The Five parkruns of Christmas

Christmas 2018

For runners slightly obsessed with collecting parkrun milestone t-shirts, the parkruns of Christmas must seem like an extra Christmas present. There’s no other time of year when you can squeeze in a cheeky midweek parkrun or even two in one day and those extra runs certainly help rack up the numbers.

This year the official Christmas parkrun was on Saturday 22 December. It was a bright, crisp morning for RD’s Malcolm and Jill and Rudolph and Santa even turned up to warm up before their busy night. Then again, it might just have been Ian in a costume. Trevor, one of the amazing set up volunteers, used this run to notch up his two hundred and fiftieth parkrun and earned himself a shiny new t-shirt to go into his Christmas stocking. Of course, some people still had Christmas shopping to do at this stage but a few Christmas carols, played by Roger on his euphonium, helped them get round in double quick time before they dashed off to the shops for a spot of panic buying.

On Christmas morning, while most people were tucked up at home unwrapping presents, seven hundred and thirty two dedicated souls joined RD, Gill, for the first of the extra seasonal parkruns. Roger and his euphonium were there again to ramp up the Christmas spirit and the order of the day was silly or spectacular seasonal costumes. Even Commando broke out the elf suit, although he was less than happy about having his photograph taken in it.

The costumes may have been bright but the weather certainly wasn’t. It was damp and overcast but at least fairly mild. For once, there was no warm pub to retire to after the run. The Bellmoor was closed and so was the Hawthorne’s Cafe. Quite where the RD and token sorters worked their magic is a mystery but the rest of us went home to open our presents.

The third Christmas parkrun was the official Saturday one on 29 December. To my shame, I completely forgot it was Commando’s two hundredth and didn’t hang around to take photographs. Instead I had a quiet wander around the cemetery, where I discovered someone had spread a little seasonal cheer by decorating some of the trees with baubles. In fairness, Commando didn’t remind me of his milestone run. In fact he kept the whole thing very quiet. This may have had something to do with the Paris debacle. If he’d managed to complete that run he’d have hit his milestone on Christmas Day,

On 1 January, after a night of celebrations and probably a fair bit of alcohol consumption you’d think most people would want a lie in. The pièce de résistance in the parkrun calendar has to be the double parkrun on New Year’s Day though. ‘Doing the double’ is not obligatory of course, but there is no other time of year when you can run at two parkruns on the same morning and thereby get one step closer to your next milestone goal, whatever that may be.

For those not familiar with the double parkrun, it works something like this… some parkuruns start at the normal time of nine o’clock, others start later, at around ten thirty. This means the really didcated can go to one parkrun at the normal time and then hurry off to another later one nearby. As the New Year parkrun is almost always on a weekday and therefore an extra parkrun, it really does help the milestone hunters.

For us, ‘doing the double’ involved an early morning trip to Victoria Country Park for the Netley parkrun. As usual, we arrived far earlier than necessary, partly because Commando wasn’t sure about parking. As it was, we easily found a parking space on the shore just outside the park gates. It was bitterly cold and getting out of the car at all may not have happened if it hadn’t been for the beautiful sunrise over Southampton Water. We stood for some time watching the golden pink glow spreading over Fawley, the docks and the lovely commemorative benches overlooking the sea.

When standing still in the biting wind became too much, especially for Commando who was only wearing shorts, we headed off into the park. Ahead of us the sky was aflame, casting the trees and the hospital chapel into silhouette. The beauty of the morning was made even more magical when Commando took me on a short detour to see the fairy garden that is being built near the park entrance. A dead cedar tree is slowly being cut into fantastic fairy castles, complete with turrets Rapunzel would envy. In the morning light I could almost imagine a crowd of fairies hiding amongst all the logs. This is certainly something I will have to come back and see again when it’s finished,

Netley parkrun doesn’t get the massive number of runners that we are used to seeing on Southampton Common, but a surprising number of people had turned up for the first run of 2019. Several were familiar faces from Southampton, including Kali, who is normally a key member of the set up team on the common. This was a little worrying. If he was here, who was setting up there?

The Running got underway fairly promptly and I was left waiting, with a pile of jackets donated by various running friends tied about my waist. Even if I’d wanted a walk, or had time for one, I could barely move under all those layers.

Luckily, I didn’t have too long to wait and I was, at least, mostly warm, although my ears and fingers could probably have done with a few extra layers. Commando finished running just behind John and Rob. He got his barcode scanned and, much to my dismay, took his coat back. Then it was time to walk back to the car and make our way to Southampton Common.

At this stage I hadn’t had my usual morning coffee. The cafe at Victoria Park hadn’t been open and neither the Hawthorns or the Bellmoor would be either. As we drove towards town I formulated a plan. The second parkrun didn’t start until ten thirty and, as it was now around quarter to ten, I had an idea Starbucks on London Road might be open. We had to drive that way anyway and, if it was, I was pretty sure I had time to get a coffee and walk to the Common before the running started.

As it happened, my plan worked like clockwork, Commando dropped me in a London Road and went off to find a parking space at the Common. My walk to join him was made all the better my a coffee to warm my frozen hands and I arrived with time to spare. Feeling rather smug, I followed the stream of runners towards the start line.

Any worries I’d had about the set up we’re quickly dispelled. Even without Kali, the finish funnel was in place and RD, Kate, was waiting. It took me a while to find Commando amongst the crowds but I bumped into quite a few friends on the way, several I’d already seen at Netley earlier, including Kali, who’d managed to dash from Netley to Southampton in time to make sure everything was set up properly.

When I did catch up with Commando, he’d nabbled himself one of the new blue pacer bibs for his second 5k of the morning. Pacing is his speciality and, today, he’d chosen a relatively slow, for him, twenty five minute time.

These extra runs really do make a difference to runners who are trying to reach milestones. For John, Netley had been his two hundred and ninety ninth run, meaning he was now about to hit his three hundred milestone. There were no fancy costumes, banners or balloons but I did take a photo to mark the occasion.

Before long it was time for the one thousand and forty eight runners who’d made it to the Common to line up on the start line. After the usual briefing, they were off and I tramped back across the grass to the finish funnel. While I was chatting to token meister, Barbara, we watched an escaped zero from someone’s celebratory one hundred bunch slowly drifting above the tree line.

All that was left to do now was take a few photos of the runners as they passed on the loops of the figure of eight course, find Commando in the finish funnel and get his token scanned while he did his normal funnel managing job. Finally, the five parkruns of Christmas were over for another year. With luck and injuries permitting, we will do it all again next year and Commando will collect his two hundred and fifty t-shirt.

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A last Parisian stroll

16 December 2018

Our stay in Paris was far too short and, sadly, our last morning in this beautiful city was as damp and cold as the previous day had been. We began the morning with breakfast in our hotel. The meal was served in an amazing cellar room that was even quirkier than our lovely little attic room. I could have kicked myself for leaving my phone behind. Luckily I found some pictures on Tripadvisor and have shamelessly stolen them.

Traveller photo submitted by GLCASTELUCCI (Jun 2018)


Traveller photo submitted by GLCASTELUCCI (Jun 2018)


Traveller photo submitted by GLCASTELUCCI (Jun 2018)


Traveller photo submitted by GLCASTELUCCI (Jun 2018)


Many of the eighteenth and nineteenth century hotels and buildings in the 10th arrondissement have hidden cellar rooms like this, some dating from much earlier times. In fact, beneath most of Paris, there is a hidden world of cellars, tunnels, sewers and even quarries. We were lucky enough to see the catacombs on a previous visit and the hotel breakfast room reminded me of them a little, although obviously without all the bones. Having said that, there may well have been bones far closer than we thought. A few years back a hidden burial site was found beneath a local supermarket, so you never quite know what is beneath your feet here.

Today there was no time for real sightseeing and the wet, cold weather put us off going too far afield. Once we’d packed our cases and checked out of the hotel we spent a happy and warm half hour or so having one last wonderful chocolat chaud. You really never can have too many in my humble opinion.

By the time we’d finished our drinks the rain had eased off a little so we decided to go for one last stroll before we headed for the station. It was really nothing more than a walk around the block but there were still a few interesting things to see. On Boulevard de la Chapelle we had a great view of the train lines going into Gare du Nord and an interesting mural of the front of the station on a nearby building.

We also passed a delightfully dilapidated doorway. Commando couldn’t understand why I would want to take a picture of such a thing though.

On Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis the front of the Hôpital Fernand-Widal caught my eye. In the sixteenth century, Vincent de Paul built a small hospital of just forty beds on Rue Faubourg Saint Martin, the street running parallel to this one on the other side of Gare de l’Est. It was dedicated to the Daughters of Charity. Over the years the hospital grew and, by the nineteenth century it had three hundred beds and was run by Dr Antoine Dubois. In 1858 the hospital moved to its present location and was later named after Fernand Widal, visiting physician to the hospitals of Paris, prolific writer of medical essays and instrumental in devising the Widal test for typhoid fever. Today the hospital specialises in psychaiatry, addiction and elderly care and is undertaking a great deal of research about memory. The building looks rather dark and forbidding but, what really caught my eye were the words Liberte Egalite Fraternite above the door.

We carried on walking, pausing every now and then to look at an interesting shop or a piece of graffiti, until we were back on Rue de Dunkerque approaching Gare Du Nord again.

We still had a while before we needed to check into Eurostar so we had a closer look at Maison Fond in the daylight. It really is the strangest piece of artwork I’ve ever seen.

Our final stop was for a closer look at the strange red metal sculpture we’d passed several times on our travels. This rather fantastical creation by Parisian artist and sculptor Richard Texiers, is called Angel Bear. It was specially commissioned in 2015 by SNCF for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. The piece was inspired by the plight of polar bears and the fragility of our planet.

We were still a little early for our check in but, by now, we were frozen so, with some regret, we said goodbye to Paris and went inside the station. Once we’d passed through the airport style security we found a place to sit and wait and got a coffee to warm our hands. There were a few, slightly half hearted decorations in the waiting area to remind us it was almost Christmas and we passed the time with the usual people watching.

After a while a call came for boarding. Commando assured me this was not for our train. The waiting area slowly emptied and we kept on waiting. When the time for our train had come and gone with no further calls I began to get a little concerned.

“Are you absolutely sure about the train time?” I asked.

This was when we discovered Commando had been looking at the outbound tickets all along and the train that had been called twenty minutes earlier and had now left was actually ours. Luckily, it was fairly simple to get onto the next train, although we had rather a longer than expected wait.

We ended up in a rather noisy carriage filled with Welsh rugby supporters. It wasn’t quite the relaxing journey we’d expected but they were a friendly bunch and even shared some of their bottles of red wine with Commando. All in all it had been an eventful trip and I, for one, had learned a few lessons. In future I will be a little more proactive in my research. That way we might actually find the parkrun. Also I will also not be leaving the travel plans in Commando’s hands, especially with his habit of not wearing his glasses.

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Gilets jaunes

15 December 2018

With thoughts of a nice warming coffee and maybe a cake in the Jardin du Luxembourg cafe evaporating, we peered through the locked gates and wondered what to do next. It was one o’clock and both of us were cold, damp and feeling rather hungry. Our early breakfast seemed like a lifetime ago and we’d been walking more or less the whole time since then. The little cafe we’d stopped at before on Boulevard Saint Michel sprang to mind so we headed towards it.

As we walked we theorised about the locked gates of the park.

”Perhaps something has happened inside?” Commando suggested. “That police van must be there for a reason.”

”I wonder what though?” I said, “There was no one inside the gates that I could see and no police in the van.”

“It could be anything but, after the terrorist attack in Strasbourg last week, I guess they’re taking no chances, France does seem to have more than its fair share of these things.”

This was a sobering thought, News footage of the aftermath of Tuesday’s attack in the Strasbourg Christmas market was fresh in my mind. Five people had died and eleven were injured by a French Algerian terrorist with a gun and a knife. He managed to escape the scene in a taxi but was eventually found on Thursday and died in a shoot out with police. The attack was never going to stop us visiting Paris because these things can happen anywhere, but the locked park gates suddenly took on a sinister significance.


La Croissanterie was a welcome sight. We stepped inside to a world of mouthwatering treats and the wonderful smell of coffee. The young man who served us spoke perfect English and was quite chatty. He seemed surprised to learn the park was closed.

“Perhaps it is because of the Gilets Jaunes,” he suggested.

Of course we’d heard all about the Gilets Jaunes on the news at home. The yellow vests movement was sparked by an online petition in May 2018. The petition, aimed at economic justice and motivated by rising fuel prices, government tax reforms and a spiralling cost of living, had almost a million signatures. By November, the online rumblings had become protest marches, with roads and fuel depots blocked. The protesters all wore yellow high vis jackets, the kind everyone has to carry in their car in France in case of an accident or breakdown.  The French are, at the best of times, a militant nation and President Macron, with his ‘let them eat cake’ attitude and smug smile, seems to be quite unpopular. He would probably do well to read his French history and see where such attitudes have led in the past.

Inevitably, some of the marches turned into riots. Those in Paris on 1 December were particularly nasty with more than one hundred cars burned and the Arc de Triomph vandalised. For this reason we’d decided to avoid the area around Champs Elysees where it seemed most of the problems occurred. 

When we left the cafe the young man warned us to be careful in case the Gilets Jaunes were about. It wasn’t long before we saw signs that they were. Soon after we crossed the Seine and were back on Boulevard de Sébastopol, close to Rue de Rivoli, we saw a long line of blue police vans at the side of the road. Amongst them was a strange tank like vehicle that we assumed was for a water cannon. There were no yellow jackets anywhere in view but we knew they must be nearby. Perhaps this explained the locked parks.

A few moments later a couple of men in yellow vests passed us. Whether they were protestors or just workmen of some kind we couldn’t tell but they seemed fairly harmless. We carried on walking and the rain kept on falling.

Five minutes later, as we were approaching the junction with Rue du Borg L’Abbé, we heard sirens. The gendarmes were obviously on the move. All the blue vans we’d just passed came speeding up the road, including the scary looking tank. WE stopped to watch and I took the video below. Before they reached us they turned off onto Rue aux Ours. We breathed a sigh of relief. Whatever was going on was obviously not ahead.

Gilets Jaunes Paris December 2018

We kept on walking but we didn’t get far. As we approached the zebra crossing we saw a huge crowd of people walking down the road towards us. The Gilets Jaunes had found us! It seemed they had also somehow evaded all the police. Commando came over all protective and tried to stand in front of me as they turned and marched in front of us along Rue de Turbigo. They didn’t look very scary as far as I could see though so I got out my phone and began to film them. It isn’t every day you get caught up in a mass protest march after all. The video I took is below.

Gilets Jaunes Paris December 2018

There were an awful lot of Gilets Jaunes and Commando kept trying to get in front of me so I soon gave up filming and just took photos instead. None of the protesters seemed in the least bit threatening. In fact, they all looked to be having rather a nice time, walking along with their yellow jackets and placards chatting to each other. They seemed to be a mixture of all ages and classes, not at all the militant young hooligans they’d been portrayed by the press.

It was a good ten minutes before the crowd of protesters thinned out enough for us to get across the road and continue our journey. In all that time we hadn’t seen a single gendarme. A few hundred yards further up the now empty road though, a whole group of police in full riot gear came past us. With their flack jackets, visored helmets and, most scarily, machine guns, they looked way more frightening than all of the Gilets Jaunes put together.

It was raining even harder by now and it was quite a relief to know the protesters were all behind us now. At least we thought they were. Then, as we were approaching the junction of Rue Réaumur, we saw blue flashing lights ahead. Another mass of police vehicles, white ones this time, were careering across the junction. Either there were more Gilets Jaunes about or the police were spectacularly bad at finding them.

On we walked, rather hoping the police didn’t manage to catch up with the protesters. From what I could see the yellow vests looked to be far more harmless than the police and I didn’t like the idea of them being tear gassed, water cannoned, or shot at. When we came to Boulevard Saint Denis a whole host of police vans were parked up and a small crowd had gathered at the crossroads to see what was happening.


After a few minutes of standing watching nothing much happen Commando decided to walk up Boulevard Saint Denis and see what, if anything, was going on. Against my better judgement, I followed. When we reached the Porte Saint Martin we found a scene of chaos. Half the road was blocked by police and protestors and the traffic was backed up trying to find a way around them.

On a different day I might have admired the beautiful monumental archway, commissioned by Louis XIV in 1674. The Porte Saint Martin was built by architect Pierre Bullet, a student of François Blondel who built the nearby Porte Saint Denis,  to honor the capture of FrancheComté. It replaced the original medieval gateway in the wall built by Charles V in around 1356 to protect the Right Bank of the city. Today all I could think about was tear gas and freezing water.

Luckily the protesters began to march off along Rue Saint Martin and we escaped the teargas and water cannon, if not the traffic jam. When we set out on our quiet afternoon stroll our main worry had been the rain. In the end our walk turned out to be far more eventful than either of us could ever have imagined.

It was beginning to get dark by the time we got back to the hotel and, after a quick freshen up, we went back to our favourite cafe for a warming hot chocolate followed by a bite to eat in Au Baroudeur. The day hadn’t been at all how we’d umagined but it certainly wasn’t lacking in interest.

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The best laid plans…

15 December 2018

From the outset it was clear finding and running the Paris parkrun was not going to be simple. It was much further from the hotel than Commando had thought, 8.6 kilometres to be exact, or 5.3 miles in real money. Walking wasn’t really an option as we needed to be there at nine o’clock for the start, besides, there was far too much chance of getting lost and Commando needed to save his energy for running. On top of all that we had to somehow find the start in a very large park with very few parkruners.

The weather forecast was for heavy rain, which wasn’t ideal, but, when we left the hotel at half past six, it was bitingly cold but dry. We stopped off in Cafe Du Nord for a quick breakfast. This turned out to be delicious but not quite as quick as we’d hoped. The service was excruciatingly slow and time was ticking by.

Eventually, just after seven, we were back out on the street. The Metro station was easy to find, buying a ticket and finding the correct platform, not so much. There was a moment when Commando came close to going back out onto the street and getting a taxi instead. In hindsight this might have been a better, if more expensive, plan.

By quarter past seven we had finally made it to the right platform and were patiently waiting for the train. Briefly, we felt like real Parisians. According to the train information our journey should have taken about forty five minutes, giving us ample time to get into the park and find the start. Well, in theory anyway.

We had to change trains at Odéon but this went fairly smoothly, although it was quite a relief when the train began to move and we knew we were going in the right direction. The map on the wall told us there were a lot more stations between Odéon and Porte d’Auteuil than we’d expected and they seemed to be passing by far slower than we’d have liked. Commando was getting grumpier by the second, sure we wouldn’t make it in time. I was trying hard to be positive but was worried about the walk from the station to the park. The night before I’d translated the directions from metro to start line into English but they didn’t exactly make sense. Once we got there though, I hoped things would be a little clearer.

When we dashed off the train into the freezing air it was almost nine o’clock. At top speed we marched up the hill towards the park, aided very slightly by my translated directions. It was supposed to be around eight hundred metres from the metro station. All of it was up hill and, when we reached the top, there was no sign of a start line. By now it was after nine o’clock and the only runners we could see were already running.

We never did find the start line. There was a lot of angry stomping around the park, mostly by me, and a few cross words. We could have stayed and enjoyed the park but we were both too annoyed at this point so, barely speaking to each other, we stomped back down the hill and got back onto the metro. By this time it was packed and we let a couple of trains pass because we didn’t fancy playing sardines.

By the time we got back to Gare du Nord we could almost see the funny side of it all. Almost… Commando got changed out of his running gear and we went to our favourite cafe Cafe la chaufferie, on Boulevard de Denain, for chocolat chaud. This is possibly the best hot chocolate in the entire world. You get a small jug of melted dark chocolate and another jug of steamed milk, need I say any more? Mmmmm

Over our deliciously warming drinks we discussed what to do to fill the rest of the day. So far it hadn’t rained but it was bitterly cold and rather dismal. Commando suggested a visit to the Louvre but I really wanted to be outside despite the cold. In the end we decided to walk to Jardin du Luxembourg created in 1612 by Marie de Medici. The park is beautiful with lots of interesting statues and fountains and, if we got too cold, there was a museum in the Orangerie and a cafe where we could have warm drinks and food. It sounded like a plan.

So, pulling hats and scarves close about our faces, we began to walk along Boulevard de Magenta. Brisk walking kept us warm although there was a hint of rain in the air that didn’t bode well. At the junction of Boulevard de Magenta and Boulevard de Strasbourg we had to turn but first we had to cross the road. While we stood shivering and waiting I snapped a photo of the bustling entrance to Gare de L’Est.

A row of decorated Christmas trees stood outside the Church of Saint Laurent but the doors were closed so there was no chance of a look inside. It struck me that, while everything in England had been ablaze with lights and tinsel since mid November, Paris barely seemed to realise Christmas was just ten days away. A little further on we did see a vendor half blocking the pavement with a stack of Christmas trees for sale. The smell of pine was wonderful but no one seemed to be buying. Perhaps the French are not as Christmas obsessed as the rest of the world or maybe Paris is too beautiful to need extra festive decoration?

On any other day I’d have been stopping and taking photos all the time, much to Commando’s annoyance. Today though, it was too cold to stop unless it was strictly necessary so we marched on with our heads down against the icy, slightly drizzly air until we reached Rue de Rivoli. Here there was another brief stop to cross the road and take a couple of photos of the Tour Saint-Jacques through the trees.

The tower was once part of the Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie (Saint James of the butchery). Built in the sixteenth century, most of the church was demolished shortly after the French Revolution. The stones were carted off and used to build other things. The quirky tower with its array of strange statues at the top was left as a landmark to pilgrims heading for Santiago de Compostela. 

On our last visit to Paris I went into the park and spent quite some time looking at the tower. The sky was blue then and it was nowhere near as cold. Today, standing still really wasn’t an option unless we wanted to turn into icicles, besides, the gates to the park were closed for some strange reason. As we’d had no intention of going inside this didn’t seem like much of a concern and we walked on towards the river.

When we reached the next junction the Seine and Pont au Change were in front of us. As we waited to cross the road I took a photo of Quai de l’Horloge (quay of the clock) and the Concierge. From here, the Eiffel Tower looked close enough to touch but it was far too cold to even think about visiting, even if the views over Paris would have probably been worth freezing for.

There is a small plaque on Pont au Change commemorating the French resistance fighter Jem Harrix, who died here on 19 August 1944 at the beginning of the Battle of Paris, an uprising staged by the Resistance. At that time, Paris had been under German occupation for more than four years and, although the allied forces had landed on the beaches of Normandy and were approaching, Paris was still occupied. The battle lasted until 25 August and opened the way for the Allies to enter the city.

We stopped for a moment to admire the view from the bridge and try to imagine what it must have been like here during those dark days. A Bateau Mouche passed beneath us but it seemed to be almost empty. It was certainly not the weather for sightseeing by boat.

We didn’t dally long on the Île de la Cité. A few spots of rain were beginning to fall so, apart from a brief stop to photograph the gilded gates of the Palais de Justice and another from Pont Saint Michel, we marched onwards hoping to reach our destination before the heavens opened.

On we went along Boulevard Saint Michel, hurrying now. Although it was the middle of the day the light was so poor it seemed like dusk. Boulevard Saint German was lined with little Christmas Market huts but we pressed on.

A little further on it was tempting to stop at the  Thermes de Cluny, the ruins of Gallo-Roman thermal baths built in the third century to romanise the ancient Gauls. The Musée national du Moyen Age might have been interesting and would certainly have been warmer than the street, but we had our hearts set on Jardin du Luxembourg and, as we were almost there, we passed the museum by.

When we reached Place de la Sorbonne, dominated by the dome of the chapel of Sainte Ursule, we knew we didn’t have far to walk. My mind had already moved ahead to the cafe in the park and I was imagining a warming cup of coffee and maybe a cake.

When we reached the park gates on Boulevard Saint Michel though, they were closed. This seemed a little odd but, undeterred, we walked along Rue de Medicis towards the next gate. This too was closed though and outside it was a police van. It really didn’t look like it was our day…

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A much needed break

14 December 2018

The last few weeks have been difficult and disappointing in equal measure but I’m not going to elaborate or dwell on them. Suffice to say I felt an overwhelming urge to run away and hide from a situation that was not of my making and a lot of questions I didn’t feel at liberty to answer. Damned if you do dammned if you don’t kind of stuff. Luckily, Commando had just the thing to put a smile back on my face. While I’d been hiding away he’d been booking a weekend in Paris.

We had a very early start, a taxi to the station, a train, underground and finally, after a bit of a wait, Eurostar. This was my second under the sea crossing and this time I wasn’t quite as worried about being under the actual sea. That part of the journey is only about twenty minutes or so anyway and even I can stop worrying about the water all around for that long. The darkness outside the train window is a bit disconcerting but it’s soon over and then there are French fields to look at. Truthfully, it’s much more relaxed than flying and there’s none of that worrying about your luggage not turning up at the other end either.

By the time we arrived at Gare du Nord the light was fading. The first thing we noticed was how much colder Paris was than home. My small case was filled with jumpers and warm things though so I pulled on my wooly hat and gloves and we hurried across the road from the station to our hotel.

The hotel we stayed in on our last visit was closed for refurbishment so we weren’t quite sure what to expect. What we got was a small reception, a very friendly welcome and a tiny, somewhat quirky lift to the top floor. The lift door opened right onto a spiralling wooden staircase, no landing, just stairs. It reminded me of the hotel I stayed in the first time I was in Paris back in 1980. Then I’d stayed in a room with a bidet but no toilet, that tiny convenience with its ornate cast iron cistern high on the wall, had been half way up the stairs. Perhaps this lift had once been a toilet? It was certainly small enough.

The only word to describe our room is bijou. It was a typical Parisian garret room with sloping beamed ceilings and a dormer window. The bed, small desk and chair almost filled it but there was a little bathroom with a bath, shower, sink and, most importantly, a toilet. Back in the 1800’s, when buildings like these were built all over Paris, these attic rooms would have been the least prestigious. In those days there were no lifts so the less important you were higher you had to climb. This was the kind of room where all the starving writers and artists would have lived. Needless to say I loved it.

From our window we had a marvellous view of Gare du Nord and the tiny, ant like people walking about below. Once we’d rested and freshened up we went back out to join them.

Our first stop was the Starbucks on the edge of the station. Not very imaginative in a city filled with cafes I know, but it was convenient and I needed coffee badly at this point. As usual the barista asked for my name. In the past this has caused both difficulties and amusement in France. With a name like Marie you’d think it would be simple but, for some reason, although they understand all the other French words I say, no matter how I say my name, the French don’t seem to understand it. Try as I might to pronounce my name in a more French way, in Starbucks all over France I’ve received cups with amusing things written on them, Mattie, Murray, Mary but never actually Marie. This time I thought I’d done quite well. There was no questioning look from the barista, no need to repeat it several times. The coffee I got though had the name Stephanie written on it. Thinking it belonged to someone else I questioned it but it really was my coffee. Commando was very, very amused. He called me Stephanie all evening.

There was another reason for choosing to buy and drink our coffee at the Gare du Nord Starbucks. When we arrived we’d both noticed a strange little crooked house on the pavement outside the station. We were positive it hadn’t been there last time we were in Paris. As we drank our coffee we looked out of the window at this odd little building trying to work out its purpose. It looked like a slice had been taken from one of the hotels opposite, complete with attic room, and dropped into the pavement. There were windows with curtains but no door we could see. The people of Paris seemed to be walking around it as if it didn’t exist.

The peculiar little house was, I later discovered, a piece of art. It’s called Madison Fond, or melting house, and it was created by Argentinean sculptor, Leandro Erlich, as a symbol for climate change. It was built at the time of the Paris climate change conference and is designed to look as if it’s melting into the pavement.

The main reason for our little jaunt to Paris was for Commando to run the Paris parkrun. Come on, you all knew there had to be some running in there somewhere. Once we’d had our coffee we stopped to check out the maps on the street, trying to work out how best to get to the park in the morning. The first thing we discovered was that Bois de Boulogne is a very big park. As the people of Paris are not yet sold on parkrun and the runners averagely number just thirty three, it might not be as easy to find as Commando thought. This was the moment when I realised I should have done some research before we left home rather than moping about feeling sorry for myself.

Luckily, the parkrun website did have information about where in the park the start was. Of course it was in French so it took me a while to get my head around it. There was a metro station, Porte d’Auteuil, fairly close so I took a photo of the metro map to try to work out a plan.

Much as I’d have liked to wander the streets for a while, it was far too cold and we were both far too tired after our long journey. After a quick shuffle up and down the impressive array of restaurants and cafes on offer, we settled on Au Baroudeur Patient, on Boulevard de Denain. The service was friendly, the food was good and Commando had even remembered his glasses so he could read the menu.

This was the full extent of the Paris nightlife we saw. The long day of travel and an early start in the morning, not to mention the cold, had us scurrying back to our garret room for an early night.

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Autumn tales from the Old Cemetery

17 November 2018

Almost every single Saturday morning I get up early and go off with Commando to parkrun on Southampton Common. Sometimes, when they’re short of volunteers, I help out and very, very occasionally, I walk the route but I never, ever run. People often ask me why I don’t just stay at home in my nice warm bed. The reason for this is mainly because I love my solitary walks around the Old Cemetery while everyone else is running. Commando thinks this makes me a little weird. Perhaps it does?

On days like today, much as I enjoy chatting to the volunteers and runners, I can barely wait for everyone to set off so I can start walking. The weather was cold and crisp and the light soft and golden enhancing the beauty of the autumn leaves. In fact, the colours were so beautiful, I couldn’t quite bear to leave them so I passed the gate where I’d usually use to enter the cemetery and headed towards Cemetery Road instead.

Just beyond the Cemetery Lake gate there is a side trail winding off into the trees with a small, flat wooden bridge to cross one of many tiny streams. It looked so beautiful I had to explore it further. On the far side of the bridge I found a grassy clearing surrounded by trees in all their autumn glory. The colours were breathtaking.

The trail curved through the clearing and into the trees and I followed it. Experience told me it would lead me out somewhere near the Hawthorns cafe. Soon though, it became very muddy underfoot and despite my wellies, I decided it was best to turn back to the main path.

Back on the path I dithered for a moment and then continued towards Cemetery Road once more. The path divides here and I knew the right fork would take me to another cemetery gate. This is smaller than the gate I usually use and the path is narrower and, after the first few yards, quite overgrown.

Part of the reason for coming this way was to see graves I wouldn’t normally pass. Slowly, I walked along, stopping every now and then to read a stone. In the shade of a large tree, the grave of John and Evelyn Chapman caught my eye. Both were born during World War I and both died within a year of each other in the early 1990’s. Near their grave a brightly coloured plastic windmill looked out of place somehow and I windered who had put it there?

On I went, through an archway of bare trees, their lost leaves made a colourful carpet beneath my feet. The next interesting grave I found belonged to Isabella Hancock who died in 1908. The stone was erected by her children and it looks as if two of them, Ada and Sidney, were buried with her. What became of her husband Charles is a mystery though.

There are many war graves scattered in the cemetery and, with the hundredth anniversary of the armistice fresh in my mind, I was drawn to them. The first I saw today belonged to Private J Wright of the Hampshire Regiment. He died on 11 November 1916 during the battle of the Somme. This battle lasted from 1 July to 18 November and cost about one thousand three hundred Hampshire Regiment lives.


The next war grave belonged to Q W Green a fireman on the HMS Asturias, a Royal Mail steam packet requisitioned as a hospital ship at the beginning of World War I. He died on 29 March 1917, when the ship was torpedoed by a German U boat. Although the ship was flooded and rapidly sinking, the Master managed to beach it near Bolt Head. Even so, around thirty five people lost their lives. Another of HMS Asturias’ firemen, A E Humby, was buried nearby.


Then there was the grave of Edward Wykes, an only child, born in Brokenhurst to teachers William and Fanny. This war grave seemed like something of a rarity as Edward was a second lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps. In those days flying was still in its infancy, the first powered flight by the Orville brothers only took place in 1903. In 1914, the RFC had just five squadrons, one of which was an observation balloon squadron, and just over two thousand personnel. Commanded by Brigadeer General Sir David Henderson the planes were used for Ariel spotting and later aerial photography.

The full potential of an Air Force wasn’t considered until late 1917, when South African General Jan Smits presented a report to the War Council recommending forming a new air service to be used in active combat. The Royal Air Force was not formed until 1 April 1918. Edward joined the RFC in August 1916 as a pilot. He was never transferred overseas and, presumably, his role was reconnaissance rather than battle. Sadly he was killed in a crash in March 1918, aged just 21.

When I reached the main path through the cemetery I crossed it and took another of the narrow trail like paths heading roughly towards Hill Lane. The next war grave I came to belonged to J W Medley a gunner in the Royal Garrison Artillery. At the beginning of the war the army had very little heavy artillery and the RGA manned the guns of the British Empire forts and coastal defences. Later in the war the gunners were positioned on the battlefield behind the infantry lines with heavy, large calibre guns and howitzers. These were long range weapons aimed at coordinates on a map rather than a visible enemy. RFC pilots used wireless telegraphy to pinpoint specific targets. They transmitted coordinates in morse code and the gunners positioned their guns and fired. If this all sounds a little like the children’s game of battleships, that is because it really was. Exactly how or where gunner Medley died is not clear but it happened in October 1918, close to the end of the war. He was fifty five years old.

The next grave was slightly confusing. It belonged to S W Humby, a stoker on HMS Victory. As the Victory had been in Portsmouth Harbour since the 1830’s and is now an attraction in the Historuc Dockyard this seemed quite strange. A little research told me that, in this case, HMS Victory almost certainly referred to one of several naval bases of that name around the country, including Portsmouth, Portland, Newbury and Crystal Palace. At which of these stoker Humby served, what he did and how he died is a mystery, but it happened on 11 September 1918.

The final war grave of the morning belonged to John Robert Sibley one of seven children born to John and Mary Sibley in Southampton. John was a fireman aboard the hospital ship S S Liberty IV during World War I. He survived the war but died in Southampton on 24 November 1918 of bronchopneumonia, almost certainly a secondary infection of the Spanish Flu that killed so many at the end of the war.

To have survived the war and then to succumb to a mere germ seems a cruel twist of fate but it was a familiar story. The Spanish Flu killed between fifty and one hundred million people, making it far more deadly than the war itself in which around twenty million died.

This particularly virulent form of flu is thought to have originated in the major troop staging and hospital camp in Étaples, France, where conditions were overcrowded and ideal for the spread of infection. With one hundred thousand troops passing through each day the disease rapidly spread around the globe. The name Spinish Flu was coined because early reports of outbreaks in France, Germany, Britain and the USA were censored to maintain morale. The only reports to make the papers were of the epidemic’s effects in neutral Spain.

One of the millions to die was Pappy’s only daughter, Freda. The virus was unusually aggressive, causing rapid respiratory failure and a violent immune reaction. Pappy remembered three year old Freda playing happily one morning and dead by the next day.

My watch told me it was time to head back towards the parkrun finish so I turned back towards the cemetery gate. A strong smell of cut pine seemed to fill the air and it wasn’t long before I came upon the source. At the junction of two paths a large tree has been cut down and the resulting logs piled between the graves. Why the tree was cut and whether the logs will be removed or stay to rot is another mysetery. As the cemetery is also a wildlife haven I imagine they will be left to provide a habitat for fungi. I shall certainly add them to my list of interesting things to look at on future walks here.


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Autumn leaves and a special guest

14 November 2018

Meeting a friend today for coffee was the perfect excuse for a stroll through the enchanted park to look at the autumn colour. A little bird had told me there was a very special visitor in town too so I was keeping my eyes peeled in case I saw him.

As ever, the park did not disappoint. The leaves, in shades from green to deep red, were stunning against the blue sky backdrop. The paths had a satisfyingly crunchy layer of fallen leaves to walk through and Lord Palmerston looked rather satisfied with himself on his plinth in the middle of it all.

We are so lucky to have this ribbon of green running through the centre of the city especially, on days like today, with autumn hues all around and the smell of leafmould heavy in the air. The park keepers do an amazing job of keeping everything looking nice. Today, I noticed, they have swept up a huge pile of leaves, which will, no doubt, be used as rich mulch once it’s rotted down a bit.

The park was so beautiful it was difficult to tear myself away but I didn’t want to keep my friend waiting. Besides, I wanted to see if I could spot the important guest in town.

The little wooden huts of the German Christmas Market have appeared in the Above Bar precinct since my last visit. November seems a little early to me but I did enjoy strolling along looking at all the bright shiny things they had on offer and the smell of roasting chestnuts and cooking donuts made me want to stop and eat.

The percinct was busy with people getting some early Christmas shopping in but the venerable visitor was nowhere amongst them, unless of course, he was in disguise. When I reached the Bargate, I saw his sleigh and reindeer high up on the roof, so I knew he must be around somewhere.

I thought, perhaps, he might be hiding under the Bargate arch. When I walked through though, he wasn’t there. I may not have seen the illusive Santa, but, on the other side of the arch, inside the walls of the old town, I did spot another of the silent soldier statues. Moments after I took his photo, my friend arrived. My little walk through the city might have ended but the fun was about to start!

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One hundred years

11 November 2018

Originally my plans for the morning were to walk to the military cemetery at Netley with CJ. The weather forecast was not good though and, after getting soaked through yesterday, it didn’t seem worth the risk. Despite the distinct possibility of rain Commando was going out for a run with the fast boys. He suggested we get the train to Hamble and walk from there. Once he got back from his run he’d pick us up in the car. He might even get there before the silence at eleven o’clock. It sounded like a plan so, after a swift check of the relevant train times and prices, we set off for Bitterne Station.

The train arrived on time and we arrived, warm and dry at Hamble station at ten o’clock. At this stage the weather was dry, bright and cold. Ironically, it would have been perfect walking weather but you never can tell with these things.

We had an hour to walk the mile and a bit to the military cemetery and a choice of two routes. The rail trail would be more scenic but a little longer. The road route, down Hamble Lane to Lover’s Walk, more direct but less interesting. Usually I’d go for long and interesting over short and boring any day but I had a feeling the rail trail would be very muddy after all the rain so road route it was.

In fairness, as road walking goes, Hamble Lane is quite nice. It’s leafy and the road is quiet on a Sunday. The sun was still shining, even if it wasn’t providing any heat and walking kept us warm.

Lover’s Lane was a little further down the road than I remembered but we reached it soon enough. Now the pretty walking could begin. The lane runs between some playing fields and the fields beside the aircraft factory. It’s leafy, quiet and tarmacked so mud was not an issue. We strolled along slowly, enjoying the smell of decaying leaves and the light through the trees.

We met a couple of dog walkers and CJ stopped to pet the dogs. Pretty soon we’d reached the gate at the end of the lane and we were entering Victoria Country Park. Now we turned right onto the causeway that leads to the military cemetery. If anything, our walk got prettier. The colours of autumn were all around us and above us the sky was blue. The weather forecast seemed overly pessimistic.

We reached the cemetery gates just before twenty past ten. We were very early but, with only one train an hour there was little choice in the matter. Still, it gave us plenty of time to wander around the cemetery so neither of us was complaining.

Outside the gate we stopped to look at one of the war department boundary stones that are hidden everywhere in Hamble. There are lots of them and, some time ago I was sent a map of where they are. One day I might get around to searching for them all. CJ and I both like a boundary stone quest after all.

Today was not the day for thinking about boundary stones though. It was a time for reflection on the hundred years that have passed since the armistice and all the young men who lost their lives. Just inside the gate is a small hill topped by gravestones and trees. The stones cast long shadows with the low November sun behind them but we passed them by. Our aim was a little further on.

The deeper into the cemetery we went the more vibrant the autumn colours seemed to get. A carpet of golden leaves surrounded the graves and the blue sky above added contrast. These graves are some of the oldest but they weren’t the ones we’d come to see today and we slowly walked on by.

A splash of red amongst the gold and blue was a sign we’d almost arrived at our destination. A flaming maple stands close to the tall war memorial amid the World War I graves like an eternal flame of remembrance.

Despite the vivid colours, this is a somber place. The rows of white gravestones are a reminder of the sacrifices made a hundred years ago. The sleeping soldiers lie in peace beneath the ground. That peace was hard won and the price was their lives.

Beneath each stone someone had placed a rose, some were white, others red. Who put them there and whether there was any meaning to the colours is a mystery but it made me smile to know these men were remembered.

There was a lantern and flowers on the memorial too. CJ went to look at them and, while he stood in quiet contemplation, I looked around. We were the only living people. Every year I’ve come here a small group have gathered to honour the silence but it looked as if it would be just us two today. Then I spotted another man, quietly walking along the rows of graves. It was still early, just before half past ten, perhaps others would come?

In silence we slowly walked along the rows of white stones, pausing every now and then to read an inscription. Many simply had names, dates and regiments, others had more detail. Private G M Pirrie, a Canadian, had a maple leaf to go with all those scattered in the ground. He was just twenty-one in 1915, when he died.

Then there was Frank Leedham of the 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards. He died of wounds incurred in France at the Military Hospital aged just nineteen.

As we walked I became aware of my phone buzzing. It was Commando. For a brief moment I thought he was calling to tell me he was in the Country Park and would be joining us soon. He wasn’t though. He was actually sitting in the decking at home, having realised he’d gone out for his run without taking any door keys. He was wearing just shorts and a vest and was cold and cross with himself. There was little I could do apart from promise to get back as quickly as I could after the silence.

While I’d been talking to Commando I’d also been walking along the lines of graves. When the call ended I found myself in front of the grave of Eugene Nirke, the only Jewish grave in the cemetery as far as I can tell. Unlike all the other graves, this one is topped with dozens of pebbles, placed as a mark of respect by those who have visited.

Eugene did not die in World War I like the soldiers all around him. In fact he was born at the beginning of the war and died in February 1950 aged thirty five, making his grave quite incongruous here amongst the Great War dead. It isn’t certain where Eugene was born but he enlisted in the Gloucestershire regiment in Burma in 1941 where he fought against the Japanese invasion. His father was living in Shanghai at the time but it’s doubful Eugene was born there.  After a period of illness, or possibly an injury, he was transferred to the intelegence corps in India in 1944. Over the next few years his intelegence corps work took him to many places, including Ceylon, Bombay, and possibly even Russia. There is some suggestion he might have been a spy. In October 1947 he became a British citizen. 

Throughout this time though, his health was poor and he was listed as unfit for service on several occasions. This was probably a manifestation of the tuberculosis that eventually killed him at the  Douglas House Sanatorium in Southbourne, Hampshire on 22 February 1950.

Another slightly incongruous grave is that of private Horace N Jones. Unlike the other plain white stones, his has a prettily curved top. Horace was an Australian soldier who died of his wounds at Netley in 1915. His sisters erected this small stone for him.

Scattered here and there amongst the allied graves are the graves of German soldiers, prisoners of war who died at Netley. In life, they may have been the enemy but all are equal here in this quiet place of peace. The only difference between them now is the pointed tops of the German stones and the curved tops of the allies,

Slowly, while we’d been walking up and down the rows, other people had arrived. Amongst them I recognised a familiar face, the piper who’d played amazing grace the first time I’d come to remember here. He spotted me too and greeted me like an old friend. I was pleased to see he had his bagpipes with him. He told me he didn’t have the breath to play much any more but he would try today. He’d also prepared a list of the numbers of those fallen in all the battles since the hospital was built here. He asked if I would like to read it out before the silence but I declined. Honoured as I was, I knew there was no way I could do it without crying. In the end his wife did it. I still cried.

The few of us who’d gathered here to remember kept the silence impeccably, although we could hear a football match going on on the playing fields behind the trees. It seemed a shame they couldn’t stop for just a minute but I suppose a hundred years seems too long ago to think about for some people. Without those brave men though, the world today would be a very different place.

The silence ended with the wailing of the pipes. A fittingly mournful sound for this sad occasion. Then I wiped the tears from my eyes and CJ and I headed back towards Hamble and home.

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Goodbye, hello, Remembrance and mud

10 November 2018

The end of October brought the end of the warm weather. It had been one of the longest, hottest summers in living memory and getting out jumpers, hats and gloves seemed like a welcome change of pace. So, wrapped up warm against the chilly autumn air, we set off across a Common softened by mist and bathed in golden light for our second parkrun of the month. It was going to be a day for goodbyes.

Goodbyes are not usually happy occasions but, in this case, no one was actually going anywhere. John, the Southampton parkrun Event Director for the last three years and his wife Rachel who’s is a regular Run Director, had decided to step down. Overseeing one of the biggest parkruns in the country, regular Run Directing and being chairman and welfare officer of a running club while holding down full time paid jobs are far more work than most people realise. John and Rachel were well overdue a bit of time to rest and relax.

John’s favourite band, Ukulele Jam, had turned up to surprise him and there was a general air of festivity about the event. Before RD, Kate, got into her pre run briefing, Rob presented John and Rachel with a beautiful framed map of the parkrun course. Rob is one of Southampton parkrun’s most experienced RD’s and he will now he be taking over the ED reigns.

As soon as the goodbyes and hello’s were over I tramped across the grass to the Old Cemetery. This is always my favourite part of Saturday morning and, with the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War I coming up, I had more than an inkling there’d be something interesting to see. The still misty morning light burnished the autumn leaves and turned the cemetery paths into a cathedral of colour.

My aim was the chapel at the far end of the main path but the scatterings of bright berries, the moon in the deep blue sky and dappled sun on interesting graves threatened to distract me with every step. The Old Cemetery is difficult to walk through with any purpose, there is just so much to see everywhere.

It was well worth persevering and ignoring all the things that caught my eye along the way. When I reached the chapel I discovered one of the interesting commemorative sculptures that have popped up all over the city. These cast iron figures were created by the Royal British Legion to mark the centenerary of the armistice as reminders of all those who died.

This one was a suffragette. She caused a bit of a stir amongst those who didn’t fully understand the role the suffrage movement played in World War I. Before the war some women waged a campaign of civil disobedience, violence and hunger strikes. In 1914, when war broke out, the suffragists and suffragettes put aside their battle for equality and did all they could to help the war effort. They set up hospital units in France and helped at home by taking on jobs that would previously have been done by men. Their actions proved, once and for all, that women were capable of doing men’s jobs and more than worthy of the vote.

While the statue in the Cemetery was no surprise to me the tea lights candles and lanterns all around the war memorial were unexpected. There were dozens of them, many actually alight, in all different shapes, sizes and colours. Who put them there is a mystery but it was a beautiful and moving tribute to those who died. For some time I stood looking at them and thinking about the sacrifices made in those dark days.