The worst thing about races is the getting up early on a Sunday morning. On 23 February 2014 we were out of the house at about eight and on our way to Portsmouth. I, for one, was barely awake. The blast of freezing air between the house and the car did help with that but it didn’t inspire a great deal of enthusiasm for walking along the sea front.
23 February 2014
When we got out of the car in the car park by the D Day Museum in Southsea we were almost blown off our feet. Luckily I was wearing my windproof, waterproof coat with the fleece zipped inside along with a t-shirt, jumper and padded waistcoat. I may have looked like the Michelin Man but I was a lot warmer than poor Commando in his running gear with just a pair of track trousers and thin fleece on top. This was when I began to worry about Commando getting through the race. Running on shingle and mud is bad enough, add sixty mile an hour gusts of wind and you have a frightening mix.
The start line was about three quarters of a mile from the car park. Along Clarence Esplanade and past The Pyramids swimming baths we were slightly sheltered by the buildings and the high ground where Southsea Castle sits looking out towards the Isle of Wight. In front of The Pyramids, which, ironically, are closed because of flooding, the Portsmouth Batala Drummers were playing. Founded in 2001 by Brazilian student Paulo Garcia, the band play Bahuan style Samba-Reggae music using only drums. They are part of Grupo Batala, a family of twenty five bands worldwide in fifteen countries and the drums, costumes and equipment for all the bands are made in Salvador de Bahia. They added a welcome touch of colour to the morning and the rhythmic beating of the drums cheered me up.
Around the bend and onto South Parade towards the old pier the wind coming off the sea buffeted us and pulled at our clothes. “There’s a lot of white water out there,” Commando said, and there was. The sea was crashing into the shore as if it wanted to pound all the shingle into sand as quickly as possible. Huge waves were rolling in and the poor seagulls were struggling against the wind. So were we.
Thankfully we didn’t have long to hang around. The Batala Drummers were making their way to the start line to get the race underway and Commando got in amongst the crowd. He was probably warmer there than I was standing on the shingle in front of the pier. Soon they were off and I’d lost sight of Commando in the crowd.
The runners were heading up the Esplanade towards Langstone Harbour which was the direction I wanted to go. As I didn’t want to get caught up amongst runners or get in the way I hung around on the shingle for a while. This did at least give me time to take a few pictures of the old pier. South Parade Pier has a chequered history. Once a popular pleasure pier, filled with souvenir shops, ice cream parlours, chip shops, a fun fair, fishing deck and function rooms not to mention a promenade, it is now derelict.
Things started to go wrong during World War II when it was partly dismantled to hinder invasion attempts. There have been several fires, most notably in 1974 during the filming of the Who’s iconic film Tommy. In 2010 three businessmen bought the pier and pledged to restore it. They didn’t. Since 2012 it has been closed as it is no longer safe and, in the same year, it failed to sell at auction. During recent storms parts of the boat deck at the far end were ripped off by wind and sea. Today the cruel sea seemed to be trying to finish off the job. This all seems a terrible shame as it’s actually a very attractive structure.
By this time the runners were just dust in the distance so I set off on my own walk. Passing the Canoe Lake, the model village (sadly closed, I’d have like to visit that) and the Rose Garden I walked until I could just make out Hayling Island in the distance. Commando and I had our honeymoon there. I might have walked further in that direction but I wasn’t sure of the race course and didn’t want to be caught up in the proceedings so I turned back towards the pier.
There wasn’t a plan. Southsea is a bit of a mystery to me, apart from the fact that time seems to have stopped somewhere around 1950. Until I walked past I had no idea about the model village or the Rose Garden. I did know about the Canoe Lake from a previous visit last February. The Rose Garden sounded interesting, although I had grave doubts I’d see any roses, so I thought I’d explore it. If nothing else it would get me off the sea front and away from the wind.
As I walked through the rose garden entrance a dog came past me, I could see he was on a long lead. His master, standing just behind me on the other side called him and, in the act of running to his master, he wrapped me securely in the lead. He then proceeded to run in a circle round me, lead and all. Escape took some time!
Once I was finally untied, I went inside the garden. It was pretty barren, just dirt and twigs. I’d like to see it in summer, more to the point I’d like to smell it. Much to my surprise I did find one rose in bloom, a pretty orangey coloured one. It looked fairly lonely. Then I spotted an interesting looking archway in the corner with some Japanese writing over it so I went to explore. Sometimes aimless walking is fun and you certainly stumble upon things you’d have otherwise missed.
Inside I found a small Japanese garden. There were bridges and a gravel stream, best of all there were flowers. Acid green euphorbia, white clematis splashed with pink, daffodils, hellebores in shades of pink and silky petaled crocus. The wind made photography difficult as nothing would stay still.
Then I came upon a large stone with a plaque. The plaque told me this was a stone from the sixteenth century Tanabe Castle, donated by the Maizuru City Government. Maizuru, founded in 1943, is a city in Kyoto, Japan, on an inlet of the Sea of Japan. In 1998 it was twinned with Portsmouth which explains the stone.
The Japanese garden is very small so soon I was going back through the rather empty rose garden. As I strolled around the corner I noticed it seemed to have been built around an old fort. Portsmouth, being a naval city and in an important defensive position has quite a lot of them. It turns out this fort is Lumps Fort, built in the mid to late 1800’s, although there may have been an older fort on the site for many centuries. Part of the semaphore line* between London and Portsmouth ran through here. It also served as a training ground for Operation Frankton in 1942, where a group of Royal Marines made a daring raid on the port of Bordeaux, then under occupation. Six ships were sabotaged but, sadly, all but two of the marines died. These were the Cockleshell Heroes, named after the cockle kayaks they used.
Leaving the fort behind I made for the Canoe Lake. The poor swans didn’t look too happy, the wind was whipping the lake into such big waves I’m surprised they weren’t seasick. Their feathers were being blown about and quite a few had abandoned the water altogether. I stopped to take a few photos of them preening. I love swans!
As I walked past the statue of the angel holding a dove, back onto the sea front, the wind almost knocked me off my feet. I wondered how poor Commando was getting on. He’d been running in the wind all this time while I’d been sheltered, more or less, in the garden and by the lake. Not only that, he was running on shingle and mud. If he made it to the end he’d have earned his medal for sure.
What I really wanted, apart from seeing Commando safe and sound, was a coffee to warm me up. At the start of the race I’d been talking to the woman selling race t-shirts and she told me there was a Costa’s up the road from the Pyramids in a small shopping precinct. I had about an hour before Commando was likely to finish so maybe it was time to try to find it… Did Commando finish the race? Did I get my coffee? I’ll tell you later!
* Very recently I’ve discovered Telegraph Woods in West End was part of this same semaphore line.
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