Stones, horses and angel wings

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1 November 2016

With our coffee finished and bearings confirmed, we left the church behind and set off through an old iron gate into the lane where I thought the ancient boundary stone should be. Research told me there was no boundary stone marked on the map here but the cryptic message and some Google Street View searching had turned up something that looked very much like one. Now all we had to do was find it.

The large sign saying Private Driveway had put us off exploring further when we last came this way. Today CJ noticed a footpath sign, almost hidden away amongst the Laurel leaves, seeming to contradict this. Perhaps the first sign applied only to cars or maybe it was the landowners way of deterring walkers. Either way, what we were looking for was somewhere near the gate and not along the footpath at all.

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At first glance things didn’t look too hopeful. The wooden gate, or maybe it was part of a fence, was there along with a mass of rusting metal that might once have been fencing. The whole thing was overgrown with brambles and weeds. It didn’t look as if anyone had used it for a long, long time. Beyond there were horses in a field still half obscured by mist.

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Then I spotted something, right up against the wood of the gate almost hidden by the rusting metal and weeds. A closer look revealed a stone, rounded at the top and covered with algae and lichen. This was obviously a very old stone and it stood to reason it must have a purpose. We cleared away as much of the vegetation as we could but there was no way to get a clear look.

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As far as I could tell there was nothing inscribed on it but there was a square base of sorts, half buried in the dirt and debris. It certainly looked like a boundary stone and it was in the right place, on the boundary between Southampton and Eastleigh.
“I wonder why it’s been so neglected?” CJ said as we stood looking at it. “You’d think a boundary stone would be well looked after like the ones near the Common.”
“Maybe it’s not a boundary stone at all,” I said, staring at it as if the answer would somehow become clear. “If it is an ancient boundary stone, why isn’t it marked on the map?”
“I don’t see what else it could be,” he said. “It’s not as if there are stones like this just scattered about for no reason and it’s obviously very old. Maybe the landowner doesn’t realise what it is and the council have long ago forgotten it’s here.”

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No amount of speculation was going to answer our questions but, now we’d seen the foothpath sign, it seemed a shame not to explore further. CJ agreed, so we set off along the misty lane, half expecting to be challenged at any moment.

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CJ, who’s very fond of horses, stopped and called to the two in the field, one black one black and white. To his annoyance, they ignored him and carried on grazing so we left them to it and walked on.

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In the next field a stunning chestnut hirse was foraging under a tree whose leaves almost perfectly matched her coat. She looked up as we passed and slowly headed across the field towards us. Much to CJ’s delight she came right to the fence and he spent quite some time making friends with her. Apparently her coast was as soft as silk but I took his word for it as I prefer to keep my distance from strange horses even if they are behind barbed wire fences.

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When, eventually, the horse got tired of talking to CJ and went back to her foraging, we carried on along the footpath. Shortly,  we found a style. On the other side was a well trodden trail through the grass bordering a field of cows. This posed a familiar dilemma, did we climb the style and find out what lay ahead or carry on along the wider path?

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The cows proved to be the deciding factor. Although they looked docile enough and were mostly laying down, the path ran through their field and it seemed like tempting fate to court a third near miss in one walk.
“If we climb the style,” I reasoned, “we’ll be heading further from home and giving ourselves an even longer walk back. Much as I’d like to know where this trail leads I think we should leave it for another day.”
“You’re probably right,” CJ agreed. “Nearly all those cows are laying down. That usually means rain.”

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So, we left the cows to their lazing and carried on. The path we were on skirted the field and ran roughly parallel with the back of the church. When I’d been looking at the map back at home I’d seen some ponds in the vicinity and I had an idea this was where the path would take us. If we were very lucky we might find a way back onto Stoneham Lane further along and avoid some dangerous walking on a road with no footpaths.

The lane continued for a while, passing the backs of farm buildings. Sumac provided a splash of colour and I stopped for a closer look at the bright leaves. After a while the path swung to the left, hopefully we would soon be walking beside the ponds I’d seen. Then I saw a gate with a sign that dashed those hopes. It seemed the land was owned by Eastleigh Angling Club and the gate was shut.

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Sadly, we passed the gate and continued along the leaf strewn lane. Confused by a sign saying Private, we dithered, not knowing if it referred to the path we were on or the little lane leading off it. In the end we decided to continue and claim ignorance if we were challenged.

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In the shade beside the path we found a crop of little mushrooms and, around the corner, I could see water through the trees. Perhaps we would be able to walk around the ponds after all? As we wandered off into the trees I could see fishermen beside the pond and a firm looking path covered with fallen leaves. Unfortunately, a barbed wire fence halted our progress. Obviously the pond and the land surrounding it had no public access. This seemed like a terrible shame but there was little we could do but head back to our original path and carry on.

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A few moments later even that option was lost to us. The path we’d been following suddenly ended. Ahead was nothing but a large house and garden. Maybe we should have turned back when we saw those confusing signs? Then again, perhaps the signs should have been a little clearer. Feeling annoyed to have been led so far astray by lack of clear signage, we turned around and headed back the way we’d come.

My original plan had been to walk across Lakeside and return home past the Airport. We’d spent so much time following the trail to nowhere though I abandoned that plan and headed back along Stoneham Lane. It was a hurried walk, half expecting cars to come out of nowhere, but we made it back to Monks Brook Meadows without incident and were soon heading back towards Mansbridge.

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The walk back was more of a march with one eye on the sky, half expecting rain. There was one stop to marvel at the audacity of a blackberry that seemed to think it was spring and was flowering. When we reached the road and the trail through Monks Brook to Mansbridge I decided on a short cut of sorts. In part it was to beat the rain we felt sure was on the way but there was also something I wanted to show CJ on Wessex Lane.

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A few years back I was invited on an organised walk and it began at Swaything Railway Station. In the normal course of events I use the trail through Monks Brook and the blue and green bridges when I come this way so I rarely have occasion to pass the station. Until that walk I don’t believe I’d ever really looked at it and I knew CJ had never been there. The station itself is attractive. It was opened in 1883 and is a low, red brick building in a Neo-Flemish style with a rather grand pediment at the front. This was not what I wanted to show CJ though.

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Before the advent of cars, lorries and tanks armies used horses and, between 1887 and 1942, the Army Remount Service was responsible for buying and training horses and mules for the British Army. Originally there were just three remount depots one at Woolwich and two in Dublin. More were established after the Boer War at Melton Mowbray, and Arborfield and a sixth in 1911 at Chiddingfold.

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When war broke out in 1914 the army owned twenty five thousand horses and mules. Within two weeks this number had increased to one hundred and sixty five thousand animals. Four main Home Depots were established at Shirehampton, Ramsey, Ormskirk and Swaythling, to cope with the increased numbers. Three of these depots dealt with animals arriving from overseas while Swaythling was a collection centre for animals being shipped abroad. It was the largest of the four and more than four hundred thousand animals and twenty five thousand servicemen passed through before it closed in 1920. The station was, of course, the hub for all this activity and today the bust of a horse’s head stands as a memorial to this. It reminded me of the chestnut mare we’d seen back at the church.

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“It’s only by chance that this station is still here,” I told CJ as we wandered around the side of the building to look at the back.
“Railway cuts?” he suggested.
“Actually a bomb,” I said. “In January 1941 a bomb fell through the roof and floor of the booking office. By chance it didn’t explode but the porter’s dog was killed and coals from the hearth started a fire.”
“The poor dog,” CJ said. “I suppose it’s lucky it didn’t explode though.”
“It is but everyone thought it must have been an incendiary bomb and, once the fire was put out the station was reopened.”
“So what happened?” he asked, open mouthed.
“After World War I, most incendiary bombs had an explosive charge to penetrate the roofs of buildings and ignite the incendiary material. Luckily the owner of the Mason’s Arms pub came forward to say he hadn’t heard an explosion and the unexplored bomb was found and made safe. His quick thinking saved many lives.”

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On the way back to the road we discovered another tribute to the horses of the remount depot. The fence was covered with a whole troop of little wooden horses, a few complete with military riders.

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As detours go it had been interesting, especially for CJ who hadn’t known about the remount depot or the bomb, but it was time to make tracks for home. With one last look back, we left the station behind and carried on towards Woodmill Lane. As we went I showed CJ where he could get to the blue bridge if he should ever walk this way alone. There was also a stop for a touch of house envy as we passed a pretty little cottage.

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Soon we were back at Riverside Park walking through falling leaves. There were berries to admire and, when we got to the corner by the reedbeds, a carpet of freshly fallen leaves to crunch through.
“I’m sure there weren’t ”this many here this morning,” CJ said.
“Perhaps it’s been windy here while we’ve been looking for boundary stones?” I said.

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There were a pair of mute swan cygnets swimming towards us as we came close to the jetty but they ignored us. On the other side of the jetty a huge group of black swans, some cygnets, some adults were hanging around close to the bank and CJ stopped to say hello.

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“That one has something wrong with its wings,” CJ pointed to the cygnet closest to the jetty and the bank.
There was certainly something very strange about it and it didn’t look at all good. Both its wings were bare of feathers and were stick out at an odd angle from its body. Other than that it looked fairly happy and healthy.
“Maybe it’s been attacked by a fox or a dog?” I suggested as we headed up the slope to the road.

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When I got home I couldn’t stop thinking about the poor cygnet. I even wondered if I should call the RSPB to report it. Then I started to Google swans with wing injuries and made a shocking discovery. There were lots of pictures of swans with exactly the same bare and misshapen wings. They all had a deformity called angel wing caused by a dietary deficiency. Sadly, this is mainly down to being fed too much white bread at a young age and it’s incurable. The poor cygnet won’t die but it will never be able to fly and it may well become victim to a predator.

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CJ was distraught when I told him.
“I feel guilty that it might be my fault,” he said.
“But we don’t ever have white bread,” I reminded him. “In fact, most of the time don’t feed them anything at all and, if we do, we throw proper duck and swan food or, if we don’t have any, we throw granary bread.”
In the end though, it’s not really about who is to blame. It’s just a terrible shame that the poor bird has been, quite literally, killed with kindness.

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Marie

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

12 thoughts on “Stones, horses and angel wings”

  1. The leaf strewn paths are beautiful!
    I’m with you on horses, I like to see them but not touch them. Animals that are big enough to kill someone make me wary.
    That’s too bad about the swan. I never feed wild animals and that’s one reason why-because it often does more harm than good. We have a saying here: “A fed bear is a dead bear,” and it applies to most wild animals.

    1. Kicking through the leaves is one of the best things about this time of year. Sadly, feeding the ducks (and swans) is a tradition here. It’s often the first look at wild birds children get and throwing food brings them close to the bank. A little grain doesn’t do them any harm, but white bread seems to be the main thing people throw and that isn’t good for them at all.

  2. I wonder if that really was the boundary stone? Shame you couldn’t get a better look at it. And that poor cygnet. It’s a reminder of how we can inadvertently cause great damage to wildlife, even when we don’t intend to.

    1. I’m pretty sure it was a boundary stone, although long forgotten. The council don’t seem to keep track of these things very well! People have been throwing bread to the water birds for as long as I can remember. I think this year it has got out of control though because of the black swan cygnets.

  3. I was wondering whether the stone was a mounting stone – you know, to get on a horse? – because it is by a gate and fence? When we were really young we had a friend’s father who used to walk all the bye ways he possibly could around Buckinghamshire to ensure the landowners could not say the public didn’t use them any more. Then they would have to stay open.

    1. You may be right about the stone. I think keeping the footpaths open is an important thing and I guess us walking them is helping.

  4. If you had crossed the Stile,you would have walked across what was called Avenue Park.The grass walk is what is left of a formal drive that led from Chestnut Ave to North Stoneham House.The ‘Farm buildings’ you describe are in fact the Old Stables of the big house and you must have walked past the walled garden and the old orchard.So much History there to see!

      1. The path,from the stile goes across the fields and past Avenue Pond.owned as the other two ponds by Eastleigh Angling Club.You then pass through a kissing gate and walk up cricketers hill to the War Shrine.Which is well worth a visit.The path continues on to Chestnut Avenue,a rather busy road! It probably best to visit the War shrine and then retrace your steps and walk back to North Stoneham.Lots of information about North Stoneham can be found at http://www.willisfleming.org.uk .

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