God's House Tower Southampton

Monday 2 December 2019
* Press evening*

Right then, get comfortable, it's going to be a long one! Southampton is bursting with history just waiting to be discovered, I always think if someone say's "Southampton is boring" then they most definitely have not been to the right places, there's so much to see & do as well as an abundance of history just on the doorstep. The most recent historic building that has been opened to the public is God's House Tower. The majority of my life has been spent in Southampton & I still stumble upon things I never knew existed & still learning about the vast history of the city, because there's a lot.

GHT is a new arts & heritage venue & I have to say, it's very unique. Think art gallery but far from the traditional type of gallery, everything has been jazzed up a little & somehow they've made a 700 year old building seem modern but without stripping it of its original glory. God's House Tower has been many things over the years including part of medieval defence, a place of refuge for pilgrims, the town jail, mortuary, mill & warehouse, Museum of Archaeology & now an arts & heritage venue.   Dan Crow & his team have spent 7 long years breathing life back into the 13th century gatehouse to gift it back to the public & wow, should we be grateful.

GHT has Hoxton Bakehouse on site ready to serve up all the coffee & morning bun's, although there is actually a lot more to choose from than just coffee, which, if you're like me & not a fully functioning adult that likes coffee, it's always good to have other options!

When you first enter through the impressive gate you'll be greeted by Hoxton & some seating areas, along with a big smile as everyone is so enthusiastic about the doors to GHT being reopened.

Along with the building being revived, artists are filling the venue with bespoke art & merchandise as well as exhibitions, rarely seen art work & bringing live events to the tower including music, talks & tours. On display in the seating area is bespoke work from local artists that includes GHT & it's all available to buy. There's everything from illustrations, magnets to canvas bags. Some of the local artists include Amy Harwood & Oli Knowles

As you walk through to the second seating area you're greeted by a little library nook to the left which is filled with books from all eras about Southampton. These books have all found their way into GHT through a book drive specifically to find books about Southampton heritage. This area is also where the original prison toilets were found in 2017, under the floor there is a row of limestone toilet seats resting on an arched brick drain. I found that fun little bit of information out by reading one of the many red signs dotted in & around the building, the smallest bit of history is marked out easily for you to spot even if the artefact isn't visible its self.

Once you've explored the first level & sampled the treat's Hoxton Bakehouse have on offer, it's time to immerse yourself into the incredible history filling this building & head off to the exhibition Stories Behind The Stones. The exhibition starts on the first level, climbs up through the building & takes you on a journey of the tower. The towers story is retold through visuals, displays, story telling & ends with a stunning view of the city if you're prepared to climb the steep spiral staircase to the roof.

The first thing you will encounter is an incredible handmade 3D map of historic Southampton in 1620. This map was made by Ken Hellyar in 1982 & is an incredible sight. The map was made in 13 pieces, with the buildings & surrounding compiled with a mixture of sand paper, old X-ray sheets & very old Cornflake boxes. This map then comes alive as the story telling starts to talk about the historic buildings & walls featured with visuals over lapping.
This map has actually been checked to see if it is an accurate take on the city in 1620 & turns out, it's spot on.

Ken Hellyar's hand made map

Once you've seen & heard about the original uses of GHT & how it helped to defend the city, it's time to head up a level where you will learn about some of the gunners that manned the tower to defend Southampton & it's walls. In the look outs you will find lists of weapons once stored in GHT from 1468 - 1601. The lists are directly quoted from the Stewards book in 1468 & the Book of Debts in 1601, they are pretty lengthy & include an array of artillery as well as machinery.
There are 4 gunners in particular that have their stories told here including Deryk Berebrewer, who arrived in Southampton in 1483 from the low countries, originally a brewer by trade, in 1512 he was employed to maintain the town guns, he also fired the town guns in 1513 to entertain Henry VIII when he visited. You have to acknowledge the level of detail that has gone into telling these stories not only the detailed lives of the gunners & how they came into the positions but the illustrations that put it all together.

Once you've absorbed that history lesson, it's time to step into a darker period of the building, up the stairs to the gaol. This area is where you realise this isn't just history, it's the stories of people that once lived & called these walls home for a period of time. Their names are on display along with their crimes. You can touch the walls they once lent against & see one of the original cell doors which once separated them from the world & also the debtors, people imprisoned for owing money.
It's a slightly chilling room I found, it's as if the realisation of what this building was hit me in this section as the stories of their lives as well as what ultimately lead them to their deaths was all around.
Above the stairs there's a neon sign in which the words have been taken from an original prisoners letter that was found in the gaol, the sign is an exact replica of the prisoners handwriting & dates back to 1700's. See, history but modern.

Next up is to climb the steep spiral staircase to the GHT roof. I don't honestly think you can get a better view of Southampton than up here, we ventured up in the evening so it was dark by the time we reached the tower roof, but even with Southampton draped in darkness it was breathtaking. Although I'm going to have to venture up there in daylight. It's incredible how far you can see from up there & very much worth the climb. Of course the roof also has a whole lot of history to take in, the main thing for me was how much the land had changed & you're able to see that for yourself. The roof has a telescope that can visually take you back to 1454. You can watch the landscape transform before your eyes from modern day city to medieval town through the viewfinder.
Also up on the roof there's a view of Southampton from 1620 along one of the walls as well as details & historic facts from over the years & what the tower has seen & been through.

The Stories Behind the Stones is an excellent exhibition but that isn't the only thing you'll come across while exploring this old building. GHT isn't just a heritage building, it's full to the brims with art & very different types too. There's the Barker-Mill Collections Gallery which is an environmentally controlled room that displays artwork & currently housing late 18th & early 19th century pieces.
The Contemporary Gallery which is currently housing Bloom by Keith Harrison, an exhibition inspired by the sights & sounds of passing ships using subwoofers, raw cacti powder & the sound of passing ship horns recorded here in Southampton.
The Crawford Room, which is the oldest room in the tower is currently housing Transition by Kane Applegate, which tells the story of the repairs, renovation & repurposing of GHT.

Our visit to God's House Tower was incredible & led by such passionate people which you were really able to feel. Dan & Rachel clearly have put a lot of passion into this project & were able to talk us through it all including the amazing things they discovered along the way & what lead to GHT looking the way it currently does. I was just so excited about this venue after leaving & coming away with all this new information has made my fall in love with the city & its historic stories all over again.

Luckily for us, we are all free to roam the building & follow the exhibitions. It's £5 for an adult ticket which is incredibly reasonable considering it also lasts 3 months which means you are welcome to come & go as much as you would like.
Unfortunately as the building is so old, it's not completely accessible although the team have tried to improve access as much as the building allows. The ground floor is completely accessible, the collections & contemporary galleries fully accessible by lift with stairs available too. The stories behind the stones exhibition is not fully accessible but virtual reality tour has been produced which is accessible via head sets.

God's House Tower truly is a gift to Southampton & if you are able to take advantage of it then I fully recommend that you do so. It's so incredible to see such an old building thriving again.
I can't thank the team enough for our amazing visit.
Will you visit?
Emily-May x

* Complementary tickets were provided along with a press evening to view the building, as always the words are my own, see disclaimer.

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