23 July 2018
Unbeknown to us, while we were camping in the hot, dusty Catton Park field preparing for Thunder Run, a small disaster was unfolding on Southampton Common. On Saturday, a fire broke out in the Old Cemetery, caused, it’s believed, by the unrelenting sun shining on broken glass and setting fire to the desiccated and overgrown grass. Commando read about it in the local paper and, once we’d unpacked, rested a little and dashed around the supermarket to stock up for the week, we went to have a look.
We parked up in Cemetery Road and, feeling more than a little apprehensive, walked up towards the small gate. Having seen how overgrown the cemetery has become in this long, incredibly dry, summer I was worried the whole cemetery had gone up in flames. It was a surprise then, to find the little gate much as it always is. Plants and trees all looked intact, as did the graves, half hidden by nature and leaning this way and that in the dappled afternoon light.
Neither of us knew exactly where the fire had been or how extensive it was. As the cemetery covers twenty seven acres, it seemed we might have our work cut out just finding it. Time wasn’t on our side. Commando wanted to watch the Spitfires’ Championship mile race on the Common later. We walked towards the main path, looking around for signs of damage. We saw none, but there was a slightly smoky smell in the air. We followed our noses and, sure enough, we soon came to an area where things didn’t look quite right.
Being fairly close to the Cemetery Lake gate and, therefore, the normal parkrun start and finish, this is an area I know very well. It was clear, by the bare earth and strange hummocks between the gravestones, something had happened but it didn’t immediately look as if there’d been a fire. In fact it looked more like the work of a slightly deranged gardener with an obsessive compulsive disorder. Dried out ivy was clinging to some of the stones and clumps of straw like grass were everywhere but nothing seemed blackened, as if touched by fire.
The only real clue to this peculiar bare area amid the overabundant growth of the cemetery was the acrid smell in the air. The gravestones appeared to be still, more or less, standing and the area was far smaller than I’d expected. This was probably due to the alarm being raised quite quickly. The Gung Ho! event, a giant inflatable obstacle course, was going on when the fire broke out and the huge plume of smoke quickly drew attention. Fire crews were soon on the scene.
Commando and I walked slowly towards the Cemetery Lake gate, peering at the mess. It was odd to see so much bare earth where usually there is a tangle of impenetrable undergrowth but the headstones looked to be intact as far as I could tell. The graves were far more spaced out than I’d thought they were though and I wondered if some stones had been damaged and removed?
Finally, when we were very close to the gate, we saw blackened ground and real signs that a fire had broken out here. One grave, it’s surrounding stones still intact, loooked as if it had collapsed. The centre was charred and sunken. Of course, it could well have been sunken all along, as many of the graves are, but the burnt away foliage revealed the extent of it.
Fire, like death, is a great leveller with no respect for social standing, history or importance. Here though, it seemed to have revealed just how uneven the ground actually was beneath all the grass and wildflowers. It looked like a strange alien landscape of hummocks and hairy looking mounds, draped everywhere with straw.
Some of the humps were obviously graves but the peculiar mounds puzzled me. Were they centuries of earth piled up behind now missing headstones or did they perhaps conceal the roots of brambles and small shrubs consumed by the fire? There was no time to ponder the answer to this or explore further. Time was getting on and Commando was keen to head towards the Hawthorns Cafe where the mile race would soon be starting. The runners would be gathering and I was supposed to be taking photos. It was time to return to the land of the living, further investigation would have to wait for another day.
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