Gothic Tourism

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a Titchfield History Society talk

By Cheryl Butler

At the last minute Cheryl Butler kindly offered this talk, as the planned speaker was unwell. To most members the title didn’t give much away, but what a fascinating insight into 18th century life we received and such a local connection to Gothic Tourism.

The story of Netley Abbey, on the banks of the River Itchen, mirrors Titchfield’s own monastic past in that both Abbeys were dissolved by Henry VIII and turned into Tudor houses. In Netley’s case the house was left to become the picturesque ruin in the early 18th century and a magnet for the ‘Picturesque Movement’ in art and literature. The Romantic idea of Medieval Gothic (as opposed to the stark design of Greek and Roman architecture) appealed to the likes of artists John Constable and Thomas Rowlandson and writers such as Thomas Gray and Horace Walpole.

By the mid 18th century Southampton had become a spa town, attracting wealthy and retired visitors and as part of their engagements a boat trip to the romantic ruins of Netley became ‘de rigueur’.

The Gothic fashion for turrets, arches and other architectural embellishments led to houses being built in this style, either from new or converted from other ruins. Later in the century retirees who had previously worked for the East India Company plus the French Émigrés fleeing the revolution all brought additional influences in the form of a cornucopia of styles in architecture and ornament. An example was Southampton Castle owned by the Marquis of Lansdowne built in the early 1800’s. 

Artists and poets streamed into Southampton, the former to find patrons with bare walls in their new homes and writers seeking inspiration. At this time reading was a popular pastime for aspiring upper classes, with newspapers available and a circulating library in existence.

Southampton’s increased tourism required nurturing with pamphlets and maps which included illustrations. Excursions to Netley Abbey required these so the visitor could walk among the ruins reading the Netley inspired poetry with engravings included. A particular favourite pastime was having a picnic among the ruins, a practice which became so popular and, as much detritus was left behind, caused a degree of consternation among the locals. And we thought litter bugs were a 20th century invention.

As more and more visitors arrived, guidebooks got bigger and bigger and this required more stories to be written. Embroidering early rumours of ‘other worldly’ spirits and with tales of curses and hidden treasure, writers were never short of material.

Another writer who read contemporary gothic novels and was influenced by Southampton Society of the time was Jane Austen, who moved to the town with her cousin in her late teens and picnicked at Netley Abbey.

The Netley Abbey ruins have been the subject of an opera, a musical and ghost tours throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and they continue to hold a fascination, evidence being the proliferation of postcards, newly found stories and a couple of centuries of graffiti on the stones. 

Was this a missed opportunity for Titchfield or a lucky escape? 

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