11 November 2014
Despite my pledge to attempt to reach Scotland on my virtual coastal walk this month, this weekend was turning out to be a bit of a washout in more ways than one. The planned Sunday walk was scuppered by Commanndo’s plans and my plan to walk to the dentist and back on Monday fell victim to heavy rain and food shopping. That left Tuesday as my only chance to fit some miles in. The weather forecast was hardly inspiring. Even so I planned out an ambitious walk, considering the chance of heavy rain, to Victoria Country Park. In fact it fit rather well with the date, 11 November.
The morning news was full of severe weather warnings and I did wonder just how sensible this walk was. There was a great temptation to stay to home in the warm and dry. The news was also full of the poppies in London. I’d like to have seen them but, sadly, time and money didn’t allow for a visit.
When I set out it was raining and very windy. The walk up the Big Hill with the strong wind in my face along with driving rain wasn’t very pleasant but I told myself this was nothing compared to what the soldiers in the trenches had to put up with and pressed on. My first stop was the village church. It was quiet in the graveyard as I laid a small posy of flowers on Pappy’s grave and spent a minute or two in contemplation.
There was no let up in the wind or rain as I made my way down Spring Road and it was a relief to reach the relative shelter of the Butterfly Walk. There seemed little chance of seeing any butterflies, in fact, with so much rain on my glasses there was little chance of seeing much of anything. By this time the rain was beginning to seep through my trousers but I ignored it and carried on.
There wasn’t another soul about as I marched through fallen leaves and squelched through mud. The sound of rain dripping from the branches and wind whistling through the autumn leaves competed with the burble of the stream beside the path. Past the wooden sculptures and over the bridge I went, wondering about the mud ahead. The trail runs through a deep valley close to the stream and is swampy at the best of times.
The other side of the bridge was as muddy as expected but nothing my boots couldn’t cope with and certainly not as muddy as those World War I trenches. I squelched on, stopping to admire a phenomenal crop of mushrooms growing on a fallen tree. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many in once place before. They were well worth the muddy boots.
There was no avoiding the rain when I reached the shore. Waves were crashing against the shingle and the wind dashed cold rain in my face as I scurried along, head town, my hood and hat pulled down almost over my eyes. The far bank was almost invisible through the deluge. It was a relief to make it to the shelter of the trees at the end of the promenade.
There were mushrooms here too, the first I’ve ever seen along the shore. I’d always thought the salt air didn’t suit them but these, growing on a rotten stump, were large and healthy looking. Once I emerged from the trees sheltering West Lodge the wind took my breath away and the blustery rain blowing in from the sea made me turn away from the shore. Netley Castle was just visible through the trees as I made my way up to Abbey Hill.
Before long I’d reached the gate to Victoria Country Park. The park was once home to Royal Victoria Hospital, built in 1856 at the suggestion of Queen Victoria, and used extensively during World War I. The main building was, at the time, the longest building in Europe but was demolished in 1966 with just the chapel remaining today. The hospital was controversial, designed to be grand and visually attractive, little thought was given to the patients. Corridors faced the sea, leaving the wards looking out on an inner courtyard with little light or air.
Florence Nightingale, who was an advocate of the project but not involved in the initial design, was horrified.
“It seems to me that at Netley all consideration of what would best tend to the comfort and recovery of the patients has been sacrificed to the vanity of the architect, whose sole object has been to make a building which should cut a dash when looked at from Southampton River. Pray stop all work,” she said.
Some amendments were made but the hospital was never the flagship for the medical treatment of wounded soldiers it was intended to be.
Despite its shortcomings it was used extensively in World War I and, as far as I can tell, played an important part in my family history. My grandfather, Pappy, was born in a little village called Hartley Witney in Oxfordshire, as was my father. If they’d remained there I might never have been born. When Pappy was wounded in the French trenches he was shipped back to England to a military hospital. Whether this was the hospital at Netley, I will never know for sure. Around that time though, my father and his family relocated to Southampton. I’m pretty sure the two things are connected and I believe he probably did spend a considerable amount of time in the Royal Victoria Hospital.
On the far side of the park there’s a man made causeway rising above the steep valley, almost like a tunnel of trees. For the first time all morning I saw someone just ahead of me disappearing around a bend in the path. When I reached the gates to the Military Cemetery they’d gone. For a moment I stood looking at the white gravestones on the little hill. It was quarter to eleven.
Slowly I made my way to the World War I Memorial on the far side of the cemetery, pausing now and then to look at graves. More fungi were growing on the bank beside the path, it seemed to be the day for them. The memorial and the bright maple tree came into view at the same time. The tree is not as bright this year, last autumn it looked like a flame in the woods.
Almost at once I could see I wasn’t alone. An elderly, bearded man was standing beneath the tree, an old soldier. Part of me was disappointed, I’d wanted to spend my time in quiet contemplation.
“I thought I was going to be the only one to turn up,” he said, “hopefully the others will be here soon.”
For a moment I wondered what I’d stumbled into but, within a few moments, other people were turning up, five more soldiers, some old, some not so old and two women. They all seemed to know each other and I felt a little like a gate crasher. Maybe they just forgot to send my invitation.
By now it was almost eleven but the Old Soldier seemed to have a plan. He was carrying sheets of paper protected by plastic pockets and, with a look at his watch, he began to read a roll call of the numbers of dead from each of the wars in the last hundred years. He ended with a familiar poem.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
Some of the soldiers and women laid wreaths and little wooden crosses with a poppy at the centre. I wished I’d thought to bring something. This was followed by the two minutes silence I’d come to observe. We all stood with heads bowed. The red leaves on the grass made me think of splashes of blood.
While this was going on the Old Soldier went to a bag he’d left on the bench under the maple tree. Until then I’d not noticed it and I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw what he had gone to get. He rejoined the group with a set of bagpipes and, after the initial wailing of the bag being filled, played Amazing Grace so beautifully tears mingled with the rain on my cheeks.
It may not have been quite what I was expecting as I made my way through the mud, wind and rain to the Military Cemetery but it was far more than I could ever have hoped for.