5 January 2016
According to the weatherman Tuesday was going to be the best day of the week. In fact it looked like it would be the only dry day. Obviously a walk of some kind was in order and I had a place in mind. For a long time now I’ve been wondering about a curious gateway along Abbey Hill at Netley, not far from the abbey. Countless times I’ve passed it on the way to somewhere else and wondered where the path leads but I’ve never had the time to check it out. Today was the day I did.
In one direction the sky looked blue and inviting. In the other, dark and forbidding. Unfortunately Netley and the path were in the latter direction so I decided to take the car, at least as far as the shore. The weatherman is not always right and, if I’ve learned anything it’s that you don’t want a long walk along the shore in the rain. The last time I did that I was soaked through my coat to my underwear and freezing from the bitter, wet wind blowing off the water. Of course, as soon as CJ heard the rattle of car keys he started putting his boots on. At this rate I will have to change the name of this blog to I walk with CJ, either that or get up a lot earlier and sneak out while he’s still in bed.
We parked up on the shore and took the shore path, stopping for a moment to admire the reflection of the two tone sky in the stream that runs from West Wood across the shore and again to look at the dried out reeds from the bridge across it. Then we carried on past West Lodge.
“It would be lovely to live there,” I said.
“Except when the sea comes up and floods the house,” CJ replied with a nod to the water in the ditch on the opposite side of the path. “If the tide has come up that far it wouldn’t take much more rain before it got into the house.”
He was right. The trees beside the path were standing in what looked like a couple of feet of water. Whether this was from the sea or the rain remains to be seen but I can imagine the people in the house are keeping a close watch on it.
When we reached the sailing club the sky ahead seemed to be darkening and even the blue sky behind us was clouding over. So much for the weather report. Our chances of staying dry were looking slim. We took the path behind the club house rather than the shore path if it did start to rain at least we might get some shelter from the trees along the shore, sparse as they are with no leaves. They grow here at a permanent angle against the wind from the sea although today it was kind to us.
Netley Castle peeked out from behind the bare branches, making me think of Mother. Despite the lack of wind our decision the avoid the shore path proved to be a good one. If we had we’d have had to cross the bridge over the ditch and walk across grass that was, frankly, a mud pond. We stuck to the path as it veered up towards the road. Through bare branches we had a view of the back of the castle. It began life as a gatehouse to Netley Abbey but, after the Dissoloution of the Monasteries when Henry VIII was busy fortifying the coast, Sir William Paulet built a fort up around it using stones pilfered from the abbey.
In 1572 the Paulet family sold the castle along with the abbey ruins to Edward Seymour, the Earl of Hertford. Edward was favoured by Queen Elizabeth and, in 1560, she even stayed with him at his luxurious house, amid the abbey ruins. The favour of Elizabeth I was a fickle thing though and when Edward married Lady Catherine Grey, sister of Queen Jane, without her permission she ordered them both to be taken to the Tower of London and declared the marriage void. In 1567 Poor Catherine died in the Tower after giving birth to two children who, by virtue of the queen’s actions, were illegitimate. Edward was released but, when he petitioned the queen to revalidate the marriage she refused and threw him back in the tower again. Unbelievably, Edward’s grandson, William suffered a similar fate. He too married a member of the royal family without permission and both he and his wife were thrown in the tower for treason. When his wife, Arabella, died he was released and, within a decade, had inherited the castle which was decommissioned just a year later in 1627 and used as a storehouse for coal.
During the civil war, in 1642, Captain Richard Swanley captured Calshot Castle, just across the water, and disabled Netley Castle which was at the time in Royalist hands, along with St Andrews castle on Hamble Point. In 1643 the Hamble castle was demolished to prevent the royalists using it but Netley Castle was used to blockade Southampton until the town surrendered to Parliament, which it quickly did. Netley Castle was briefly used as a fort again to defend Southampton from an attack by Prince Charles but it too was partly demolished to keep it from Royalist hands. The castle remained a ruin until 1825 when William Chamberlayne inherited it and commissioned George Draper to restore it and build the gothic towers. It remained a private house until 1939 when it was turned into a convalescent home and that is where Mother comes into the story.
With our backs to the shore we walked beside the castle grounds towards the road. The sun was trying hard to break through the clouds and we had an unusual view of the rear of the castle through the bare trees.
“Before you were born Nanna lived there you know?” I told CJ
“I know, it was a convalescent home wasn’t it?”
“Yes. She stayed there until just before she died. When I was pregnant with you I came to visit her and we would walk along the shore. I remember a huge stone staircase. It was all bare stone walls inside and quite cold I think, but then her house was cold too, she had no heating and the windows were all but falling out.”
“It’s funny to think of her living somewhere like that.”
“She didn’t have two pennies to rub together but she did get to live in a castle, even if only for a little while. They turned it into fancy apartments not long after she died. I wonder how much they cost?”
“More than we can afford I should think.”
By this time we’d reached the road and soon we were standing at the gates of Netley Abbey. Fairy cobwebs, bejewelled the gates like lacy crystal garlands and we stopped for a moment to look through at the ruins. Behind the crumbling walls the sky was still blue, more or less, but the ground was sodden and filled with puddles and the old walls looked wet and cold. The Abbey is closed until spring so there was no chance of more than a peek though the gates and, after as quick look at Google Maps to get my bearings and check I was going the right way, we walked on towards Netley.
Before long we’d come to the gate. The weak sun wasn’t doing much to warm the air. For the first time this year I was glad of my hat and padded coat, although it could hardly be called cold, considering it’s January. Even so I was surprised to see daffodils blooming on the verge beside the gate. A few celandines had buds with yellow petals peeping from them too. The poor things must think it’s March.
Then we were standing at the bottom of the stone steps looking up at the lych gate that had piqued my curiosity for so long. Truthfully, I had a good idea where the path disappearing into the trees led. Time spent examining maps told me it probably led to the Church of St Edward the Confessor and, with no leaves on the trees to block the view, I could see a church like building ahead. Whether it led anywhere else besides was still a mystery.
As we got close to the top of the steps I noticed carvings on the top of the gate, leafy scrolls on the posts and, above the arch 1914 and 1919.
“The Great War,” CJ said.
“Except it ended in 1918,” I said. “I wonder why they added a year?”
Under the arch beautifully carved decorative script dedicated the gate to the memory of the parishioners lost in the war. The path was firm gravel, the bordering trees bare but clothed in thick ivy. Ahead the church was half hidden. It stands on a knoll overlooking the abbey and through the trees we had a half view of the ruins, so close it felt as if you could reach out and touch it.
Soon we were walking across muddy grass towards the church. Dating from 1886, the year Pappy was born, it is not an old church, but the reddish stone and the tower give it the look of an age it doesn’t possess. It was designed by JD Sedding, and, I’d read, there were two stones from the abbey at the base of the tower. The end wall sported a lovely rose window but, of course, my main focus was the tower and those stones.
We walked around to the front of the church and I circled the tower peering intently at the stones at the base. We passed the door with tryptic windows above and, around the corner, found one stone with an inscription but, when I looked closely, it was just the date the foundation stone was laid, 1885. Thinking I might have missed the stones somehow I walked back again but, if they were there, I didn’t see them. It seemed my information was wrong, or the stones were buried under the tower and invisible.
Feeling slightly disappointed, I looked around to see if the path went anywhere else but it only led to the road. Then I looked across the churchyard, thinking there might at least be graves to look at. There was nothing but grass and one small stone war memorial. We wandered across the grass for a closer look at the poppy wreaths below it.
It had been an interesting walk, I’d discovered the secret of the curious gateway and the church was nice but, with no graves and no abbey stones, ultimately, I felt a little let down. Oh well, some you win and some you lose. Perhaps my expectations were too high.