Graham Gendall Norton introduces a city that has faced invasions and foreign adventures since Roman times.
Two thousand years rise and fall with the tide as it swirls through the narrow channel at Portsmouth Point and into the harbour. The city is sited at, and named after, the mouth of a port, Portchester, around four miles further north. The great harbour is roughly shaped like a balloon: Portchester sits on top of it, Portsmouth is at its narrow mouth. Portchester has Roman origins, from around the first century ad, though the castle, which still survives, is of late third-century origins, part of the ‘Saxon Shore’ defensive system.
Portsmouth is the only British city on an island site, Portsea Island, which until the twelfth century was flat farmland; a lord of the manor, Jean de Gisors, founded a new town around 1180, laying it out on a regular pattern centred on today’s High Street in the old town. Five years later he founded a chapel, dedicated to ‘the glorious martyr’ St Thomas of Canterbury. This chapel was basically complete by 1188. By 1320, it was a parish church in its own right. The oldest building in Portsmouth, its surviving choir and transepts date from its founding. The cathedral (as it became in 1927), and its recent additions – the nave completed in 1991, the latest, the great bronze west doors of 1997 – provide some of the milestones in the city’s history.
The cathedral survived the Blitz, which much of the High Street did not: in the worst raid, January 10th, 1941, 171 were killed, and 3,000 homes were destroyed. On that date too, the great Victorian town hall, today’s Guildhall, was gutted. It has been reconstructed, but, alas, without the original dome.