Something was bothering me about Commando’s half marathon as I struggled against the wind in February 2014. The alternative name was the Muddy Beach Run! Now anyone who knows Commando knows he is rather fond of being clean. He is even more fond of his car being clean and we’d driven down to Southsea in his car, not mine. Muddy Beach Run conjured up images of people barely recognisable under a thick sticky coating of, well, mud. Somehow I could see things going very badly.
23 February 2014
As I walked through the unfamiliar streets of Southsea in search of coffee I was thinking about Commando. The thought of him running in mud, on shingle and in a wind that kept trying to knock me over had me pretty worried to be honest. Thirteen point one miles is a bloody long way to run at the best of times. Yes, I knew he could do it, but I could barely walk along the sea front, how could he be running? As I walked in what I hoped was the direction of Costa’s these were the things going through my mind. Well, that and whether I’d end up hopelessly lost.
Eventually I found a precinct. I hoped it was the one with the Costa. At first all I could see was a tall church spire right at the end but, as I walked further, the welcome sight of a Costa sign came into focus! Originally I’d planned to have a sit down coffee inside but the place was crowded so I picked up a take away skinny latte. Then I thought I might sit on one of the benches in the precinct. They were rather attractive with a frieze of gulls above bronze waves. The cold wind was whistling up through the precinct though so, after a stop to put my gloves back on, I was on my way, sipping gratefully as I went.
Curiosity had me walking in the direction of the tall church spire. Churches are often interesting and I had time to kill. It soon became obvious that this was no ordinary old church, for a start there was a modern looking porch affair on the corner below the tower. Once I’d crossed the road the sign told me this was St Jude’s. The porch, with its engraved glass doors, was impressive and the flint facing on the walls at least vaguely in keeping with the original building even if it did seem too much of a mixture of modern and ancient for my liking.
St Jude’s was built in 1851 by local architect Thomas Ellis Owen. Some of the original costs were borne by the admiralty as the one hundred and fifty foot spire made a handy landmark for navigation into the dockyard. It is still standing today thanks to a vigilant curate who managed to dislodge several incendiary bombs from the roof during the blitz of January 10 1941 when much of the south of the city was raised to the ground. Along the road from the new entrance a large stone cross is actually a war memorial, engraved with the names of parishioners who lost their lives.
The bus stop right outside also seems a bizarre twist to me but I suppose it’s quite handy for people attending services. A lady was sitting on the handy bench waiting for a bus as I passed. Behind her there were some rather attractive stained glass windows. The rose window had the words ‘in memorium’ beneath it, to what I’m not sure but I kind of liked all the gargoyles, or maybe they’re grotesques.
Further along I found the original church door, much nicer in my opinion than all the modern glass. I loved the fancy wrought iron hinges and the flower pots filled with pansies on either side. Much more my kind of door. Rather than turn back and return the way I’d come I decided to keep walking forward, I had a rough idea where the sea was, how lost could I get?
As it happened, not very. Using my superior powers of navigation I more or less walked around the block and soon Southsea Common was ahead of me. So was the wind. In the distance across the common I could see Clarence Pier and the Spinaker Tower. The wind had the trees bending at odd angles, along with the handful of people brave, or stupid, enough to be walking on the common. At one point the wind actually lifted me off my feet. A man scuttling behind crab like to avoid the same fate asked if I was alright.
“I think I need to put on weight,” I laughed.
In the vain hope it might provide some shelter, I headed towards the Naval Memorial. The memorial is one of three in England, the others being in Plymouth and Chatham. After World War I the Admiralty were looking for a way to commemorate Royal Navy members who had lost their lives and these three identical memorials, designed by Sir Robert Latimer with sculptures by Henry Poole, were the result. Cleverly, the obelisks also serve as a landmark for ships. The original memorial was unveiled in 1924 but extensions were later added to commemorate the naval dead of World War II.
When I reached Clarence Esplanade I could see runners beginning to trickle past so I decided I’d be better off walking up towards Southsea Castle rather than get in their way. Of course, sticking to the Esplanade behind the castle I’d have been sheltered by the hill but I wasn’t sure how far into the race these runners were or how many more would be coming through. The climb up to the castle was tough with the wind trying to pick me off the side of the hill but I could see more runners on the promenade, maybe Commando was among them.
At first sight the castle isn’t all that impressive if I’m honest, more like a square version of the short, squat Spithead Forts out on the sea. It also has a rather unfortunate history, much of which I wrote about last time I visited. Henry VIII designed and commissioned it in 1544 to guard the eastern entrance to the Solent and Portsmouth Harbour. There was a good deal of scrimping by all accounts and more than £1,309 of the eventual £3,000 cost came from the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
During the English Civil War the castle was held by royalist forces and Captain Challoner, who was in command, had the guns pointed inland. During the siege of Portsmouth in September 1642 the castle was captured by Parliamentarians who cunningly scaled the seaward walls. You’d have thought lessons would have been learned but some of those guns, at least, still seem to be facing inland.
As I still had a bit of time on my hands so I thought I might go inside and have a look around. The bridge to the entrance crosses a dry moat, built in 1814 and presumably once filled with water. Actually, with all the recent rain I’m surprised it wasn’t still filled with water. The castle’s gate, remodelled in 1668, was open so I went inside. Above the arch I noticed one tiny embellishment on this otherwise very plain castle, King Charles II’s coat of arms added in 1683. There was also a sign on the wall telling me it wasn’t safe and wishing me an enjoyable visit. Hmm, a bit of a contradiction there I think.
During winter the castle is closed so the place was deserted with much of it cordoned off by bunting like tape. All the steps, presumably leading to a walkway around the perimeter, were closed off probably to stop people being blown off by the wind. Maybe I’ll come back in summer and have a look. There were picnic tables and a cafe, also empty and closed, so I had a look at the ranks of cannon then went back through the gate slightly disappointed there wasn’t more to see.
Before I left I had a quick look at the lighthouse, commissioned by the Admiralty to guide ships into Portsmouth Harbour and added in 1828. Today the lighthouse is automatic but once the lighthouse keeper and his family lived at the castle. Down on the esplanade I could see a steady stream of runners so, passing one last cannon by the moat, I walked down the hill towards them.
In an effort to avoid some of the runners I slipped through the gardens. Not much was going on, just a few bright berberis darwinii flowers and some bergenia hiding in a corner. When I emerged the Batala Drummers were still going strong. The drum beats added a spring to my step as I made my way towards the pier where the race had started. When I got there though, there was no sign of a finish line.
Normally races start and finish in the same place, obviously this one was an exception. I asked a handy marshal where the finish line was, hoping against hope he didn’t tell me it was miles away because I was running out of time. Luckily it was only on the beach behind The Pyramids about a third of a mile down the road. Just in case Commando finished earlier than expected I ran! Another marshal, thinking I was part of the race, cheered me on as I passed. “Just another four miles now,” he said. Maybe I could have let him think I was just another runner, if slightly overdressed and very slow, but I didn’t, I stopped and told him I was only road crew on the way to wave my husband over the finish line. We both had a laugh at that.
There were some mounds on the shingle right beside the path, so I commandeered one. This gave me a great vantage point and I spotted Commando when he was still some distance away so I had my phone ready when he passed. It also meant Commando could see me as he ran the last few metres and, as he came by, he gave me a smile and punched the air. Somehow he seemed far less muddy than I expected which was a relief, if a little puzzling. I watched him run the final few yards then dashed off to where all the runners seemed to be coming out once they’d collected their medals.
While he fished his jacket out of the bag I’d been carrying all morning he told me the mud had been more or less avoidable as long as you stuck to a narrow path. He’d seen one woman try to take a short cut and end up sinking up to her knees though. Some of the other runners around us had much more mud spattering their feet and legs so I suppose she wasn’t the only one. As for Commando, there was a little mud on the bottom of his trainers but less than I’ve ended up with after some of my walks and his socks were still pristine white.
Commando may have been cleaner than expected but this doesn’t mean the race was easy. In fact, as we started towards the car, a woman runner collapsed right in front of us. I’m pretty sure she was just dehydrated and exhausted but, while her friend, another passing runner and I wrapped her in a race blanket and looked after her, Commando ran off to find an ambulance. It’s easy to push yourself too far in the heat of a race. While everyone was running I’d walked about five and a half miles, not far for me, but I was worn out from battling the wind and the little bit of shingle walking I’d done. Could I have done that for thirteen point one miles? Maybe, but I couldn’t have done it fast and I couldn’t have run it. Everyone certainly earned their medals.
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