniature railway, which takes visitors to areas that they wouldn’t otherwise see.

Visit the natural haven of Holly Hill Park, near Hamble, where there are walks through woodland to a series of beautiful lakes, a grotto, and scenic views of the Hamble River.

Southampton city centre

Venture into Southampton city center to visit the Sea City Museum, with its fascinating Titanic exhibition, following the lives of people on board. Southampton’s residents were very excited about the new ship and the opportunities it brought for employment. Many people from the city got jobs on the ship as cabin staff, engineers, firemen, kitchen staff, and stewardesses. Most of them perished in the icy waters when the ship went down.

You can see what the cabins were like for different classes of passengers, have a go at steering the ship on a simulator, add coal to the furnaces and attempt to send messages by morse code.

The museum is full of interesting tidbits such as that the ship was carrying a huge amount of produce, including 40,000 eggs and over 4,500 kilos of sugar. Visitors can hear stories from people who survived to tell the tale. The recollections of a woman who was a little girl at the time are heart-wrenching - she kissed her father goodbye as she was put onto a lifeboat and never saw him again.

In the courtroom, you hear accounts from survivors exploring what went wrong that night. There weren’t enough lifeboats and those that were launched weren’t full. There was no staff training for an emergency situation. The lookout had his binoculars taken off him at Southampton. He had used them to check for hazards on the way over from Ireland and if he had still had those binoculars, he would have seen the iceberg earlier. Warning messages about icebergs from a nearby ship were ignored. The Titanic was traveling too fast. When distress signals were sent up a nearby vessel ignored it, because the captain didn’t believe it was the Titanic in trouble. A catalogue of errors occurred among many people involved and while the captain had failed badly he wasn’t alone in making a series of poor judgments that led to the end of the Titanic and the tragic deaths of most of those on board.

As a result of the disaster new international shipping laws were introduced to improve safety at sea and to try to prevent anything similar happening again. Today sea-faring is safer because of these measures.

Other galleries at the museum look at the maritime history of Southampton, including trade, emigration, and immigration. It explores the history of the city from the Stone Age, looking at Anglo-Saxon times, the Roman occupation, and WWII, right up to the present day. There’s even a Victorian arcade.

Next door is Southampton City Art Gallery, where they have classical and medieval paintings in some galleries and modern art in others. It’s an interesting mix of old and new.

At the other end of the city is Solent Sky Museum, built to house a decommissioned 

flying boat. The plane was built in 1943 as a military-specification Sunderland and was later converted to the civilian Sandringham flying boat. The conversion involved the removal of guns, installation of new engines, bigger windows, passenger seats, and a galley. The plane took civilian passengers to destinations around the world, landing on a designated area in the sea, rather than on a traditional landing strip. As air travel became more popular, the use of traditional aircraft grew and the costs associated with running flying boats meant they eventually became uneconomical.

Step inside the museum today, and you see a variety of planes, many made in the nearby Isle of Wight. There’s a prototype military flying boat, which never went into production because it filled with water as soon as it hit the sea. Helicopters, a Spitfire, and other craft tell stories about the history of aviation. Visitors learn about the races that revolutionized air travel and put Britain on the world map as pioneers in the development of flight technology.

There’s a spacesuit from the Apollo 17, a couple of early scooter designs made by the pioneers of Avro aircraft, and a fascinating exhibition about the Southampton Blitz during WWII. The numerous model planes will appeal to model makers and collectors.

The highlight of the experience is going inside the huge “Sandringham” flying boat, where you can see the passenger areas and even get a member of staff to take you up to the cockpit and tell you all about the history of the planes. It’s the only aircraft of its kind where the public are allowed inside - a unique experience indeed.

Wonderful Winchester

The nearby city of Winchester is charming. I’s biggest tourist attraction is the Great Hall, a medieval hall that used to be part of Winchester Castle. It’s all that remains of this once imposing fortress, which was first built in 1066 by William the Conqueror. 

Today the Great Hall houses King Arthur’s Round Table, or at least, a 13th-century replica of it. The massive tabletop is now hung on the wall but when it was first commissioned by King Edward I for his daughter’s banquet in 1290, it had a key position in the room. 

For centuries the table was believed to be the original table from the time of King Arthur until carbon dating revealed its true date. The table was painted by King Henry VIII and the figure of King Arthur on it is a likeness of the King, who liked to think he was a part of the Arthurian family line. 

The history of Winchester Castle and the Great Hall are told in an exhibition.

Nearby, City Mill is the oldest watermill in Britain. A family of otters live near the water wheel and there are films showing them coming and going. Visitors can see all the workings of the mill, and learn about the restoration work. Today the National Trust continues to make flour in the mill and you can buy some in the shop. It’s also worth visiting Winchester Cathedral, where you can see Jane Austen’s tomb.

Stately homes

Hinton Ampner is a National Trust property, with an impressive collection of furniture and ornamental items made from semi-precious stones. Walkthrough the gardens and follow a path around the parkland taking in the ancient oaks and veteran trees then go on a guided tour of the house. It is one of the more ornate houses in the Trust’s collection and is well worth a visit if you like to explore palatial properties.

Uppark is another National Trust house that was destroyed by fire in 1989 and restored in time for the National Trust’s 100th anniversary in 1995. It went up in flames when a workman accidentally lit wood shavings with his blow torch. The glowing embers started a fire that burnt the house to a shell. The contractor’s insurance paid the £24m bill for the restoration work. Modern craftspeople set to work carving woodwork and learning old skills to restore the buildings and their interiors in 18th-century style, using authentic techniques from the period. Treasures from inside the house were rescued while the house burnt and anything that could be salvaged from the original interiors was used, including fragments of wallpaper. Original fragments are aligned with replica wallpaper designed in the exact same style.

The servants’ quarters take you through the butler’s pantry and the housekeeper’s room to the beer cellar. There is a beautiful dolls’ house downstairs, which is part of a research project with Oxford University and is considered among the most important historic dolls houses in the UK.

Join a guided tour to learn more about the people who lived at Uppark. HG Wells was the son of one of the house staff and, as a child, he used to borrow books from the library to feed his fascination with literature.

Other attractions

Spend a day at Marwell Zoo where you might see lions bathing, monkeys swinging, otters playing and a snow leopard prowling. There’s a fabulous new tropical house, full of exotic birds and a few reptiles. 

Other animals include meerkats, pygmy hippos, rhinos, deer, zebras, lemurs, antelopes, giraffes, and flamingos. It is a great opportunity to see the animals up close and get some nice wildlife photos.

Head along the coast to see the D-Day memorial at Warsash. History buffs might like to visit the ruined stronghold of Fort Brockhurst in Gosport, and explore the ruins of nearby Tichfield Abbey.

One attraction that is a bit out of the ordinary is the 17th-century village in Gosport. It is only open on special days. Re-enactors play the roles of tradesmen and craftsmen. Check out the weaver, blacksmith, seamstress, and the inn where lunch is served. It’s very interactive and they’re keen for visitors to chat and ask lots of questions.

The sawyer is very lively. When we visited, he told me I was wearing men’s clothes - trousers - and should go and buy a nice dress, which will elevate my husband’s position in society. 

The peddler sells all sorts of items, including spices from around the world and feathers used as quills. The scribe tells stories about letter writing, different types of writing materials, and the importance of individual seals. 

Governments write new laws on vellum because it lasts 1000 years, he says. Finally, we meet the potters. One is on the potters’ wheel and another is telling us all about the furnace, where the pots are fired. It is the only working 17th-century kiln in the UK and historians come from far and wide to see it being fired.

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