The final Titanic tales from Portswood part two

Titanic leaving Belfast from Wikimedia Commons

25 July 2019

Finding houses on Portswood Road was never going to be easy. For a start, quite a few are shops and don’t have house numbers. There are also many gaps where houses used to be but have disappeared, either through modernisation, bombing or a combination of the two. To compound the issue we soon realised that if 368 was opposite 535 we were going to have to concentrate hard. We had four houses to find but it was clear from the outset we would be lucky to find any still standing.

The first on our list was number 446, the only even number. Just as I suspected, it wasn’t there. All we found were modern flats and businesses. The little terraced cottages on the opposite side of the road gave us an idea of the kind of house Hugh Hatch lived in. It was the best we could do. 

Hugh was born in East Wellow, Romsey, in the summer of 1891. His father, Charles, was a market gardener from Bramshaw in Hampshire and his mother, Emily, was from Tisbury in Wiltshire. They had seven children. Charles died in 1901 and, in 1910, Emily married Francis Gannaway, a labourer from Southampton, and set up home in Blackhill, East Wellow. By this time Hugh had moved in with his sister Mabel and her family at 446 Portswood Road and was working as a colonial butcher. What prompted him to go to sea isn’t clear but, by 1911, he was working aboard Oceanic, probably as a scullion and, in 1912, he joined Titanic. A scullion did not have an easy life, cleaning the kitchens, fetching and carrying and washing dishes on Titanic must have been a relentless task. Hugh would have earned just £3 10s a month but, for an unmarried twenty three year old, it was a living wage. 

Portswood Road

What happened to poor High on that fateful night isn’t clear but he didn’t survive the sinking and his body was never identified. Mabel, the sister he lived with, died in Southampton in 1966 but what became of the rest of his family isn’t known. 

We had quite a long walk to our next house, number 405. It took us past the Immaculate Conception Church, lots of new houses, new houses that were once pubs and a dilapidated old abandoned shop with a very faded ghost sign and an intriguing basement window.

Sadly, the house we were looking for had been swallowed up by new housing on the street behind so all we saw was a long brick wall. We were well prepared for the disappointment by now though and the house beside this, an end of terrace cottage, gave us a clue what our next crew member’s house must have looked like. 

Portswood Road

Percival Stainer Deslandes was born in Islington, London in 1874. Both his parents were from the Channel Islands. His father, Theodore, was a draper from St Helier, Jersey and his mother, Clara, was from Guernsey. Percival had one older sister, Ada, and was known to his friends and family as Percy. 

By 1881, the family had moved to Weymouth in Dorset and Theodore was working as a commercial traveller. At some time around the turn of the century Percy went to sea, probably as a steward. This may well have coincided with a move to Southampton and it was here, in 1910, that he married Elizabeth Myra Jones, a local girl. The couple settled at 495 Portswood Road but had no children. Percy left the St Louis to join Titanic as a first class saloon steward. The tips from the rich passengers on Titanic were probably the reason for this change and would easily have doubled his £3 15s a month wages. 

Exactly what happened to Percy when the ship sank isn’t certain but it is likely he was on deck, perhaps helping to load the lifeboats as his body was later recovered from the sea by the Mackay Bennett. It was the 212th body recovered. Percy was wearing his first class steward’s uniform and had a knife, corkscrews and an empty purse in his pocket. This suggests he was probably on duty at the time of the collision. 

Percy was buried at Fairview Lawn Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia on 6 May 1912. He left his estate, worth £185 3s 8d, to his wife Elizabeth, who never remarried and stayed in Southampton until her death in 1961. Tragically, Percy’s sister, Ada, died in June 1912. Losing both their children in such a short space of time must have been a terrible blow to the family. Percy’s grieving parents continued to live in Dorset until their deaths in the 1920’s

Neither of our final two Portswood Road houses have survived. All the houses, from the little row of terraces a few doors from Percy’s old house, to the junction with Highfield Lane, were modern and the numbers we were looking for seem to have been replaced by apartment blocks. It was pretty much what we’d expected to find but it was disappointing nonetheless.

Portswood Road
Portswood Road

We might not have been able to find the original 377 Portswood Road but it was once home to Henry Joseph Bailey. Henry was born in Highfield, Southampton in June 1865. He was originally named Job Henry after his paternal grandfather but was known as Henry, like his father, a labourer from Dorset. His mother, Charlotte, was from Somerset. The couple married in Southampton in 1859, had six children between 1860 and 1872 and lived somewhere on Portswood Road.

In 1880 Henry, aged just fifteen, joined the Royal Navy as a deck boy on Tricomalee. Life at sea must have suited him because, three years later, he was an ordinary seaman on Minotaur and, by 1885, he was working on Canada as an able seaman. He served on many ships, including St Vincent, Fantome, Excellent, Victory I, Boscawen and Duke of Wellington I and, by 1890, had become a petty officer aboard Australia. 

Henry Joseph Bailey from Encyclopaedia Titanica

In 1894, Henry married  Mary Jane Hopper from Cucklington Wincanton. Between 1895 and 1902, they had five children, one son and four daughters, only four survived infancy, Olive, Alma, Hilda and Agnes. Although Henry spent the majority of his time at sea, his family lived in Cucklington for some time and later moved to Portland in Dorset. 

Henry’s rise up the ranks continued when he was promoted to first class petty officer aboard the Royal Arthur in 1901. He was pensioned out of the navy in December 1903. According to his discharge papers he was five foot ten, had dark brown hair, blue eyes, a ruddy complexion and flags tattooed on his right forearm. 

Henry Joseph Bailey from Encyclopaedia Titanica

Exactly what he did for the next few years isn’t known but, by 1911, he was living with his family at 377 Portswood Road and working as a coxswain on a steam launch in Southampton Docks. On 6 April 1912 he joined the Titanic as master at arms. It was his first time serving in the merchant navy but his friend and in law, Arthur Bright, was Titanic’s quartermaster. Bright was married to Mary Jane’s sister, Ada, and both men had served together in the Royal Navy. Bright left Olympic to join Titanic and may have persuaded Henry to join him.

There were two masters at arms aboard Titanic, the other being Thomas Walter King, from Great Yarmouth. They both earned £5 10s a month and probably worked opposite shifts to police the ship. Master at arms is a naval term and, in the navy, the job involved teaching sailors to fight with small arms. On a cruise ship like Titanic, their duties were mainly stopping any pilfering or fights and generally acting as security guards. 

He rly Joseph Bailey from Encyclopaedia Titanica

During the evacuation of Titanic Henry took charge of the port side of the ship, while King took charge of the starboard. The details of what happened aren’t clear but it’s likely Henry was one of those crew members more or less forcing women and children into the boats. Most of the passengers and even some of the crew were unaware of the danger they were in, although, as a seasoned sailor, it’s likely Henry would have been.

Henry escaped on lifeboat sixteen. Able seaman Ernest Archer later testified that Henry had slid down the falls into the boat after it was launched and taken charge. He had probably been ordered to do this by one of the officers, possibly Second Officer Lightoller. There were  between  thirty and fifty people aboard the lifeboat, mostly woman and children from second and third class, along with three female crew members and five male crew members  to man the oars. 

One of the passengers, Mrs Wells, later described seeing men, looking ‘sober and serious’ watching the lifeboat being lowered. She believed the whole thing was a drill until she noticed an officer with a revolver in his hand. As soon as the boat hit the water the men rowed for all they were worth but the boat kept drifting back towards Titanic. Mrs Wells then saw lots of ‘wild eyed’ men rushing up from steerage but they were forced back by an officer brandishing a gun. As there were empty seats in the lifeboat, some of those men could have been saved but Officer Lightoller took the order ‘women and children first’ literally and let boats sail half empty rather than allow men aboard. Lifeboat sixteen did not pick up anyone from the water but did transfer a fireman into lifeboat six to help with the rowing. It reached Carpathia as dawn was breaking.

Strangely, given his job, Henry was not called to testify at either of the inquiries. His counterpart on the starboard side, Thomas King, did not survive. Henry didn’t return to the merchant service after the disaster but he did return to sea. During World War I He re-enlisted in the Royal Navy as a petty officer. He sailed on Victory I and 2, Eagle, Excellent and, finally, Attentive II. He spent the rest of his life living in Southampton. He died in 1943, aged seventy seven, and was cremated. His widow died in 1965. What became of his daughters isn’t known.

CJ and I were pretty relieved to tick off our last Portswood Road house, number 309, even if the original was long gone. We were overheated and in need of coffee and a sit down so the nearby supermarket cafe was a welcome sight. The crew member in question was Albert George Locke. The son of Hampshire natives John, a coastguard and former naval seaman, and Amelia, he was born in Chichester, Sussex in January 1872. Albert had at least eight siblings born between 1860 and 1877. 

The family lived at various addresses in East and West Wittering but, by 1891, Albert had left home and was living with his brother in law and employer, Edward Bolt, in Fishbourne, Sussex and working as a grocer’s assistant.  By 1901 he had moved and was lodging at 54 Tollington Road, London but was still working as a grocer’s assistant. 

In April 1904, Albert joined the Royal Naval ship Good Hope as a cook. What prompted this change of career isn’t clear but he went on to serve aboard Furious, Pandora, Crescent, Psyche, Terrible and Victory before being discharged in 1909. His discharge was due to ‘lack of suitability’ and he seems to have had a chequered record, having spent time in the cells at least twice for misconduct. 

HMS Good Hope From Wikimedia Commons

Exactly when he joined the merchant service isn’t known but, in 1912, he was working as a scullion on the Avon and living at 309 Portswood Road. He joined Titanic as a substitute at the last minute and had to sign on aboard the ship. It was an unlucky move. He died in the disaster and his body was never identified. 

It was a relief to get out of the relentless heat and sit for a while in the air conditioned cafe sipping coffee. We couldn’t relax for two long though. We still had two more houses to find and, like the last four, they were not going to be easy. Both the roads in question are in two halves, divided by St Denys Road and no amount of looking at maps told us which half they were on. The last thing we needed was a lot more walking but it looked inevitable. With some reluctance we left the cafe. Walking out into the street felt like walking into an oven. 

The next house was 94 Belmont Road and It belonged to William McMaster Murdoch. Many years ago I lived in a flat at number 24. Knowing the road didn’t mean I knew where the house was but my gut said it was probably on the south side, the side I’d lived on. When we reached the corner though it was clear I was wrong so we had to cross the road.

We walked along slowly, looking at all the house numbers. When we came to 92 I got my phone out ready to take the photo. There was a little cut way between it and the next house but, when we looked closer, the number was 96. It was very strange. There were no missing houses but there was no number 94 either. Later I discovered  the houses have been re-numbered and number 94 is now number 116. Google Street View helped me find the right house but, when I get the chance, I will go back and photograph it properly.

Where we expected to see 94 Belmont Road
94 Belmont Road, now renumbered 116, from Google Street View

William was born on 28 February 1873 in Dumfries, Scotland. He was the fourth son of Samuel and Jane. He came from a long line of Scottish seafarers, his father and grandfather were both captains as were four of his grandfather’s brothers. William looked set to follow in their footsteps. After he’d finished school and gained his diploma he was apprenticed to William Joyce and Coy in Liverpool for five years. He was so advanced he passed his second mate’s certificate after just four years. By the time he was twenty three he’d gained his Extra Master’s Certificate and between 1909 and 1912 he progressed from second Officer to First Officer on a series of White Star ships, including the Medic where he worked alongside Charles Lightoller. 

William McMaster Murdoch Fromm Wikimedia Commons

In 1903 William began to correspond with Ada Florence Banks, a New Zealand school teacher he’d met travelling to England on one of his ships. That same year he became Second Officer on the new liner Arabic. He proved himself one dark night when a ship was spotted apparently on a collision course with Arabic. William overrode a command to steer hard a port from Officer Fox and dashed to the wheelhouse to hold the ship on course. His quick actions and good judgement averted a disaster. 

On 2 September 1907 William married Ada in St Denys Church Southampton. By 23 September he had to return to sea on the Adriatic and left his new wife living at a guesthouse, Oakfield, in Manor Farm Road. While he was away she dealt with the purchase of their permanent home 94 Belmont Road. The couple had no children but, from his letters to his family in Scotland, it seems they were very much in love. 

In May 1911 William became First Officer for the maiden voyage of RMS Olympic under Captain. Edward Smith. That September William was at his docking station at the stern when the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Hawke collided with Olympic. No one was killed but both ships were badly damaged. William was called to give evidence at the inquiry into the incident. 

His next promotion came when he learned he was to be Chief Officer aboard Titanic for her maiden voyage. He would be working with old friends Charles Lightoller as First Officer, Davy Blair as Second Officer and Joseph Boxhall as Fourth Officer. He was also well acquainted with Captain Smith. Things did not go to plan however. Olympic was laid up and White Star sent Chief Officer Henry Wilde to join the ship, feeling experience on Titanic’s sister ship would be helpful on the maiden voyage. This meant William was demoted to First Officer, Lightoller to Second Officer and Blair was left in Southampton. It must have been a disappointment but the men knew their promotions would only be delayed for one voyage.

From left to right: Murdoch, Chief Engineer Joseph Evans, Fourth Officer David Alexander and Captain Edward J. Smith, From Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, the next voyage was not to be. On the night of 14 April,William was on the bridge and Quartermaster Robert Hitchens was at the wheel when the bells from the crows nest alerted them to danger. Then the news came through on the phone that there was an iceberg dead ahead. William didn’t hesitate, he gave Hitchens the order, hard a starboard, to turn the ship away from the iceberg, and ordered the engines to full astern. There has been much debate about the exact wording of these orders, whether they were correctly carried out and whether they were the correct action to take. Exactly what happened will never be known but, as the ship struck the iceberg just thirty seven seconds after it was sighted, it’s doubtful there was anything William or the crew could have done to avoid it. 

After the collision William was put in charge of the starboard evacuation. Passengers who found themselves on the starboard side of the ship trying to get onto a lifeboat had more chance of survival than those on the port side. William interpreted the order ‘women and children first’ to mean if there were no more women and children to be found empty seats could be filled with men. Two thirds of those who survived that night owe their lives to William McMaster Murdoch. 

Exactly how William met his death is also surrounded with controversy. Several survivors gave reports of an officer on the starboard side of the ship shooting himself and the finger is firmly pointed at William. Charles Lightoller testified that he saw William being washed into the sea as he tried to launch Collapsible Lifeboat A. As Lightoller knew William so well it seems more likely his account is correct. Whatever did happen, William perished with the ship and his body was never identified. 

For William’s family in Scotland and his beloved wife Ada the allegations of suicide and intimations that his actions on the bridge somehow caused the disaster must have been devastating. Thankfully, Charles Lightoller was able to offer them some comfort with his own first hand account of that night. 

William’s mother died in 1914, her decline probably hastened by the loss of her son. His father followed in 1917. Ada went to live in Brittany for a time and returned to New Zealand in 1918. She never remarried and died in April 1941.

The final house on our Portswood list was on Osbourne Road. Which side was anyone’s guess but at least we were walking towards home now. After a little unnecessary road crossing because we chose the wrong side to start our search, we were finally on the right track, or so we thought. Unfortunately, it was soon clear that 125 Osbourne Road is no longer standing. In its place are modern houses and flats and, such is the numbering, we couldn’t even be sure exactly where it once stood.  

Wherever on Osbourne Road it was, Owen Wilmore Samuel once lived here. Owen was one of seven children born to school master, William and his wife Ann. He was born in around 1865 in Llandilo, Wales and grew up in the school house Cilybebyll, Cadoxton, Glamorganshire. In 1874 his mother died and his father remarried. After his father died, in 1890, Owen left home. He got a clerical job and lodgings at B Evans and Co in Swansea. By 1901 he’d moved into lodgings in Ecclesall, Sheffield and was working as a commercial clerk. In the second half of the year he married Elizabeth Mortimer Lamb, a Welsh girl. The wedding took place near Liverpool but the family seem to have been living in Sheffield as their daughter, Nina or Mina, was born there in 1902. 

Osbourne Road
Osbourne Road

Exactly when Owen went to sea or why isn’t clear but, by 1911, he was working as a seaman in the merchant service and the family were living at 125 Osbourne Road Southampton. He left Oceanic to join Titanic as a second class saloon steward. 

Poor Owen was not one of those lucky enough to find a place in a lifeboat but his body was recovered by the Mackay Bennett. It was numbered 217. There were no marks on Owen’s body and he was wearing a green overcoat and brown waistcoat over his steward’s uniform, suggesting he had been on deck at the time of the sinking and had probably succumbed to the cold water. In his pocket was a gold stud, glasses, a corkscrew, scissors, a purse containing 1s 8d and a knife bearing the name O W Samuel. He was buried at Fairview Lawn Cemetery, Halifax, Nova Scotia on 8 May 1912.

Poor Elizabeth never remarried and died in Surrey in 1945. Owen’s daughter married Frederick Cyril Hands in Surrey in 1940 but had no children. She died in the New Forest, Hampshire in 1973.

Both our searches for crew houses in Portswood and been hampered by the hot weather and a large area to cover. In many respects it had been disappointing as many of the houses are no longer standing but we had uncovered some interesting stories. As we trudged back towards the roadworks at Bitterne Triangle we knew there was one more Portswood house we had not yet looked for. The house was in Winn Road, near the Common. It was quite some distance from all the other Portswood houses and, as it’s owner was Captain Edward John Smith, it really warrants a post all of its own. This, of course, will have to wait for another day.

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The final Titanic tales from Portswood part one

Poster Advertising Vinolia Otto Soap for the ca. 1900

25 July 2019

This morning we finally set out to find the last of the Portswood Titanic crew houses. It was yet another stupidly hot muggy day, not a cloud in the sky or a hint of wind, probably not the best for walking the streets looking for houses. We only had eleven to find though and a fairly small area to cover. Roadworks on the corner near Bitterne Park Triangle meant a short detour and a walk on the park side of the bridge rather than the railway side. It made no real difference to distance but gave us different views to admire. The little houseboats moored on the bank seemed especially appealing in the searing heat of the morning. 

It wasn’t long before we were turning onto Kent Road, where we hoped to find the first two houses on my list. The first one we found, number 40, was in the middle of a terrace of three narrow fronted cottages. Some improvements had obviously been made since 1912, including a new porch and new windows. Next door, number 38 gave us a good idea of how it once must have looked.

This was where Walter Henry Nichols once lived. He was not a Southampton native, having been born in June 1876 in Brompton, Middlesex. His father, George, originally from London, was a coachman and his mother, Ruth, was from Swansea. The couple married in Derbyshire in 1863 and, after a brief spell in Hampshire, moved to London in 1868. They had eight children. Walter passed away in 1881, aged just forty. The family were living in Battersea at the time and Ruth made ends meet by taking in laundry. 

40 Kent Road

Ten years later most of the family had moved to Chiddingfold, Surrey and were living in a laundry, presumably, where Ruth worked. Walter, aged just fourteen was lodging with Charles Harpman in Lambeth, London though and working as a builder’s clerk. Not long after this he went to sea as a steward. When he married Florence Helen Sheath in September 1901, he’d already been working at sea for ten years, although he was still just twenty four. The couple were married in Richmond and went onto have four children, Walter, Dorothy, Basil and Audrey. By 1911 the family were living at 40 Kent Road and Walter was working on the immigration ship, St Paul. The coal strike in early 1912 prompted him to sign on to Titanic as an assistant second class saloon steward, earning £3 15s a month. 

On the night of 14 April, Walter was awoken by the vibration of the ship striking the iceberg. A little later the engines stopped. Neither he or his fellow stewards were especially concerned and most stayed in bed. Curiosity drew Walter, still in his pyjamas, to go to see what had happened. This undoubtedly saved his life. He was ordered to report to the boat deck. On his way there he saw unconcerned passengers in the gymnasium on exercise bicycles and working out on punch bags. 

When he arrived on the starboard side of the deck there were lifeboats already in the water and the ship seemed low and tilted slightly forward. He saw the officer in charge with a revolver in his hand, but he was calm and speaking quietly so Walter was still not overly concerned. This was probably either First Officer William McMaster Murdoch, Third Officer Herbert Pitman or Fifth Officer Harold Lowe, the officers in charge of the lifeboats on this side of the ship. 

Walter was assigned to lifeboat fifteen. As he waited to be lowered he heard the band playing. Lifeboat fifteen was lowered from the boat deck to A deck. Here Walter recalled officers urging women to get into lifeboats but they were reluctant to leave the ship. Even at this late stage most, including Walter, didn’t believe the ship would sink and this could explain why so many lifeboats were not filled. Walter estimated there to have been around fifty people in his lifeboat, although other accounts give conflicting numbers. There were certainly less women than many suggested and far more men and third class passengers

In Walter’s account, later published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper, he made no mention of the near disaster when lifeboat fifteen was almost lowered on top of lifeboat thirteen, which had become entangled below. Perhaps he wasn’t aware of it? It was only as they were rowing away that the full scale of the disaster became apparent. Walter could see that the prow of the ship was so low in the water that the propeller was above the waterline. He could hear the band still playing. After about an hour of rowing around trying to keep warm, he noticed the front of the boat going under the water. This was when he finally realised it wasn’t just a little break from the monotony of work and the ship really was going down. 

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper article

He recalled the ship sinking slowly and steadily until there was a small explosion. This he believed to be one of the boilers. After this the lights began to go out. Then there was another, larger, explosion and a mass of black smoke and the ship rose out of the water, tilting on end with the prow under water. This was when he saw people falling, or maybe jumping, into the sea. Then the ship seemed to break and drop down. 

Now the air was filled with the sound of people screaming and crying for help. The cries stayed with Walter for the rest of his life but he knew there was nothing he or the others on the lifeboat could have done. There were so many in the water their little boat would have been swamped and all aboard lost if they’d gone to help. The cries went on for half an hour or more, slowly getting fainter as people succumbed to the icy sea.

Lifeboat fifteen was the tenth or eleventh boat to reach Carpathia. By this time it was dawn and, for the first time Walter saw the icebergs all around them. He said he had never seen so many icebergs in all his years at sea and there were bodies and pieces of wreckage floating amongst them. 

Walter returned to England and carried on working at sea. He served on the troopship SS Royal Edward and the hospital ship HMS Panama during World War I. Later he returned to the merchant service before retiring from the sea to become a postmaster in the village of West Moors, Dorset. During World War II he worked in several military establishments in Weymouth. In the 1950’s he helped Walter Lord with his research for the film A Night To Remember. Walter and Florence continued to live in West Moors for the rest of their lives. Florence died in 1955 and Walter followed in 1969, aged eighty three.

Walter Henry Nichols From Encyclopaedia Titanica

The second crew member living in Kent Road was Albert Victor Pearcey. The son of Southampton couple Jesse, a brick maker and builder and Elizabeth. Albert was born in January 1887, also in Southampton.  He was one of eleven children. Albert’s childhood was spent living in Winchester Road, South Stoneham. By 1901 the family had moved to 23 Kent Road, a little semi detached cottage still standing today. By this time Albert had already left school and begun work as a gardener’s boy. Ten years later he had joined White Star as a steward but was still unmarried and living with his parents. In 1912 he was working on Oceanic but was transferred to Titanic as a Pantry Steward, earning £4 a month. 

23 Kent Road

Albert didn’t feel the collision and only found out about it when he heard the order to close the watertight doors. After he had helped close the doors he was ordered to take passengers to the boat deck. He helped some passengers to put on life belts and guided them through the emergency door into the first class main companionway running from the boat deck to the upper deck. Assisted by his colleagues, William Denton Cox  and John Edward Hart he then led groups of third class passengers up to the boat deck.

When he was on the boat deck he found two unattended  babies. He picked them up and placed them into Collapsable lifeboat C which had been fitted into the empty davits after lifeboat 1 had been launched about half an hour before. First Officer Murdoch must have come along at this time because he told Albert to get into the boat and take charge of the babies, which he did.

Standing close to the boat, along with several third class passengers from the Middle East, was J Bruce Ismay, the chairman and managing director of White Star. All night he had been helping passengers into boats and urging them to get away. Also nearby was Quartermaster Rowe, who’d been trying to contact nearby ships with the morse lamp and firing rockets. When between twenty five and thirty women and children had been helped into the boat and, according to Albert, no others were on the deck, Quartermaster Rowe and several other crew were ordered aboard. There were still empty seats and Ismay, along with another first class passenger, William Carter, got into the boat. It was then lowered, the ninth and last boat to leave the starboard side. 

J. Bruce Ismay From Wikimedia Commons

Albert handed the babies to other passengers and took an oar. Bruce Ismay also took an oar but kept his back to Titanic so he could not see her sinking. He was later vilified for getting into the boat and his life was ruined by it. He fell into a deep depression from which he never really recovered. Albert did watch the ship sink. He described Titanic as having a list on the port side. He watched her go down, her head down and her stern upright with her keel visible. The sight upset him so much he couldn’t properly describe it later at the English inquiry but said her lights were burning to the end. It sank just twenty minutes after Collapsible lifeboat C was launched. 

Albert Victor Pearcey from Encyclopaedia Titanica

There were about forty people on Collapsible lifeboat C, although Albert put that number at seventy one. It was the tenth or twelfth boat to reach Carpathia. Albert returned to Southampton and carried on working at sea. He had various jobs, including as a ship’s baker and worked on various ships including Aquitaine. He later married but there is no record of him having any children. He died in Southampton in 1952 and is buried in South Stoneham Cemetery.

Feeling pleased to have ticked off two houses so easily, we carried on along Kent Road, under the low railway bridge towards our next destination, Belgrave Road. From the outset I knew this would be a different story. Once this was a street of mostly terraced houses much like many we have seen in Portswood. They were built in the late 1800’s of red bricks with square bay windows to the front parlour and, on the east side, backed onto the railway line. Not one remains today, the last of them were demolished somewhen in the 1970’s and the road is now an industrial estate. 

We walked past the modern industrial units trying to imagine what must once have been here. The houses may have gone but we could still tell the stories of the men who lived there. Edward John Harris lived at number 83. He was born in Southampton in late 1883 to Charles, a bricklayer and Eliza. He had eleven siblings, including twin sisters. His childhood was spent living in Ivy Road, South Stoneham but, by 1901, the family had moved to Northcote Road in Portswood. Edward and one of his brothers were working as bricklayers labourers, possibly with their father. 

Belgrave Road

By 1911 the family were living in Kingsbury Way Bevois Valley and Edward had left bricklaying and gone to sea as a fireman. Perhaps he wanted an adventure, or just to get away from what must have been an increasingly cramped and overcrowded house. Maybe though, it was just better money, as a fireman earned £6 a month. When he left Oceanic to join Titanic he was living at 83 Belgrave Road, whether his family were also living there isn’t clear but I suspect they were. 

83 Belgrave Road was roughly in the middle of this picture

A fireman’s job was hot, dirty and very demanding. It required muscle to shovel endless tons of coal into the boilers and firemen worked four hour shifts with eight hours off. Who lived and who died was down to the luck of whether they were working or resting when the ship hit the iceberg. Those working kept shovelling to the bitter end, keeping the pumps working and the lights shining. Once the ship began to list, there would have been little chance of climbing the steep ladders to get out of the boiler room. Whether Edward was down in the dark and heat at the end isn’t clear but he didn’t survive and his body was never identified. 

Edward John Harris from Encyclopaedia Titanica

Wilfred George Platt lived little further down the road, at 107. Wilfred was born in Southampton in 1894, one of Guernsey born John and Mary Platt’s four children. John was a seaman and the family lived in Peto Street, St Mary’s, later moving to Clifford Street. By 1911 the family had moved again and were living at 107 Belgrave Road, Wilfred was working as an assistant butcher. 

Belgrave Road

At some time in 1911 or early 1912, Wilfred decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and go to sea on the Oceanic. In April 1912 he joined Titanic as a scullion. It was not the most glamorous job, fetching, carrying, washing pans and dishes and cleaning the kitchens. The pay of £3 10s a month with no chance of tips wasn’t exactly great either but it may have been better than that of a butcher’s assistant. 

107 Belgrave Road is roughly in the middle of the picture

What happened to poor Wilfred on that fateful night isn’t known. He was almost certainly off duty when the ship hit the iceberg but probably, like so many others, didn’t realise the danger he was in until it was too late. He did not survive and his body was never identified. 

At the end of Belgrave Road we turned onto Portswood Road. The Brook pub on the corner was one of the few buildings Edward and Wilfred would have recognised. Living so close together, it is likely the two men knew each other, they’d worked on the same ships after all, even if in very different jobs. Perhaps they shared a pint or two in this very pub?

The Brook on the corner of Belgrave Road

Our next house was on Broadlands Road, one of the roads that runs off Portswood road almost opposite the Brook. It is almost half a mile long and curves up hill past the University all the way to Burgess Road. CJ and I were already overheating so we were hoping number 6 was not too far away. As it happened we were in luck and we found the house quite quickly. It was a small mid terrace, much like the houses on Belgrave Road would have been apart from the steep steps leading to the front door. 

6 Broadlands Road

This little house was once home to Errol Victor McGraw. Errol was born in early 1882 in Aldershot, Hampshire to Robert and Ellen. He had two siblings. After Robert died in 1887, Ellen took up with James Oliver Watson, a boat maker from Southampton, and soon Errol had another sibling, a half sister. By 1891, the family were living in Folkestone, where Ellen had been born but, after Ellen and John married in 1898, they resettled in Southampton. By 1901 they we’re living in Ash Tree Road South Stoneham but Errol doesn’t appear on the census of that year.

In 1902 Errol married Mary Anne Francis Clarke from St Denys. Between 1903 and 1909, they had three children, Florence, Errol and Dorothy and, by 1911, they were living on Queenstown Road Freemantle. Errol was driving a baker’s van for a local cooperative. Most likely this was a horse drawn van, much like the one my own grandfather used to drive. 

In April 1911 Errol’s step father died. This was a man Errol had probably thought of as a father since he was just five years old and it may have been this event that prompted him to go to sea. At some time that year he joined Oceanic as a fireman and around that time the family seem to have moved to Broadlands Road. Whatever prompted these changes, Errol left Oceanic to join Titanic in April 1912. Like so many of the firemen aboard, he did not survive and his body was never identified. 

Mary Anne did not remarry and continued to live in Hampshire. She died in Winchester in 1971. Errol’s children also stayed in Hampshire. Florence married Herbert Dacombe and died in Winchester in 1987. Errol junior married Violet Nother in 1930. He died in Southampton in 1988. Dorothy married Albert Yarney in 1933. She died in Winchester in 1983. In a cruel twist of fate Errol’s brother Robert also died at sea. He was working as a greaser on the SS Derrynane when it was attacked and sunk in February 1941. 

Errol Victor McGraw From Encyclopaedia Titanica

Our next four houses were all on Portswood Road. Remembering the trouble we’d had finding addresses at the other end of Portswood Road on our previous search, we trudged back down Broadlands Road feeling less than confident.

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A Thunder Run disaster

20 July 2019

The rain held off for parkrun but, by the time we got back to Catton Park it looked as if the clouds were gathering. This was not good news for the Thunder Runners or for Kim and I who’d been planning to walk a couple of laps of the course for our Clarendon training.

It was still dry when midday came around and the twenty four hours of running began but the sky told us the rain would fall sooner or later. Rob and Commando set off in good spirits all the same. They were still adamant they weren’t going to take things too seriously this year. They swore there would be no back to back laps and no running all through the night. Kim and I weren’t convinced, we’d heard it all before. Once they got going we were sure they’d get caught up in the atmosphere and just keep going.

We saw them pass by at the beginning of their first lap looking happy and confident. We cheered them until they were out of sight then we sat in the gazebo and looked at the sky. We were both itching to get out on the course ourselves and start walking our two laps but, as were weren’t official Thunder Runners, we knew we’d have to wait until the fanfare of the first lap was over.

We expected them back within the hour but one o’clock came and there was no sign of them. Time passed and we began to get a little concerned. By ten past one we were standing at the barrier scanning the runners in the distance trying to spot them. Almost ten minutes later they finally appeared. Rob looked as if he was limping and Commando looked quite pale under his tan.

After they limped back into the camp and sat down they told us the whole sorry tale. They hadn’t got very far when Commando started having stomach issues. In fact, he said his stomach hadn’t felt right when he set off but he thought it was just the usual runners nerves and would settle once he started running. Then, somewhere up in the woods on the technical part of the course, Rob turned his ankle and bruised his foot. Between his foot and Commando’s stomach, they’d ended up walk running the rest of the course.

After we’d got them drinks we left them sitting feeling sorry for themselves and went off to do our laps. Of course, as unofficial participants, we couldn’t actually start from the start line and we knew there were parts of the course we wouldn’t be able to walk but we set off with purpose and were both quite looking forward to it. The first part of the course was fairly easy, although the weather was very muggy with the distinct feel of thunder to it. We passed through the campsite and then would up towards the trees.

When we started to climb things began to get tougher. The ground was muddy because of the rain and the first lap of runners had churned it up badly in places. The trail was narrow, steep in places and there were roots and pot holes to negotiate. This wouldn’t have been too bad if we hadn’t had to keep moving to the side to let runners come past. There were several trips and a couple of near misses when one or other of us almost fell. Suddenly two laps didn’t seem like such a good plan, especially as it was only going to get muddier and more churned up.

The views from the top were worth the climb but maybe not a broken ankle. For a while we walked beside fields on fairly flat high ground. It was easier going, at least until we got to the woods where I saw the ghostly mist last year. There were no ghosts this time but the trail narrowed again and we were back to the problem of passing runners and the feeling that we were going to get thrown off the course at any moment.

It was quite a relief to come out the other side and onto a wider track with no need to keep ducking to the side every few minutes. Now we could relax a bit more and enjoy the walk. We even found a dragonfly in the long grass.

We’d managed to get round a fair bit of the course before our nerve went. When it came to going through the gate and around the lake though, we chickened out. There were just too many runners and too many marshals. To make up the miles we headed across the road towards the car park field where I took so many quiet walks last year.

It might have been quite nice with the river and the swans but the rain chose that moment to start falling. This was no light shower. The heavens opened and within moments Kim and I were both soaked to the skin. My fingers were so wet I couldn’t even open my phone to take photos. We just put our heads down and headed back towards the tent as fast as we could. We fully expected to find that Commando and Rob had gone out on another lap but we found them sitting in the gazebo where we’d left them.

The rain continued for the rest of the day and into the night. None of us moved from the gazebo except to use the portaloos. Rob could barely put any weight on his foot and Commando didn’t want to move to far from the camp loos. It wasn’t the Thunder Run we’d planned but at least we had good company and we made the best of a bad job.

There were no night runs and, even though things had brightened up by morning, the ground was now so churned up none of us felt like going out to try another lap. In the end we just packed up our tents, took our rubbish to the bins and went for one last walk around the stalls. Once Commando and Rob had collected their medals it was time for the long drive home.

At the start Kim and I had been convinced The boys would get carried away and end up running lots of laps, just like they always do. Maybe they would have but this year the fates had different ideas. It may not have gone to plan but it was certainly an adventure and I’m sure we will laugh about it often in years to come.

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A parkrun far far away

20 July 2019

Sleeping in a tent in the rain isn’t easy. This year though, we’d dispensed with the, frankly, useless air beds that never seem to stay inflated for more than an hour or two and bought proper camp beds with us. They looked narrow and uncomfortable but were surprisingly good to sleep on. Because of the rain and the fading light we’d gone to bed quite early and I woke equally early. Commando was still sleeping but I sneaked out of the tent and went off for a wander. It was just after five in the morning.

As expected, there was a fair bit of mud but the rain had stopped. The sky told me this was probably just a brief interlude but everything looked beautifully green and fresh. Briefly I thought about walking the 10k course but then I remembered the ghostly mist in the woods last year and decided against it.

Much later, when everyone else was awake, there was talk of going off to the local parkrun. There are two parkruns nearby, Conkers and Rosliston but, in past years, we’ve visited neither because the men have been saving their legs for Thunder Run. The fact they were now discussing which parkrun to go to suggested they really did intend to take it easy this year. Kim and I were both shocked.

In the end they plumped for Rosliston, mostly because Rob had already been to Conkers years ago. So we got in the car and headed off into the unknown. We passed through the tiny village of Rosliston and, with no major mishaps, managed to find the Rosliston Forestry Centre.  The forestry centre is part of some two hundred square miles of trees planted in the 1990’s from Leicester to Burton upon Trent to create a new National Forest. Rosliston Manor, once called Redlauseton, once belonged to Earl Algar. He was the son of Earl Leofric and Lady Godiva, the one who rode naked through Coventry to try to persuade her husband to stop taxing the poor. 

Usually, Rosliston parkrun has around one hundred and eighty runners. Today, thanks to Thunder Runners, their numbers were swelled to three hundred and twenty seven. Kim was not amongst them because, not believing for one minute that the boys would really take it easy this year, she hadn’t brought her barcode with her to Thunder Run.

Together we watched everyone head for the start line. The sky looked heavy with rain as the runners set off and we looked gratefully towards the visitor centre with its nice dry cafe.

Once the last runners had passed us we headed towards the cafe but got slightly distracted by an interesting looking gate into a small sensory garden. It wasn’t actually raining so we went to have a look. This turned out to be a brilliant move. The garden was filled with interesting sculptures and scented plants.

Beside something that looked like an old stone fireplace we found a beacon, similar to the ones in Hatch Grange and on Netley Common. This, it turned out, was built to commemorate the queen’s diamond jubilee. There was a small stone pagoda commemorating the twinning link between South Derbyshire and Toyota City, a lovely sun dial dedicated to the local Women’s Institute, and a beautiful area of mosaic paving.

We wandered along the paths, crushing a leaf here and there trying to identify each scent and plant. We stumbled upon a mini beast lair under a trap door but there were no beasts, mini or otherwise, at home. A little further along we thought we’d found a beehive but it turned out to be a compost bin in disguise.

There were flowers everywhere, lavender, rosemary, chamomile, curry plant, mint, lemon balm, comfrey, evening primrose and many I couldn’t identify for sure. They brightened the dull day with their flowers and enchanted us with their scents. Not far from the false beehive we found a real one, safely behind a locked gate. If there were bees in it they were all asleep though, or maybe out foraging amongst all the flowers.

The little garden was filled with so many curiosities we hardly knew where to look. These included a whole array of interesting benches, mostly memorials to local folk. One looked just like an old leather sofa until we got closer and discovered it was carved from a large block of wood.

The rain held off and, with so much to see, it was hard to tear ourselves away from the garden. In the end though, we knew we needed to head back to the parkrun course and try to spot our runners.

Rather than go back to the finish line, we followed the course for a while, looking for a good spot to take photos. The woodland trail was beautiful and there were more curiosities along the way. We found a chainsaw sculpture of a badger, a wooden bench carved with a giant oak leaf and some kind of giant sundial we couldn’t quite work out. Maybe if there’d actually been some sun…

Then the runners began to come past, a trickle at first, then more and more of them. Rob was the first one we recognised and we both got our phones out and began to snap away as he ran up the hill we’d just walked down.

Commando wasn’t far behind. He powered up the hill, overtaking a couple of other runners as he went. Once he’d passed, Kim and I took a more sedate walk back up the hill and headed for the finish line to look for our runners.

The finish line volunteers did a great job considering there were nearly twice as many runners as they usually had to deal with. Once both barcodes had been scanned we finally went to the cafe for a coffee and a sit down.

If Rosliston parkrun was closer to home it might become a favourite for some parkrun tourism. The boys said the course was interesting and not too taxing and Kim and I thoroughly enjoyed the sensory garden. Sadly, it’s not likely we will be back anytime soon though as a drive of a hundred and fifty odd miles seems a bit excessive for a Saturday morning run.

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Burton Upon Trent, beer, marmite and rain

19 July 2019

Summer came late this year but, when it hit, it hit hard with weeks of high temperatures and high humidity. The thought of a little camping at Thunder Run in mid July was a bright spot on the horizon. Both Rob and Commando said they were going to take things easy this year, do a few laps but also relax a little. We didn’t really believe them but I still imagined Kim and I chilling in the gazebo in the sun, sipping cool drinks and walking a lap or two ourselves.

The last thing I expected to see when I checked the weather for this weekend was wall to wall rain. Rain and camping really don’t go together very well. There were a few hasty changes to the packing list, including my stout boots and our dry robes plus the removal of unnecessary skimpy t-shirts and sandals. It seemed this camping trip was not going to be nearly as much fun as we’d expected.

Yesterday, as we drove up the M3 towards Burton upon Trent in our hired van, the rain seemed to be following us. After more than a year driving an automatic car, the gearbox and clutch came as a bit of a shock to Commando but, thankfully, the windscreen wipers worked a treat. Sitting in the van for most of the day meant I didn’t get nearly enough steps in, even with a few very damp evening laps of our first night hotel.

This morning it was still mostly raining. Kim and I made the most of the hotel facilities, including hot showers and a lovely breakfast, while Rob and Commando went off to bag a good pitch in the solo area and put the tents up. Somehow I think we got the better deal.

Our next task was to drive into Burton and get supplies for the next two days. This was accomplished fairly quickly. As the rain was falling steadily and sitting in a wet tent was fairly unappealing, we decided to spend a little time exploring Burton before heading off to the camp site. Two previous very brief visits to Burton upon Trent had given me a tantalising glimpse of wonderful old industrial buildings and lots of history I’d love to have explored so I was quite excited by this prospect.

The little market town is the administrative centre for East Staffordshire and is known chiefly for brewing. Burton boasts eight breweries and is also the place where  Marmite is produced. For those who don’t know about Marmite, it’s a thick, vitamin rich, brown black spread used on sandwiches and toast in the main. People either love it or hate it. In our house CJ and I love it and Commando hates it. Anyhow, it was invented in the late nineteenth century by Justus Von Liebig, a German scientist, who discovered brewer’s yeast could be concentrated, bottled and eaten. The Marmite Food Extract Company was formed in Burton upon Trent in 1902. The yeast used to make it was a by product from the local brewery. 

Unfortunately, heavy rain cut our outdoor exploring short almost before it had begun. Luckily, before we got too wet, Commando and I discovered the Cooper’s Square shopping centre and ducked inside. Originally called Burton Shopping Centre, this indoor mall was opened in 1970 by Princess Alexandra, with a roof being added in the mid 1990’s when the name was changed.  We weren’t really in the mood for shopping but we were in the mood for staying dry so we wandered around window shopping and took advantage of the toilets while we were there.

In the middle of the shopping centre we stumbled upon a really beautiful bronze sculpture of a cooper making a barrel by James Walter Butler. The Burton Cooper was commissioned in 1977 and originally stood opposite the town market. When the Cooper’s Square shopping centre was refurbished in 1994, the sculpture was moved to its present position, despite quite a bit of local protest. I was very taken with the Burton Cooper, especially the expression of concentration on his face.

Eventually there was no avoiding going back outside, it was still raining and, as we’d come out of a different door to the one we’d entered, we weren’t quite sure where we were. Trying to find our way back to the place we’d started we walked around the outside of the building and stumbled upon another sculpture. This, I later discovered, was called the Malt Shovel and was by Andy Hazell. It was unveiled in 2001 and is a rather quirky thirty foot high stainless steel shovel with a human sized beer bottle cut out in the blade.

The wet paving stones below the sculpture were equally interesting. They were imprinted with miniature beer bottles and the chemical formula for the fermentation process. Unfortunately, there was a little too much H2O around for my liking.

Around the corner we were soon back on the High Street and things began to look familiar again. Then we stumbled upon Market Place running off to our right. Standing side by side with the modern buildings were some of the beautiful old red brick buildings I’d so admired on previous visits. There was also a small market selling lots of interesting plants. Of course we were too far from home for me to buy any but looking at them kept me amused. 

Behind the market was an interesting looking clock tower. A closer look told us this was the tower of St Modwen’s, the mother church of Burton. This rather angular red sandstone church was built on the site of Burton Abbey in 1719. The church was designed by brothers Richard and William Smith of Tattenhall but both brothers died before it was finished and the work was completed by their younger brother Francis Smith. 

Surrounded by greenery it looked like an interesting place to visit but the door was closed. Besides, we really needed to get back to the High Street and try to find Kim and Rob. In the end, although we did explore a little bit of Burton on Trent, and I did take a few wet photos of the lovely Victorian architecture, the weather and time meant I didn’t see nearly as much as I’d have liked.

We found Kim and Rob not long after we left the church. By now the rain was getting heavier and heavier so we decided to cut our losses and head back to the cars.

Our eight or so mile journey to Catton Park, Walton on Trent, where out tents were waiting took us right past the Marmite factory. I looked at it longingly through the wet window of the van, wondering if they did tours and, if so, whether they might give out samples? It rained all the way there, which made negotiating the very narrow bridge just outside the tiny town of Walton on Trent a little more tricky than it might have been, especially in an unfamiliar hired van. In the end we had to fold the mirrors in to get through.

It carried on raining all afternoon. We spent a great deal of it huddled in the middle of the rather windy and damp gazebo, trying not to get wet. The rain finally stopped just as the sun was going down. We went to bed wondering what on Earth the Thunder Run course was going to be like after so much rain?

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Time to kill at Wyvern

14 July 2019

As we set off for the Wyvern 10k this morning I felt unusually light of heart. Previous versions of this event have felt a little like hell on Earth, standing in blistering heat, camera in hand, desperately trying to get photos of runners crossing the finish line. They had to be good photos too, no funny faces or wobbly flesh, just flying feet and smiles. There was never any time to go wandering, just an aching back, arms and legs from standing still for so long and maybe a bit of sunburn.

Today though, I didn’t even have the fancy pants camera with me and there was just one runner to take a photo of. Ok, two if you count Tony, who we stumbled upon when we arrived. The three of us lounged about chatting until it was time for the race to start then Commando and Tony went one way and I went the other. While I was cheering the runners out of the gate I did take a couple of pictures. Then my job was more or less done and I could go for a walk.

The whole thing reminded me a little of the days when Commando first started running. He wasn’t in a club and only knew a handful of other runners. All I had to do was go along, carry his stuff while he ran and try to get a picture of him finishing. The time between start and finish was my own back then, just like today really.

Behind Wyvern College, where the race starts and ends, there are playing fields and woods with interesting trails. Years ago, when I only knew one runner and that was Commando, I explored them a little while he was running this race. Today I finally had the chance to revisit them.

On the far side of the playing field I found the entrance to the trail, half concealed behind a large blackberry bush. If you didn’t know it was there it would be easy to miss. The sun was quite strong, even though it was still early in the day so I was glad to step onto the path and into the shade.

Quite a bit of the trail is actually a boardwalk. The ground here gets boggy because streams run through the woods and there are several small ponds. The largest of these is called Quobleigh Pond and the woodland I was walking through used to be part of the estate of Fair Oak Lodge. Once it covered a hundred and twenty acres and the pond itself covered seven acres. Fair Oak Lodge was originally a convent, built in the sixteenth century. In the nineteenth century it was extended and now houses The Kings School. Sadly much of the estate has now been built on and I wasn’t sure exactly where the lake was. Maybe with a few hours I might have found it?

Walking along the creaky boardwalk through tunnels of trees was more than enough to keep me smiling. After a while I came to a small wooden bridge, barely distinguishable from the boardwalk at first. Looking over the side I saw a narrow stream. Following it might have led me to the pond but I was stuck on the boardwalk. At least there I couldn’t really get lost.

When I came to a fork in the path I decided to go left, mostly because it took me off the boardwalk and, by this time, I was beginning to feel a little hemmed in. The dirt path took me upwards briefly, then out into a field.

Vague memories of the last time I walked here told me there was a permissive path on the other side of the field somewhere and an orchard. For a moment or two I dithered, thinking about trying to find the path and the orchard again. Part of me wasn’t too keen though. Something about permissive paths always makes me feel uneasy, besides, the path I hadn’t taken in the woods might lead me to the lake.

Right when I’d decided to turn back, I noticed a sign to my right. It had an arrow pointing towards a gap in the hedge. A closer look showed it led to trail running alongside a field of wheat, or maybe barley, some kind of grain anyway.

Of course I went through the hedge. How could I resist? The corner of the field nearest me was filled with chamomile and something with strappy leaves I couldn’t identify. Beyond this, the crop stretched into the distance, a mass of swaying gold.

The footpath ran along the edge of the field. It was narrow and ran between the crop and a line of rough grass bordered by trees. At first I was fascinated by the golden field, stopping every few steps to take photographs from different angles. When the sun peeked out from behind a cloud the field seemed to glow. Whatever the crop was it looked almost ready to harvest.

On the far side of the field the path swung round to my left. There was more hesitation while I decided whether to keep following it. Fascinating as it was, walking round the edge of a field was going to get boring fairly quickly. Then a woman with a dog appeared through another gap in the hedge.

The lady said good morning to me, then she and her dog walked the way I’d just come. Obviously I couldn’t resist going to see what lay on the other side of the hedge. The first thing I discovered was a style. Styles are not my favourite things. My legs are short and I’m not, as Commando often reminds me, a mountain goat.

Luckily there was no one to see my rather inelegant style climbing. On the other side there was another field, just rough grass and not especially interesting. There may have been another footpath leading into the trees somewhere there but I couldn’t see it. The dog walker must have come from somewhere but I didn’t fancy a wild goose chase that might have led me nowhere at all.

In the end I climbed back over the style into the first field and retraced my steps. Although I had far more time and freedom than I’d have had if I was being a running photographer I still needed to be back before Commando finished the race so getting hopelessly lost wasn’t a good idea.

Back on the woodland trail I dithered a little. Did I go back the way I’d come, knowing I’d get back to the field in plenty of time or did I risk the other fork in the trail? In the end I plumped for the latter, hoping it wouldn’t be a terrible mistake.

The boardwalk led me deep into the wood and was, in places, quite overgrown. From time to time I had to dodge nettles and brambles. Obviously not many people used this trail. After a while I began to wonder if I’d made the wrong choice but I kept going forwards, hoping the path would take me somewhere interesting eventually. Then the boards ran out and I found myself in a small clearing. The canopy of green and the cool light was rather beautiful and the ground was surprisingly firm. A tiny clump of pink Himalayan balsam told me the water wasn’t far away but I couldn’t actually see it.

So I kept following the trail, still thinking I might find the pond, but the trees got less and less dense and soon I was walking beside a wire fence. When I came to a gap in the greenery I could see the playing fields and the finish line on the other side. Somehow I’d gone around in a big circle to the opposite side of the playing fields where my journey had begun.

At this point I didn’t know if I’d be able to get off the trail and onto the fields but still I kept going forward. Before very long the path opened up and there were marshals ahead of me. The runners were just about to start coming past. The kindly marshal directed me right, through the entrance to the top of the college playing field. I ducked under the tape and found myself a spot at the edge of the course. Moments later the first runner whizzed past. I couldn’t have planned it better if I’d tried.

By sheer chance I’d found the perfect spot to watch the end of the race and I even had soft dry grass to sit on. It wasn’t quite the finish line but it was the last stretch of the race and one of the toughest parts of the course. As the hot and tired runners came though the gate they had to face a final hill and I was there at the top cheering them on. Tony spitted me and gave me the thumbs up as he passed.

A little while later I spotted Steve, the chairman of Lordshill Road Runners. He saw me too and gave me a smile. Just after he passed Tony appeared by my side. He’d crossed the finish line and dashed up the hill to cheer Commando on for those last few yards.

This was his first race since the disaster of the marathon. He wasn’t on his best form so it was never going to be a PB kind of race. He looked hot but still strong as he powered up the hill and, once he’d passed, Tony and I ran down the hill to meet him at the finish.

In the same way my walk on the boardwalk had brought me full circle, it felt this race had closed a circle of another kind. The days of standing on hot fields squinting at every running shirt finger poised over the shutter release button are over and it feels surprisingly good.

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Titanic tales from Portswood

The bow of the RMS Titanic taken June 2004 by the ROV Hercules.

11 July 2019

The plan for today was to try to find at least some of the Titanic crew houses in Portswood. As there are a lot of them, covering a large area, and the weather was incredibly hot and humid, I was resigned to the fact that we might not be up to the job of finding all of them. When CJ and I set off the mood was hopeful and doubtful in equal parts. Originally I’d hoped to tick of the handful of houses in Highfield on this walk too but I already knew that was a step too far.

The first of the houses on my list was in Rigby Road, not too far from some of the Bevois Valley Houses we found on our last search. This is not a part of Portswood I know well but we found the road fairly easily. With the vibrant colours of the Mexican Restaurant on the corner, we could hardly have missed it.

As soon as we turned the corner I felt sure we would find the house still standing. Rigby Road is a short cul -de-sac of red brick Victorian terraces, each neat and tidy, with arched doorways and bay windows. Right away I could see one with a plaque so, without even looking at the numbers, we headed right for it. As it happened, it wasn’t the right house but it was interesting all the same.

Number 2 Rigby Road was where artist Eric Meadus was born in 1931. Although he was born in Portswood he grew up in Lobelia Road, next door to my Mother in Law’s childhood home. She even had a painting of his, oil on hardboard, which was used as a fire screen. Meadus painted scenes from the city in a primitive style, inspired by Lowry. His work was exhibited in the Royal Academy and Paris Salon. His house may not have been what we were looking for but it was an interesting find all the same.

Meadus, Eric; Suburban Housing in the Southampton Area; Hampshire County Council’s Fine Art Collection;

At the other end of the road we finally found the house we were looking for. Number fourteen Rigby Road was where Percy Edward Keen once lived. The son of James, a house decorator from Wiltshire and Southampton born Ellen, Percy was born in Portswood Road on 9 August 1881. He was one of four children. He began his working life as a printer but, by 1905, he had gone to sea.

In 1908, he married Adelaide Martha Jane White, a Southampton girl and two years later they had a daughter, Kathleen Frances. When he left Oceanic to join Titanic as a first class saloon steward, the little family were living at 14 Rigby Road. He would have earned £3 15s a month and supplemented that with tips from the wealthy passengers he served. 

Exactly what happened on the night Titanic struck the iceberg isn’t known, although it’s thought Percy somehow managed to get onto lifeboat fifteen. This was the eighth boat lowered from the starboard side. It had been partly filled on the boat deck where a number of crew boarded. Possibly Percy was amongst them. The boat was then lowered to A deck and there picked up passengers. Eyewitness accounts are quite contradictory. At the inquiries some said the boat was mainly filled with women and children, others said the majority were men, many from third class. The inquiries chose to believe the former, although the latter is probably nearer the truth. Whatever really happened, the boat was almost lowered on top of lifeboat thirteen, which had become tangled below.  At the last moment someone managed to cut the falls and release the boat so disaster was narrowly averted. It took between fifteen and twenty minutes for lifeboat fifteen to get away from Titanic. It didn’t pick anyone up from the sea and was the tenth or eleventh boat to reach Carpathia. 

After his lucky escape, Percy returned to England and quickly went back to sea. Later that year his father died and, in 1913, he and Adelaide had a second daughter, Vera Winifred Lucy. Percy had a long seafaring career, continuing until at least the late 1930’s. During this time he worked on many ships beside another Titanic survivor, his friend Edenser Wheelton. It must have been a comfort to find a friend who’d also lived through the disaster. 

In his later years Percy, Adelaide and their daughters lived in Hillside Avenue, Bitterne Park. Percy died in November 1954. His ashes were scattered in the Garden of Rest in South Stoneham Cemetery. Adelaide died in 1964. 

14 Rigby Road

Right beside Percy’s house we spotted an interesting cutaway. Sadly it didn’t looked like it would lead us anywhere we needed to go so, slightly reluctantly, we retraced our steps. Our next house was on Lodge Road and, as we turned the corner, I was quietly confident we would find it.

As it happened, it was a little more complicated than either of us expected but we did find two pieces of interesting local graffiti as we searched.

The house we were looking for was number 29, once the home of William Farr Penney. We walked along the road counting off the numbers but, when we reached 27, on the corner of Spar Road, we were confused to find the house on the opposite corner was 31d. The terrace of three houses looked as if they had been converted into offices and partly rebuilt. As the house after these three is numbered 35, I’m fairly confident the corner house was once number 29 but it has changed a great deal since 1912.

29 Lodge Road, probably

Whatever the truth, this was as close as we were going to get to William’s house. He was born in Barnsley, Middlesex in October 1880. His father, William George Penney, a clothier manager, was from Shoreditch, London and his mother, Annie Maria Farr, was from Huntingdonshire. The couple married in 1871 and had seven children. The family seem to have moved around a fair bit. William’s first years were spent in Islington. The family later moved to Hackney. By 1901 William appears to have gone to sea. 

By 1909 he was living at 29 Lodge Road, Southampton and had married a local girl, Phylis Maude Harrison. Within the year they had a son, Lionel William. According to his family, William had been working for White Star for around six years. Before he joined Titanic as a second class steward he was working as a medical steward aboard the SS New York and had plans to stay in the United States and become a doctor. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. Poor William perished in the disaster and his body was never identified. It’s unknown what became of Phylis, but his son, Lionel, remained in Southampton where he married Elizabeth Bacon in 1941. He died in 1978.

William Farr Penney, From Encyclopedia Titanica by his great nephew Tony Evans

Our next house was 122 Avenue Road, a very long road running Parallel to Lodge Road from the Avenue all the way to Portswood Road. We’d almost walked to the Avenue before we finally cut through a side street onto Avenue Road and discovered the house numbers there ran in the opposite direction. We were hot and tired by this time and CJ was not impressed that I’d added an unnecessary half mile to our walk. He was even less impressed when we found the house and discovered it was almost opposite the little cutway we hadn’t taken on Rigby Road!

122 Avenue Road

This house was once home to Benjamin James Thomas, born in Clapham, London in May 1881. His father was also called Benjamin and his mother was Jane, a native of Shrewsbury Shropshire. By the time he was ten his father had died and he was living with his mother and younger half brother, Ernest Charles in the boarding house she was running in West Ham, Essex. In 1896 she took a second husband, John Ryan, who was probably Ernest’s father, and they ran a shop together. 

By 1901 Benjamin had gone to sea and his mother, widowed for a second time, was living in Canning Town with his brother. Benjamin married Polly James from Bicester, Oxfordshire in 1906. A year later they were living in Digswell, Hertfordshire and had a daughter Bertha Annie. They later moved to Southampton and set up home at 122 Avenue Road. Benjamin was working as a ship’s steward aboard Olympic, which could explain the move. He was on Olympic when she collided with the Hawke in 1911. Titanic’s Captain Edward Smith was in charge of the Olympic at the time. The two ships were sailing beside each other out of Southampton on the Solent when Olympic turned to starboard. This caught the commander of Hawke by surprise and he wasn’t able to take evasive action in time. The Hawke rammed Olympia’s starboard side near the stern and tore two large holes in it, flooding two watertight compartments and twisting a propellor shaft. Thankfully no one was seriously injured and Olympic managed to limp back to Southampton. Hawke was badly damaged and almost capsized. 

Benjamin joined Titanic for her delivery from Belfast and signed on as a first class steward for her maiden voyage. Like Percy Edward Keen, he was rescued in lifeboat fifteen. Although he was not required to testify at either of the inquiries into the disaster, he was detained for a while, possibly in case his testimony was needed, and was paid expenses of £11 17s 6d as compensation. He never returned to England. Later that year Polly and little Bertha sailed on Oceanic to join him in Plainfield, New Jersey.   He did not go back to sea. Instead he found work as a steward on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Benjamin spent the rest of his life in Plainfield but kept in touch with and visited fellow Titanic survivor Fred Toms, who’d moved from Bitterne Park to Los Angeles. 

Benjamin died in 1937 in the Muhlenberg Hospital in Plainfield, after a short illness. He was just 56. He was buried in Hillside Cemetery in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. Poly remained in Plainfield for the rest of her life. She died in 1949 and was buried with her husband. Bertha worked as a stenographer and married Halsey Saint Mills, an office clerk. They had one son, Thomas, who sadly died aged five. Bertha died in 1978 and was buried with her parents.

The next house on my list was a couple of streets away in Livingstone Road. Luckily, it wasn’t too far to walk. We found number 93 on the corner of Earls Road. It was a surprisingly large, grand looking house for a mere Pantry Steward like our next crew member James Marks. In all likelihood this was just a lodging house back in 1912 though.

James Marks was one of seven children born to Irish parents, Robert John and Mary Jane, in Wishaw, near Glasgow, in October 1884. Robert was a steel worker, who later became a travelling sewing machinist. James began his working life as an iron worker but moved to Portsmouth in 1904 and enlisted in the Royal Marine Light Infantry. Two years later he joined the Royal Navy as a stoker, serving aboard the Nelson, Victory II, Sapphire and finally Canopus. His conduct was not always good and he spent time in the cells for misconduct, abandonment and poor demeanour. In 1908, he married Portsmouth girl, Minnie Reynard, who was pregnant at the time. He was discharged in 1909, probably because of his poor behaviour, and their son, Ronald James, was born later that year. Minnie and her son lived at her father’s house in Landport Street Portsmouth. James appears to have gone straight back to sea in the merchant service. 

When James left the Avon to join Titanic as an assistant pantry steward, first class, he was living apart from Minnie at 93 Livingstone Road. He seems to have abandoned his wife and child and had little contact with them. Whether they ever saw any of his £3 15s monthly wages is unclear. James died in the sinking and his body was never identified. His parents benefitted from the Titanic relief fund but it doesn’t seem as if poor Minnie was provided for at all. She married William Butler in 1921 and they had a son, Anthony John the following year. She died in Gosport in 1971.

93 Livingstone Road

James’ son, Ronald worked in communications for the RAF and spent some time in Palestine. During World War II he served in Malta. He later returned to the UK and was involved in the D-Day landings. In 1947 he married Sheila Irvine from Oxfordshire. They had two children. Ronald retired from the RAF as a Wing Commander in 1963. He then joined NATO’s Allied Radio Frequency Agency in a civilian capacity. He died in 1972 in Brussels.

Our next crew member lived at 23a Gordon Avenue, a short walk away. We found the neat little bay fronted terraced house quite easily. It was numbered 23, so I’m guessing it was divided into flats in 1912. It looked much as it must have back then, except I imagine the red brick was unpainted back then and there certainly wouldn’t have been a satellite dish or wheelie bins in the front garden.

23 Gordon Avenue

Henry Samuel Etches was a local lad, born in Freemantle, Southampton in October 1868. His father, John, a master painter, was originally from Scotland and his mother, Caroline, was from Southampton. They had eleven children. Little us known about Henry’s early life but the family lived in Park Road Millbrook for a time. By 1891 Caroline had been widowed and was living in a boarding house in St Mary’s Road. It seems Henry had gone to sea.

In 1896, Henry married a Worcestershire girl, Lilian Rachel Smith. The couple did not have any children. For a time Lilian was living with friends or family at 114 Derby Road while Henry was at sea and  it isn’t clear exactly when they moved to 23a Gordon Avenue but they were certainly living there at the time of the 1911 census. This was also the address Henry gave when he left Oruba to join Titanic as a first class bedroom steward. His job involved assisting some of the most rich and famous passengers aboard the ship and tips from them would have certainly bolstered his wages. 

He was in charge of eight cabins on the aft port side of B deck and one on A deck. The latter was the cabin of Thomas Andrews, the Chief Designer of Titanic. Every morning at seven o’clock he went to Andrews’ cabin to take him fruit and tea. He then visited him at a quarter to seven each evening to help him dress. He had also met him several times in Belfast when both were on Olympic. 

Henry was off duty at the time of the collision but curiosity led him to head forward along the working alleyway on E deck known as Scotland Road. In the third class accommodation he witnessed a passenger dropping a chunk of ice onto the floor with the words “will you believe it now?”

Once Henry understood the gravity of the situation he went to B deck and began waking his passengers and helping them into their lifebelts. With just nine cabins under his charge this should have been a simple task but it was not. Benjamin Guggenheim, the mining magnate, was reluctant to wear a lifebelt. Even when Henry had persuaded him he said it was too uncomfortable and hurt his back. Henry took it off, adjusted it and then put it back on. After this Guggenheim was more comfortable but he and his valet, Victor Giglio, still had to be persuaded not to go out onto the cold deck in just their evening clothes. Eventually, Henry managed to pull heavy sweaters over their lifebelts and both men went out onto the boat deck. At another cabin the passengers refused to open the door and, even when Henry had explained the situation and warned them of the danger, they wouldn’t open the door or let him in. 

One passenger who did not have to be woken or helped was Thomas Andrews. He was more aware than most of the danger. He’d gone to survey the damaged straight after the collision and knew with certainty the ship would sink. Henry met him on B deck and walked with him down to C deck. The pair walked along C deck together, rousing passengers as they did. They found the purser outside his office surrounded by a large group of ladies. He was trying to persuade them to go to the boat deck. Andrews said, “that is exactly what I have been trying to get them to do,” and walked down the staircase to D deck. This was the last Henry saw of him because the purser ordered him to tell all the other bedroom stewards to get their passengers onto the boat deck and stand by. It was now twenty past twelve, the time Carpathia received Titanic’s distress signal.

By the time Henry got to the boat deck lifeboat seven was being loaded. He saw Guggenheim and his valet going from one lifeboat to the next helping women and children into the boats and shouting “women first.” He was surprised to see they had removed the sweaters and life jackets he’d had so much trouble persuading them to wear. When he asked them why, Mr Guggenheim replied, “we’ve dressed in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen.” He also gave Henry a message to pass on to his wife. 

Right after this Henry was ordered into lifeboat five to man an oar. He waved goodbye to Guggenheim and did not see him or his valet again. Third Officer Pitman was in charge of the lifeboat. After the ship had gone down he began to guide it back towards the site to pick up people from the water but there were so many people swimming the passengers were afraid the boat would be swamped and they would all die. Eventually he was persuaded to stand by and the boat did not rescue anyone from the water. Lifeboat five was one of the first to reach Carpathia.

Henry Samuel Etches  From Encyclopaedia Titanica

Later Henry was asked to give evidence at the inquiries. He also kept true to his word and delivered Guggenheim’s message. He went to the St Regis Hotel in New York on 20 April, hoping to speak to Mrs Guggenheim personally. He was not allowed to see her but instead gave the message to her brother in law. Although the message was short, “if anything should happen to me, tell my wife in New York that I’ve done my best in doing my duty,” he had written it down to make sure it was correct. He told Guggenheim’s brother “there wasn’t time for more,” and that Guggenheim and his valet, Giglio, “both died like soldiers.” Later the press would report that Mrs Guggenheim was greatly consoled by the message. Neither Guggenheim or Giglio’s bodies were ever identified, despite great efforts by the Guggenheim family to find them.

Henry did not return to sea after the disaster. He moved to Pershore in Worcestershire where his wife was born and died of chronic myocarditis, in September 1944. He was seventy five. His widow, Lilian, died ten years later. 

The Gordon Arms, Gordon Avenue

We’d started our walk on the edge of Bevois Valley and had been slowly meandering towards the centre of Portswood. Now we walked down Gordon Avenue, past the Gordon Arms pub on the corner with its bright hanging baskets and onto Portswood Road at the beginning of what is, effectively, Portswood High Street. Our next house was somewhere here but it wasn’t going to be easy to find.

We were looking for 134 Portswood Road and Google Maps told me it was around here somewhere. The problem was most of the shops displayed names but no house numbers and the ones we did find didn’t seem to go in any particular order. We walking up and down peering at the shop fronts trying to work out which might have once been 134. It was incredibly humid and we were both tired. We’d already walked more than four miles on our sinuous search and our water was running out.

We stopped for a while in the shade of the shop fronts while I searched Google, trying to find out which shop was number 134. The most likely one was the large Iceland supermarket, or at least part of it, it was clear none of the modern buildings had been standing in 1912 so our house was long gone.

We may not have been able to find the house, or to even be sure of exactly where it once was, but we did know the story of the man who once lived there. Francis Ernest George Coy was born in Thetford, Norfolk in 1885. His father, also called Francis, was a tool maker and machine fitter from Stretham, Cambridgeshire. He and Francis’s mother, Ada, married in 1884 and went on to have three more children, all girls. Francis Senior was working as an engineer in the dockyards by 1891 and his son followed in his footsteps to become an engine fitter’s apprentice. He served his apprenticeship in Portsmouth Dockyard working alongside his father. 

In 1907, Francis joined the White Star Line as sixth engineer on Oceanic. He was obviously good at his job because he was soon promoted to fifth engineer and then to assistant fourth engineer aboard Olympic. Like Benjamin James Thomas, he was aboard Olympic when she collided with the HMS Hawke in September 1911.

Shortly after this lucky escape, Francis married Beatrice Elizabeth Bridges a bookkeeper from Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. Beatrice was living with her parents in Oxford Avenue, Southampton at the time and the couple set up home together at 134 Portswood Road. Francis joined Titanic as junior assistant 3rd engineer, another promotion, earning £11 10s a month. None of the engineers survived the sinking. All were most likely below decks doing all they could to keep the ship afloat and give passengers time to get away on the lifeboats. Francis’s body was never identified. Beatrice did not remarry for over twenty years. In 1933, she married James H Cox and spent her last days living in Worthing, Sussex. She died in 1951

Francis Ernest George Coy From Encyclopaedia Titanica

By now CJ and I were both flagging badly. We still had a lot of houses to find but we were in need of a sit down in the shade and something to drink. The problem was, all the places we could have found these things were in the opposite direction to our next houses…

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Rights of way

10 July 2019

One of the great joys in my life is walking in the quiet places. I am a connoisseur of secluded little cut ways, hidden footpaths, trails and walkways. Finding a way to get from a to b that doesn’t involve walking along a road makes me smile, especially when it is beside a river. On my walks I’m always on the lookout for these hidden gems and the ones I know I use regularly, even if they add miles to my walks. Today I chose a route bursting at the seams with away from the road delights for my early morning walk. Unfortunately some of them are not as accessible as they should be though.

One of my favourite diversions is one my friend Gigi showed me years ago when we worked together for a cruise company. It adds a little distance to the walk from my house to Northam Bridge but takes me away from the main road for almost a mile. The trade off is worth the extra couple of hundred yards walking, especially when you consider the beautiful views of the river.

This walk uses a hidden cut way between the houses. It takes me over a little railway bridge and around Chessel Bay with views of all the little ships at Kemps Quay. Back when I was working with Gigi it was part of my walk to work and I loved watching the seasons change from bare branches to blackthorn blossom, berries to autumn leaves. There is a beautiful eucalyptus tree along the bay with peeling bark revealing smooth pale wood that makes me gasp whenever I pass.

Further along there is a wooden viewing platform where swans often gather. This used to be the place where it was most likely to see a black swan before they all moved up river and started breeding. The path takes me past houses and a school but, if I keep my eyes on the river, I can imagine I’m in the middle of nowhere.

After a short walk along a quiet road past the Quay there is another quiet path. This one runs behind the flats on the riverside and takes me all the way to the bridge. Looking over the low brick wall I can see all the ships and wrecks, the old jetty filled with sea birds and the skeleton ship slowly rotting away. The people in the flats have enviable views and the right of way allows walkers like me to enjoy them briefly.

The final part of this diversion takes me along the embankment beside the bridge. As far as I can tell this was once the beginning of the original bridge, built in 1799 for David Lance who owned the Chessel Estate. Part of the embankment is bordered by an old stone wall and then a chain fence. Walking along the grass between the trees, the roar of the traffic zooming along the road belies the serenity of the river view.

Eventually, of course, I have to leave all this peace and quiet and climb the steps onto the road. On the far side of the bridge though, there is another diversion. Today, before I went down the steps to the rowing club I stopped for a moment to look at the progress on the tall flats being built on the opposite side of the road. They seem to be shooting up into the air very fast and I can’t help wondering how high they will get?

Through the gate and down the steep steps are the rowing club slipways. Often I’ve seen rowers here preparing their boats or climbing exhausted from the water. This is close to the spot where Northam Wharf marked the beginning of the Itchen Navigation, although you’d never know it. There are no triangular markers or signs and the council seem disinterested in this part of the city’s heritage.

From here it is possible to walk under the bridge rather than cross the busy road above. Northam Bridge was the first major prestressed concrete road bridge to be built in the UK and, recently, it seems to have become a bit of an unofficial graffiti tunnel. Not that I’m complaining because it brightens my walk.

On the other side of the bridge a public footpath runs all along the riverbank. Until quite recently, there was a high chain link fence separating the path from the old television studios. The fence had been colonised by trees and climbing plants but these were all cut down when building work began on the new flats and a high blue fence erected instead. Although I miss the trees and the wooden fence makes the path feel slightly more hemmed in, I quite like the blue colour. It makes a beautiful backdrop for all the wildflowers growing along the path.

In truth it isn’t the best kept of paths. It’s narrow, filled with potholes and tends to get very muddy in winter. My hope is, that when all the building work is finished, the path will be improved and maybe some access provided directly into the new streets. If I was buying one of the flats I’d want to be able to get onto the path without going through the industrial estate. Despite all its faults and the risk of breaking an ankle if you don’t take care, the views across the river are stunning.

This path is also on my list of past walks to and from work. When I worked at the bus mines I used it regularly. Beyond the building site the path curves gently, passing a small industrial estate. Once upon a time I used to work there in an office facing the water. The job was horrible but the views were lovely. In those days there were a young hippy looking couple and their dog living on a boat here. The MD of the company would often take them food parcels. We’d watch them rowing their little boat back and forth to their floating home with the dog swimming beside them. They have long gone but the remains of their boat, sunken now, is slowly rotting on the corner. Sometimes I wonder what became of them.

In those days there was no boardwalk, just a shingle shore that was only accessible at low tide. Sustrans built the walkway in 2010 and it is the most wonderful improvement. Because of it, cyclists and walkers have an off road route from St Denys to Northam, away from traffic and with stunning waterside views. Swans often gather here, mostly on the corner near the hippy ship but, today, they were further along. There were two groups one with two small fluffy cygnets, the other with no less than nine older babies. This seems to have been a good year for cygnets on the Itchen.

Commando Senior’s last ever outing was to visit the boardwalk. He’d read about it on my blog and wanted to see it for himself. When ever I walk this way I can almost see him standing here looking out over the water. Right now the tarmac path leading from the boardwalk onto Horseshoe Bridge is in a bit of a state. Someone has dropped a tin of pale blue emulsion and walkers and cyclists have passed through the wet paint creating an inadvertent work of art.

The next part of my diversion is a little more controversial. There is another walkway along the river on the other side of Horseshoe Bridge, leading to a slipway on Priory Road. This was a path I once used regularly too. It was a peaceful interlude in my walks to and from work with river views, boats and birds. The path runs behind a gated community known to me as the Millennium Flats. Unlike the people in the flats on the other side of Northam Bridge, the residents here do not like sharing their views though.

Some time ago the gates leading to the path were locked and a sign erected. This caused much consternation locally because part of the planning application for the building was to keep this pathway open to the public. The residents excused their actions by complaining of antisocial behaviour on the path, citing prostitutes and drug addicts. As the area on the other side of Horseshoe Bridge has been a red light district for as long as I can remember these things can hardly be a surprise. If you buy a property in such an area, no matter how nice it is, you have to expect to see a few unsavoury things. Some residents said they were in fear of their lives. This seems a little dramatic. The path is separated from the flats by a steep grassy bank a fence and a thick hedge. It would be very hard to get from one to the other and I doubt prostitutes or drug addicts are so inclined.

For almost two years I walked through here, often in the dark due to my early or late shifts, and I can’t say I ever felt especially in danger. Although I did occasionally see some peculiar people, including drunks and prostitutes on the industrial estate or the boardwalk, I never saw them here. The owners of the flats have now applied to the council to have the gates locked permanently. The matter is being decided in a few days time and I, for one, hope the council see sense and make them remove the locks, at least during daylight hours.

Taking the road route around the other side of the flats I couldn’t help noticing a mass of signs warning all and sundry that this was private land with no access. The flats are completely surrounded by high fences and locked gates, giving it the feel of a fortress, or maybe a prison. Despite the lovely views, I would not want to be besieged inside those gates looking out in paranoia at the outside world. It seems to me the real problem is not the social issues in the area but the attitudes of those within the gates.

Although I couldn’t access the walkway, I did take a short detour into the park with the slipway where I’d have come out if I had. From there I had a marvellous view of all the flats on the other side of the river with their walkways, all of which are open to the public. This was somewhere I often used to pause on my walks. Sometimes there would be swans on the slipway or people preparing to launch boats. I always loved the view of the hotchpotch of jetties in the back gardens of the Priory Road houses with their various sheds and boats. This road, with its little Victorian houses may not be in the most salubrious of areas but it has a real community feel about it. It’s a shame the people in the modern flats feel the need to cut themselves off from it. Their lives would be far richer if they didn’t.

Leaving the slipway behind I walked along Priory Road, admiring a garden or two and remembering all those walks to and from work. On either side of the railway bridge it’s possible to get to the river bank behind the houses but, because the rails bisect the two riverside paths, they lead nowhere. Today they were a detour too far so I stuck to the road and carried on to Cobden Bridge where I could see the river again as I crossed.

On the other side of the bridge more new flats have been built, complete with steps and a path along the river. This is also supposed to be a right of way and should join up with the path further along behind some slightly older flats. At the moment the gate here is locked and there is a wooden fence between the two paths. The council have told the builders this has to change but, until it does, there is no way through.

Peeking through the bars of the fence I admired the poppies growing on the bank beside the steps. One day I may be able to walk beside them on another quiet detour beside the river.

Until then I will have to climb the hill past the clock tower and take the side roads back home. This route may not give me river views but at least there are flowers to admire in the gardens I pass.