Weston Shore, Southampton

Weston Shore, Southampton

When you tell people that you were brought up on the South Coast, people tend to think this involves ice cream, shale and all the windy, stopped-clock delights of the British seaside. Alas, in the case of Southampton they would be wrong. However the city does have one tiny little stretch of beach, and one so strange that it deserves a whole new category of terminal beaches all to itself.

Weston Shore, on the Southwestern edge of the city, before you come to the eerie village of Netley (more of which later) is a mix of Tarkovsky’s Zone, a 1930s beach utopia and a ‘60s brutalist dystopia, lining up in front of Southampton Water’s silty expanse. The first thing you notice is a line of identical towers, aligned one after the other in Alton Estate style, with one even taller one right at the end. Geometric and standardised, these council flats have at their entrances paths what can only be described as a meadow, an area of lushly overgrown vegetation leading to a thin road and a stony beach.

The road is dotted with a series of little 1930s concrete pavilions, as elegantly Modernist as anything built in that decade. A recent regeneration has cleaned them up, but in the process made them even more peculiar: each one now decorated with abstractions connected with the likes of World War Two, the Victorians, and (bizarrely) prehistoric archaeology, which frame the views of the towers and the beach itself.

Which is nothing to write home about: 2km of stones and general waste, but with pockets of undergrowth and further on, woodland. On the beach can be found some Stalker-esque inexplicable industrial waste: a pile of what seems like the fluff left by some moulting animal was lying there when I last visited. From the beach you get a view of port traffic and the occasional yacht going up and down the desolate waters, and a distant view of the vast Fawley oil refinery, its many slender towers complementing the bulkier ones on the beach side. Industry, the remnants of Social Democracy and disused leisure all make it a spot which can feel like an idyllic vision of the end of the world.

Weston Shore, Southampton

Not far from here, further towards the Solent, is Netley. A rather smug village, it’s notable for two particularly ghostly ruins. First, the ruined abbey, then further on, the Royal Victoria Country Park. There really is nothing to see here, but once this was the world’s largest hospital, treating the casualties of war from the Crimea onwards. After World War Two (when R.D Laing and my Grandma were employed there) it fell into disuse, was burned down and then demolished, leaving barely a trace – but for the central chapel, huge enough to give some sense of the astonishing scale. Weirdly, it doesn’t exactly advertise what it used to be. Despite going there countless times as a kid, I didn’t realise until I read Philip Hoare’s Spike Island: the Memory of a Military Hospital, a brilliant hauntological account of this now erased site of horrors, what this oversized waterside park once was.

How to get there

Weston Shore is not far from Woolston or Netley rail stations.

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I made a point of looking out for the Weston Shore as I was travelling down Southampton Water on the Cowes ferry yesterday.

Could I remember the sequence of the Towers?

... no, of course not ...

but I had my trusty 1986 OS Southampton City Map* on hand to remind me that the five sisters are Hampton, Havre, Oslo, Copenhagen and Rotterdam - four of which have a rather more successful history of modernist housing architecture than this port city - and the taller one is Canberra Towers (named for the maiden voyage of the liner ???)

[*a curiosity based on the 1:10000 plan with "Southampton Summertime City" tourist branding]

And what struck me is how the stark Corbusian vista is slowly disappearing.

Twenty years ago when I lived in the city, the planting was low and the mediocrity of these buildings compared to Alton was starkly exposed.

Now the young woodland is probably ten to fifteen metres high and blurs the edges.

On current trends, the bottom seven stories of the blocks will have vanished behind oak woodland in another twenty years ago.

There seems to be a similar softening of the landscape behind Fawley refinery, as various saplings put in as token lanscaping on the road approaches are finally coming to maturity despite (or because of?) a petrochemical flare enriched microclimate.

Nothing To See Here



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