Ah, Dear Readers, Dear cynical Readers… I hear you cyber scoff from here! However, many of you – or at least those who are co-dwellers in this seaside city – are nodding in agreement.
I love Portsmouth. I have lived in other areas, but have always returned. My parents were born here, and I gave birth to my own daughters in the same hospital where my mother had given birth to me three decades prior. My father’s family were well-known fishmongers and fruiterers, going back to the early twentieth century, and my mother’s father was an electric welder in the docks. The Arnett family are still going strong (bingo halls, leisure industry) but there are very few of us Lushs left. I am Pompey born and bred. I don’t sound as though I am, or so I am told, but that’s because of a private school education that was funded by the sales of second-hand cars, video rental, and the profits of a pub and pool club; again, all local to the area.
There are a variety of reasons why I love the city. It often gets a bad rep, but as with many things, that’s usually by people who do not even live/have never lived here. A fabulous friend of mine once tried to convince her husband to relocate here. He had grown up in Oxford and they had met whilst living in London. Somewhat unfortunately the night that she believed would be her trump card (New Year’s Eve spent with my ex-husband and I in Southsea) proved to be the demise of her plan, when we ended up locked in the Spice Island pub by the police after someone was glassed with a bottle neck: they eventually left London for Oxford. Oops.
Reasons why I love Pompey
1.) The docks. On the outskirts of the island and along its edges lay the docks. And although you drive past some visually unappealing flats on the way in, to the right you have the docks and ferry ports – and the sight of the setting sun behind the cranes that tower above the skyline has an industrial beauty all of its own.
2.) Fratton Road. My grandfather and father owned a pool club from the late 80s until my grandfather’s retirement in 1999 at the age of 75. The club was in an old cinema and I adored going up into the projection room and peering down upon the little islands of green cloth. I also loved the fact that I could play pool from the age of eight and hustle any visitors. Slightly further down the road is the Wesley Community Centre and behind it is the site where my father sold cars when I was very young. I still have some of his business cards for Northcross Cars to this day. When The Who filmed Tommy in Portsmouth they used the car lot to park their trailers. I have fantastic photos of my parents and their friends with Oliver Reed and Roger Daltrey.
3.) History and Culture. From the architecture to the history of the Mary Rose, from the King’s Theatre to the Groundlings Theatre. I love that the city is multi-cultural and, especially in comparison to the majority of Hampshire, multi-ethnic. I want my children to grow-up surrounded by as many positive and creative influences as possible. The music scene has always been strong in Portsmouth. People such as Dave Allen have long-documented Pompey’s musical heritage and there is always something going on somewhere in the city.
4.) Comical Road. Also known as Commercial Road. Admittedly I do not love it, but if you are to claim to love Portsmouth then you must accept it. (Those people who suggest that you never venture further north than Comical Road do not really love Portsmouth: they love Southsea.) The fountain, usually with some bubble bath in it, the women who dress in little more than bikinis as soon as the temperature is above zero in the spring, the sight of Charlotte Street where my grandparents had one of their fruit stalls. Not lovely, not twee nor village-like, but a reality of city living. Full of life; dirty, vital, and a pulse for the city. Which leads me to the heart of the city, which is the town …
The town deserves its very own list, because really it is the heart of Portsmouth and the main draw. And unlike many people, I am not going to start with the predictability of Albert Road.
1.) Palmerston Road. Aah, Palmie Road. My friends and I used to sit for hours on the benches down there, generally flirting with the boys from St John’s and eating iced apple donuts from the Three Cooks bakery. I went to school just around the corner and so spent many of my formative years in the vicinity of Palmerston Road. When I was tiny and my mum picked me up from school we would buy mint choc chip ice-creams from the newsagents that used to be to the left of Woolies, and look in Pratts and Why Knot? in Marmion Road. Armfuls of sticker albums and accompanying stickers, with rubbers that smelt like sweets in the shapes of different animals (some were even transparent, with tiny plastic rainbows encased within them: a world in an eraser!), and rubber topped pencils with matching stationery for the days when people still wrote letters. When I was twenty I lived in a flat above Natwest bank in Palmerston Road and I loved looking out at the shopping precinct below. It has a village atmosphere and a strong sense of community. I have worked in both Waitrose and WHSmith and made some of my very closest friends in those days. Sur La Mer no longer exists but Soprano’s is my children’s favourite restaurant and they do a mean chicken ciabatta with aioli.
2.) Marmion Road has some fantastic shops in it – The Interior Trading Co, Coco’s (sea-salted caramels to die for), Lusseau the French deli and One Legged Jockey for vintage bits and bobs, selling a little of everything, from clothing to typewriters. When I was very small there was a children’s dress shop on the corner (a world away from the creepy Chantelle window displays – if you live down this way you will know what I mean), a butchers, and a wonderful coffee shop called Brewer’s. They must have stocked every coffee bean known to wo/man, and the smell when you walked in was delicious. I will never forget it. There was a bookshop called Floods on the corner, and a restaurant called London Fog I think where Halifax now stands.
3.) The Sea. I never forget how lucky I am to live so close to the sea. From any point in the city, you are never far from the sea. On misty mornings you will be woken by the fog horns, and on each 31st December they will sound in the beginning of a whole new year. In the damp and the fog of Autumn, you can open your front door anywhere in the city and smell the sea on the air, and I love it. My husband and I take our girls out to the seaside at every opportunity in all weathers. There is nothing like Southsea in the sunshine; watching my girls giggling and carefree in the splash pools near the D-Day museum, and there is nothing like Southsea in the winter; seeing my daughters cycle, scoot or run along the front, breath misting in front of them as they charge along the grass by the bandstand, dragging us to the park by the funfair. Southsea Castle, the lighthouse, the Square Tower, surrounded by and defined by the sea, punctuated by the forts dotted in the solent as the eye stretches to the Isle of Wight. Heaven.
4.) Albert Road. There are two sides to Albert Road. It has become very ‘cool’ in the past decade, which I love because when I lived in Southsea twelve years ago Albert Road contained all of my locals. Every Friday night would be spent in Vines, drinking wine and munching nachos, or sat in A Fistful of Tacos, doing the exact same. Sunday mornings were breakfast in The Citrus Cafe and presents were purchased in Passion Fish. Only one of those establishments remains now, and it is no longer called Vines, but part of what I love about the city as a whole is that it is always evolving, yet to some reassuring extent it stays the same.
In recent years Albert Road has become a haven for some fantastic vintage stores and some quirky little shops with several great locations from which to source cake. But there are two sides to Albert Road; the lighter sweeter side, and the darker seedier side. You cannot view the Road that is Albert through rose-tinted specs. On a Saturday or Sunday morning you will invariably sidestep some puddles of vomit, kindly deposited after closing time, and whereas there is a genuinely artistic community thriving in the area, there is also sometimes a feeling of those who try a tad too hard; an air of the contrived perhaps, with a touch of pretension. Just as Billy Crystal once said (When Harry Met Sally) that the worst kind of women are those who are high maintenance but think they are low maintenance, so the most pretentious are those who are falsely bohemian enough as to think themselves above it all.
There are some wonderful shops at either end of Albert Road, and, even though the middle of Albert Road is certainly still the most rundown stretch, there are a couple of utter gems in between. The Garage Lounge, which opened in March this year, is open from 7 til 11, and is remarkably (and, making a refreshing change) alcohol-free. Their americanos, lattes, pancakes, and locally-sourced menu are all to be enjoyed in an eclectic and very chilled setting. But what I love best of all is that the building has history to it, and that history is celebrated by the new owners. The staff are fab, truly friendly, and you can sit with your laptop and work, or sit with your friends and relax. There is a very strong sense of community in the Garage Lounge, which reflects Southsea itself. And nowhere else in the city can you wee by candlelight, or so I presume.
Other shops that need a mention in Albert Road include the wonderful Library Barbers (this probably constitutes Victoria Road but it’s a beautiful addition, very traditional yet very contemporary, with the feel of a cosy drinking men’s club about it, all dark leather and cut throat razors); Deadman’s Glory (vintage clothing, always intriguing to look at – only yesterday my husband and I spotted a red velvet Mrs Santa outfit with a 24 inch waist and a 28 inch bust, a boned corset and a presumably tiny owner who had been a dancer in the 1950s), Hideout (more vintage); Casa De Castro (tiny establishment, beautiful cake porn); Flo and Stan (gorgeous little gifts, some very quirky toys made by my cousin no less, and a lot of retro homeware); Budd’s Herbal Apothecary (stunning store, traditionally decked out, with bespoke facials, bespoke face creams, tinctures and advice – a must-visit); Bellamy’s (a gorgeous store that has been around for as long as I can remember, some beautiful glass pieces, jewellery and homeware); and The Kitty Bigg’s Studio. The latter is one of my favourite shops and was originally opened in Highland Road before moving to Albert earlier this year. It is owned by the gorgeous and bubbly Jilly, who up-cycles some fabulous furniture and makes some truly covetable homely items, all of which are reasonably priced and show true care. This attitude of care, to both clientele and product, is why hers is one of my favourite stores: there is a genuine care for the customer and your wishes. Many bits and bobs at Kitty Biggs can also be found in Flo and Stan, but are (eek, dare I say it) at more reasonable prices and sold in a cosier atmosphere.
So, in a rather large nutshell, those are my reasons for loving Pompey – and the reasons why, even though I have occasionally left, I have always returned. I could include a host of others (Pie and Vinyl in Castle Road, the fact that you can cycle anywhere in the city and barely need a car, the close proximity to Brighton, Chichester, Winchester and London, the fact that it is surrounded by some mind-blowing scenery – Portsdown Hill, QE Country Park, the South Downs…) but I’m going to hand over to you in a moment, Dear Reader. Perhaps I am just lucky (and here I tempt fate) but I’ve never suffered any of the supposed ‘crimes’ that people outside of the city seem to believe we are all blighted by. My children are very outdoorsy and attend both a school and pre-school that are respectively deemed to be ‘outstanding’ by ofsted, and we have a fab community in our little neighbourhood with good friends. Never a day goes by when I don’t exchange waves, words or pleasantries with the neighbours. I simply love Portsmouth: Pompey til I die, innit?! Nuff said, geezer.
“And sometimes you close your eyes and see the place where you used to live… when you were young.” The Killers.
Take a moment Dear Reader. Close your eyes.