2 March 2016
March started with torrential rain. Today was supposed to be the driest day of the week so I thought I’d head to Portswood for my newspaper and then on towards the Sports Centre for a bit more boundary stone hunting. Typically, I’d hardly left the house when the rain began to come down. It was icy cold and wind buffeted it behind my glasses so my eyelashes sparkled with droplets at with every blink. Briefly I thought about turning back but talked myself out of it. Surely it was just a very heavy shower?
As it happened turning back would have been the sensible option. At the river the rain was so hard and the wind so strong I could hardly see the bridge and by the time I got to Portswood and the shelter of the shop I was soaked and dripping. Luckily I’d worn my plastic mac over my down filled jacket so the wetness was mostly from the knees downwards.
Outside the shop again, I pulled up the hood of my mac and discovered it must have blown down at some point in my walk and had filled with water. Obviously I’d not noticed because I was also wearing a woolly hat and the hood of my down filled coat had been pulled up. Now I had what amounted to a bucketful of water running down my face and the back of my neck. As if I wasn’t wet enough already.
By this time the rain had almost stopped so, feeling brave and being as wet as I was going to get, I decided to carry on towards the Sports Centre, or as far as I got before it started raining again. Half way along Shaftesbury Avenue things began to look a little brighter. Tiny patches of blue were discernible behind the brooding black clouds and I relaxed a little.
This is not a road I know well so I began to look around at the houses and gardens. One house had a round corner bay with a romantic looking conical roof, like a turret. Dripping pink magnolia were beginning to open in gardens and trees were filled with soggy blossom. One garden had pale pink camellia flowers, badly scorched by frost. Two blooms clung together, like Siamese twins, the top scorched the bottom, like an odd mirror reflection, still mostly pink. Another garden wall was a mass of grape hyacinth and daffodils.
The rain may have stopped but the combination of biting wind and wet trousers was not good. My legs and fingers were freezing. The Sports Centre began to feel like several miles too far but I’d read about something interesting a little nearer, an old World War II pillbox in a cutway in Highfield, I’d planned to have a quick look as I was passing, maybe I’d make it my aim for the day.
The university campus is nearby and there were lots of students about when I got to Granby Grove, where the cutway was supposed to be. This turned out to be a lucky break because I couldn’t see a cutway until a group of students emerged from between two houses and I realised it must be hidden there. The streets of the city are filled with these little short cuts but, unless you’re local, it’s easy to pass them by without even knowing. This one ran between two high, corrugated fences down into a steep dip. There were steps at each end and a flat path at the bottom. I waited until it was student free and set off.
There were street lamps but it didn’t look like the kind of place you’d want to walk after dark. At the bottom of the dip I found a little stream but I couldn’t see a pillbox until I looked back the way I’d come and spotted it, right at the top behind the houses to the north. It had been hidden by the fence and the trees but now I could see a gap in the railings and a muddy trail leading past it.
The passing students must have wondered what I was up to when I suddenly turned back. When I got there I almost thought better of leaving the path. The mud was thick and slippery and I nearly lost my footing but I could see it got slightly drier further on so I persevered. What the students made of an elderly lady dressed in an odd combination of down jacket, plastic mac, woolly hat and dripping leggings slipping about in the mud is anyone’s guess.
The trail ran slightly below the pillbox but I could see a side trail climbing the steep bank next to it. I had an idea it might be possible to get inside but the side trail was so steep and muddy I didn’t dare attempt it. Instead I stood looking up at it wondering why it was there. The pillboxes I’ve seen before have always been along the coast like the one between Netley and Hamble or in the woods overlooking the coast in Cherbourg. This one is a long way from the sea
A lot of later Googling told me this was part of the Southampton Anti-tank Island, built in 1940 after the defeat of the British Expiditionary Force in France and the return of troops through Dunkirk. With threat of invasion along the south coast, stop lines were set up to prevent enemy troops from gaining further ground. There would be no giving in easily, ditches were dug, concrete obstacles and pillboxes that would be manned by Royal Artillery as anti tank gun emplacements hastily constructed. Plans were drawn up to blow up bridges, fight for as long as it took and do whatever was needed to stop the enemy. Today it’s hard to imagine pitched battles and soldiers with guns in these quiet streets but, in 1940, with bombs dropping and buildings burning it seemed a very real possibility.
Feeling glad the pillbox had never had to be used in anger, I made my way back to the path and, with a few stops to look back, climbed up the steps to the far side. If the pillbox is accessible it might be interesting to have a look inside but that will have to wait for another day when the mud has dried up. CJ would probably never have forgiven me for not taking him along anyway.
Strolling along Woodcote Road on a quickly thought out route home my mind wasn’t on my surroundings. What must it have been like to live back then, knowing the enemy could invade at any time? If they had would the defences have been of any use? The town was in ruins, food was rationed, the majority of the fit, strong men were at war on the other side of the English Channel. There was no doubt the Home Guard and the people of Southampton would have fought to their last breath but, realistically, what chance would we have had? Looking around at the leafy suburban street it was hard to imagine any of it.
Towards the end of the road a strange sight brook into my musings. Over the roofs of the houses I thought I saw the turret of a castle. For a moment I was sure my mind was playing tricks but the nearer I got the clearer it was. What on earth was it doing there and why hadn’t I noticed it when I’ve walked along here before? How had I passed a castle and not seen it?
Out on Burgess Road the crennalated turret and walls were right there behind the doctor’s surgery and trees. It had to be a castle. Puzzled, I turned from my homeward route to investigate, entering the Bassett Flowers Estate along Tulip Road. Big Nannie lived in Bassett, not too far from here so I knew a little about it but I didn’t remember anything about a castle.
Once this was Stoneham Common, part of John Fleming’s Stoneham Estate. In the late 1840’s Fleming, decided to develop the area east of what is now Bassett Avenue occupied by Rogers Nursery Ground and build one hundred and twenty eight small villas and some terraced housing. By the early 1850’s basic road patterns had been laid out but the original plan was never completed and, by 1868, only around fifteen larger than planned villas had been built. After World War I smaller, more densely packed detatched houses were built and soon Corporation, or council, housing estates began to spring up. One of these was the Flower Roads with road names such as Honeysuckle, Carnation, Lobelia and Daisy. Perhaps this was a nod to the long gone Rogers Nursery Ground?
On the corner of Tulip and Bluebell Roads I solved the mystery of the castle, at least part of it. The turret and crennaltions belong to St Alban’s Church. Later Googling told me more. When the Flower Roads were built the nearest church was St Mary’s South Stoneham about half a mile away on Wessex Lane. In 1932 the parish of St Alban was formed and, by 1933, the church had been built. It was one of the first designed by architect Nugent Francis Cachemaille-Day. It seems to me he thought he was building a castle.
The doors were shut so I left the church that thinks it’s a castle behind and set off towards Woodmill and the river. The Itchen was high and fast when I peeked through the fence behind the mill and I noticed the signs had been taken down on the mill building. Hopefully that isn’t bad news.
The blast of the icy wind and trousers that hadn’t dried out meant I didn’t hang around long. It was a cold march through Riverside Park but when I reached Sarah Filmer’s lovely snow geese I did stop. Something was glittering on the grass and, when I went to investigate I discovered at least one of the geese had broken, probably because of the vicious wind. It seemed a terrible shame but the rest of the geese sparkled and danced wildly and I took a video to try to capture them before the wind buffeted them all to pieces.
It hadn’t been the walk I’d planned and quite a lot of it had been uncomfortable with the wind, the cold and the rain. Even so, I’d found a few odd things in odd places that might be worth further exploration one day and learned a few things along the way. All in all I’d call it a success.
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