A chapel, a cemetery and a rail trail – first published 24 November 2013

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My Sunday walk was badly planned. I had no food with me, it was cold and windy and I was getting tired. Just as I was about to turn back Commando rang and urged me to go further. If I’d had any sense I’d have ignored him but, of course, I didn’t. It wasn’t one of my better decisions. 

The shore path runs out just after Netley Castle so, unless you are brave enough and your legs are strong enough to walk along the shingle and risk getting cut of by the tide, the only choice is back to the road. There’s a little street, more of a cut way really, that leads up to Victoria Road, the main route through Netley, so that was where I went. Along here the houses have doors that open onto the street so I couldn’t help door watching as I walked along.

Doors are often more interesting than you’d expect when you actually stop to look at them and it wasn’t long before I found one that made me smile. The smart black painted door and little arched porch in the middle of a row of Victorian terraces was nice but nothing out of the ordinary. The plant pot on the step wasn’t exactly bursting with life and the drift of dried leaves not especially colourful. The thing that made me smile was the sign on the red brick wall beside the door, ‘Muddle Cottage,’ now that sounds like my kind of house. I wondered what was behind the door.

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Further along, on the other side of the road, there was another interesting door. This one, blue painted panels with a boarded up window, was floating in mid air which made me wonder how anyone ever got inside. Right now that is academic because there isn’t a great deal left of the house, the roof and upper floor is gone and the whole place is surrounded by a wire fence. It was interesting enough for me to cross the road and try my best to get a photo though. Pity I couldn’t because it was an interesting door.

When I saw the pretty little stone cottage, right on the corner and right on the road, I knew I was almost at Victoria Country Park. It’s the kind of place that seems like it should be set in a big cottage garden not hanging over the road. The leaded windows, especially the diamond shaped one above the door have always captured my imagination. What would it be like to be on the inside looking out? The photo I took was not the first I have taken of it and I’m sure it won’t be my last

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Once I reached the park it seemed silly not to visit the Commonwealth Cemetery. When I started out I’d been thinking about it, remembering my first visit and the way the graves cast long shadows. Back at the castle, I’d thought about it again but I knew there would be no shadows at all with such a grey sky, never mind long ones. Shadows or no shadows the peace of that afternoon looking at the writing on the graves, sitting on a bench sipping my water and eating my snack had stayed with me. Peace and time for reflection is something I need right now.

First through there was a walk through the park, about a mile to the cemetery. An ice cream van was parked next to the chapel. It seemed a little out of place on such a cold day but I though an ice cream might solve the snack, lack of energy problem. Then again ice cream isn’t exactly the best, most healthy of walking snacks, perhaps on the way back.

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Reluctantly turning my back on ice cream I took the path down towards the woods at the very back of the park. With one last look at the sea shore and the grey, forbidding sky I turned my back on that too and headed towards the path through the trees. The path winds along the top of a steep bank, dropping off on either side so you feel you are walking on a bridge above the woods. The trees crowd in on either side, branches kissing in the middle as if they are holding hands across the void of the path. Here the golds, greens and browns of autumn brightened my dull day.

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Back in February, when I last came this way, there were no leaves and lots of mud. There were also lots of fallen trees in the woods below the path. Looking down to either side I could see the same fallen trees, now they were dried out, pale against the massed leaves of the woodland floor. If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear, does it make a sound? That conundrum went through my head.

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There were no shadows in the cemetery, just as I’d expected. Even so there was a calm beauty to the first white stones straddling the little hill where tall pines stand guard. From the gate they look quite randomly placed but a walk around the hill shows them to be in straight lines, just like the ranks of soldiers beneath them.

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The cemetery is made up of lots of small secluded clearings in the woodland, privacy for the dead. The soldiers buried there died in the military hospital where Florence Nightingale once worked, the oldest date back to 1865 when the hospital opened, the most recent are from World War II. The thing that strikes me as ironic is that German, Dutch and Belgian soldiers are buried here too, some lie side by side with the men they fought. In death there are no sides, no allegiances. Although they are long gone I feel sorry for these poor soldiers, so far from home.

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I sat for a while on the same bench I sat on before, looking over some of the older graves, drinking my water and wishing I had a snack with me. There was a little search of my rucksack, just in case, but it proved fruitless. After a short but peaceful rest, I wandered amongst the graves and bright leaves littering them, trying to make out words mostly worn away by age and weather.

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On the far side of the cemetery there were some graves I hadn’t seen before. The maze like nature of the place makes it easy to miss little clearings and hills. From the colour and condition they were newer stones but I didn’t go closer to see for sure. My eyes were drawn to two flaming trees right in the centre of them, vivid and alive as two flames burning in honour of the dead.

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Right in the corner, quite tucked away, I saw a gate leading into the woods. I have a weakness for unexplored woodland paths, so I was drawn to it. Despite the long miles behind me and the fact I’d been preparing to turn back just moments before, I couldn’t help but go and have a closer look. The temptation to go through the gate and find out where this interesting path led was huge.

Did I take the woodland path or not? You know I did, I’m my own worst enemy when there’s a new trail involved. Looking over the gate I saw a winding path through the fallen leaves. There was a pause, just a moment’s hesitation, a look back at the flaming trees and the graves, then I walked through the gate.

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Soon I came to a kind of board walk twisting through the brambles and crisp leaves and around the trees. The ground on either side was boggy and wet. It seemed I was walking on the low ground below the tree lined path come bridge I’d arrived on. With all the twists and turns I’d lost my bearings and had no idea which direction I was going. For a moment I wondered if I should turn back, maybe the path led nowhere at all, it felt as if I was going round in circles. When a young couple came the other way we had to do a little dance to pass each other.

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My curiosity got the better of me so I carried on. The boardwalk creaked and groaned under my feet and boggy ground finally revealed a little stream. Soon I was crossing a small wooden bridge. When the boardwalk suddenly came to an end I got a little worried. There was a faint trail through the leaf litter but I wasn’t sure it was really a trail at all. What to do? I walked a little way, round a large leaning tree covered with ivy, thinking I might turn back but there was the boardwalk again.

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Soon there was a new bridge crossing another stream, or maybe it was the same one, I couldn’t tell. In no time at all the trail ended and I found myself on a road. It wasn’t a road I knew but there was a sign saying Hampshire Constabulary Training Centre. That was miles from where I wanted to be and I wasn’t even sure which way to go to get back to the park. Across the road there was another gate with something carved on it, writing of some kind. So I crossed the road and had a look thinking it might give me a clue.

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The sign said Hamble Rail Trail. The time on my phone said two o’clock, I’d been walking for more than two hours, with another two hours back the other way. What to do? Only an idiot would wander off on an unknown trail, possibly in the wrong direction, two hours from home when it would be getting dark in less than that, wouldn’t they?

Much as I’d have liked to, it really didn’t make sense to walk along the Hamble Rail Trail. For a start I’d never even heard of it and had no idea where it led even if I’d known which direction to go. Of course I had to have a little look so I went through the gate.

It was much like the trail I’d just left but less boggy and with no boardwalk. After a quick look at WalkJogrun I thought I knew which direction would lead me back to Victoria Country Park but I wasn’t sure the trail actually went there or how far it was. I walked a few yards and came to some old railway sleepers and abandoned pieces of track lying amongst the ivy and fallen leaves. A little further and I saw the actual track. If the path followed the railway line it probably wouldn’t lead me back to the park, or so I reasoned, so, discretion being the better part of valour, I turned back.

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Since then I’ve Googled it and it turns out it is a four and a half mile circular trail with Hamble at one end and Victoria Country Park at the other. Doh! I even found a map on WalkJogrun. Now that would have been useful at the time because it turns out I was probably less than a mile from Victoria Country Park, if only I’d known at the time.

The railway was built in World War I to carry aircraft and it hasn’t been used since 1986 when it transported crude oil. The oil now runs through a pipeline and the railway is disused. The thought of trains speeding past was another reason I’d turned back, so another thing I wish I’d known about at the time.

Back on the road I wavered for a while, desperately looking at the WalkJogrun map trying to work out if the road would take me back to the park. I walked one way, then the other, just a few yards, watching the little blue dot on the map and trying to get my bearings. It had been a dull day all along but I began to imagine it was getting darker. If I was going to walk back through the woods I needed to get a move on because I really didn’t want to be floundering around there in the dark.

So back to my original path it was, following the boardwalk. After quite a bit of walking I began to realise I’d gone wrong somewhere. How it happened I don’t know but I never came to the gap in the boardwalk and nothing looked the least bit familiar. Time to switch WalkJogrun on again. The boardwalk stopped again and the leafy trail ran beside a tall red brick wall, even now I don’t know what that wall was, but, feeling slightly panicky, I followed it.

When the wall came to an end I could hear people in the distance. I looked in the direction of the voices and I could just make out legs walking along the bridge path high above me. I was walking along the bottom of the bank I’d looked down earlier but it was too steep and slippery to get back up. Keeping parallel with the high path I figured sooner or later I would come out at the park.

Slowly the bank beside me became less steep until I saw a place where I thought I could climb up quite easily. This was exactly what I did, slipping a little on the damp leaves and bursting out onto the path a little out of breath but very relieved. The father and son who were passing as I appeared out of the trees gave me quite a strange look. They probably wondered where the mad, red faced woman with wild blonde hair full of bits of leaf had come from and what she was doing.

Instead of following the path I walked across the grass towards the chapel and the ice cream van. My energy reserves had been at an all time low an hour before, now the only thing keeping me going was the adrenalin of being lost and that was wearing off fast. I’d like to pretend I used willpower to resist the temptation of ice cream. That isn’t strictly true though, as I came round the corner the ice cream man was just locking up and preparing to drive away. Just my luck.

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There was a tired trudge the half mile or so from the chapel to the park entrance. Another half mile and I came to the row of shops, most of which were closed. The little general store was open though so I went in looking for something to give me a little energy. Chocolate milk would have been good but they didn’t have any so I ended up with a small bar of dark chocolate. As I walked I slowly sucked it, one square at a time, feeling the strength slowly coming back to my tired legs.

By the time I got to the sailing club, back on the shore, I was feeling much better. The little sail boats were coming in, people hauling them back onto the shore preparing to put them on trailers and go home. For me it was a race against time. There was a pinkish tinge to the clouds and I had quite a walk ahead of me. There would be no more stopping to take photos or look at the view it was strictly head down and march on.

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When I reached the site of the old spitfire factory the light was definitely beginning to fade, the edges of the clouds had the glow of sunset about them. Then I had to decided whether to risk the back of the green and the woods or not. It isn’t lit so not the place to be in the dark but it is the quickest route. Of course I risked it, walking as fast as I could. I got home just as darkness fell. As I sank into the chair and CJ brought me a much needed cup of coffee, I promised myself I would never go out without walking snacks again and next time there would be more planning and less wandering off. Well, maybe…

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Marie

Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

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