17 miles, 2 days
Take the long way through medieval Southampton, a port able to receive many more pilgrims, travellers and traders thanks to the “double tide” effect of its location on the Solent. Tread in the footsteps of pilgrims through the old gates, leave the hustle and bustle behind and follow the evocative shoreline.
Train: Southampton Central, Woolston, Netley, Hamble and Fareham. Bus: Southampton Coach Station. The No. 6 connects Southampton, Netley and Hamble. The X4 and X5 connect Southampton and Titchfield. Taxi: Southampton Taxis, Viking Cars, People to Places (call 01329 667636). Ferry: Hamble Ferry.
There are numerous options in Southampton for various budgets. See the google map for our recommendations. Hamble: Mercury Yacht Campsite various B&B’s. St Andrew’s offers pilgrim sanctuary. Titchfield: The Bugle Hotel, Drove Lea Farm Campsite.
It may be tempting to head out of the city as quickly as possible, but it is worth setting the tone of your journey in medieval Southampton by beginning with the walls, gatehouses and churches familiar to the pilgrims who have gone before you.
Netley Abbey is tranquil and beautiful. The now reflects over 800 years of change and is said to have inspired Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Horace Walple once compared it to the ruins of Paradise.
Many pilgrimage routes have the requirement to cross rivers, and the tiny pink ferries that take you over the Hamble are a delightfully quirky remnant of a time before taxis and railways.
Following the medieval walls of Southampton will take you to the ferry port where you can follow waymarks for the Solent Way. After crossing the River Hamble the route diverts at the holiday park, and later you turn inland and can follow the Meon Valley Trail.
You might not expect to find much nature in the heart of the city, but you’ll see one particular tree throughout this first stage. Plane trees shade the paths through the parks, and whilst we think of these as being a modern introduction, Britain once had its own Planes, lost during the last ice age. For some, the flaking bark looks like snake skin, and is a symbol of shedding our old selves in order to begin anew, or perhaps to heal. For others, they represent good counsel; once venerated in Greek and Persian cultures they serve as a reminder to be open to new ideas and explore matters of the soul, love and truth. You’ll find planes growing in the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral too, and so they act as bookends for your journey.
Walk along Southampton’s ancient city walls to the Arundel Tower, and from there continue to the Albion Stairs and Catchcold Tower – so named because if raiders tried to attack the town, the armed soldiers who defended the tower with guns would ‘catch you cold’.
From St Michael’s, journey on to the bombed out remains of Holyrood Church; the ruins of the church were restored and dedicated as a memorial to the dead of the Merchant Navy. Just inside the church you will find the Titanic Memorial Fountain.
Walk through the West Gate, through which troops once marched on their way to Agincourt.
Turning onto Town Quay you will pass the Rogers Memorial, built in memory to Mary Ann Rogers, a stewardess on the passenger ship Stella, who sacrificed her own life to save others’, when this boat sank. There is also the Mayflower Memorial, which celebrates the departure of the Pilgrim Fathers on board the Mayflower to America. Also, the medieval Wool House, which was originally used to store merchants’ wool, and is now the Dancing Man Brewery, a popular venue with its own brewery.
From here, walk to Canute’s Palace – the remains of a Norman merchant’s house and warehouse. In 1805, Henry Englefield, an antiquarian, suggested that it could have been King Canute’s Palace. There is no evidence of any connection – but the name has stuck!
In Winkle Street, you will find St Julien’s Church, originally the chapel of God’s House Hospital – St Julian being the patron saint of travellers and pilgrims. This church has also been known as the French Church, and has a long connection with French Protestant refugees, hence the different spelling.
Visit the ancient God’s House Tower, a new arts and heritage venue. Since its medieval beginnings, the buildings that form God’s House Tower have been: a strategic point of defence; a place of refuge for travellers and pilgrims en route to Canterbury; the town jail; a mortuary; a mill and a warehouse.
The gateway is the traditional exit for Old Way pilgrims. Pass through this portal past the entrance to England’s oldest surviving bowling green, first used in 1299, and onto the Friary Reredorter, otherwise known as the communal lavatory!
Onto Crosshouse Road and the River Itchen. Here you will find the Cross House, sited at the landing place of the old Itchen Ferry, a medieval ferry shelter for pilgrims and travellers on their journeys.
Circle back around and walk over the Itchen Bridge (A3025), crossing the River Itchen, Southampton’s second great river – the one that flows through the upper Itchen Valley before entering the historic city of Winchester.
From here, pass through Woolston to reach the Solent below at Weston Shore Promenade, where the River Itchen and the River Test meet to form Southampton Water. Perhaps you can find a shell here, to carry as a token of your journey’s beginning? At the Weston Shore Promenade, for a short while Old Way merges with the Solent Way, a 60-mile footpath linking Milford on Sea with Emsworth Harbour.
Whatever the time of year, you are bound to find some bright yellow gorse flowers punctuating the scrubby shoreline along here. Easily recognised by its coconutty scent, its determination to grow in tough habitats make it a good symbol of resilience, and carrying a flower may protect you from harm. Alongside its sunshine flowers, its bright hot flame when burned forged a connection with Celtic God Lugh, a god of light, harvest and oaths. On the cloudier, colder days it is a reminder for pilgrims the weather will turn just as the seasons do. Gorse is never out of flower, making it a sign of hope in times of difficulty; why not take some of its optimism with you?
Netley Abbey (free entry) is the most complete surviving Cistercian monastery in southern England, although be prepared for ruins! Cistercians follow the Rule of St Benedict, who founded Western Monasticism.
Horace Walpole wrote in a letter to a friend in 1755: ‘The ruins are vast, and retain fragments of beautiful fretted roofs pendent in the air, with all variety of Gothic patterns of windows wrapped round and round with ivy….they are not the ruins of Netley, but of Paradise.” Netley Abbey’s Latin nickname was Laetus Locus – the ‘happy place’. Rest a while before experiencing the contrast of Netley’s Victorian parish church, St Edward the Confessor, on Grange Road. The small village of Netley, in the Parish of Hound, has several cafes and shops.
From Netley, return to the waterfront and follow the Old Way & the Solent Way into Royal Victoria Park. From 1863 until 1966, this 200 acre site was home to the Royal Victoria Hospital (or Netley Hospital), a large military hospital started in 1856 at the suggestion of Queen Victoria. The main building was the world’s longest building when it was completed, but was entirely demolished in 1966. However, Royal Victoria Chapel still stands and has been converted into a hospital museum and events venue. Visitors can also climb the 150 ft tower and take in the amazing 360 degree views for a small admission charge. The views are well worth it!
Follow the water beyond Netley Sailing Club. This part is rather industrial with a BP Oil Terminal. Once beyond the Terminal, either turn left along the Old Way into the village of Hamble-le-Rice or continue along the Strawberry Trail before heading into the village. The variant route is slightly longer, but it will give you more time among the trees and will bring you to Hamble’s quayside. (See google map)
St Andrew’s Church is in the centre of the village. It was originally a Benedictine priory, built by monks over 900 years and has been a place of worship ever since.
From the Quay in Hamble, take the Hamble Ferry over the river to Warsash. There has been a ferry operating this river crossing continuously since 1493. The bright pink ferry is for foot passengers only and is by demand, daytime hours only.
Once across the River Hamble, you arrive in Hook with Warsash Local Nature Reserve, with varied coastal habitats of shingle, grassland, wetland and woodland. A Navy training centre is located in Warsash, where, on 5th June 1944, British and allied commando units sailed for the Normandy Landings.
Rushes cluster thickly wherever there is water on this part of the route. Used widely for thatch and flooring, they have long been associated with hospitality and protection, but many pilgrims know them as the material for the Bride’s Cross. Called Brid, Brigid, Brigantia and many other names, this goddess and saint appears in Christian, ancient and modern pagan traditions. Known as a protector of springs, streams, and other wild water, the association with purity can be harnessed by a pilgrim seeking clarity of thought. Some tales recommend twisting a leaf into a loop and looking through to spy out the truth – but be careful where you tread.
Continue along the shoreline: land to your left, water to your right. The Solent waters stretch toward the Isle of Wight. Follow this vista until you meet the mouth of the River Meon, then turn north along one of Britain’s first canals beside a wetland bird reserve – Titchfield Haven. Well into the 16th century, ships were able to sail up the River Meon as far as Titchfield, making this village a significant trading port. However, over time the river silted and the passage of ships up this river became more and more difficult. In order to maintain Titchfield’s status as a port, the Earl of Southampton proposed the construction of a canal – but this silted up over time too. The Earl of Southampton’s work on the canal was not well received by locals, who saw his efforts as leading to the end of Titchfield’s time as a trading centre, rather than an attempt to continue it. His effigy is still burned by locals every 5th November. In any case, the work done to create this canal altered the river’s water flow, resulting in the wetlands you see today: Titchfield Haven.
The village of Titchfield soon arrives. Spend time here in St Peter’s Church, the oldest in Hampshire.