Sunday, 24 March 2013

On not going back

In November 2011 I wrote a post - On going back - that explored a circumstance where returning to places and people of my childhood - always an experience to be approached with caution - had worked outstandingly. It doesn't always. I've been floundering over how to tackle this topic, but I'll start with a spot of social history.

Gosport, Hampshire, the town where I was brought up, has a long history as a naval and military town supporting the infrastructure and defence of Portsmouth harbour. Until well into the 20th century, this role required defence of the town, which was thus crammed into a small area within ramparts. It was very scruffy but vigorous, judging by the number of pubs and industrial premises (see There are Six taverns in the Town and Public Houses in Gosport High Street area, c. 1850), though not without affluent areas on the High Street, and a shore area called Coldharbour (later Clarence Square) where high-ranking naval officers had Georgian town houses. However, the 20th century brought major changes: in the early 20th century, expansion of suburbs sidelined the old town area, which began to go downhill; and World War Two devastated it. As a local history book described it:
The centre of the town was left as a decaying rubbish heap, jagged blocks of masonry represented the old Thorngate Hall ... The new cinema erected just before the war remained a burned out shell ... The Trinity Church still stood, with fire bomb marks through its roof but the area around was a burned out slum, hideous to see, in the midst of which stood a few decaying almshouses. Clarence Square, once the home of Admirals, was a sordid wreck.
Few towns of its size had suffered so heavily during the war and at one stage more than half its habitable homes had been more or less severely damaged or obliterated.
- The Story of Gosport, LFW White, pub. SWP Barrell, 1966
As with many other towns similarly devastated, the post-war priority was restoring housing capacity - in the context of a rising birth rate - rather than reconstruction. This mostly continued to happen in the suburbs, hastening the decay of much of the old town area. Over the next few decades, virtually all that remained of it, except for the High Street, had been razed. In the mid-1960s, what was left of the southern side of the town had become open space planted with tower blocks, and the northern harbourside become industrial development. Much else, since the late 1970s, has filled in with further solely residential development, with large areas devoted to car parks. You can get an idea of the changes - click to enlarge the images - by comparing the 1850 map (nearly all of the depicted area was built-up with the traditional tight conglomeration of mixed working, trading, and residential space) and the present-day aerial view.

To get to the point, over the past few days I've been suffering an intense nostalgia. I was born in 1956, and I just about remember Gosport harbour-front in the early 1960s, before the shorefront tower blocks were built (here's a view c. 1960 of the site where Seaward Tower now stands) ...

Gosport 1960s W N Mansfield - from Wikipedia, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.
... and also remember, from the mid-1970s, the last remnants of the northern side of the old town, the seedy North Street (see 1900 image), and Sea Horse Street that branched off it, both interrupted by bombed-out empty lots partly overgrown with buddleia. There were pubs, though I was too young to go into them: at one end of North Street was The Crown (now closed, see Google Maps Street View); and at the other, the Fox Tavern, which is still extant, though sadly run-down externally.

But their context is gone. North Street just exists as a couple of short segments on either side of a modern housing development, and much the same is true of whatever else exists of the old town. I can't blame the post-war planners - their decisions made perfect sense pragmatically within financial restraints - but it has left a town centre with little overall physical continuity with its past.

I'm not saying there's nothing to be found if you look. As I said previously, Gosport is heavily imprinted with the relics of the Victorian Cold War that resulted in the Palmerston fortifications, along with other military installations (see, for instance, Priddy's Hard). But I've visited those, and they're geeky-interest aspects of the town that have engaged me intellectually, but not especially emotionally. I can't tell how much of it is symptomatic of my current health problems, but I'm getting an uncomfortable yearning: a wish that I could re-connect with that Gosport I just about remember, when the harbour-front wasn't all aseptic marinas and I could wander out on the mud and find sailors' clay pipes, and whole streets still carried a strong echo of what it had been a century before. But that town is gone.

- Ray


  1. Although going back can, indeed, be successful, I find that such outcomes are rare ... people are a better bet, generally, that places...

  2. I'm sure it makes a considerable difference that I don't know anyone in Gosport - neither family nor friends - any more. But even so, as I said with the Isle of Wight, some places don't change much.

  3. I'm sure it varies from person to person ... personally, I find that even if the place hasn't changed much in fact, it often has changed in my head :-)