We were only in Southampton for a couple of days, we didn’t go to every single pub, or even every single good pub, but it was enough to get a feel, we think.
The city centre feels more like Dortmund than, say, Bristol – Blitzed, and thoroughly, but then opened up to let sea air blow through, and to show off big skies. It is owned by chains: Yates, Wetherspoon, Flaming Grill, and so on. There wasn’t even a really outlandish booze bunker for us to get excited about, just plain retail units with branded fronts and printed signs, JPEG artefacts and all.
Belgium & Blues intrigued us, though, and turned out to be just what you might expect: a speakeasyish basement bar specialising in Belgian beer, but with well-chosen cask ale and British keg, too. It’s not cheap (how could it be?) but, with Bitterballen and Blokjes on the menu, it was fun.
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With our (small, informal) pub historian hats on, our attention was grabbed by a run of pubs along Bugle Street, a back route following the line of the old city walls. The Juniper Berry, for example, is obviously an inter-war pub in tidy mock Tudor, though we can’t work out which brewery built it or in exactly which year. It’s Trip Advisor reviews are forbidding and a prominent sign warning that shoplifters aren’t welcome sends an unintended signal.
On Friday night we found the function room pulsating with coloured lights and heavy music, but the main bar more sedate, though still lively. Around the counter, older men debating and berating; In the corners, middle-aged couples sharing bottles of wine; in the centre, a family with cartoons on tablets and colouring books; and around the pool table, burly lads playing semi-serious pool with one eye on Sky Sports.
We admired the original fixtures and fittings, and the properly pubby atmosphere, though the beer was nothing special, and felt headaches coming on as a result of (by our count) four separate sources of music in different styles, with conflicting rhythms.
Around the corner, there was the Titanic, formerly the Queen (per etched windows) but formerly lots of other things, too, according to WhatPub. A handsome Edwardian building, this place was deserted when we entered, with the Rocky Horror Picture Show on TV and a pile of tools on one end of the bar.
One by one, though, regulars turned up, middle-aged but Bohemian, clustering around the bar to talk about haggis, a recent police incident of ambiguous detail, and a question in the last pub quiz: “Long, hard, with ‘come’ in the middle? See, the minute he says, ‘Don’t think of anything rude’, it’s impossible to get that idea out of your head, isn’t it?”
The beer was bad but who cares?
The Duke of Wellington, deeply historic and authentically wonky, was too busy to drink in, but we enjoyed our few moments steamed-up among the crowd as a drummer tuned his snare and pints of Wadworth 6X were hoisted over our heads.
The Dancing Man brewery, at the end of the road overlooking the ferry port, occupies a building with even denser history – the old city wool house, built in the 14th century, and later used to house Napoleonic prisoners of war. It also feels as if belongs in some German city, perhaps Nuremberg, and eschews the minimal and industrial in favour of old stone, heavy wood and dark corners.
Young couples on dates, old couples on dates, middle-aged groups in expensive leather jackets, and parties of what we guessed were graduates students, milled and leaned and huddled over hazy IPAs and pints of San Miguel. There were bouncers on the door but it didn’t feel like they were necessary that night.
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Beyond the Altstadt and the ring road (so German) we explored Shirley, which reminded us of Fishponds in Bristol, or perhaps Seven Sisters in London. Which is to say, in need of a lick of paint, but sharp with grit.
Our first stop was craft beer bar Overdraft which seemed a million miles from the sister branch in upmarket Winchester, and rather cut adrift in LIDL-land. The cask ale wasn’t up to much, sadly, but Camden Ink on keg was satisfying and the food was excellent – soft tacos and crisp squid scattered with half a garden.
Off the main run, into the suburban streets with their schools and churches, we had more luck. The Waterloo Arms is a Hop Back pub and looks, feels and even smells just like the Sultan in London SW19. That is, plain but not austere, clean but not sterile, ‘proper’. A kid in a Batman costume was overseeing the meat raffle; darts went thump, thump, thump; and when a family left, the elderly lady next to us tutted: “Didn’t even take their glasses back, look.”
Down the road, the Wellington had a similar thing going on, as well as a line-up of classic ales from Landlord to Sussex Best. Who told people to paint pubs grey? It’s meant to look contemporary, we think, but feels like drinking on a battleship. It says a lot that about the Wellington’s atmosphere that, grey paint aside, it vibrated with Big Pub Energy.
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Overall, this is a city with every type of pub, and lots of good ones, which we found without much effort. ONS tells us there are 100 pubs which, though down 70 on 2001, suggests there are a few more to discover yet, not least an intriguing looking micropub that was shut when we passed, and others recommended to us on Twitter.