Above: Tudor House and Garden. Photo: Maria Magdalena, Tripadvisor
You’ll know it when you see it. Diverting from the busyness and glistening modernity of Southampton’s central high street and shopping centers, and into the city’s historical districts, it feels like you have crossed an invisible boundary. The layers of modernity peel away, and the soul of the old Southampton dances in front of your eyes, giving you a tantalizing glimpse of the city’s vast and hidden history, from a fortified walled city, to one of Britain’s most important and strategic maritime cities. Just past the Grade 1-listed Bargate, the city’s medieval entrance, and tracing a path alongside the undulating remains of the Norman-built stone walls, you’ll reach Bugle Street, a gorgeous stone-paved lane which feels at odds with the high-rise student complexes of the modern city. And at the end of the street, nestled snugly amongst the other historic dwellings – including the 11th Century St. Michael’s Church across the way - is Southampton’s most well-preserved listed building. The Tudor House once owned by Sir John Dawtrey, local Member of Parliament (M.P.) and supplier for King Henry VIII, has undergone many changes in the 800 years or so that it has stood on Bugle Street, miraculously surviving the impoverishment which struck the area in the Victorian era, and the widespread destruction wrought by German bombing during World War Two. Today it is a museum of local history, telling the story of its former homeowners and, by extension, the city of Southampton itself.
Full disclosure – I used to be a volunteer guide at the Tudor House and Gardens when I was a History student at the University of Southampton. So I may be a little biased! But I believe the quality of the museum’s diverse historical exhibitions, and well-preserved rooms and garden, speak for themselves. The first step for any visitor to the house is the Banqueting Hall, a cozy oak-paneled room which served as a venue for social gatherings (and can still be hired out for events through the museum!) and now serves as the point of welcome for tours of the house. Taking a seat, the lights dim, and you’ll be greeted by the ghosts of Tudor House, in the form of a cheery and educational audiovisual presentation delivered by a group of disembodied voices in the shape of phantasmagorical ‘orbs’. If you’re not too spooked out by encountering the spirits of the house’s former owners, you’ll be able to learn a lot about the history of the building, from its inception as the home of 14th Century mayor John Wytegod, to its expansion by the aforementioned royal merchant John Dawtrey, all the way to its purchase by William Spranger, 19th Century philanthropist and savior of the property during a period when it was threatened with demolition.
From there, you’ll be let loose to explore the house, although a strict one-way system prevents you from getting lost or progressing backwards. This is an important aspect of visits, as many of the house’s corridors and rooms are narrow, meaning that wayward exploration could easily lead to overcrowding and confusion. This is especially true of the cellar, which was converted during the Second World War into an air raid shelter, and still maintains the claustrophobic atmosphere which would prevailed back in those days. The ‘sacred route’ through the house takes you up through the former bedrooms and hobby areas. A number of display cases can be admired on this journey, with collections ranging from pieces of old ships that were docked at Southampton harbor, to local documents, and even a stuffed lapdog. The highlight is a beautiful 17th Century Georgian room which overlooks the gardens, where you’ll be headed next. Heading out via the patio, you’ll be able to take a quick break for tea and a slice of cake at the museum café, a newly-built outlet which was added during the nine years of closure and renovation which the house underwent between 2002-2011. Once you’re all refreshed, it’s time to take a turn around the gardens, an aesthetically-pleasing recreation of a traditional Tudor knot garden that backs out onto part of the old city walls. From there, you’ll be able to pose with an old cannon, and have a look across the impressive ruins of King John’s Palace (which, despite its name, was never used by King John, and was instead a Norman merchant house). Headed back inside, you’ll explore the old servant’s quarters and kitchens, which feature a collection of historical equipment and replica Tudor meals, before completing the loop and returning to the entrance.
At £6pp for adults, and £5pp for children over 5, students and concessions, a visit to Tudor House is criminally-cheap, and will offer you the best part of 1-2 hours of entertainment. Guides and souvenirs are available to purchase from the lobby area, and special events for families are regularly held on weekends. Cruise ship tours docking at Southampton are frequently directed to the museum, and some will even make the booking for you. So if you’re ever planning a trip to Southampton, be sure not to miss out on this small, homely museum – and if you feel so inclined, have a look at some of the walking tours around the old walls of Southampton, which will help you get a feel for a city which has been somewhat lost to modernity.
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Ellis Murrell is a Master’s graduate in World Heritage Studies with a background in History. He is currently a Digital Engagement Trustee with the London Museums Group and a volunteer with his local museum in Kent, United Kingdom. Travel, heritage and dogs are the three sacred tenets by which he lives his life.