23 February 2018
Commando has signed up for a course at the Runnung School to try to improve his technique. He’s hoping it might knock a few seconds off his parkrun PB and maybe help him avoid future injuries. Today was his first class and, as it was in Old Stoneham Lane and the day was wonderfully springlike, I went along to have a little wander while he was learning.
There was no real plan and, once I’d left the Running School and made it to the road, I dithered a bit. It has to be said that this is not my favourite stretch of road. There are no footpaths, it’s winding and the cars seem to all be going at speed. There were two choices, turn right and make for Monks Brook Meadows or turn left and head towards the One Handed Clock of St Nicolas’ Church or maybe Lakeside. As I only had an hour and I didn’t want to be hanging around on the road any longer than I had too, I made a snap decision and turned left.
By the time I reached the church several cars had already come a little close for comfort so I decided to cut my losses and climb over the wall to get off the road. Besides, it had occurred to me that the church might be open and I might finally get a look inside. As I squelched across the rough muddy grass past the old graves I was quite excited at the prospect of seeing the fifteenth century Slavonian tomb stone, the memorial to to Admiral Lord Hawke from the late 1700’s and the tomb of Sir Thomas Fleming, Lord Chief Justice and one of the judges at the trial of Guy Fawkes in 1605.
The door is on the north side of the church, not facing the road. Once I’d made it to the path I stopped for a quick snap of the Lynch gate, which is the proper way to enter the churchyard rather than an undignified clambering over the low stone wall to avoid being hit by a car. The gate really deserves closer inspection. It was built in 1909 using oak timbers taken from HMS Thunderer, a ship that was involved in the Battle of Trafalgar. Of course I’ve seen it many times before and today I was too preoccupied with getting inside the church to walk back to it.
Unfortunately, my plans to spend a quiet hour looking around the inside of the medieval church came to nothing. The door was firmly locked just as it has been every other time I’ve visited. This was disappointing but not nearly as disappointing as what came next.
Turning from the locked door I walked along the path at the side of the church towards the fields beyond. There is a footpath here leading to Stoneham Park and the land where Fleming’s Manor House once stood. Although I knew there were plans to build houses on some of the land I hadn’t expected to be faced with a building site as soon as I left the churchyard. The quiet fields where CJ always likes to stop to pet the horses is now surrounded by green metal barriers and filled with mounds of earth and diggers.
Opposite is is the old coach house and stable block, now a farm house, or at least it was. Even this looks abandoned and is, in part, surrounded by metal barriers. There were no horses anywhere to be seen and I couldn’t help wondering what became of them?
The building work was far more extensive than I’d expected. The green fields have disappeared under a sea of mud and rubble as far as the eye can see. In the middle of all this a couple of large, expensive looking houses have already been built. A wide, water filled ditch running along the perimeter fence looked almost like a moat and added to the illusion of grandeur.
With one eye on the building work and the builders I kept walking along the lane. Ahead somewhere I knew there was a stile and a footpath through a field. Last time we’d come this way it was very muddy and there were cows in the field. Some were disconcertingly close to the fence. Today I was feeling rather sad and disoriented by all the changes around me and the lane seemed much longer than I remembered. A large four by four car was slowly creeping up the lane behind me. It added to the distractions.
The car passed. The driver waved a thank you to me for standing to the side of the path. On I went but, by now, I knew I’d either missed the footpath or it had been swallowed up by the building work. From previous walks I knew the path ahead was a dead end, leading to land belonging to an angling club and not open to the public. Even so I kept walking, mostly because I couldn’t think what else to do.
At the top of the lane, right at the point where it turns towards the angling club lake, the man with the car had pulled up to open a gate. His little dog was running around excitedly. At the exact moment I spotted a trail off to the right the man said hello.
“Does this path lead anywhere?” I asked him.
”It’ll take you to the top field after a mile or so, but it’s probably muddy,” he said with a pointed look at my boots.
“I don’t mind a little mud. My boots are waterproof and have good grip. Last time I came this way I took a footpath further back but it seems to have disappeared. It was all fields back then. The building work took me by surprise.”
For a while we chatted about the destruction of the fields. The man said he had lived in the area ever since his house in Southampton was bombed during the war.
“The path is still there but you wouldn’t want to walk it now, it goes right through the building site, The Council are too fond of building on greenfield land if you ask me. They had all the brownfield land on Wide Lane they could have used,” he said. “If they were building houses for ordinary people it wouldn’t be so bad. The young people around here have no chance of affording a house these days but the houses they’re building here are for rich people from out of town.”
Finally I bade my new friend and his dog farewell and set off along the trail. Whether I’d have time to make it to the top field, whatever that was, remained to be seen. The man had told me there were other trails but many of them would be too muddy at the moment. He also told me I could cut through the golf course and get back to Old Stoneham Lane. He said he did it all the time when he was walking his dog but the golfers didn’t like it much. Somehow it didn’t sound very inviting.
At first the path seemed firm and more or less dry. Apart from some rather unwelcoming signs telling me to stay on the marked path, it was a pleasant enough walk. The signs were a worry. They said this was private land but, as far as I could see, the path wasn’t marked at all so I couldn’t really tell if I was trespassing or not. At least there was no one about to catch me if I was but it made me feel uneasy all the same.
There were a few muddy patches, but nothing I couldn’t negotiate easily enough. To my left there were fields that looked to be still in use as farm land. Maybe this was the top field the man had told me about? On the far side, beyond the trees, I could see some kind of structure. It looked like it might be netting, perhaps part of the Jubilee Recreation Ground, although, by this time, I’d lost my bearings completely so I couldn’t be sure.
Shortly after this I came to a blocked off side path to my left. A little way along, a tree had fallen across the path and I wondered if this was why it had been closed off? A quick look at Google Maps told me the blocked path led towards the recreation ground and possibly Chestnut Avenue. It might even have taken me to the Stoneham War Shrine on Chestnut Hill if only I’d been able to walk along it.
The blocked path left me with no alternative but to keep going forward. As I walked along a pleasant tree lined avenue overlooking open fields I wondered how much of this beauty would soon be swallowed up by new houses? It certainly has a history of being parcelled up, built upon and sold off. This land was part of a seventh century Saxon estate, given by King Athelstan to Thegn Alfred and transferred to St Peter’s Monestery, which later became Hyde Abbey. The dissolution of the monasteries in 1545 saw the land pass to Thomas Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton. In 1599, he sold the Manor House and North Stoneham to Sir Thomas Fleming.
The land stayed in the Fleming family for several centuries. They built a large house with a lodge and banqueting house and had the extensive gardens landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. The gardens included three ponds and three separate parks, Deer Park, Avenue Park and Rough Park. In the early 1800’s the original Manor House, close to the church, was demolished and a new Greek Revival mansion was built in the centre of the park and a new lodge, designed to resemble a Greek temple, was built near the church.
Towards the end of the century, financial difficulties saw the Flemings abandon the new mansion and divide it into flats. In the twentieth century part of the gardens were turned into a golf course, the ponds were sold to the angling club and the house became a country sports club. During World War I the House was used as a military hospital. The war shire CJ and I saw on our last visit was built in 1917 in memory of Richard Fleming and the men of the parish who perished in the trenches. In 1939, after another spell as flats, the house was demolished and much of the land sold off. Home Wood, to the west, and Avenue Park, to the north, were kept as public open spaces managed by Eastleigh Council and the pasture, to the south, was owned by Hampshire County Council.
On I walked, with no idea what lay ahead and nothing to tell me if I was on the official path or not. There’d been no footpath sign at the beginning of the trail and, apart from the warning sign, no markers on the trail. The only other sign I saw warned me of forestry work in progress. It said parts of the land were closed off and and told me to obey the warning signs. If there were any other warning signs I didn’t see them, although I did see a small circle of tree stumps close to the sign.
The man with the dog had told me there might be bluebells in the woods so, along with keeping an eye out for signs I was looking for these too. All I found was an increasingly muddy path and a few gorse flowers.
The signs were making me nervous and the worsening mud was making the going tough. When I finally glanced at my watch I realised I’d been walking for almost forty minutes. Even discounting the time I’d spent talking to the man with the dog, I knew it was time to turn back.
As I made my way back towards the mud and rubble of the building site I wondered why the trail was so badly marked? Usually footpaths have signs of some kind at the start and end and most have at least a few way markers. This trail had neither and, if it hadn’t been for the man with the dog, I’d never even have known it was an official footpath. It made me wonder how anyone ever found it?
Soon enough I was passing the diggers and the men in hard hats again. Just in time I remembered to keep an eye out for the trail I’d originally intended to walk. The man with the dog had said it was still there and, when I finally spotted the style and the gate I understood what he’d meant about not wanting to walk it any more. The entire trail was hemmend in on both sides by metal barriers with building going on right beside them. It would hardly have been a peaceful walk.
Walking back towards the church to wait for Commando, it occurred to me that the lack of signs and unwelcoming nature of the trails were probably no accident. If the council take away the signposts and hide the trails away, or make them downright unpleasant, less people will walk them. The less people use the trails the easier it is to justify closing them. Less trails and footpaths means more room for fancy houses and more money in the council coffers after all. At this rate there will be barely a blade of grass or a tree left in Eastleigh by the end of this century. Then again, maybe I’m being a little cynical?
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