24 March 2015
My Tuesday walk was prompted by a post on the Southampton Heritage Facebook page about a strange brick structure in West Wood. There were lots of theories about what it could be and it looked so interesting I thought I’d try to find it myself and take a look. I do like a good mystery. Also, as last week’s West Wood exploration was cut short by an unaccountable bout of lethargy, it seemed a good plan to go back and finish what I started.
The walk began with flowers. There were two types of magnolia before I’d even reached the top of the Little Hill, still glistening with morning dew or early morning rain. For a change, I decided to test out a new route and come at the woods from the other side. It looked good in theory and meant passing Millers Pond which, in my mind, more than offset the chance of getting lost.
At the top of the hill I turned and smiled to myself. It was wonderful walking weather. There were more flowers at the top of Spring Road, a host of golden daffodils filling the grass verge. What more could I want? Not long after I’d snapped a shot of forsythia arching over a garden wall I bumped into Gail from my Silver Helm days. We stopped for a chat and I did some obligatory cooing at her little girl Bella, looking cute as a button in her pastel pink coat and hat. It was great to see her but it did make me realise how much I miss those days.
Lost in thought I reached Millers Pond before I knew it. When I saw the haze of blackthorn flowers, I couldn’t resist a quick stop. The water lilies were beginning to pop up on pond, the water looked like an impressionist painting all splodges of blue green and white and a couple of ducks were padding on the bank. I could have stayed all day but I had a mystery to solve so I made my way through the railway arch.
It was a steep climb through a tunnel of rhododendrons as big as trees. They will be beautiful when they’re all in flower but, sadly, right now, there isn’t a bud in sight. I came out onto the road by the Mayfield House stable block. The house and stables were built for Colonel Robert Wright in 1856 on the edge of his thirty five acre estate. At one time the house was used as an annex for the Royal Victoria Hospital then, in 1937, it was sold to Southampton Corporation and the park opened to the public. After being used to house French soldiers from Dunkirk and evacuees from the Chapel area of town the house was so dilapidated it was demolished but the beautiful stables with their cupola topped clock tower remain. These days they are used as a store house.
The next part of the walk was the bit I was worried about. It was easy enough to find the right road, although I’ve only every driven past before. From the map I was pretty sure I could get into the wood but, when I got there, there was a high green fence and the first gate I came to was padlocked. My heart sank, thinking I’d walked all that way for nothing. In desperation I followed the line of the fence and, to my relief, finally came to an open gate.
Steps led down into the wood to two trails. Immediately I dismissed the one following the line of the fence as uninteresting and set off along the other. Before long I came to a small bridge crossing the stream that runs through TIckleford Gully. From the map I knew this ran all the way through the wood to the shore and that I’d have to cross it at some point so I was glad to see it. Birds were singing, water trickling and the sun coming through the canopy of bare trees.
At first the trail led me beside the stream, deep in the gully but, after a while, it rose and the water ran, mostly unseen, beside me. I found an interesting stump that looked as if it might have been home to mason bees. The bees were gone but the stump was riddled with holes.
Further on a yapping dog, no bigger than a kitten, came running out of nowhere and snapped at my ankles. I daren’t move in case I accidentally trod on the blasted thing. If I’m honest, part of me felt like purposely treading on it as it bit at my boots growling. Eventually some people, with children and four or five other tiny dogs came into view and called it away. As soon as I began to move it was back biting at my boots and the man had to pick it up and carry it off in the end. Obviously the little dog has more guts than sense to punch so high above it’s weight.
Free of my new enemy I carried on past steps leading up the steep gully side. It felt like walking at the bottom of the world with earth and trees high above me on all sides and the light dappled through the bare trees. The sound of a woodpecker broke the silence and I stared up into the trees where I caught a glimpse of it silhouetted amongst the branches, so high it was no more than a tiny smudge.
On I went, not sure if I was heading in the right direction, or even what the right direction was as I had only the vaguest idea of where to find the strange structure. I found a rotten tree whose decayed bark looked like a blackened wire sculpture and a dried out fungus of some kind with a strange marbled surface.
When I came upon three old men sitting on stumps chewing the fat I thought I’d found the bridge I crossed last week. With a “good morning” I passed them and crossed only to find it wasn’t the same bridge at all. With my tail between my legs I crossed back, trying to look nonchalant. One of the men took his pipe out of his mouth and looked at me oddly but the other two were too deep in conversation to notice.
Now there were a lot of felled trees beside the path. One pile looked as if someone had been making a den. In the distance, a thin curl of smoke was rising. When I saw bright light ahead I knew I’d reached the road but not quite where. Some men in high vis jackets and hard hats were working on the telegraph poles as I emerged. The pavement was blocked in one direction by their equipment.
“It’s alright, you can go past,” one said, “I’ll stop the traffic for you.”
“I’m not sure I want to go that way yet,” I laughed. “I’m still trying to work out where I am.”
They probably thought I was mad.
I was on Abbey Hill and, from the information I had, I was pretty sure I needed to walk towards the shore. The photo I’d seen showed brick gateposts laying on the ground near the fence so, when I spotted bricks and a rusty old gate a few steps from the workmen, I climbed through a handy gap and back into the woods. There were also people sitting around on piles of logs who looked to be having a coffee break. This was a little off putting when I’d expected to be all alone. They looked at me a little suspiciously as I clambered through the undergrowth and, for a moment, I thought they were going to challenge me but they just carried on drinking their coffee. As I stepped over branches I spotted the mystery object. It was smaller than I’d expected.
Under the watchful gaze of the coffee drinkers I walked over to the little arched building, snapping pictures as I went. At any moment I was expecting someone to ask me what I was up to. The coffee drinkers also seemed to be the people in charge of the fire, which was just out of sight behind the trees. Later I discovered they are volunteers clearing up the wood. Apparently they have uncovered some odd things as they’ve worked, possibly even the thing I’d come to see. If only I’d known I’d have gone to speak to them but, at the time, I was worried I’d be told I was trespassing and made to leave.
The Facebook page was full of suggestions as to what this strange building might be, from the outlandish, a hobbit house, to the more plausible, a well, butter store, game store or ice house. When I got close enough to peer inside I was pretty certain it wasn’t a well unless it had been filled in. The base was filled with soggy leaves and dirt and a quick poke with my finger told me it wasn’t a deep hole although I could be wrong because I was too nervous of the onlookers to poke too much. Besides, it didn’t look very well like to me.
Before I saw it, the ice house theory would have been my favourite. In the flesh though, it was obviously way too small. An ice house would have a chamber where ice could be stored under layers of straw and it’s usually possible to walk inside. You wouldn’t be able to store much ice in this for sure. The butter or game store is still a possibility but I would expect some kind of door so I’m not convinced.
Whatever it is, it looked very well made. The bricks had been cut to make a perfect dome, like an igloo, and the arch was precise and well finished, although there was damage on one side. The structure seemed to be made of a double layer of bricks with the inner ones as carfully aligned as the outer. It was old and covered with moss, lichen and algae and it had obviously been half buried. The inside looked to have recently been dug out a little, from the lack of algae on the bottom bricks. I took photos from every angle, including one using my little rucksack to give a sense of scale, but I was none the wiser.
The woods were once part of the grounds of Netely Abbey and the gates I passed once belonged to Lake House, long since demolished, which took its name from the ornamental lake in its grounds. Once there were four conduits which fed the fish ponds, filled the wells and flushed the abbey toilets. Some of the conduits remain, from what I’ve read, and I’m wondering if the little dome is actually part of a conduit or a conduit head. The ponds and stream are very close by and the base of the dome is certainly wetter than the surrounding ground. The mystery is far from solved though and I walked back to the road scratching my head.
Across the road I sat on my favourite bench, still mulling it over. When I reached into my bag for my snack I discovered it was crushed beyond all hope. Instead I wandered along to the ice cream van and, feeling slightly guilty, bought the first ice cream I’ve had on the shore since I was a child, complete with flake. It was delicious. Sitting in the warm sun on an old fence I savoured every bite looking out to sea and picking up the odd shell between bites. All seemed well with the world.
When I stood up to leave I couldn’t believe my eyes. Behind me dark clouds had been silently gathering. The sky behind the flats was a worrying shade of black and I hurried along the shore, certain I would never make it home dry. Within moments the first drops fell and the the temperature seemed to plumet. Pulling my coat around me I rushed along. Then the hail began to fall and that was the end of my walk. I made it as far as the bus stop in Woolston and hopped on the first bus to arrive.