28 June 2016
Today, with blue sky overhead for a change, CJ and I decided to see if the flood that gave Commando such problems getting home from work last week had caused any lasting damage. There was also a cutway I’d spotted on the map that looked as if it could do with some exploration and might provide an alternative route home.
As we strolled down Spring Road towards the railway bridge I expected to see debris from the flood at the very least. There was nothing, no mud, no piles of leaves and stones, just the bridge and the road the same as ever. If Commando hadn’t told me about it and I hadn’t seen the video myself I’d never have known anything had happened.
There seemed to be nothing amiss at Millers Pond either. Between the Lilly pads the water was still and clear, reflecting sky and trees and disturbed only by a family of ducks. As I had the new camera with me I tested it out on the mother duck and her little family of five. The ducklings have grown since we last saw them and lost their fluffy feathers but mum was still keeping a close watch on them and soon ushered them under the trees away from my lens.
We left the ducks in peace and headed along the path through the meadow.
“Sometimes there are horses grazing here,” I told CJ. “They belong to the gypsies who live on Botany Bay Road. The first people to live here, back in the late 1700’s, were poor Romany familes. There were brickworks here back then and they built little brick bungalows but kept their caravans in the gardens and, in summer, used them to go hop or fruit picking.”
CJ is fond of horses so was disappointed to find the meadow empty today, although we did stop to photograph a bee on a meadow thistle.
On the far side of the meadow we left the Tarmac path and walked along a narrow trail through the long damp grass. There were a few hidden patches of mud to keep us on our toes but soon we left the meadow through the far gate and emerged at the bend of Botany Bay Road. The houses along here are an odd mixture of large, expensive looking properties, small bungalows, cottages and others that are basically large caravans or mobile homes on brick bases. The gypsies have never really left Botany Bay although, sadly, they no longer keep their painted caravans in their gardens.
Soon we came out on South East Road, near the top of Bunny Hill. Last week, when Commando was trying to get round the flood he’d had had to turn back here because the valley between the hills was filled with several feet of water. Like the bottom of Spring Road, there was no sign there had ever seen a flood now and, as the hills are deceptively steep, I didn’t intend walking to the bottom to have a closer look.
“Why is it called Bunny Hill?” CJ asked, as we stood on the corner looking down into the dip.
“Do you know, I have no idea,” I said, “but it’s been called Bunny Hill as long as I can remember. When I was young I used to get the bus to Alex’s house every Friday and I hated going down there. It was like being on a roller coaster and it always made me feel sick.”
Satisfied there was no real flood damage, we turned and climbed towards the triangle of grass at the top of the hill. This place has so many names it’s hard to know what to call it, Sholing Common, Sholing Doorstep Green, Sholing Village Green, Donkey Common, Spike Island and probably more I don’t know about. Years ago there was almost always a horse or two tethered on the green and sometimes a donkey.
Most of the names are modern inventions but the name Donkey Common is older. It comes from the donkeys used by pedlars and to transport washing to local houses where women took in laundry. The origins of Spike Island are less clear. The whole Sholing area is often called Spike Island, there’s even a pub nearby called Spike Islander. Some say the name comes from the spiky gorse on the heathland, others that it refers to spikes used to chain prisoners awaiting transport to Australia. There is an island off Cork Harbour called spike Island, used in the same way in Cromwell’s time to hold Irish rebels and later convicts bound for Botany Bay in Austraila. Whatever the reason the name has stuck and is probably the one most used locally.
The area has changed a bit since those long gone bus rides. There are no horses or donkeys here now, unless you count the horse pulling a cart on the wrought iron sign. This is probably a reminder of the days when the gypsies would race their horses and traps up and down these roads, much to the dismay of the local police who could never catch them. There are still times when you might see the odd pony and cart along here but not today.
We stopped to look at the flowers in the little garden that’s been planted where the ponies once stood eating grass. The green railings, notice board and winding brick path etched with local names is new too. These days it’s so smart it hardly seems like the same triangle of waste land I remember.
On the other side of Spike Island, on Kathleen Road, I knew there was a path between blocks of flats that would take me where I wanted to go. It wasn’t hard to find and, after a quick stop to check the map, we set off again looking for the cutway I’d seen. Traversing a maze of little streets with the aid of the map we soon found it.
This strip of land branches off just above Millers Pond and runs roughtly parallel with Shoreburs Greenway, coming out onto Bursledon Road a little further west at the Muddy Bottom Allotments. When I was young it was all scrubland and I remember walking across it. Seeing the cutway made me wonder if this was still possible, at least in part. The cutway led down into a valley and, at the bottom, we found a horse in a fenced off field that must belong to the houses above. CJ stopped to talk to him and I admired his Mohican hair do.
“I wish we’d brought some carrots or some peppermints,” CJ said.
While CJ carried on talking to the horse I wandered down to the bottom of the valley looking for side paths. Disappointingly, everything to the north was fenced off. There was no way through. To the south though, across a stream, I found a trail of sorts and, once CJ had caught up, we stomped through the flattened grass.
This was where we discovered something very curious. In a clearing, amongst the swaying seed heads was a circle of little totem poles just over waist high. The grass in the centre of the circle was short and flattened as if it was often walked on. It reminded me of a fairy ring or a henge. Perhaps this was a magical place?
When I entered the circle I could see someone had painted faces on the carved wooden poles. It felt as if I was standing in a ring of odd looking little people. Slowly I turned around and took a photo of each in turn. There were seven of them, a magical number, so I made a wish just in case.
“I wonder who put them here and what they mean?” I said.
CJ thought it could have been some kind of art project connected with nearby Itchen College. Personally, my money was on the council, there are lots of wooden sculptures scattered in copses and wooded areas around these parts after all. The meaning was the real puzzle. Did they really represent people and, if so, who? Then again, the whole thing was very henge like… Dispite extensive googling when I got home I’m still none the wiser.
Above the circle, overlooked by houses, we found a trail. One way seemed to lead back towards the cutway we’d come off. The other was more interesting but, as it was heading back towards Millers Pond, we decided to leave exploring it until another day. There was no guarantee it wouldn’t be a dead end and we were both getting hot and thirsty by this time.
The trail took us out onto the cutway near the top of the valley. Looking down the line of the fence we could see the horse but, every time I tried to take a photo, he disappeared into the trees. There was a gate between the field and the houses that I think leads to the allotments. It was locked.
“What a pity they didn’t leave a trail beside the allotment fence so people could still walk along there,” CJ said.
Remembering the walks of my childhood I had to agree. A little strip of land a few feet wide wouldn’t have made much difference to the allotments but it would have made a lovely off road route for walkers like me. Maybe that’s what I should have wished for when I was inside the peculiar circle.
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