Dismal day

5 January 2019

The second parkrun of 2019 began with a first. Young Cameron Sommerville-Hewitt, aged just 16, was trying his hand at Run Directing for the first time. This fine young man has somehow notched up more than one hundred runs and has a PB most people would envy (Commando certainly does). He’s been learning the ropes for a few weeks now and today, under the watchful eye of Event Director Rob, he donned the RD jacket and did a great job of organising things. When he turns eighteen he will be able to officially Run Direct on his own and will probably set the record for the youngest RD ever.

Despite all the brightly dressed runners, the morning was a dark, dismal affair but it quite suited my mood. The last few weeks seem to have been filled with losses. The first was my lovely neighbour of almost thirty years, then came a mother from my days waiting in the playground for my boys. They say these things come in threes and this was proved when we learned of the death of our martial arts instructor and friend, George. The first two deaths were not unexpected, both lovely ladies had been ill for some time. George’s death, however, was quite sudden and, although he was 83, it was a shock. His funeral was yesterday and today we planned to take some flowers to put on his grave. First though there was a parkrun to get through and some other graves to visit.

A walk in the Old Cemetery under a leaden, drizzle laden sky in the biting cold felt like a fittingly melancholy way to start a mournful day. While the runners were racing round with joyful abandon, I slowly wandered among the graves. Some, like that of William and Zillah Gear, felt like old friends. How many times have I passed by, smiled at the unusual name and wondered about the woman who once bore it?

The narrow path I chose turned out to be muddier than I’d expected but it led me to another familiar grave, that of Rebecca Arabella Dimmock and her husband, Charles. This grave first caught my eye because the name reminded me of TV gardener Charlie Dimmock and Rebecca Arabella seemed like a name that ought to be in a novel. Perhaps one day I will write it?

With no real aim I wandered this way and that, surprised to find Christmas baubles still clinging to some of the trees. Then I came across the grave of George Staur Madge, a wonderful name and an intriguing story. George was born in Southampton in 1834 but, at some point, emigrated to South Africa. Why is a mystery but he lived in Port Elizabeth, probably amongst the four thousand British settlers who’d set up home there in 1820 to strengthen the border region between the Cape Colony and the Xhosa people. How long he stayed there is unclear but, in 1881, when he died, he was living back in Southampton.

Close by I stumbled upon the grave of Ethel Bertha and Hector Young. Hector was mayor of Southampton between 1929 and 1930. He accompanied Prince Albert, Duke of York (later King George VI) when he laid the foundation stone for the Civic Centre and was involved in the planning of the Sports Centre in the early 1930’s. Poor Ethel Bertha was killed in the Southampton Blitz on 24 September 1940 and Hector never forgot her. In 1962 he donated a window to St Michael and All Angels Church in Bassett in her memory. The window, showing the Archangel Michael defeating Satan, was designed by Francis Skeat. He also formed a charitable trust, The Berta And Hector Young Trust for the relief of hardship for members of the Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service.

My meanderings were taking me towards the oldest part of the cemetery and, as I approached the chapels, I came upon a bench overshadowed by a tree whose branches were positively weighed down by festive baubles and trinkets.

This is not a part of the cemetery I visit often so there were a few interesting graves I hadn’t spotted before. One belonged to Hubert Napoleon Dupont. Born, Alphonse August Dupont, in France in 1805, he studied in the College de Valogues and the theological school in Coutances and was ordained as a catholic priest in 1854 but later abandoned Catholicism and became an Anglican minister. Whether this decision and his marriage to Suzanne Charley in 1857 were connected is unclear. Between 1856 and his death in 1876 he was minister of St Julien’s, the French church on Winkle Street. The inscription on his grave shows he was held in high regard.

The next belonged to Andrew Lamb, although the decorative script made this difficult to fathom. Born in 1803, he was Chief Engineer of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, later better known as P&O. Lamb was an innovator. He introduced, among other things, a boiler system to stop the build up of salts, patent life boats, a boiler with flat sided flues, a steam superheating device and an improved method of feed water heating for boilers. All these things would probably be of great interest to Commando Senior, who would understand them far better than I.

Lamb didn’t confine himself to engineering feats. In 1861 he became the first chair of the amalgamated Isle of Wight Steam Packet Co and Red Funnel Steamers. Ten years later he became the chair of the publishing company producing the Southampton Times and he was a JP and alderman. He built St Andrew’s Villa off Brunswick Place, and raised funds to build St Andrew’s Church on the lane near his house. Lamb was, undoubtedly, a very clever and philanthropic man and his death in 1881 must have been a loss to the engineering world and the town. Beside his grave is the grave of his son, Andrew Simon Lamb.

The grave beside these two was intriguing. It is a simple wooden cross surrounded by a kind of low wooden fence. The cross is engraved with the name Hugo P Hickman. The really curious thing is a painting of a house leant up against the cross. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a painting on a grave and I couldn’t help wondering if this was Hugo’s house or if Hugo was an artist. Sadly Googling didn’t satisfy my curiosity. All I discovered was that the grave belonged to Hugo Pendennis Hickman, born 23 June 1925, who died on 30 July 2003. Still wondering I headed back towards the cemetery gates and parkrun.

As if the day hadn’t been filled enough with graves, after a coffee and a bite of lunch, we headed out again to visit George’s grave in Shedfield. The drive there was a sad reminder of so many other, happier, drives to George’s gym on Black Horse Lane. This one ended with a pretty Church and a lych gate, beyond which was a graveyard.

The grave was already heaped with flowers but CJ bent to add ours to them all the same. George was a very popular man. So popular it had been standing room only in the church the day before. He was a real character. In his youth he joined the Royal Marine Commandos and became an instructor in unarmed combat. In later life he turned to teaching martial arts and this was where he met Commando, CJ and, much later, me.

Commando and CJ were rather good at martial arts. Commando learned Kung Fu before CJ was born and, under George’s tutelage, along with CJ added jujitsu, Karate and mixed martial arts to his repertoire. Fighting has never been my thing but George insisted on teaching me self defence. He found it amusing that I could only bear to train with Commando, as he was the only person at the gym I wasn’t scared to hurt. I can still hear him saying, “I’m going to teach you a naughty little trick now, in case someone comes out at you one dark night.”

George was a tiny man, not much taller than me and slightly built. Looks can be deceptive though. Even in old age he was more than a match for even the youngest and strongest of men. He was also full of interesting stories. The little grave seemed far too small to contain such a giant personality.

We couldn’t linger too long in Shedfield because, predictably, Commando had a race at Fairthorn Manor in nearby Curdridge. It was his last race as a Spitfire and my last stint as Spitfire photographer. We went. He ran. I took photos. There is little else I want to say about it except that a chapter has ended and our integrity is intact. So far this year seems to be all about endings.

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A last Parisian stroll

16 December 2018

Our stay in Paris was far too short and, sadly, our last morning in this beautiful city was as damp and cold as the previous day had been. We began the morning with breakfast in our hotel. The meal was served in an amazing cellar room that was even quirkier than our lovely little attic room. I could have kicked myself for leaving my phone behind. Luckily I found some pictures on Tripadvisor and have shamelessly stolen them.

Traveller photo submitted by GLCASTELUCCI (Jun 2018)


Traveller photo submitted by GLCASTELUCCI (Jun 2018)


Traveller photo submitted by GLCASTELUCCI (Jun 2018)


Traveller photo submitted by GLCASTELUCCI (Jun 2018)


Many of the eighteenth and nineteenth century hotels and buildings in the 10th arrondissement have hidden cellar rooms like this, some dating from much earlier times. In fact, beneath most of Paris, there is a hidden world of cellars, tunnels, sewers and even quarries. We were lucky enough to see the catacombs on a previous visit and the hotel breakfast room reminded me of them a little, although obviously without all the bones. Having said that, there may well have been bones far closer than we thought. A few years back a hidden burial site was found beneath a local supermarket, so you never quite know what is beneath your feet here.

Today there was no time for real sightseeing and the wet, cold weather put us off going too far afield. Once we’d packed our cases and checked out of the hotel we spent a happy and warm half hour or so having one last wonderful chocolat chaud. You really never can have too many in my humble opinion.

By the time we’d finished our drinks the rain had eased off a little so we decided to go for one last stroll before we headed for the station. It was really nothing more than a walk around the block but there were still a few interesting things to see. On Boulevard de la Chapelle we had a great view of the train lines going into Gare du Nord and an interesting mural of the front of the station on a nearby building.

We also passed a delightfully dilapidated doorway. Commando couldn’t understand why I would want to take a picture of such a thing though.

On Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis the front of the Hôpital Fernand-Widal caught my eye. In the sixteenth century, Vincent de Paul built a small hospital of just forty beds on Rue Faubourg Saint Martin, the street running parallel to this one on the other side of Gare de l’Est. It was dedicated to the Daughters of Charity. Over the years the hospital grew and, by the nineteenth century it had three hundred beds and was run by Dr Antoine Dubois. In 1858 the hospital moved to its present location and was later named after Fernand Widal, visiting physician to the hospitals of Paris, prolific writer of medical essays and instrumental in devising the Widal test for typhoid fever. Today the hospital specialises in psychaiatry, addiction and elderly care and is undertaking a great deal of research about memory. The building looks rather dark and forbidding but, what really caught my eye were the words Liberte Egalite Fraternite above the door.

We carried on walking, pausing every now and then to look at an interesting shop or a piece of graffiti, until we were back on Rue de Dunkerque approaching Gare Du Nord again.

We still had a while before we needed to check into Eurostar so we had a closer look at Maison Fond in the daylight. It really is the strangest piece of artwork I’ve ever seen.

Our final stop was for a closer look at the strange red metal sculpture we’d passed several times on our travels. This rather fantastical creation by Parisian artist and sculptor Richard Texiers, is called Angel Bear. It was specially commissioned in 2015 by SNCF for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. The piece was inspired by the plight of polar bears and the fragility of our planet.

We were still a little early for our check in but, by now, we were frozen so, with some regret, we said goodbye to Paris and went inside the station. Once we’d passed through the airport style security we found a place to sit and wait and got a coffee to warm our hands. There were a few, slightly half hearted decorations in the waiting area to remind us it was almost Christmas and we passed the time with the usual people watching.

After a while a call came for boarding. Commando assured me this was not for our train. The waiting area slowly emptied and we kept on waiting. When the time for our train had come and gone with no further calls I began to get a little concerned.

“Are you absolutely sure about the train time?” I asked.

This was when we discovered Commando had been looking at the outbound tickets all along and the train that had been called twenty minutes earlier and had now left was actually ours. Luckily, it was fairly simple to get onto the next train, although we had rather a longer than expected wait.

We ended up in a rather noisy carriage filled with Welsh rugby supporters. It wasn’t quite the relaxing journey we’d expected but they were a friendly bunch and even shared some of their bottles of red wine with Commando. All in all it had been an eventful trip and I, for one, had learned a few lessons. In future I will be a little more proactive in my research. That way we might actually find the parkrun. Also I will also not be leaving the travel plans in Commando’s hands, especially with his habit of not wearing his glasses.

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Gilets jaunes

15 December 2018

With thoughts of a nice warming coffee and maybe a cake in the Jardin du Luxembourg cafe evaporating, we peered through the locked gates and wondered what to do next. It was one o’clock and both of us were cold, damp and feeling rather hungry. Our early breakfast seemed like a lifetime ago and we’d been walking more or less the whole time since then. The little cafe we’d stopped at before on Boulevard Saint Michel sprang to mind so we headed towards it.

As we walked we theorised about the locked gates of the park.

”Perhaps something has happened inside?” Commando suggested. “That police van must be there for a reason.”

”I wonder what though?” I said, “There was no one inside the gates that I could see and no police in the van.”

“It could be anything but, after the terrorist attack in Strasbourg last week, I guess they’re taking no chances, France does seem to have more than its fair share of these things.”

This was a sobering thought, News footage of the aftermath of Tuesday’s attack in the Strasbourg Christmas market was fresh in my mind. Five people had died and eleven were injured by a French Algerian terrorist with a gun and a knife. He managed to escape the scene in a taxi but was eventually found on Thursday and died in a shoot out with police. The attack was never going to stop us visiting Paris because these things can happen anywhere, but the locked park gates suddenly took on a sinister significance.


La Croissanterie was a welcome sight. We stepped inside to a world of mouthwatering treats and the wonderful smell of coffee. The young man who served us spoke perfect English and was quite chatty. He seemed surprised to learn the park was closed.

“Perhaps it is because of the Gilets Jaunes,” he suggested.

Of course we’d heard all about the Gilets Jaunes on the news at home. The yellow vests movement was sparked by an online petition in May 2018. The petition, aimed at economic justice and motivated by rising fuel prices, government tax reforms and a spiralling cost of living, had almost a million signatures. By November, the online rumblings had become protest marches, with roads and fuel depots blocked. The protesters all wore yellow high vis jackets, the kind everyone has to carry in their car in France in case of an accident or breakdown.  The French are, at the best of times, a militant nation and President Macron, with his ‘let them eat cake’ attitude and smug smile, seems to be quite unpopular. He would probably do well to read his French history and see where such attitudes have led in the past.

Inevitably, some of the marches turned into riots. Those in Paris on 1 December were particularly nasty with more than one hundred cars burned and the Arc de Triomph vandalised. For this reason we’d decided to avoid the area around Champs Elysees where it seemed most of the problems occurred. 

When we left the cafe the young man warned us to be careful in case the Gilets Jaunes were about. It wasn’t long before we saw signs that they were. Soon after we crossed the Seine and were back on Boulevard de Sébastopol, close to Rue de Rivoli, we saw a long line of blue police vans at the side of the road. Amongst them was a strange tank like vehicle that we assumed was for a water cannon. There were no yellow jackets anywhere in view but we knew they must be nearby. Perhaps this explained the locked parks.

A few moments later a couple of men in yellow vests passed us. Whether they were protestors or just workmen of some kind we couldn’t tell but they seemed fairly harmless. We carried on walking and the rain kept on falling.

Five minutes later, as we were approaching the junction with Rue du Borg L’Abbé, we heard sirens. The gendarmes were obviously on the move. All the blue vans we’d just passed came speeding up the road, including the scary looking tank. WE stopped to watch and I took the video below. Before they reached us they turned off onto Rue aux Ours. We breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever was going on was obviously not ahead.

Gilets Jaunes Paris December 2018

We kept on walking but we didn’t get far. As we approached the zebra crossing we saw a huge crowd of people walking down the road towards us. The Gilets Jaunes had found us! It seemed they had also somehow evaded all the police. Commando came over all protective and tried to stand in front of me as they turned and marched in front of us along Rue de Turbigo. They didn’t look very scary as far as I could see though so I got out my phone and began to film them. It isn’t every day you get caught up in a mass protest march after all. The video I took is below.

Gilets Jaunes Paris December 2018

There were an awful lot of Gilets Jaunes and Commando kept trying to get in front of me so I soon gave up filming and just took photos instead. None of the protesters seemed in the least bit threatening. In fact, they all looked to be having rather a nice time, walking along with their yellow jackets and placards chatting to each other. They seemed to be a mixture of all ages and classes, not at all the militant young hooligans they’d been portrayed by the press.

It was a good ten minutes before the crowd of protesters thinned out enough for us to get across the road and continue our journey. In all that time we hadn’t seen a single gendarme. A few hundred yards further up the now empty road though, a whole group of police in full riot gear came past us. With their flack jackets, visored helmets and, most scarily, machine guns, they looked way more frightening than all of the Gilets Jaunes put together.

It was raining even harder by now and it was quite a relief to know the protesters were all behind us now. At least we thought they were. Then, as we were approaching the junction of Rue Réaumur, we saw blue flashing lights ahead. Another mass of police vehicles, white ones this time, were careering across the junction. Either there were more Gilets Jaunes about or the police were spectacularly bad at finding them.

On we walked, rather hoping the police didn’t manage to catch up with the protesters. From what I could see the yellow vests looked to be far more harmless than the police and I didn’t like the idea of them being tear gassed, water cannoned, or shot at. When we came to Boulevard Saint Denis a whole host of police vans were parked up and a small crowd had gathered at the crossroads to see what was happening.


After a few minutes of standing watching nothing much happen Commando decided to walk up Boulevard Saint Denis and see what, if anything, was going on. Against my better judgement, I followed. When we reached the Porte Saint Martin we found a scene of chaos. Half the road was blocked by police and protestors and the traffic was backed up trying to find a way around them.

On a different day I might have admired the beautiful monumental archway, commissioned by Louis XIV in 1674. The Porte Saint Martin was built by architect Pierre Bullet, a student of François Blondel who built the nearby Porte Saint Denis,  to honor the capture of FrancheComté. It replaced the original medieval gateway in the wall built by Charles V in around 1356 to protect the Right Bank of the city. Today all I could think about was tear gas and freezing water.

Luckily the protesters began to march off along Rue Saint Martin and we escaped the teargas and water cannon, if not the traffic jam. When we set out on our quiet afternoon stroll our main worry had been the rain. In the end our walk turned out to be far more eventful than either of us could ever have imagined.

It was beginning to get dark by the time we got back to the hotel and, after a quick freshen up, we went back to our favourite cafe for a warming hot chocolate followed by a bite to eat in Au Baroudeur. The day hadn’t been at all how we’d umagined but it certainly wasn’t lacking in interest.

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The best laid plans…

15 December 2018

From the outset it was clear finding and running the Paris parkrun was not going to be simple. It was much further from the hotel than Commando had thought, 8.6 kilometres to be exact, or 5.3 miles in real money. Walking wasn’t really an option as we needed to be there at nine o’clock for the start, besides, there was far too much chance of getting lost and Commando needed to save his energy for running. On top of all that we had to somehow find the start in a very large park with very few parkruners.

The weather forecast was for heavy rain, which wasn’t ideal, but, when we left the hotel at half past six, it was bitingly cold but dry. We stopped off in Cafe Du Nord for a quick breakfast. This turned out to be delicious but not quite as quick as we’d hoped. The service was excruciatingly slow and time was ticking by.

Eventually, just after seven, we were back out on the street. The Metro station was easy to find, buying a ticket and finding the correct platform, not so much. There was a moment when Commando came close to going back out onto the street and getting a taxi instead. In hindsight this might have been a better, if more expensive, plan.

By quarter past seven we had finally made it to the right platform and were patiently waiting for the train. Briefly, we felt like real Parisians. According to the train information our journey should have taken about forty five minutes, giving us ample time to get into the park and find the start. Well, in theory anyway.

We had to change trains at Odéon but this went fairly smoothly, although it was quite a relief when the train began to move and we knew we were going in the right direction. The map on the wall told us there were a lot more stations between Odéon and Porte d’Auteuil than we’d expected and they seemed to be passing by far slower than we’d have liked. Commando was getting grumpier by the second, sure we wouldn’t make it in time. I was trying hard to be positive but was worried about the walk from the station to the park. The night before I’d translated the directions from metro to start line into English but they didn’t exactly make sense. Once we got there though, I hoped things would be a little clearer.

When we dashed off the train into the freezing air it was almost nine o’clock. At top speed we marched up the hill towards the park, aided very slightly by my translated directions. It was supposed to be around eight hundred metres from the metro station. All of it was up hill and, when we reached the top, there was no sign of a start line. By now it was after nine o’clock and the only runners we could see were already running.

We never did find the start line. There was a lot of angry stomping around the park, mostly by me, and a few cross words. We could have stayed and enjoyed the park but we were both too annoyed at this point so, barely speaking to each other, we stomped back down the hill and got back onto the metro. By this time it was packed and we let a couple of trains pass because we didn’t fancy playing sardines.

By the time we got back to Gare du Nord we could almost see the funny side of it all. Almost… Commando got changed out of his running gear and we went to our favourite cafe Cafe la chaufferie, on Boulevard de Denain, for chocolat chaud. This is possibly the best hot chocolate in the entire world. You get a small jug of melted dark chocolate and another jug of steamed milk, need I say any more? Mmmmm

Over our deliciously warming drinks we discussed what to do to fill the rest of the day. So far it hadn’t rained but it was bitterly cold and rather dismal. Commando suggested a visit to the Louvre but I really wanted to be outside despite the cold. In the end we decided to walk to Jardin du Luxembourg created in 1612 by Marie de Medici. The park is beautiful with lots of interesting statues and fountains and, if we got too cold, there was a museum in the Orangerie and a cafe where we could have warm drinks and food. It sounded like a plan.

So, pulling hats and scarves close about our faces, we began to walk along Boulevard de Magenta. Brisk walking kept us warm although there was a hint of rain in the air that didn’t bode well. At the junction of Boulevard de Magenta and Boulevard de Strasbourg we had to turn but first we had to cross the road. While we stood shivering and waiting I snapped a photo of the bustling entrance to Gare de L’Est.

A row of decorated Christmas trees stood outside the Church of Saint Laurent but the doors were closed so there was no chance of a look inside. It struck me that, while everything in England had been ablaze with lights and tinsel since mid November, Paris barely seemed to realise Christmas was just ten days away. A little further on we did see a vendor half blocking the pavement with a stack of Christmas trees for sale. The smell of pine was wonderful but no one seemed to be buying. Perhaps the French are not as Christmas obsessed as the rest of the world or maybe Paris is too beautiful to need extra festive decoration?

On any other day I’d have been stopping and taking photos all the time, much to Commando’s annoyance. Today though, it was too cold to stop unless it was strictly necessary so we marched on with our heads down against the icy, slightly drizzly air until we reached Rue de Rivoli. Here there was another brief stop to cross the road and take a couple of photos of the Tour Saint-Jacques through the trees.

The tower was once part of the Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie (Saint James of the butchery). Built in the sixteenth century, most of the church was demolished shortly after the French Revolution. The stones were carted off and used to build other things. The quirky tower with its array of strange statues at the top was left as a landmark to pilgrims heading for Santiago de Compostela. 

On our last visit to Paris I went into the park and spent quite some time looking at the tower. The sky was blue then and it was nowhere near as cold. Today, standing still really wasn’t an option unless we wanted to turn into icicles, besides, the gates to the park were closed for some strange reason. As we’d had no intention of going inside this didn’t seem like much of a concern and we walked on towards the river.

When we reached the next junction the Seine and Pont au Change were in front of us. As we waited to cross the road I took a photo of Quai de l’Horloge (quay of the clock) and the Concierge. From here, the Eiffel Tower looked close enough to touch but it was far too cold to even think about visiting, even if the views over Paris would have probably been worth freezing for.

There is a small plaque on Pont au Change commemorating the French resistance fighter Jem Harrix, who died here on 19 August 1944 at the beginning of the Battle of Paris, an uprising staged by the Resistance. At that time, Paris had been under German occupation for more than four years and, although the allied forces had landed on the beaches of Normandy and were approaching, Paris was still occupied. The battle lasted until 25 August and opened the way for the Allies to enter the city.

We stopped for a moment to admire the view from the bridge and try to imagine what it must have been like here during those dark days. A Bateau Mouche passed beneath us but it seemed to be almost empty. It was certainly not the weather for sightseeing by boat.

We didn’t dally long on the Île de la Cité. A few spots of rain were beginning to fall so, apart from a brief stop to photograph the gilded gates of the Palais de Justice and another from Pont Saint Michel, we marched onwards hoping to reach our destination before the heavens opened.

On we went along Boulevard Saint Michel, hurrying now. Although it was the middle of the day the light was so poor it seemed like dusk. Boulevard Saint German was lined with little Christmas Market huts but we pressed on.

A little further on it was tempting to stop at the  Thermes de Cluny, the ruins of Gallo-Roman thermal baths built in the third century to romanise the ancient Gauls. The Musée national du Moyen Age might have been interesting and would certainly have been warmer than the street, but we had our hearts set on Jardin du Luxembourg and, as we were almost there, we passed the museum by.

When we reached Place de la Sorbonne, dominated by the dome of the chapel of Sainte Ursule, we knew we didn’t have far to walk. My mind had already moved ahead to the cafe in the park and I was imagining a warming cup of coffee and maybe a cake.

When we reached the park gates on Boulevard Saint Michel though, they were closed. This seemed a little odd but, undeterred, we walked along Rue de Medicis towards the next gate. This too was closed though and outside it was a police van. It really didn’t look like it was our day…

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Autumn tales from the Old Cemetery

17 November 2018

Almost every single Saturday morning I get up early and go off with Commando to parkrun on Southampton Common. Sometimes, when they’re short of volunteers, I help out and very, very occasionally, I walk the route but I never, ever run. People often ask me why I don’t just stay at home in my nice warm bed. The reason for this is mainly because I love my solitary walks around the Old Cemetery while everyone else is running. Commando thinks this makes me a little weird. Perhaps it does?

On days like today, much as I enjoy chatting to the volunteers and runners, I can barely wait for everyone to set off so I can start walking. The weather was cold and crisp and the light soft and golden enhancing the beauty of the autumn leaves. In fact, the colours were so beautiful, I couldn’t quite bear to leave them so I passed the gate where I’d usually use to enter the cemetery and headed towards Cemetery Road instead.

Just beyond the Cemetery Lake gate there is a side trail winding off into the trees with a small, flat wooden bridge to cross one of many tiny streams. It looked so beautiful I had to explore it further. On the far side of the bridge I found a grassy clearing surrounded by trees in all their autumn glory. The colours were breathtaking.

The trail curved through the clearing and into the trees and I followed it. Experience told me it would lead me out somewhere near the Hawthorns cafe. Soon though, it became very muddy underfoot and despite my wellies, I decided it was best to turn back to the main path.

Back on the path I dithered for a moment and then continued towards Cemetery Road once more. The path divides here and I knew the right fork would take me to another cemetery gate. This is smaller than the gate I usually use and the path is narrower and, after the first few yards, quite overgrown.

Part of the reason for coming this way was to see graves I wouldn’t normally pass. Slowly, I walked along, stopping every now and then to read a stone. In the shade of a large tree, the grave of John and Evelyn Chapman caught my eye. Both were born during World War I and both died within a year of each other in the early 1990’s. Near their grave a brightly coloured plastic windmill looked out of place somehow and I windered who had put it there?

On I went, through an archway of bare trees, their lost leaves made a colourful carpet beneath my feet. The next interesting grave I found belonged to Isabella Hancock who died in 1908. The stone was erected by her children and it looks as if two of them, Ada and Sidney, were buried with her. What became of her husband Charles is a mystery though.

There are many war graves scattered in the cemetery and, with the hundredth anniversary of the armistice fresh in my mind, I was drawn to them. The first I saw today belonged to Private J Wright of the Hampshire Regiment. He died on 11 November 1916 during the battle of the Somme. This battle lasted from 1 July to 18 November and cost about one thousand three hundred Hampshire Regiment lives.


The next war grave belonged to Q W Green a fireman on the HMS Asturias, a Royal Mail steam packet requisitioned as a hospital ship at the beginning of World War I. He died on 29 March 1917, when the ship was torpedoed by a German U boat. Although the ship was flooded and rapidly sinking, the Master managed to beach it near Bolt Head. Even so, around thirty five people lost their lives. Another of HMS Asturias’ firemen, A E Humby, was buried nearby.


Then there was the grave of Edward Wykes, an only child, born in Brokenhurst to teachers William and Fanny. This war grave seemed like something of a rarity as Edward was a second lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps. In those days flying was still in its infancy, the first powered flight by the Orville brothers only took place in 1903. In 1914, the RFC had just five squadrons, one of which was an observation balloon squadron, and just over two thousand personnel. Commanded by Brigadeer General Sir David Henderson the planes were used for Ariel spotting and later aerial photography.

The full potential of an Air Force wasn’t considered until late 1917, when South African General Jan Smits presented a report to the War Council recommending forming a new air service to be used in active combat. The Royal Air Force was not formed until 1 April 1918. Edward joined the RFC in August 1916 as a pilot. He was never transferred overseas and, presumably, his role was reconnaissance rather than battle. Sadly he was killed in a crash in March 1918, aged just 21.

When I reached the main path through the cemetery I crossed it and took another of the narrow trail like paths heading roughly towards Hill Lane. The next war grave I came to belonged to J W Medley a gunner in the Royal Garrison Artillery. At the beginning of the war the army had very little heavy artillery and the RGA manned the guns of the British Empire forts and coastal defences. Later in the war the gunners were positioned on the battlefield behind the infantry lines with heavy, large calibre guns and howitzers. These were long range weapons aimed at coordinates on a map rather than a visible enemy. RFC pilots used wireless telegraphy to pinpoint specific targets. They transmitted coordinates in morse code and the gunners positioned their guns and fired. If this all sounds a little like the children’s game of battleships, that is because it really was. Exactly how or where gunner Medley died is not clear but it happened in October 1918, close to the end of the war. He was fifty five years old.

The next grave was slightly confusing. It belonged to S W Humby, a stoker on HMS Victory. As the Victory had been in Portsmouth Harbour since the 1830’s and is now an attraction in the Historuc Dockyard this seemed quite strange. A little research told me that, in this case, HMS Victory almost certainly referred to one of several naval bases of that name around the country, including Portsmouth, Portland, Newbury and Crystal Palace. At which of these stoker Humby served, what he did and how he died is a mystery, but it happened on 11 September 1918.

The final war grave of the morning belonged to John Robert Sibley one of seven children born to John and Mary Sibley in Southampton. John was a fireman aboard the hospital ship S S Liberty IV during World War I. He survived the war but died in Southampton on 24 November 1918 of bronchopneumonia, almost certainly a secondary infection of the Spanish Flu that killed so many at the end of the war.

To have survived the war and then to succumb to a mere germ seems a cruel twist of fate but it was a familiar story. The Spanish Flu killed between fifty and one hundred million people, making it far more deadly than the war itself in which around twenty million died.

This particularly virulent form of flu is thought to have originated in the major troop staging and hospital camp in Étaples, France, where conditions were overcrowded and ideal for the spread of infection. With one hundred thousand troops passing through each day the disease rapidly spread around the globe. The name Spinish Flu was coined because early reports of outbreaks in France, Germany, Britain and the USA were censored to maintain morale. The only reports to make the papers were of the epidemic’s effects in neutral Spain.

One of the millions to die was Pappy’s only daughter, Freda. The virus was unusually aggressive, causing rapid respiratory failure and a violent immune reaction. Pappy remembered three year old Freda playing happily one morning and dead by the next day.

My watch told me it was time to head back towards the parkrun finish so I turned back towards the cemetery gate. A strong smell of cut pine seemed to fill the air and it wasn’t long before I came upon the source. At the junction of two paths a large tree has been cut down and the resulting logs piled between the graves. Why the tree was cut and whether the logs will be removed or stay to rot is another mysetery. As the cemetery is also a wildlife haven I imagine they will be left to provide a habitat for fungi. I shall certainly add them to my list of interesting things to look at on future walks here.


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One hundred years

11 November 2018

Originally my plans for the morning were to walk to the military cemetery at Netley with CJ. The weather forecast was not good though and, after getting soaked through yesterday, it didn’t seem worth the risk. Despite the distinct possibility of rain Commando was going out for a run with the fast boys. He suggested we get the train to Hamble and walk from there. Once he got back from his run he’d pick us up in the car. He might even get there before the silence at eleven o’clock. It sounded like a plan so, after a swift check of the relevant train times and prices, we set off for Bitterne Station.

The train arrived on time and we arrived, warm and dry at Hamble station at ten o’clock. At this stage the weather was dry, bright and cold. Ironically, it would have been perfect walking weather but you never can tell with these things.

We had an hour to walk the mile and a bit to the military cemetery and a choice of two routes. The rail trail would be more scenic but a little longer. The road route, down Hamble Lane to Lover’s Walk, more direct but less interesting. Usually I’d go for long and interesting over short and boring any day but I had a feeling the rail trail would be very muddy after all the rain so road route it was.

In fairness, as road walking goes, Hamble Lane is quite nice. It’s leafy and the road is quiet on a Sunday. The sun was still shining, even if it wasn’t providing any heat and walking kept us warm.

Lover’s Lane was a little further down the road than I remembered but we reached it soon enough. Now the pretty walking could begin. The lane runs between some playing fields and the fields beside the aircraft factory. It’s leafy, quiet and tarmacked so mud was not an issue. We strolled along slowly, enjoying the smell of decaying leaves and the light through the trees.

We met a couple of dog walkers and CJ stopped to pet the dogs. Pretty soon we’d reached the gate at the end of the lane and we were entering Victoria Country Park. Now we turned right onto the causeway that leads to the military cemetery. If anything, our walk got prettier. The colours of autumn were all around us and above us the sky was blue. The weather forecast seemed overly pessimistic.

We reached the cemetery gates just before twenty past ten. We were very early but, with only one train an hour there was little choice in the matter. Still, it gave us plenty of time to wander around the cemetery so neither of us was complaining.

Outside the gate we stopped to look at one of the war department boundary stones that are hidden everywhere in Hamble. There are lots of them and, some time ago I was sent a map of where they are. One day I might get around to searching for them all. CJ and I both like a boundary stone quest after all.

Today was not the day for thinking about boundary stones though. It was a time for reflection on the hundred years that have passed since the armistice and all the young men who lost their lives. Just inside the gate is a small hill topped by gravestones and trees. The stones cast long shadows with the low November sun behind them but we passed them by. Our aim was a little further on.

The deeper into the cemetery we went the more vibrant the autumn colours seemed to get. A carpet of golden leaves surrounded the graves and the blue sky above added contrast. These graves are some of the oldest but they weren’t the ones we’d come to see today and we slowly walked on by.

A splash of red amongst the gold and blue was a sign we’d almost arrived at our destination. A flaming maple stands close to the tall war memorial amid the World War I graves like an eternal flame of remembrance.

Despite the vivid colours, this is a somber place. The rows of white gravestones are a reminder of the sacrifices made a hundred years ago. The sleeping soldiers lie in peace beneath the ground. That peace was hard won and the price was their lives.

Beneath each stone someone had placed a rose, some were white, others red. Who put them there and whether there was any meaning to the colours is a mystery but it made me smile to know these men were remembered.

There was a lantern and flowers on the memorial too. CJ went to look at them and, while he stood in quiet contemplation, I looked around. We were the only living people. Every year I’ve come here a small group have gathered to honour the silence but it looked as if it would be just us two today. Then I spotted another man, quietly walking along the rows of graves. It was still early, just before half past ten, perhaps others would come?

In silence we slowly walked along the rows of white stones, pausing every now and then to read an inscription. Many simply had names, dates and regiments, others had more detail. Private G M Pirrie, a Canadian, had a maple leaf to go with all those scattered in the ground. He was just twenty-one in 1915, when he died.

Then there was Frank Leedham of the 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards. He died of wounds incurred in France at the Military Hospital aged just nineteen.

As we walked I became aware of my phone buzzing. It was Commando. For a brief moment I thought he was calling to tell me he was in the Country Park and would be joining us soon. He wasn’t though. He was actually sitting in the decking at home, having realised he’d gone out for his run without taking any door keys. He was wearing just shorts and a vest and was cold and cross with himself. There was little I could do apart from promise to get back as quickly as I could after the silence.

While I’d been talking to Commando I’d also been walking along the lines of graves. When the call ended I found myself in front of the grave of Eugene Nirke, the only Jewish grave in the cemetery as far as I can tell. Unlike all the other graves, this one is topped with dozens of pebbles, placed as a mark of respect by those who have visited.

Eugene did not die in World War I like the soldiers all around him. In fact he was born at the beginning of the war and died in February 1950 aged thirty five, making his grave quite incongruous here amongst the Great War dead. It isn’t certain where Eugene was born but he enlisted in the Gloucestershire regiment in Burma in 1941 where he fought against the Japanese invasion. His father was living in Shanghai at the time but it’s doubful Eugene was born there.  After a period of illness, or possibly an injury, he was transferred to the intelegence corps in India in 1944. Over the next few years his intelegence corps work took him to many places, including Ceylon, Bombay, and possibly even Russia. There is some suggestion he might have been a spy. In October 1947 he became a British citizen. 

Throughout this time though, his health was poor and he was listed as unfit for service on several occasions. This was probably a manifestation of the tuberculosis that eventually killed him at the  Douglas House Sanatorium in Southbourne, Hampshire on 22 February 1950.

Another slightly incongruous grave is that of private Horace N Jones. Unlike the other plain white stones, his has a prettily curved top. Horace was an Australian soldier who died of his wounds at Netley in 1915. His sisters erected this small stone for him.

Scattered here and there amongst the allied graves are the graves of German soldiers, prisoners of war who died at Netley. In life, they may have been the enemy but all are equal here in this quiet place of peace. The only difference between them now is the pointed tops of the German stones and the curved tops of the allies,

Slowly, while we’d been walking up and down the rows, other people had arrived. Amongst them I recognised a familiar face, the piper who’d played amazing grace the first time I’d come to remember here. He spotted me too and greeted me like an old friend. I was pleased to see he had his bagpipes with him. He told me he didn’t have the breath to play much any more but he would try today. He’d also prepared a list of the numbers of those fallen in all the battles since the hospital was built here. He asked if I would like to read it out before the silence but I declined. Honoured as I was, I knew there was no way I could do it without crying. In the end his wife did it. I still cried.

The few of us who’d gathered here to remember kept the silence impeccably, although we could hear a football match going on on the playing fields behind the trees. It seemed a shame they couldn’t stop for just a minute but I suppose a hundred years seems too long ago to think about for some people. Without those brave men though, the world today would be a very different place.

The silence ended with the wailing of the pipes. A fittingly mournful sound for this sad occasion. Then I wiped the tears from my eyes and CJ and I headed back towards Hamble and home.

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September in the Old Cemetery

22 September 2018

It was one of those dull mornings, with a uniform layer of steel grey cloud blotting out the sun. The air held the first autumn chill and, for the first time in ages, my coat and hat came out for our early morning trip to the Common. The parkrun team were setting up when we arrived but, after a brief chat, I set off for the Old Cemetery. Today there was no particular mission, just a need to be alone with my thoughts. Continue reading September in the Old Cemetery

Heaven and hell

13 September 2018

Back on the first floor we entered the upper gallery of the hospital chapel. In front of us was a glorious stained glass window and a beautifully painted ceiling. For the poor wounded soldiers, fresh from the horrors of the front line, the sense of peace and quiet here must have felt a little like heaven. We stood for a moment or two drinking in the atmosphere and then walked slowly along the line of pews reading the stories of some of those who once worshipped here.  Continue reading Heaven and hell

Climbing to the top of the chapel

13 September 2018

When we stepped inside the chapel it was empty except for the lady who sells tickets for the tower tour and a single guide. Entry to the chapel is free but there is a small charge to climb the one hundred and sixty six steps to the top of the forty six metre high tower. This was what we’d walked so far for and £3.50 seemed a small price to pay for a birds eye view of the park. Continue reading Climbing to the top of the chapel

Postcards from Victoria Country Park

13 September 2018

We left the beautiful new benches and set off across the park, our heads filled with the lost and wounded soldiers of so many wars. Neither of us said much as we walked across the grass of the cricket pitches towards the distant chapel. We were too busy thinking of all those past sacrifices made so we could live in freedom. War is neither good nor glorious but, when the alternative is to sit back and let evil and injustice prevail, it becomes an unpleasant necessity. Today we would be remembering those who gave so much.  Continue reading Postcards from Victoria Country Park