Our normal Saturday usually begins with a quick drive to Southampton Common followed by parkrun. This morning though, a whole group of us were heading for Moors Valley parkrun instead so we had an earlier start than normal. At least we didn’t have any worries about getting lost. This was our third visit, although, for Kim, it would be a first. In fact, Kim was the main reason we’d chosen Moors Valley as she missed out last time due to work.
Another Saturday morning, another stroll through the Old Cemetery. As this morning was dull and drizzly, I was all too glad to get off the flats, where all the parkrunners were gathered, and into the relative shelter of the cemetery. There was no plan, no graves to search for, just a slow, peaceful wander with the pitter pattern of raindrops on leaves to keep me company.
The rhododendrons were putting on a beautiful show near the gate. A splash of pink to brighten the dullness. A solitary bee was slowly going from flower to flower, diving into the leopard spotted throats gathering pollen and nectar. Every time I raised my phone to take a picture though, he buzzed to the next flower, so I gave up and walked on.
A little way down the path I startled a squirrel. He froze mid bound, long enough to get a picture, but not a very good one. One slow step closer and he was off, shooting into the trees like a streak of lightning. On I walked, wondering how many squirrels were watching me from the branches?
Above me, through the leaves, there were patches of blue sky, but the drizzle kept falling all the same. A tunnel of hawthorn branches, bowed down with the weight of wet flowers, dripped gently on me as I passed. Hawthorn, the auger of spring, seemed to have somehow got it wrong because it looked and felt more like autumn. The flowers were pretty though.
The more open area beyond the hawthorn was dappled, not by sun, but by daisies. Each forgotten gravestone seemed to have its very own bouquet. Every flower was speckled with sparkling raindrops.
Off the main path, on a narrow trail, my feet brushed the wet flowers as I passed. Now and then I had to duck beneath low branches and sidestep precariously angled stones. Here I found buttercups, forget me nots and wild geranium, lapping up the moisture.
One section of the trail was all nettles to be carefully stepped over. The next all dandelion clocks, bedraggled by the rain. No amount of blowing would tell the time with these.
Further still another hawthorn grew so low across the trail I had to bend almost double to avoid it. The pretty white flowers, rimmed with pink dripped on me all the same but I forgave them because they were so lovely.
Heading back towards the gate now, the next hawthorn was brighter still. The branches arched across the trail were a mass of shocking pink. Each tiny flower seemed to shout, ‘look at me!’
Pink seemed to be the order of the day here. Even the horse chestnut had decided to get in on the act. Rather than glowing white, each candelabra of flowers was salmon pink, as if the flames were burning low.
Rain or no rain, I couldn’t wander amongst the graveyard flowers forever. The parkrun would soon be packing up and it was time to get back to reality. Spring maybe very late in coming this year and the rain just keeps on falling, but the flowers in the Old Cemetery know it’s May and summer will soon be on the way.
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Very few of the crew members aboard Titanic came from Sholing. Back in 1912, it was a rather isolated, largely rural area. Surrounded by the toll gates, at Northam Bridge, Lances Hill, Hedge End and Bursledon Bridge, the only toll free exit was the floating bridge, or a long, roundabout journey to Cobden Bridge. The one and a half thousand or so people who lived in Sholing were mostly involved in strawberry growing, market gardening or brick making, so there was probably less need to go to sea to earn a living.
There were just six Sholing men working on Titanic and, of those, two did not give full addresses when they signed on to the ship. This made our task of finding crew houses more difficult than usual. The first of these was the aptly named Henry William Sparkman, a fireman, who lived somewhere along the mile and a quarter long Spring Road. Kelley’s directory told me there was a Jane Sparkman living at 282 Spring Road, and, as Henry’s mother was called Jane I guessed this was probably his address.
Unfortunately, when we found the house it was obvious it was built long after 1912. Perhaps the original was bombed? There were other houses nearby more in keeping with the date so I took a couple of photos, wondering what Henry’s house would have looked like?
Henry was born in St Mary’s in 1876. His father, also called Henry, was a mariner and he and his wife Jane had ten children, although only eight survived infancy. Henry was their second born son. When he was still a child the family moved to Hound and, by the time he was fifteen, he’d left school and was working as a telegraph messenger. Within a year he’d joined the Royal Navy. He served aboard the St Vincent, Australia, Grafton, Resolution, and Victory I.
He was a small man, just five foot one and a half inches tall, but, despite being invalided out of the navy in April 1897, obviously quite strong and fit. He later joined the merchant service as a fireman. Shovelling coal in hot, dirty boiler rooms was not a job for the weak and feeble. By 1901, Henry and his family had moved to Sholing and were living in Firgrove Road. They later moved to Spring Road and this was the address he gave when he signed on to Titanic as a fireman, earning £6 per month. He had previously been working aboard Olympic.
Two days after he signed on to Titanic Henry married Londoner Ida Lilian Chambers in Christ Church, Norwood, London. He sailed just two days after the ceremony. Poor Ida must have been devastated when she heard news of the sinking. Thankfully, Henry was one of the lucky few to survive, although the details of how or in which lifeboat he was rescued are not clear. He must have been off duty at the time, as, once the ship began to list, getting up the steep ladder out of the boiler rooms would have been impossible. The chances are his muscles saved him. Like most of the firemen who survived, he was probably ordered into a lifeboat to help row.
Undeterred by his experience, Henry continued to work at sea throughout World War I and beyond. In 1913, he and Ida had a son, Edwin. Tragically, three years later Ida died giving birth to their second child, a daughter called Lilian and little Lilian died aged just two. Henry remarried in 1927. He and his new wife, a New Forest girl called Olive Ward, went on to have a son, William, the following year. Poor Olive died when the child was just a few months old and Henry never remarried. He died in October 1947, after a long illness. He was 71.
The next house on our list posed a bit of a puzzle too. We had two conflicting addresses and no idea which was correct. Some sources had George Edward Kearl living at 37 Botany Bay Road, while others had him living at 27 Bay Road and Kelly’s Directories had been no help. Luckily both roads are close together and near Millers Pond. CJ and I made our way to the end of Spring Road and sat by the Pond for a while peering at Google Maps and wondering if we’d be able to work out which was the right house just by looking at them. It seemed unlikely but all we could do was try.
We crossed the nature reserve, emerging on the leafy part of Botany Bay Road. It’s quite an odd road in some ways, with one side filled with large expensive houses and the other with small mobile homes. The first people to live in this area, back in the 1790’s, were poor Romany families. They used bricks from the nearby brickworks to build little brick bungalows and kept their caravans in the gardens. In winter they lived in the houses and in summer they’d use the caravans to go fruit or hop picking. Things have changed a bit since those days but the descendants of those Romanies still live here. Sadly, the mobile homes are not quite as pretty as their old painted caravans.
It was clear fairly soon that number 37 was going to be at the far end of the road so we turned off onto Bay Road to check out the house there first. It was a pretty little bungalow with a very tall chimney and a well kept garden. Whether it had been standing since 1912 wasn’t clear but it was certainly possible.
The second possible house, 37 Botany Bay Road, was amongst the 1930’s built properties overlooking Sholing Common. The old maps told us there had been houses there back in 1912, just not these houses. My gut told me the house we were looking for was probably the first one we’d seen on Bay Road but there was no way of telling for sure.
Either way, one of these houses was once George Edward Kearl’s home. His parents, Courtney William and Isabella Maria Kearl, were both Hampshire born and were married in East Boldre in 1883. George was the second of their four children, born in Southampton in August 1886. The family lived in Kent Road, Freemantle, and Courtney was a coal porter. By the time George was 14 he’d left school and was working as a boiler sealer.
When he first went to sea isn’t clear but he was absent for the 1911 census and was probably working aboard Olympic. This was certainly the ship he left to join Titanic as a trimmer. His monthly wages were £5 10s and the work would have been hard. The trimmers worked in the boiling hot coal bunkers, shovelling coal down to the boiler rooms. They also had to make sure the weight of the coal was evenly distributed or the ship would begin to list and to put out any fires caused by the unbearable heat of the boilers. They kept working even as the ship was sinking and only 20 of the 73 trimmers aboard survived. Poor George was not one of the lucky ones. His body was never identified.
George was unmarried, so the only ones to mourn his loss were his parents and siblings. It seems so sad that we couldn’t even find out for sure where he lived but at least we could tell his story.
We were now almost in the middle of South East Road, where our next house was. South East Road is three quarters of a mile long and includes the calf busting Bunny Hill. Luckily for us, a quick look at the house numbers told us we were quite close to it. Counting the numbers as we climbed the hill we soon discovered number 140 was another 1930’s built house, close to the junction with Kathleen Road. This may have been the spot where George Henry Cavell once lived but it certainly wasn’t the same house. There are plenty of others nearby dating for earlier times though so I took a photo to give an idea what the house might have looked like.
George was born in December 1889 in Southampton. His parents, George Henry and Alice had only been married a year but at least one of their five daughters was born long before their wedding. George was the first of their two sons. By the time of the 1901 census the family were living in Chantry Road in the town centre and George Senior was working as a general labourer. Ten years later the family had moved to Russell Street and George was already at sea. When he signed onto Titanic he’d already worked on Adriatic, Oceanic, and Olympic and, while not at sea, was living with his family in South East Road. Like George Kearl, George was a trimmer and like Henry Sparkman, he was not a tall man, standing at just five foot one.
On 14 April 1912 he was on the 8 to 12 watch and alone in the coal bunker by boiler room 4. He felt the shock of the iceberg hitting the ship, then the coal collapsed on top of him. Somehow he managed to dig himself out and emerged into the stokehold just as the lights went out. Not knowing what had happened but aware something was badly amiss, he climbed up to the port alleyway on E Deck, known as Scotland Road, and found the lights there still burning. Some third class passengers heading aft told him the ship had hit an iceberg. A lesser man might have joined them and tried to save himself but George did not. He found some lamps and returned to the stokehold, where, it transpired, the lights had already come back on. For some time he helped the firemen keep the boilers alight, although water was soon coming over the floor plates.
When the water was about a foot deep he finally climbed the steep escape ladder. Had he left it any longer he’d almost certainly have been trapped there as, once the ship began to list, the ladder would have become virtually unclimbable. He eventually emerged on the boat deck on the starboard side where he found two lifeboats, one, probably number 13, in the process of being launched. He was ordered into the other, lifeboat 15, by an officer, along with three other trimmers and a fireman, Frank Dymond, who took charge.
The boat was lowered to A deck and, according to George, they called out for women and children to board but only five got into the boat. The boat then descended to B deck where there were crowds of people, mostly from third class. George later testified that around sixty people got into the boat and all were women and children, mostly third class and Irish. He said there were men on the deck but they stood back and did not try to board, despite there being no one to stop them. Records show this was not the case. The majority in the boat seem to have actually been men, although the testimonies from other crew members mostly overestimate the number of women aboard and underestimate the number of men. Whether this is down to the darkness and confusion or the crew telling the enquiry what that wanted to hear isn’t clear. The one crew member who testified that the boat was mainly filled with men was called back the next day and more or less forced to change his story. By all accounts, lifeboat fifteen was one of the few to be filled more or less to capacity.
The boat was the eighth lowered from the starboard side and almost landed on top of lifeboat 13, which had become entangled and was unable to get away from the ship. Luckily, someone in lifeboat thirteen managed to cut the falls, the ropes used to lower the boat, at the last moment and disaster was averted. Sitting in lifeboat 15, George seems to have been unaware of the drama and didn’t mention it in his testimony. Once on the water the crewmen, including George, rowed as fast as they could. It took them between fifteen and twenty minutes to get away from Titanic and they did not go back or pick anyone up from the water. They were the tenth or eleventh boat to be rescued by Carpathia.
After testifying at the British Inquiry into the sinking, George went back to sea, later serving on Olympic, Braemar Castle, Carnarvon Castle, Armadale, Warwick Castle and Rothesay Castle. In 1919 he married local girl Kate Barber. As far as I’ve been able to tell they did not have any children and George died in Winchester in 1966. His wife died a year later.
Our next three houses were all somewhere on the almost mile long Middle Road. We had numbers for two but not for the third and, as both with numbers were on the southern part of the road, nearest Millers Pond, we turned into Kathleen Road and began to head in that direction. As we walked we wondered if any of the Middle Road houses would still be standing. Kathleen Road merges seamlessly with St Monica Road. Here we passed St Monica School and St Mary’s Church, both places we’d have liked to explore further if we’d had the time.
On Station Road a house with a beautifully graffitied front wall and an interesting garden sculpture lifted our spirits a little but it still felt as if our mission was doomed. My senior school was on Middle Road so it’s an area I know fairly well. The houses are a mixture of pre World War I and post World War II with a few modern ones thrown in for good measure. We took photos of some of the older ones at the beginning of the road just in case. Perhaps one of them was once home to Henry Dorey Stocker, the Middle Road crew member who didn’t give a house number when he joined the ship?
Henry was born in Highfield in 1892. His father George and mother Mary, were both Hampshire natives and had at least eight children. By 1901 the family had moved to Commercial Street in Bitterne and George was working as a gardener. George died in 1904 and Mary became a live in domestic servant in Battenberg House, St Georges Place. The younger children seem to have all gone off to live with different relatives. Before Long Henry had gone to sea. He left Olympic to join Titanic as a trimmer. Exactly what happened to him on the night of the sinking isn’t clear but he was lost with the ship and his body was never identified. His poor, heartbroken mother continued to live in Southampton until her death in 1921.
The next house on the list was number 19 and, true to form, it turned out to be one of the post war houses. Even so, this was the spot, if not the house, where Thomas Moore Teuton once lived. Thomas was born in Blackburn Lancashire in February 1877, the son of Irish immigrant parents William Teuton and Mary Jane Moore, both from Belfast. The couple married in around 1870 and came to England six or so years later, probably so William could get work as a driller and general labourer. They had at least five children. For a while the family lived in Barrow in Furness but soon moved back to Blackburn and it was there that Thomas had his first job as a cotton weaver at the tender age of fourteen. He later joined the British Army with the First Battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. He was at the relief of Ladysmith during the Boer War and in China during the Boxer Uprising. He left the army as a colour sergeant. Back in England he was presented with the Royal South African medal.
In October 1910, Thomas married Ada Mary Swain, a Sholing girl, and they set up home in North East Road, Sholing. For a while he worked as a dock labourer and later went to sea on Oceanic. A year after their marriage the couple had a son, William John. By the time Thomas signed on to Titanic as a second class steward the little family had moved to 19 Middle Road. His monthly wages would have been £3 15s, but he could easily have doubled this with tips from grateful passengers.
Tragically, Thomas died in the sinking. His body was recovered by the Mackay Bennett and numbered 226. Records describe his remains as having light hair, a moustache and two tattoos, a Japanese woman on his left arm and a snake on his right. He was wearing a steward’s coat, singlet and flannel shirt and had an army discharge book, papers, a corkscrew, razor, keys, knife, brush and soap about his person. The presence of the papers seem to indicate he knew he might not survive and put them in his pocket so his body would be identified. He was buried at Fairview Lawn Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia on 10 May 1912.
Ada and her son William benefitted from the Titanic Relief Fund as did Thomas’ parents. When Ada gave birth to a daughter over a year after the disaster though, the fund administrators, the Mansion House Committee, suspended her claim. The child, Elizabeth, died within the year and it isn’t clear who her father was. In 1918 Ada married George C Bryant and had two more children, Norman and Ruby. She died in Southampton in 1972, aged 90. Thomas’ son, William married and had a family but nothing further is known about them. He died in Plymouth in 1983.
We carried on up Middle Road, past Sholing Baptist Church, looking at the house numbers and searching for the last house on our list. After a whole morning without finding a single original crew house we finally struck lucky with our very last one. Number 81 Middle Road was an older style house and, although it looked to have had a lot of work done to it, had almost certainly been standing in 1912. This was where Thomas Ranger, the last of our Sholing crew, once lived.
Thomas was born in Northam in December 1882. His parents, George and Ann, were originally from Salisbury and had nine children. George was a general labourer. At some time in the first ten years of Thomas’ life the family moved to Whites Road in Sholing and George got a job as a coal Porter at Southampton Docks. By 1901 the family had moved to Church Road in Sholing and Thomas had joined the Royal Navy as a stoker. He served aboard the Duke of Wellington, Formidable, Caesar, Vivid II and Firequeen II. He was discharged in 1994 when he was described as being five foot three and a half, with brown hair and of very good conduct. He then worked as a bricklayer building houses before going back to sea in the merchant service.
In 1906 he married Isabel Pendry, a domestic servant and moved to 81 Middle Road. This was where he was living when he left Oceanic to join Titanic as a greaser, earning £6 10s a month. Greasers were very skilled men, basically mechanics, who maintained and ran the ship’ machinery supervised by the engineering officers. Most stayed below with the engineers when the ship was sinking and, of the 35 aboard, only 4 were saved.
When Titanic collided with the iceberg Thomas was working with Chief Electrician, Peter Sloan, in the electrical store room repairing the electric fans. The men felt a slight jar that briefly lifted them off their feet and both knew the ship must have hit something. Even so, they carried on working but, a couple of minutes later, noticed the turbine engine had stopped. Sloan ordered Thomas to stop all the electric fans and went down to look at the main lighting engines. There were 45 fans and the process took Thomas about three quarters of an hour. The last four fans were in the dummy funnel, used for ventilation. Thomas then went onto the boat deck and down to the second class section of B deck where he found a group of around twenty firemen standing and chatting. They told him all the lifeboats had left.
Although all the crew must have known something was badly wrong there seems to have been little panic. Thomas left the firemen and made his way to the port side of the boat deck. Here he met up with another greaser, Frederick Scott. By this time the ship was beginning to list to the port and was badly down at the head. It must have been obvious it was sinking but the deck was empty apart from the two greasers. When they looked down into the water they saw a lifeboat below and, with very little thought for the consequences, both men climbed the davit and slid down the falls towards it. Thomas landed in the boat but poor Frederick ended up in the icy water. Thomas hauled him into the ship, undoubtedly saving his life.
The lifeboat was lifeboat 4. It had been the eighth boat lowered from the port side but, when it reached A deck, there was a delay. Those waiting to board were some of the most important and influential passengers aboard, including the Astors, the Carters, and the Thayers. John Jacob Astor pleaded to join his pregnant wife in the boat. Second Officer Lightoller, who took the order ‘women and children first’ to the extreme, refused. Lightoller even tried to stop 13 year old John Ryerson from joining his mother in the boat, although he did eventually relent. The boat finally left with about thirty female passengers aboard, mostly from first class. There were just two, or possibly three crew members aboard, with Quartermaster Walter Perkins in charge.
According to Thomas’ testimony to the British Inquiry, there were not enough men to successfully row the boat and it had either returned to the ship, or been unable to get away from it. With Thomas and Frederick now onboard manning the oars the lifeboat finally moved away from the sinking ship. They made it in the nick of time. Thomas described watching the forward section of the ship sink beneath the water then break off from the stern. He remembered hearing the band playing. The stern then seemed to right itself momentarily before the propellers slowly rose into the air as it slipped beneath the water. The stern gradually sank with the lights going out one by one as the water got into their wiring.
They managed to pull seven more crew members from the sea, Alfred White, Thomas Dillon, Samuel Hemming, Frank Prentice, Andrew Cunningham, William Lyons and Sidney Siebert. The frozen men were semi conscious and had to be rubbed and warmed to bring them round. Sadly, William Lyons and Sidney Siebert were too far gone and died shortly after being rescued. They later took around five or six people from lifeboat 14, which then left in search of survivors in the water. Then, along with lifeboat 12, they went to rescue the handful of people from the overturned collapsible lifeboat B. They reached Carpathia with around 55 survivors aboard. This was in no small part due to the courage of the two greasers who’d slid down the falls at the last moment.
When Thomas was called to testify at the British Inquiry on 9 May 1912, he and the other crew members were given quarters to stay in throughout the inquiry. They were so rat infested and filthy that Thomas chose to sleep rough instead. He carried on working at sea until the 1920’s and then found work as a plumbers assistant.
After Isabel died, in 1947, he married Emma Elizabeth Prince Elderfield, a Southampton born widow. He died in Southamptin in July 1964, aged 81 and is buried in South Stoneham Cemetery in an unmarked grave. Emma died in 1972
All in all our search for crew houses in Sholing had been pretty unsuccessful. Conflicting information and modern houses meant we only found one house still standing that we could be certain of. Even so, we’d uncovered some interesting stories of the men who worked aboard Titanic and gained an insight into what it must have been like on that fateful night.
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Wandering aimlessly around the Old Cemetery is one of my favourite ways to spend a Saturday morning, especially when the sun is shining and the sky is blue. This morning the light was perfect, bright sun and deep shade to create wonderfully atmospheric photos and spring flowers to add splashes of colour. The bees were buzzing, the birds were singing and there wasn’t anywhere else I’d rather have been.
The graves, many overgrown and forgotten, impart a tinge of sadness but there is also serenity here. The dead may be long gone but nature is everywhere in rich abundance rambling over the stones as if to say ‘life always goes on.’
The ordinary lay side by side with the extraordinary here. Graves with names worn away, small stones tumbled and fallen beside the rich and famous. Today I stopped for a moment beside a monument to Henry Bowyer, Southampton’s mayor in 1912, when the Titanic sank. The white cross and anchor caught my eye. Henry was a Justice if the Peace, Lieutenant Commander of the Royal Naval Reserve, a Pilot of the port and a man of compassion. After the tragedy he organised the Titanic Relief Fund, the charity that helped all the widows and orphans of lost crew members. He died in 1915, aged just forty eight.
On I walked, one moment in sunshine, the next in deep shade. One step in any direction and the light changed completely, creating a different scene with every turn.
Ironically for a place dedicated to the dead, every corner of the cemetery is bursting with life right now. Pink hawthorn flowers tumble across the paths and branches form green tunnels dappled with sunlight.
There are those who feel this Cemetery is too wild and overgrown. They would prefer neatly clipped hedges and manicured grass. Personally I feel the wildness is an asset. The keepers of the cemetery clear and mow on a rotational basis, keeping nature in check to some extent but letting it have its way at the same time. This makes for some interesting walks with graves, hidden by the greenery, suddenly reappearing when their turn to be cleared comes along. Even though I walk here often and some of the stones feel like old friends, there is always something new to see.
Today the grass was high and sprinkled with wildflowers. The old trees, some ivy covered, some no longer living, cast long shadows and echoed the wild common outside the cemetery walls. My morning wandering took me on a wide loop around the perimeter of the cemetery, although I wasn’t really thinking too much about where I was going, just following the path thoughtlessly watching squirrels dashing up trees and admiring flowers. The sight of the chapel gave me my bearings but there was no hurry to get back.
Instead I kept on wandering, not really looking at the names on the graves, just enjoying the calm and the greenery. I took a path I rarely walk and stumbled upon the grave of another Southampton mayor, Hector Young. He was mayor between 1929 and 1930 and, in 1962 he commissioned a new west window for St Michael and All Angels Church In Bassett in memory of his wife Ethel who died in the Southampton blitz.
By now I had completely lost my bearings again but I didn’t much mind. I kept on walking enjoying the changes from light to shade and back again. Today the graves and their stories were secondary, extra adornments to the bounty of nature all around.
Somehow I found myself back at the place where all the rhododendron petals had fallen, creating a pink carpet. A woman walking her dog had stopped to admire them too and we exchanged a few words about the beauty of this place and the joy of walking through it.
It was hard to tear myself away but I knew I had to head back so I slowly strolled towards the gate, stopping every now and then to look at a flower. The wildness of this place is a joy to behold and I’m glad nature is given free reign here. If I had to lay in a cold grave I couldn’t think of a better place to spend all eternity.
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After months of training, hundreds of miles run in all weathers, nutrition plans, hydration plans and lots more, Southampton marathon day had arrived. Commando, Rob and Mark had all run marathons before but this one was meant to be special, not least because it was in their home city. The training had gone well, they were all set for a record breaking run. Well they were until the bike ride in the last two weeks, during their tapering.
In hindsight, going for a ‘nice easy’ bike ride with Mr G, who is a cycling legend, was probably not the best of ideas. Mr G doesn’t know the meaning of nice and easy. There were lots of miles and lots of hills. Male pride meant they tried to keep up. They came home broken. Even a sports massage from the amazing Paul Bartlett at The Running School didn’t fix things completely. This race would be run on determination, with teeth gutted against pain.
At least the weather was nice, although it looked like it might turn out to be a bit too warm for running 26.2 miles. Commando and Rob’s new running group, Hamwic Harriers, looked marvellous in their new shirts. Some were pacing, which is what Commando and Rob usually do, some were running the 10k, some the half marathon and a few the full marathon. As usual, not everyone made it to the team photo. There is always one!
With the team photoshoot of the way, we hung around in the VIP changing room for a while. All the pacers were there and Sammy Saint, (A.K.A Matt Dennis) the Saints mascot who was running the 10k. The amazing Saints legend Francis Benali was in the room next door getting ready for the final marathon of his seven iron man’s in seven days to raise money for cancer research. We saw him and his family but didn’t disturb them. The last thing he needed was people asking for his autograph or wanting a photo at this stage. Knowing Franny, he’d have been all too obliging but he needed all the rest he could get.
Other than the team photo, I had one really important job to do. I was in charge of Commando’s own mini water station just before the end of the first lap on London Road. There were two small bottles of water in my rucksack ready to swap for the ones in his water belt. When the runners had all headed off to the start pen I was left with quite a bit of time on my hands.
On a normal marathon day I’d have some kind of planned walk, a kind of whistle stop tour of the city. As this city was Southampton though, and I could see it any day uncluttered by thousands of runners, I just wandered through the crowds. With so many people watching, there was no chance of seeing Commando cross the start line, although I did see Kim and Vicky, the half marathon tailwalkers, waiting to set off.
There was a bit of strolling through the parks, a coffee stop in the London Road Starbucks and lots of chatting to friends, marshalling this part of the route. It seemed no time at all before the first runner came zooming past. After that I had to be on my toes trying to spot the Hamwic Harriers and keeping an eye out for Commando.
Steve and Ian, both pacers for the half marathon, were the first Harriers I saw. Not far behind them was Rob, looking set for the time he wanted despite still being broken from the bike ride.
Next up was pacer Luis, closely followed by Helen and Andy. Then there was Arron, heading for the 10k finish line and Sean at the end of his half marathon.
It was something of a relief to see Commando and Mark, not least because I could finally get rid of the water bottles. They were bang on their target time for the first half which was quite a surprise given that Commando had been limping from the outset. Unfortunately, the water bottle exchange meant I didn’t get any good photos of them.
After that there was a lot more waiting around, a coffee with my friend Kylie and some chatting until the next Harriers appeared. As it happened, Ian was the first I spotted heading for the marathon finish. He’d run the first lap as a pacer, then quickly changed into his Harriers shirt to run the second half alone and earn his marathon finisher’s medal. Only Ian could get away with such shenanigans, but race organiser Nikki Rees had agreed to it so he did get his medal.
Not long after Kate and Ian, the Harriers cheer squad, came past with their bikes, I spotted Rob heading for the finish line with Massi. The second half of his race hadn’t gone nearly as well as the first but he’d finished, even if he didn’t get a PB.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, Commando and Mark were still on their second pass of the Itchen Bridge at this point and not enjoying themselves in the slightest, even if they were waving for the cameras.
Once I’d seen Rob come past I headed down to Above Bar, hoping I’d get to see Commando cross the finish line. Helen and Andy came past, then Kim and Vicky, but there was no sign of Commando or Mark.
Pretty soon there was a little crowd of us waiting for Commando and Mark. Rob had got changed and joined me, along with Ian and Kim and a few other Harriers. Of course, as time went past I started to worry. He’d finished the first half so well, despite being injured, I began to imagine all sorts of horrible things. It was now clear a PB was out of the question, but I was getting worried about him finishing at all.
Eventually, just as my panic was rising to maximum level, Commando and Mark limped across the finish line. They were smiling, but that was mainly because they could finally stop running.
Later, in the VIP changing room, Commando told me the second pass of the Itchen Bridge had been where the wheels fell off his race. His hip had been hurting on and off since the bike ride, now it finally gave out. He kept going and, to his great credit, Mark stayed with him and gave up his chance for a good time, The rest of the race was a painful run walk affair, made worse by knowing this would be the slowest marathon ever. Most people would have given up but, of course, Commando is made of sterner stuff.
It had been a very long, painful day but there was still one thing left to do. Rob and Kim’s granddaughter, Emilia, was entered into the children’s mile race. Sammy Saint was there, victorious after running the 10k and the mascots race and still looking full of energy. Rob looked less than enthusiastic about running another mile but Emilia had enough energy for both of them.
It had been a long, tough day for two slightly broken runners. The only records they’d broken in the end were for their personal worst marathon times. On the long limp back up the Avenue to our car Rob and Commando both agreed this would be their last marathon. Of course, I’ve heard that before so I’m not entirely sure I believe them…
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May began with a short, sweet Wedding Anniversary walk around the Old Cemetery where the rhododendrons had painted the paths pink. The early evening light gave everything a slightly surreal feel and the fallen petals felt like a red carpet welcome.
The celebrations continued today with a short, sweet birthday walk. The brilliant blue sky was echoed by the ceanothus in the Millennium Garden where I met my walking companion, Rachel.
After our last adventure, getting lost in Westwood and walking much further than we’d planned, I had a much more straightforward walk in mind. A gentle stroll along the butterfly walk towards the shore seemed like the perfect way to spend the morning. Of course, nothing is ever quite as simple as it seems.
We set off along Portsmouth Road chatting away, putting the world to rights. When we reached the bottom of Wright’s Hill though, we found the gate locked. This put me in mind of a walk with CJ in the opposite direction a while back. That time we were trapped on the wrong side of the gate at the end of our walk. Luckily there’d been a gap in the fence so I managed to escape without any climbing. Today there was no gap.
We stood looking at the gate for a while, trying to decide what to do. Like last time, there were no signs to explain why the path was closed. We could climb the hill and take the high path through the park or we could risk climbing over the fence. After a bit of dithering we looked at each other, then at the fence, trying to decide if we could make it over without breaking either the fence or ourselves. Then, giggling like naughty schoolgirls, we climbed over.
The path was firm and dry. There were no fallen trees that we could see so it seemed very odd for the gate to be locked. We both knew we might find our way blocked further along but we kept on walking, enjoying the moment.
The path runs along the bottom of the valley. A stream runs beside it, mostly hidden by the trees. Its origins are somewhere in Bursledon but, as far as I know, it doesn’t have a name. In 1762, Walter Taylor built a wood working mill beside the stream here. Millers Pond, across the road, was built as a reservoir.
Walter and his father, confusingly also called Walter, had developed a revolutionary new method of mass producing wooden rigging blocks for the navy. When Walter senior died his son took out a patent on the machinery and built the sawmill at Mayfield. By 1781 the business had grown and Walter moved to Woodmill in Swaythling where the water supply was better and there was more room to power his steam engines and equipment. The mill at Mayfield was turned into a private house but, in World War II it suffered bomb damage and was abandoned. Today there’s nothing to show it was ever there.
Of course, Rachel and I weren’t thinking about Walter or the mill. We were just enjoying the dappled sunlight and the fresh green leaves on the trees and maybe worrying a little about finding the reason for the locked gate. We passed the fallen tree CJ and I had found on our last ‘locked gate’ walk. It was now beside the path rather than across it and rotting away quite nicely. Then we crossed the steam to the part of the trail where mud is often a problem. This was, I suspected, going to be our undoing. Neither of us were wearing boots and I didn’t much fancy a swim if we slipped. Just after the bridge though, there is a side trail leading up into the Archery Grounds. This would be our get out clause, should we need it.
As it happened there was no mud. Not a bit. The powers that be have been busy laying down a new path of tightly packed gravel and dirt with wooden battens to keep it in place. CJ and I saw the work in progress last spring but whether the new path had survived a wet winter with water trickling down from the high ground remained to be seen. We needn’t have worried. Today Rachel and I discovered the whole of the trail had been completed and had survived the winter.
Not having to watch our feet meant we could appreciate our surroundings better, although chatting meant I didn’t take many pictures. There was one, taken in the general direction of the stream trying to capture the skunk cabbage we smelled rather than saw.
There was another of the fairy door. We almost missed it because the Ivy has become so lush and large it’s almost covered it over. The fairies that live in the tree are going to have trouble getting in and out if it gets much bigger.
We almost made it to the end of the trail on Archery Road before we found anything that could explain the locked gate. Right by the turning where the trail heads upwards some men were working laying down more gravel. They were happy to let us pass though and we made it back to the road without incident.
Our short but sweet stroll ended with a nice cup of coffee in Woolston, sitting outside what was once The Vosper Thorneycroft factory. It may not have been the longest walk in the world but, with good company and an air of adventure because of the locked gate, it was a very enjoyable birthday walk.
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