21 – 23 January 2015
Wednesday morning couldn’t have been more different to the day before if it tried. The cold was still there but the beautiful skies I’d seen on my early morning walk were now grey and brooding and the sparkling frost was nowhere to be seen. Seven cygnets were foraging around in the mud by the slipway and, as I passed by, their parents came rushing over to see if there was bread to be had. There wasn’t.
Commando warned me about ice when I got up on Thursday so I left a little early just to be on the safe side. When I went out I thought the frost must have melted because the gatepost wasn’t in the least hirsute and the plants were sadly lacking in ice crystals. It was bitterly cold though. Stepping onto the pavement it soon became clear all the ice had settled there. We had a ground frost of epic proportions. This became clear at the exact moment my feet went from under me as I took my first step outside the gate.
After a quick look around to make sure no one had seen me make an idiot of myself, I set off rather cautiously. In some places the pavements were clear and firm, lulling me into a false sense of security until I hit the next patch of slipperiness. There was a lot of arm waving trying to catch my balance, several skids and a tumble or two. Somehow I made it to Cobden Bridge without serious mishap but it was a good thing I’d left early. Still, I’d missed the best of the sunrise, such as it was. There was a golden haze running through the gauze of clouds and the sun was working hard to shine but not really succeeding.
With holiday to use up and a routine medical check late on Friday afternoon, I decided to take the day off. When I’m not working I don’t usually set my alarm because, for the most part, my body clock wakes me up around half past six anyway. Sometimes I go back to sleep but not often. For some reason my body clock failed on Friday morning and it was after half past seven when I turned over and looked at the clock. Of course I’d missed the dawn which was annoying but, when I looked outside, the world was looking very white. The thickest frost I’ve seen this year coated my garden and it was cold, even in my house with the heating on. The weatherman told me it was the coldest day this winter.
Events conspired to dictate my Friday walk, such as it was. For a start I really needed to go to the butchers first thing if I was going to get some of the end of the week bargains. As soon as I’d had my banana breakfast, showered and done the minimum of cleaning up, I wrapped up extra carefully and opened the door to a blast of freezing air. Outside, with the sun properly up, the scale of the frost became obvious. For one, the decking was more ice rink than solid ground. The sun hadn’t managed to melt the crystalline coating on the deck posts and they gleamed and sparked all the colours of the rainbow.
At the front of the house the sun had been at work a little longer and the front gate post was a half and half affair. The choisya, being a little more sheltered, had the longest feathery fringes of ice I’ve seen, at least this year, and the holly had a bad case of icy spots. Thankfully, the pavements were crunchy rather than slippery for the most part and, on the Big Hill, the rosebuds were encased in a slowly melting frozen fur. The shopping was soon done and, walking back down the Little Hill, the dried hydrangea flowers looked like crystal chandeliers. A foolhardy hebe that had tried to bloom was a forest of icy spikes. So many flowers have been fooled into blooming by the unseasonably warm winter and now it seems all their work has been in vain.
The second part of my mission piqued Commando Junior’s interest. The stricken ship I went all the way to Calshot to get a glimpse of came back to Southampton on Thursday night, ninteen days after it was grounded on Bramble Bank. After pumping out enough water to reduce the angle of the list from fifty two to just five degrees, four tugs took three hours to tow the fifty one tonne behemoth into berth 101, close to Mayflower Park. Sadly, I never did get a chance to go over to the Isle of Wight for a closer look so I wasn’t missing this opportunity.
We walked together to the Big Bridge in the chilly sunshine, dodging puddles frozen completely solid on the way. On the bridge, the random scattering of little boats had us both pulling out our phones simultaneously as we spotted the same photo opportunity at the exact same moment. The same thing happened on the Middle of the bridge when we saw the rowers powering towards us. I’m pretty sure his pictures will be better than mine, he studied photography so they usually are.
We wandered through town and down to Platform Road where the new road layout confused us a little. Crossing two roads that were once one way systems and are now two way traffic we walked along towards the Red Funnel and Hythe Ferry terminals stopping for a snap or two of God’s House Tower as we passed.
When the boys were little we often took them to Mayflower Park and Commando Junior was bitterly disappointed to see the slide and the climbing boat are no longer there. Along with the funny concrete maze I remember from my own childhood and the paddling pool, they disappeared to make way for the annual Boat Show. The disappointment was short lived once we’d crossed the grass and saw a massive container ship slowly being tugged out of port. The cameras came out in unison again.
As at Calshot, there were people lining the quay taking pictures. We joined them. At close quarters the sheer size of the ship was revealed along with the remaining list. Under the cargo door a series of white lines tracked the progress of the work to right the ship. When I last saw her the top line would have been parallel with the water line.
When we felt we’d got in the way of all the proper photographers, with their tripods and fancy cameras, enough we ambled off across the park towards Dock Gate eight. Behind us the giant container ship slowly slid along Southampton Water. Even though we’ve both lived in the city all our lives we rarely visit the docks so it’s easy to forget it’s a working port and ships like this come and go all the time. Through the dock gate we got an even closer view of the Hoegh Osaka leaning gently towards the dockside. More photos ensued, including one of the plaque to the troops who sailed from Southampton during World War II.
Mission number two was completed so we made our way back towards WestQuay for a Costa break. We took the shortest route, across the road towards the old walls at Western Esplanade, passing the glass triangle of the Grand DeVere Hotel as we went. As we walked along the old shore line with nothing but reclaimed land to our left, there was a bit of peeking through arrow slits into the ruins of King John’s Palace before we made our way up Blue Anchor Lane.
Blue Anchor Lane is my favourite of all the medieval streets in the city because, if you refuse to look to your left where there are new houses, you can almost imagine you’ve stepped back five hundred years in time. All you need is a few carters, their carts piled high with wool and wine, struggling up the steep path to the market place in St Michael’s Square. At the top is Tudor House, an upmarket version of the medieval house I saw in Botley on Sunday. With a little more time I might have taken Commando Junior in for a tour and a coffee there. Maybe another day.
We strolled along the top of the walls, stopping for a gawp at the building work that has begun on the waste land beside WestQuay. This is the start of the long awaited WestQuay II development. They’ve been talking about it for decades but, finally, work has started. More interesting was the ice that had formed in the square holes along the top of the wall. Whether these are from World War II machine gun mountings or something older I don’t known but the different ice formations were fascinating.
It may not have been the longest walk in the world but at least we got to see the notorious ship before whatever’s left of the cargo of cars is unloaded and it gets repaired. We also got our Costa fix, a hot chocolate with all the trimmings for Commando Junior and a skinny latte for me.
The next morning the frost that had made the Friday world sparkly and beautiful had gone. The walk to work on Saturday showed me that, despite my worries, a few flowers had somehow managed to cling on to life. The blossom, scorched and brown, was still there with new buds ready to open and, in another garden, four little primrose flowers, petals translucent from the ice. Further along a purple hebe appeared to be unscathed. On the bend in the river the rowers were out heading towards the bridge in the morning sun. What a strange winter we’re having.