17 June 2017
Typically, just as Commando is getting back to parkrunning, Southampton parkrun is cancelled. Luckily it’s only for one week while an event called Gung Ho is being held. As far as I can tell, it involves lots of giant inflatable obstacles. While I’m pretty sure running round the Common and climbing over glorified bouncy castles is great fun, the serious runners have all been looking at other local parkruns. Southampton, with between seven hundred and one thousand runners most weeks, is one of the largest parkruns in the country. Obviously, if everyone turned up at the next nearest venue, Netley or Eastleigh, who both average less than two hundred runners, there would be mayhem.
After a lot of thought and a little Googling, Commando decided Fareham looked like the best alternative. For one, it’s only fourteen miles away so we wouldn’t have to get up at silly o’clock to get there. We are both fairly familiar with Fareham too, which minimised the risk of getting lost and missing the whole thing. By all accounts it was a relatively flat course. In normal circumstances this could have meant the possibility of a PB. Obviously, at the moment a PB would be nothing short of a miracle but at least there wouldn’t be massive hills to puff up.
In the end we barely left early at all. Usually we arrive a good half hour before the start to help set up. Obviously we wouldn’t be doing that at an unfamiliar venue and, according to John, the car park was near a large railway viaduct less than five minutes walk from the start. “You can’t miss it,” he said, and we didn’t. After a slight panic, when we went the wrong way getting out of said car park and had to back track, we found our way back to the viaduct.
When we crossed the road the view through the arch was breathtaking, blue sky, green fields and a little boat on Fareham Creek. Maybe if it had been dim and drizzly we’d have felt differently but it seemed we’d made a good choice. Of course we still had to find the Cams Mill pub and the race start but once we’d gone through the arch the former was almost in front of us on the other side of the creek.
Although we hadn’t left home particularly early and we’d wasted a bit of time getting lost in the car park, we still had plenty of time before the race was due to start. We dawdled across the bridge towards the pub, stopping to look at the beautiful brick arches of the viaduct and the view along the creek.
“This must be what the Hockley Viaduct looks like from below if only you could get close enough to see it,” I said as I snapped a photo.
Commando was too busy peering into the water, “I’m sure I just saw a huge fish in there,” he pointed to a spot a few feet from the bridge.
There were circular ripples, as if someone had just thrown a pebble but I couldn’t see any fish. I looked at him suspiciously, thinking he must be playing a trick on me. If he was he was doing a great job of keeping a straight face.
The pub stands on the site of the eleventh century Fareham Mill, also known as Clarke’s Mill and Cams Mill. A hundred years ago it was still a working tide mill, used to grind corn. Tide water from Portsmouth Harbour would have come up the creek and entered the mill pond. By the beginning of the twentieth century the creek was beginning to silt up and the mill stopped working. For a while the sluices were still used for flood control but, in 1919, the mill closed.
From the pub garden we got an even better view of the sixteen arch viaduct. Built in around 1848 it spans the creek and the Wellington River. The tidal creek is actually part of the river estuary and these banks are the only part of Portsmouth Harbour not built upon. The deep blue morning sky and mirror smooth water gave the scene a dreamlike quality. The colours seemed jewel bright from the flash of red on the little boat reflected in the blue water to the verdant green of the algae on the mudflats. To my delight a swan was sitting on the finger of mud between the creek and what I assume must once have been the mill pond.
It seems as if nothing could shatter the peaceful serenity of this place, not even a parkrun crowd. On Sunday 13 November 1983 a Cessna F150LP light aircraft did just that though. The pilot, Stuart Savage, departed from Goodwood in West Sussex, heading for Daedalus Airfield in Lee on Solent around four and a half miles to the south. For some reason known only to himself he flew towards the viaduct and appeared to try to fly through one of the arches. In the final moments before impact he seemed to suddenly realise the arch was too narrow and tried to climb over the viaduct but it was too little, too late. The aircraft was destroyed, along with part of the arch. Stuart Savage did not survive. What his motives were we will never know but, after a full investigation, the coroner recorded a verdict of suicide. Of course the arch has since been repaired and there is no sign of the tragedy today.
Beautiful as the scenery was, we had a parkrun ahead of us, somewhere in the grounds of the Cams Mill pub as far as we could tell. For a moment or two we thought we might have been in the wrong place. There was no one about and no sign of a race. Tentatively, we walked around the side of the building and, to our great relief, spotted one or two runners and a high vis clad marshal. The pub looked to be closed but there were tables and chairs outside to sit on, tubs of flowers, sweet smelling white roses and a lovely building to admire. It seemed to me there are worse places to hang around waiting for parkrun to start.
To look at the pub today you’d think it was the ancient mill building but it’s actually a very clever recreation. The original mill was demolished in 1919 and the building in front of us was built in 2013. Every care was taken to keep the new building as true to the original as possible. Archive images were studied and oakwrights built a frame as much like the original as possible. The beams are all renovated timber. More than fifty thousand reclaimed three hundred year old tiles were hand cut and fitted and the bricks used were all reclaimed Fareham red bricks. There is even a full size water wheel and period belt drives, of course they don’t work but they give a feel for the history of the place.
Later, looking online for pictures of the original mill, I discovered an FGO Stuart post card. I could have kicked myself for not checking before. It looks as if the photograph was taken from the other side of the creek on Deane’s Park Road. If I’d known I might have been able to attempt a half decent recreation, even if this is not the same mill.
Before we sat down we decided to check out where the race started. It turned out to be on a small hillock on the path leading from the pub along the edge of the creek. We were walking back to the seats when we spotted two familiar faces coming towards us around und the side of the pub. John and Rachel had also decided Fareham was a good alternative to Southampton parkrun.
In the end there wasn’t any time for making use of the seats. Runners were slowly making their way up the little grassy slope towards the start and the briefing. While this was going on I followed a trail of discarded mill wheels and found what I hoped would be a good spot to take photos, right on the brow the of the hill on the clover sprinkled grass. Close by I discovered the Fareham version of the bag tree, a pole and sign stuck into the ground. There didn’t seem to be all that many bags beside it but there weren’t all that many runners either so I guess it made sense.
Fareham is actually quite a new venue for parkrun. The first race was in April 2016, so they have just turned one year old. The course is mostly along the Fareham Creek Trail on a mixture of tarmac, gravel and rough trails with a little grass at the beginning and end. It’s an out and back course and mostly flat but it’s narrow so dogs and buggies aren’t encouraged. From my vantage point I had a good view of the start line at the top of the slope and of the first few yards of the course before it disappeared into the trees. By simply turning I should, with any luck, be able to capture Commando, John and Rachel as they passed.
The start of a race is always the hardest part to photograph. Everyone is bunched up and picking a single face out in the crowd is like a giant moving game of Where’s Walley. This is where the fancy pants camera comes into its own. My strategy is to point and keep shooting blindly, knowing the camera can take care of the quality. Of course this means I end up with hundreds of photos but, if I’m lucky one or two will actually contain the runners I want.
Today I didn’t do too badly at all. There was a photo with both John and Commando, one of Commando giving me the thumbs up as he spotted me and another of them both as they went past. It’s all luck rather than skill but don’t tell them that, they think I’m a genius and I’d hate to disillusion them.
When it came to Rachel I didn’t do quite as well. She likes to start near the back, which means she’s often lost in the crowd. I did get one shot with her blonde ponytail and the top of the back of her black 100 parkrun shirt but that was all. Still, Rachel hates photographs of herself so she was probably happy enough about that. Pretty soon the tail runner was ushering the last of the runners along the trail and my job was over for a little while.
It was tempting to follow the assorted start and finish marshals back to the pub and grab a seat but I knew I had maybe a quarter of an hour before the first runners would be back. John’s parkrun PB is 17.27 and Commando’s is 21.24, although he’s a bit slower at the moment, so I’d have to have my eyes peeled as soon as the first runner crossed the line.
The finish funnel was on the grass near the bottom of the slope. My best bet for finish photos seems to be on the grass nearby where I had a good view along the course and could spot my runners from quite a distance. These days I can recognise most of the Spitfires from their running style long before they are close enough for me to see their faces. This is an advantage when it comes to finish photos.
When I spotted the official race photographer standing on the same patch of grass I knew my judgement on the best place to stand was sound. We got chatting. She had her children with her, one in a pushchair and the other in a mini marshal jacket. He even had his own camera to take photos. How cute! It felt as if I’d stumbled into photographers corner.
Pretty soon the first runner appeared. There was a whir of snapping shutters. They took their official photos and I took one just to get my eye in. At this stage of the race the runners are usually fairly spread out and, with such a good view I didn’t have to concentrate too hard which was a bonus. Between runners I watched the Run Director and funnel manger milling about. At this point they didn’t have a lot to do but they’d be busy soon enough.
As soon as he appeared around the trees, I recognised John. He looked as relaxed as ever and I snapped a clutch of shots hoping one or two would be decent. Not too far behind was Commando, still slower than he’d like. but quicker than his last run. Finally Rachel appeared, smiling as she ran up the hill to the finish.
Once I’d got through the crowds I found them all sitting at the top of the hill along with James, an ex Spitfire due to a change of jobs and locations. Now we finally got to sit in the chairs outside the pub. There was even coffee, for a small donation. With good company, stunning views and a sunny day we really couldn’t have asked for anything more.
All too soon we’d finished our drinks it was time to head back through the viaduct to the car park. As we crossed the bridge Commando stared into the water again.
“Look, fish!” he said, “lots of them and they’re huge.”
This time I saw them. The creek was teeming with them. It’s a wonder the banks weren’t lined with men clutching fishing rods.
It was our first foray to the Fareham parkrun. With the beautiful scenery, the mostly flat course and the pleasant place for a post run coffee, I doubt it will be our last. It’s only fourteen miles down the road after all.
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