Inside God’s House Tower in Southampton

PUBLISHED: 06:04 10 December 2019

The contemporary art gallery Photo: Courtesy of A Space Arts / God's House Tower

The contemporary art gallery Photo: Courtesy of A Space Arts / God's House Tower


“An arts and heritage venue inside a 700 year-old building” is how Dan Crow describes God’s House Tower, which has opened its doors

The ground floor of the Tower pre-refurb Photo: Courtesy of A Space Arts / God's House TowerThe ground floor of the Tower pre-refurb Photo: Courtesy of A Space Arts / God's House Tower

There's a smile on Dan Crow's face when Hampshire Life meets him in the recently created café at the entrance of God's House Tower. The previous weekend the refurbished monument close to Southampton's port hosted a Music in the City gig - and that night its bar took the first money A Space Arts has made in seven years. As director of the arts and heritage charity which has been working to transform the venue, Dan has been used to paying money out to contractors. "It feels like we're on the brink," he says, as his team makes its final preparations before fully opening its doors to the public this month. "We've held four test events - a series of talks about the history of the building, Music in the City, a private party for a trustee's 60th birthday and a secret open day when we just opened the doors to see what happened. We have learned so much - from which toilets wouldn't flush to the questions the public want to ask."

A Space Arts began in 1999 as a way of recent Solent University fine art graduate Dan and his friends finding a space to show their work. They took over a Victorian shop in Old Northam Road in 2002, which is now the HAHA Gallery.

Dan says the real lightbulb moment for the organisation came in 2004 when they launched their first ArtVaults project - displaying contemporary artworks in the medieval vaults of Southampton's old town. "We realised we were getting two types of audience. There were people coming to see the heritage, but we could talk to them about the art work. And there were people who came to see the art, and learned about the history of the city."

Their next project - turning the Grade II listed city centre landmark Bargate Monument into a contemporary art gallery - united these two strands of art and heritage. After 42 exhibitions between 2006 and 2012, which attracted more than 140,000 visitors, the group left Bargate - but it was when breaking this news to trustees that Dan announced the idea of moving to God's House Tower, which had just been vacated by the city's museum of archaeology.

God's House Tower circa 1900 Photo: Courtesy of A Space Arts / God's House TowerGod's House Tower circa 1900 Photo: Courtesy of A Space Arts / God's House Tower

"It has been a seven-year journey," he says. "The first five years were about raising money, convincing people we could take this on. The last two years we has been getting on site with contractors. It has been challenging and stressful, but also exhilarating and good fun."

Nothing that the group had done before prepared them for God's House Tower. The original team of Dan, administrator Dill Ghafoor-Burman and communications officer Alex Batten has now expanded to ten. And they have been working closely with partners including the Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic England and Southampton City Council, who helped them get their £2.2m Heritage Lottery grant.

After 18 months writing an application "the size of a work of Tolkein" the charity was promised the money - provided they raised another £1m to match it. Helping with the remaining cash were the Arts Council, foundations including Wolfson, Esmee Fairbairn, Barker-Mill, Garfield Weston and Henry Moore, and the Friends of Southampton Museums, Archives and Galleries.

Dan put on every application God's House Tower is "an arts and heritage venue in a 700 year-old building." And that is clear as soon as you walk off Town Quay Road through the reinstated south entrance. Dan and the team used old pictures and evidence gathered by the city council's archaeology unit manager Andy Russel to find the building's original entrance, which had been blocked and infilled with rubble in the 1960s.

"When we took out the rubble we found a chute that nobody knew was there," says Dan. "We think it dates back to the 19th century when the building was a warehouse - the stonework has been deliberately smoothed so they could load goods up to the top floors." The discovery helped cement their relationship with Historic England, who saw they were keen to preserve all elements of the building's history.

Dan wanted the centuries-old walls to be central and as exposed as possible. "The stones are the story," he says. "We wanted to show them off." All additions have been created using just concrete, oak and glass to avoid taking focus off the walls. Within the building another stone archway, which was once a toilet, has been opened up. Breezeblock walls which divided up the museum have been taken out, and a light and airy extension has been added, which is now home to toilets and a planned local history library. An appeal is currently going out for local history and art books. The extension also brings some of the outside walls in - eliminating an exterior space which was once prey to antisocial behaviour.

The tower will house a permanent exhibition covering the building's long history. As well as getting onto the roof to take in the view across the port, visitors will learn about the lives of gunners stationed at God's House Tower and the building's use as a prison. The stories have been meticulously researched by Dr Cheryl Butler, who is penning a history of God's House Tower which will be on sale in the venue's shop.

A model map of Southampton in the 1600s, created by local historian Ken Hellyer in 1982, will also be on permanent display. "It was built in his front room using whatever materials he had laying around," says Dan. "We have had it fully restored."

The tower is the only part of the building which will be ticketed - at just £5 for a three-month pass. Visitors will be able to visit the two art galleries, shop, local history library and café, run by Hoxton Bakehouse, for free.

The Contemporary Art Gallery will house mainly sculptural works, which will change over the course of six to eight weeks. Each display will follow a theme which will change every nine months, the first being Lost Connections.It will be complemented by the Collections Gallery, which is an environmentally controlled glassed-in space in the centre of the building, showing work from Southampton City Council's collection. In the opening weeks an additional exhibition about the transformation of the building is in the Crawford Room, the oldest part of the building. This space, with its exposed Victorian roofbeams will be used for school and local groups' workshops.

But at the centre of all of this is the building. "There are stories within these walls," says Dan. "The tower survived two World Wars, it saw the Mayflower and the Titanic set sail."

These stories will be collected under the overarching theme of I Am The Walls, which are currently represented by a series of promotional postcards. The waves once lapped against these walls refers to the building's original seafront location before the port was reclaimed and Cannon blast shook my walls is about its past as a gunnery.

The final postcard Artists bring me back to life takes God's House Tower's long history bang up to date. It underlines what art and culture can bring to a city - to help save one of its oldest landmarks for generations to come.

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