12 July 2015
Commanndo’s running hijacked my Sunday walk this week due to the Wyvern 10k, which was also his first ever event running as part of the Itchen Spitfires running club. As it happened I didn’t mind too much because I’d heard there were some interesting footpaths around Fair Oak and I fully intended to check them out while he was running. Well, if I could find them…
We set off early into a disappointingly damp and drizzly Sunday morning, picking up two other Spitfires who live nearby. As Commando misspent a fair bit of his youth in Fair Oak we had no trouble finding Wyvern College. This began life as the Fair Oak village school but, as the village has grown, has morphed into a huge sprawling campus sitting on the northern edge of fields, woods and farms that stretch all the way to West End. I’ve always had an idea that there are footpaths crossing most of this land if only I knew where they were. This was my chance to explore at least some of them.
Fair Oak is a large village on the outskirts of Eastleigh sandwiched between Bishopstoke and Horton Heath and connected to Southampton by the long, winding Allington Lane. It takes its name from an oak tree that used to stand in the village square. The tree was felled in 1843 but was replaced by a new oak tree which still stands in the square today. My knowledge of it is mostly based around a couple of pubs and occasionally driving through to get to somewhere else. Finding footpaths might not be as easy as I hoped.
We started off with the obligatory collecting of timing chips and pinning on of numbers as, one by one, we were joined by other Spitfires. It was a bit of a shock when someone called out “Hello Marie,” as this was the last place I thought I’d bump into anyone I knew. The phrase, it’s a small world, sprang to mind when I turned to see Stan, one of my old Dream Factory colleagues wearing an Itchen Spitfires t-shirt. Commando had been running with him for all this time without realising we knew each other. In fact Stan once trained a much younger CJ in the art of accounts back when he helped out in the office. I’m surprised he didn’t notice the family resemblance.
A few of the lads went for a warm up run on the beautifully spongy red running track to work off a few pre race nerves. Standing on the edge, I couldn’t help thinking how much nicer road walking would be if the council covered all our potholed pavements with this magical stuff. Of course they’d only dig it all up again a week later and patch it up badly but, still, a girl can dream. By the time they’d finished running up and down the rest of the club had gathered. After some pointless introductions where I instantly forgot everyone’s name, they gathered for a team photo. Out of fifteen shots I managed to find just one where everyone was looking at the camera and no one was making bunny ears behind someone else’s head. Mostly this was Stan, who obviously hasn’t changed much since his Dream Factory days.
There always seems to be far too much hanging around at these things for my liking but, eventually, everyone started meandering to the start line. Francis Benali, the always smiling, ever obliging, ex Southampton Footballer was starting the race but had been caught up with an autograph hunter at the bottom of the podium steps. There was a lot of shuffling about, vying for position amongst the gathered runners and a wave from Commando who finally spotted me.
In the end the air horn didn’t work so Benali ended up shouting “Go,” and everyone was off. I hung about long enough to get a photo of Commando crossing the start line and then wandered off, not quite knowing where I was going. No change there then. Commanndo’s time has improved considerably since the days of those first 10k races in Easteligh so I had just over forty five minutes at the most. Obviously this was going to be more a taster course in the Fair Oak footpaths, if I could find them, than a real exploration but beggars can’t be choosers.
During all the pre race preparations I’d had a sneaky look at Google Maps and thought there might be access to some of the footpaths from the playing field behind the running track. This would be my starting point. At least, I hoped it would. There was a sign saying Danger Deep Water but the field was flat and marked out as a running track. At first glance, I thought I might have to have a rethink on my walk plans as there seemed to be a fence running around the perimeter and no water of any kind in sight. For a while I stood and looked at the fence, wondering what to do next.
Rain started to fall. Maybe I’d be able to find some shelter under the trees, if not a path to follow? As I began to cross the field I noticed a gap in the fence so pulled my hood up and diverted towards it. Beyond the fence was a trail, in one direction it headed through tall grass and hogweed, in the other a raised boardwalk led into the trees. The rain made me choose the latter.
The boardwalk was fenced on either side with woods going off into the distance. Glimpses of what could be fences or gates told me there might be more trails if only I could get to them. A bridge took me across a muddy looking stream, perhaps this was the deep water, although it looked quite shallow to me. Then the path divided.
To the right there was more Boardwalk and to the left a dirt path criss crossed with tree roots. As the creaking of the boards was getting slightly annoying I chose the latter. Another short stretch of Boardwalk followed, crossing what must be boggy ground in winter and spring, and then a field. On the opposite side I could see a gate and beside me a large field of corn almost as tall as me.
When I got to it, the gate had a sign saying Permissive Footpath Only, No Right Of Way. There are quite a few of these permissive paths around and I always feel slightly uneasy walking on them. Although they are not public rights of way the landowner allows access to walkers. The landowner may close the path on specific days and this is usually done to avoid a path becoming a legal right of way by virtue of its continuous use. Basically, it’s confusing and I’m never quite sure if I’m supposed to be there or not.
Feeling slightly nervous, I went through the gate along a dirt trail bordered by grass and trees. Pretty soon I came out onto a wide sweeping path of mown grass. There were Apple trees laden with young fruit edging the path and low benches. This mown track seemed to be circular and, if I followed it, I had the feeling I’d end up back where I started. A look at my watch told me this might not be a bad thing as time was running out but, while I was still dithering, I spotted another trail going in the general direction of the college so I took that instead.
After a brief walk along a gravelly trail I came to a gate and beyond it more Boardwalk, this sloping and covered with chicken wire for grip. It wasn’t long before I found myself in another field where a game of cricket was going on. At a glance I couldn’t tell if there was any way back twards the college through the distant trees and, as I didn’t much fancy being hit by a cricket ball and didn’t have time for wild goose chases, I turned back the way I’d come.
With a little less in the way of stopping to decide where to go next and a little more in the way of speed I made it back to Wyvern College with a few minutes to spare before Commando’s expected finish time. The cheerleaders were jumping up and down cheering each runner across the line and the announcer was telling everyone these were the elite athletes coming in. As I tried to get a good spot for photos I spotted Francis Benali and his son finishing. Not long after Commando was doing the same. As Mr Benali is a good six years younger and was a professional footballer who still runs marathons I’d say Commando did pretty well. Of course, he was annoyed that he’d missed the forty five minute mark by just over twenty seconds. There’s no pleasing some people.
Normally, once medals have been collected and chocolate milk drunk, it’s time for us to go home. On Sunday though, Commando was running as part of his club so the plan was to stay until the last Spitfire crossed the line. In fact, Commando and another Spitfire decided to run back to find the final runner and run with them to the finish. As the slowest in the group weren’t expected for finish for quite some time Commando suggested I go and explore the footpaths a little more. I didn’t need telling twice.
By this time it’d stopped raining so I thought I’d see where the trail through the grass and hogweed took me. The first thing I noticed was some peculiar fungi growing amongst the grass. It looked like a circle of badly cooked buns and I’m still not sure what it was. Then there were pink flowers that I took at first for Queen Anne’s lace but decided we’re actually hogweed when I saw the seedheads nearby. There are so many similar looking tall plants with large heads of white flowers it’s hard to be sure.
Close to the ground I found lots of pink and white bindweed speckled with rain. Nearby there were rusty looking spikes of curly dock or maybe sheeps sorrel, I’m not sure. A little further along the path a tree had grown right through the fence, the stout wires embedded in its trunk. This is something I’ve seen a few times and I’m always surprised the poor trees carry on growing and appear to be so healthy. In this case the fence looked to have come off worse, the wire was bent and the wooden rail broken.
The trail followed the edge of the playing field and turned at a right angle when it reached the corner. Turning with it I hugged the edge of the field not wanting to get too far from the race track. There were interesting looking trails going off to my right but I ignored them. Shortly after I stopped to look at some bryony berries growing along the fence I saw the cricket field through a gap in the trees. If I’d known where I was going I’d have been able to get back this way on my original outing.
Now the trail was lined with sweet smelling wild honeysuckle and bright spiky thistles. In no time at all I was back, almost where I’d started, at the gate to the running track field. Commando was back too, I could see him milling about the finish line. The very last Spitfire had just crossed the line and it was time to go home. As taster sessions go, my time on the Fair Oak footpaths was shorter than I’d have liked but it showed me there are far more of them than I’d thought. There will almost certainly be some more thorough investigations to come.