IT was a sentimental Edwardian music hall song of years ago but now, almost a century later, it's words could not be more appropriate as Southampton prepares to say a long goodbye to the liner, Queen Elizabeth 2.

The song's chorus went: "We've been together now for 40 years, An' it don't seem a day too much.'' How true that is. Ever since the world famous Cunarder was launched in September, 1967, the city of Southampton and QE2 have been inextricably linked.

In fact, for many people, her distinctive funnel and elegant shape is as much a symbol of the city as the Bargate.

Her graceful decks have, over the decades, played host to royalty, film stars, sporting champions, world leaders, showbusiness personalities and captains of industry.

From the moment passengers step on board into the warm wood-panelled mid-ships lobby, where usually a harpist is playing, QE2 somehow seems to wrap herself around guests, cossets and treats them to an unequalled experience, hallmarked by the ship's understated luxury.

QE2 was at the pinnacle of her career during the years she continued the great Cunard tradition of scheduled crossings from Southampton to New York.

An Atlantic passage is always an adventure but QE2 was built to power her way through these unpredictable seas and when, on one westbound crossing, an enormous 95ft rogue wave hit the liner, she took it in her stride.

The most powerful civilian vessel ever made, QE2 still has the ability of going astern faster than many new ships can travel forward.

Her sumptuous surroundings offer passengers the very best of everything, her famed grill rooms bywords for exquisite haute cuisine and at any one time, stored away in her larders, is a third of the total global production of caviar.

Underneath her name, on the ship's mighty hull, and picked out in large metal letters is the word "Southampton'', a tangible and strong connection that has existed ever since the day she first entered the water 40 years ago.

Now this unique link is to be severed forever as QE2 has been sold off for £50m to be turned into a floating resort in the oil-rich Middle East state of Dubai.

Real emotions of shock, anger and deep disappointment were felt throughout Southampton earlier this week as the city faced up, with disbelief, to the fact that in just 17 months' time QE2 will leave the docks for the final time, never to return.

At 40 years old, QE2 is an elderly dame as far as ships are concerned and for many who have enjoyed a long love affair with the liner, there was the sad realisation that this was indeed the end of an era.

Some were upset at the thought of never seeing her familiar outline on the city's skyline in the future, others were annoyed Southampton was not given the opportunity to buy the liner, while former passengers and crew just could not bear the thought of the most famous ship in the world ending up with her engines ripped out, never to voyage the oceans again.

There were also suggestions it might have been better for QE2 to be sent to the scrapyard and then remembered in all her glory as a liner, supremely designed to face the rigours of the seas, rather than tied up and forever denied her real role as one of the great greyhounds of ocean travel.

QE2, the last great, true ocean liner to be built in Great Britain, bridges the decades between today's modern cruise ships and the golden era of transatlantic travel when the original Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth reigned supreme over the waves.

After the shock, came anger as people asked: "Why was Southampton never even given the chance of bidding for QE2 so she could remain in her home port?'' A consortium of businessmen and shipping enthusiasts had long cherished the dream of eventually seeing QE2 permanently moored on the city's waterfront as a major tourist attraction, conference centre and hotel.

Back in June, 2005, Terry Yarwood, a consortium member, wrote to Micky Arison, boss of Miami-based Carnival Corporation, Cunard's parent company, asking him, when QE2's time was at an end, if Southampton could make a bid for the liner.

"Carnival knew there was strong interest in Southampton to keep QE2 but we were never even given a chance,'' said Mr Yarwood.

"The deal with Dubai was signed and sealed before anyone knew anything about it.

"When QE2 leaves she will take with her one of the greatest missed opportunities that has slipped through the fingers of Southampton.

"She belongs here, not in some far-off place in the Middle East. She is the embodiment of not only the city's maritime heritage but of the nation as a whole.'' Mr Yarwood is confident the consortium could have raised the £50m asking price, said to be the largest sum ever paid for a ship heading for retirement, and he confirmed there had been interest in the project from an international hotel chain.

Of course QE2 would be a spectacular attraction, putting Southampton on the tourist map, and if enthusiasm and affection for the ship were all that was needed to save her, then the liner's long term future would indeed remain on the south coast.

In reality, though, keeping and maintaining a ship of such distinction would be an enormous undertaking and the £50m price tag would be just the beginning.

The first and most problematical obstacle would be identifying and acquiring a suitable long-term berth for the liner.

This would be no easy task as, although QE2 is small compared to today's vast new superliners twice her size, she is still a large ship and it is unlikely that somewhere, such as the port of Southampton, would gladly give up scarce quayside space for a scheme of this type.

So where else would QE2 go? Town Quay and Mayflower Park would not be able to support the visitors, vehicles and services needed to support the liner.

Perhaps an area around the Royal Pier? This would be expensive as dredging would be needed and land reclaimed from the sea.

Allowing for this initial stage to be successful, next would be many logistical hurdles, such as road infrastructure for access, the provision of a large area for car parking, the installation of permanent power and water supplies together with a sewage system, security and safety considerations, to be crossed.

Tourism expert, Shirley Pinn, director of Destination Southampton, agreed that the presence of QE2 in the city could only be good for the economy.

"Thousands of tourists would come every month and QE2 would provide a prestigious venue for a conference centre,'' said Ms Pinn.

"It would be a great asset for the city which does struggle not having a major attraction.'' The positioning of QE2, with her 950 cabins, which can accommodate up to 1,900 guests, would however have a significant impact on the existing hotel trade and there are fears this sudden large increase in the number of bedrooms available in the city would dilute the overall business as occupancy levels dropped.

Top Cunard executives say the sale of QE2 to Dubai is the best outcome for her future as millions of dollars will be lavished on the ship and the hot, dry climate will help maintain her the fabric.

As far as Dubai is concerned the acquisition of QE2 is a great coup and a spokesman guaranteed she would be "cherished''.

But now the countdown to Tuesday, November 11, 2008, when QE2 leaves Southampton forever, has begun and on that sad date the city will say farewell to an old friend.