26 October 2017
The area directly outside the south door of Highfield Church is dominated by a war memorial, dedicated in 1921 to men of the parish lost during the First World War. For such a small parish, there seem to be an awful lot of names inscribed upon it. Their loss must have been a terrible blow to the area. We stopped for a moment to read and think. No doubt, a wreath of poppies will be laid here soon to remember them, although it’s doubtful if there is anyone alive now who knew them personally.
A few graves are scattered around the grassy area in front of the church and these were our next objective. According to several articles I’d read, Joshua Brandon, the architect who designed the church but died before it was completed, was buried somewhere in the churchyard. Finding his grave looked like it would be a fairly simple matter.
The gravestones along the south face of the church were all so badly weathered we couldn’t make out a single name. Any of them could have been the one we were looking for and we’d never have known. Suddenly our quest didn’t look quite so simple after all. Feeling less than confident, we turned our attention to the graves on the grass in front of the church.
Most of the graves seemed to be in a similar condition but there was one large monument with writing that was legible in part. It belonged to the Aslatt family, who owned a coach works in Above Bar. Aslatt’s Coach Manufactory was founded by John Aslatt in the early nineteenth century and his showroom was on the corner of Above Bar Street next to Aslatt’s Cut, roughly where Civic Centre Road is now.
Most of the graves were half hidden beneath a large yew tree. We had to stoop to get near enough to discover almost all were impossible to read. We could decipher words on just one, a grave belonging to the wife and son of Samuel Russ, although he did not appear to be buried there himself. Later I discovered Samuel was a butcher, his wife, Ann, was a shopkeeper and their son, John, was a fireman aboard the Isle of Wight Ferry. The family were living in Portswood when John died, aged just thirty. His mother died within six months. Perhaps her heart was broken?
The space beneath the spreading branches of the old yew was wonderfully secluded and peaceful even if we were rapidly coming to realise finding the Brandon’s grave was an impossible task. The bark of the ancient tree was almost a work of art and the ground, thick with dropped needles, was soft and spongy to walk on.
By now we’d examined every single grave at the front of the church. If any of them were Joshua Brandon’s his name had long since worn away. CJ suggested we walk around the outside of the church, just in case there were more graves secreted somewhere.
“You’d think the grave of architect of the church would be well cared for with writing you can read,” he said.
So we walked along the narrow path beside the east wall. There was no room there for graves, barely room to look up at the outside of the church.
The north face of the church was equally cramped and so shaded by trees it was quite dark. We found some steps leading down to an intriguing little door. Perhaps the church has a crypt? Beyond it, in the far corner of the churchyard, we could see more graves.
The little spark of hope the sight had ignited was soon extinguished. These graves were like all the others, age had worn their faces smooth, or at least wiped out any names we could read. Before long we’d gone as far as we could. Ahead were the builders and no more graves that we could see.
We left the church with a vague sense of disappointment. The quest I’d thought would be easy at the outset had been anything but. Later I discovered it had actually been a wild goose chase. Despite all the accounts of Joshua Brandon being buried in the churchyard, his name is not in the parish burial registers. He died where he lived, in London, aged just twenty five and it is likely he is buried somewhere there.
As we headed for the road I suddenly remembered that I’d found an F.G.O. Stuart postcard of the church before we left home this morning. In fact I’d saved a picture of it on my phone with the intention of trying to recreate it. In all the excitement of seeing the church door open I’d completely forgotten about it. We stopped and I scrolled through the camera roll of my phone to find the postcard. As I did I realised the photo I’d taken of the church as we’d walked towards it earlier was a perfect replica of Stuart’s. Apart for the growth of the trees over the years, a couple of road signs, a lamp post and the workers equipment, nothing much has changed in this little corner of Southampton it would seem.
Now it was time to head back to Portswood. In time honoured tradition I had a plan that meant we wouldn’t have to retrace our steps. Rather than walking back down Highfield Lane we turned along Church Road, past the Highfield Church of England School, established beside the church back in 1849. The map told me there was a cutway opposite the school. It looked as if we could use it to get back to the High Street.
It wasn’t the prettiest cutway, just a narrow path between the houses with fences on both sides. It dipped down steeply and we followed it. Before long it climbed just as steeply and we could see the street at the end.
At the far end of the alley beautiful flowers tumbled over a garden fence, some kind of solanum I think. We stopped to admire them and to look back at the spire of the church we’d just visited, poking up between the trees.
Our walk today began with thoughts about change as we looked at the new buildings going up beside Northam Bridge. Highfield Church and the buildings around it have changed little in the last hundred years or more and, there, we’d been immersed in history. Now we were back on Portswood High Street, a place that has seen more than its fair share of change in recent years. Perhaps one day I will tell you more about it but today we were keen to get back home.
There was one quick stop to photograph a couple of the older buildings that still remain. The old Southern Counties Diary building is now a pizza and kebab shop but the ghost sign, high on the wall is a reminder of its former life. Across the road the Mitre Pub is still a pub, at least for now.
Our final stop was on the far side of Cobden Bridge where more change is taking place. New retirement apartments are being built on the waterside and a huge yellow crane dominates the skyline. As the buildings go up another ghost sign, this one for EKCO Radio, is slowly being hidden from view. It has been a landmark for as long as I can remember. We stopped to take a photograph of it, knowing it may well be the last time we’d be able to see it. Such is the march of progress.
Our walk had taken us full circle both physically in our circular walk and metaphorically, from change to history and back again to change. Things hadn’t turned out quite how we’d expected but sometimes the beauty of a walk comes from the changes of plan and the surprises along the way. Resisting the changes means missing the wonderful surprises they can bring.
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