Happy Birthday Southampton Parkrun

6 July 2019

This Saturday was Southampton Parkrun’s seventh birthday. As there was a music event going on on the flats where parkrun usually starts and finishes, the run was moved to the alternative course, beginning and ending close to the Cowherd’s Pub. Of course, this meant a bit of a longer walk for us to the start but, as that also meant more steps in the bag for me, I wasn’t complaining.

Commando and I parked in the Bellemoor car park, crossed the road and began to head across the Common, we hadn’t got very far before we met Rob. This morning he had his Event Directors hat on and he commandeered Commando to go off to Holly Lodge and help him with some equipment. This left me to walk to the start on my own.

Walking alone along the diagonal path from Bellemoor Corner to the crossroads wasn’t a hardship. It was a lovely morning, dappled morning light, no one else about, birds singing, just my kind of walk. So there I was strolling along swinging my arms and probably grinning like an idiot, when I heard a loud rustling in the undergrowth beside the path. The little bridge across Rollsbrook Stream was up ahead and I’d been looking forward to stopping and taking a photo of it. This rustling, almost crashing about, was too loud to be a bird or a squirrel though and it sounded quite disconcerting. There were no trails nearby and peering into the trees I couldn’t see anything but I was worried. Whatever it was, it was very large. As this is Southampton, not Canada, I told myself it was probably a large dog. This might be less scary than a bear but, in my opinion, only slightly.

Feeling quite nervous by now, I hurried on. The crashing and rustling continued and, just before I was spooked enough to break into a run, a man and a very large dog burst out of the bushes just ahead of me. What they’d been doing I couldn’t tell but I didn’t like the look of either of them so, keeping my eyes on the ground, I rushed on. Once I felt I’d put some distance between us I stopped and, on the pretext of taking a photo of the stream, looked back. Thankfully they were going the opposite way.

Just for the record, I’m not usually a scaredy-cat, but men and dogs clambering loudly through the undergrowth nowhere near a path seems like odd behaviour to me. Usually I like walking alone but this made me feel very vulnerable and I silently cursed Commando for leaving me. The Common always strikes me as one of those places you have to be on your guard. It’s very public, with lots of people coming and going but, because it’s so big, you can often find you’re self completely alone. Add to that lots of places where you could be dragged off into the trees and shrubs and it feels a little like a muggers paradise at times.

Still feeling very jumpy, I hurried on to the crossroads. There was still no one about so, on the pretext of taking a photograph of another part of the stream, I stopped again and checked the man and his big scary, leadless dog had not turned around and followed me. They hadn’t, which was something of a relief.

Now I was heading towards the parkrun start and, fairly soon, I could see the volunteers setting up the finish funnel. Because it was parkrun’s birthday almost everyone was in fancy dress. The main theme today was red and white, the Southampton football team colours.

Eventually Rob and Commando arrived, both in their Saints shirts. The RD’s today were Luis and Milz, giving the occasion an international flavour. More and more people were beginning to arrive so I hung around for a while taking photos. When Rob got up on the bench with the megaphone to give a speech thanking the volunteers who made everything possible, I sloped off for a walk. No offence to Rob but I really needed to get the steps in.

Being on the opposite side of the Common to normal meant I didn’t really have time a for a walk in the Old Cemetery. Instead, I decided to go and have a look at the Beyond Graffiti tunnel. Before the runners began streaming up the path I dashed off along the trail a little way up from the start. It would get me off the path, out of the way of the runners and, eventually, take me out near the tunnel.

It was pleasantly shady and I strode along thinking how lucky we are to have such a wonderful place to walk and explore in the centre of the city. There were huge white bindweed flowers twined through the undergrowth here. They get short shrift when they try to invade my garden but here, in the wildness of the Common, they’re quite beautiful.

The trail curves gently before crossing a stream, possibly part of the Rollsbrook Stream although I can’t be sure. There are some thick planks, like railway sleepers, forming a crossing point. Today I noticed one was was broken, making the crossing slightly more treacherous than normal.

On the other side of the stream the trail emerges opposite the Showground, where the Southampton show used to be held. When I was about nine or ten my mother entered a beret I’d crocheted into the show and I won a prize. I barely remember anything about the day but I remember the beret very well. It was bright yellow and I hated it, even though I’d made it.

As I walked towards the Beyond Graffiti tunnel I heard the unmistakeable thunder of feet behind me. The parkrunners were coming. I turned, thinking I might see Commando, but I was too far away so I took a photo and then carried on.

As always, there were a few new pieces of graffiti to make me smile. I wandered through, stopping every now and then to take photos. In one place there seemed to be a Star Wars theme going on. Further on there was a thought provoking monologue and, at the far end, some tag style pieces I couldn’t decide if I liked or not. By the steps leading up to the Avenue, I was pleased to see the little mushrooms I’ve been admiring for the best part of a year, maybe more, are still there.

There was still quite a bit of time before I needed to get back to the parkrun so I decided to take a loop of the far side of the Common. For some reason I’ve never actually walked the circular trail on this more or less triangular section of Common between the Avenue and Highfield Lane. Today was the day to do it.

By this time the sun was getting higher in the sky and the morning cool had turned to a hot mugginess. The trail, once I got a little way along it, was mostly shady. This suited me just fine. It was a pleasant walk, looking at the contorted shapes of the trees, the patterns of the shadows and the changing light.

The trail took me full circle, back to the tunnel. Now it was time to go back to parkrun. The runners were beginning to cross the finish line when I arrived and I was soon lost in cheering them in, watching all the while for Commando. Pretty soon Southampton parkrun’s seventh birthday was over and we were all heading off to the Bellemoor for some celebratory cake.

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Parkrun tourism, a return to Lee-on-Solent

22 June 2019

As the Race For Life was being held on Southampton Common this weekend we had to find another parkrun. There was a great deal of discussion about which one, with suggestions of various events we haven’t been to before. In the end though, we settled on a return to Lee-on-Solent, mostly because it was fairly close to home and didn’t involve getting up at silly o’clock. At least not for Commando and I.

The last time we visited this parkrun was May 2016. We were with a large group from the old running club. Much has changed since then though, mainly for the better. Today there were just two of us in the car. Commando and I planned to meet Rob at the start line. Hoping to get some training miles in for Thunder Run in July, he was running the fifteen miles or so there and then running the parkrun. We would be taking him home in our car. At least he hoped we would. As a plan it sounded slightly mad and, in the end, it didn’t quite work out.

We spotted him somewhere around Titchfield I think. My eyes were barely open at this point and I hadn’t had a coffee so my memory is hazy. Wherever it was, he was just about to run up a very large hill and Commando, looking at his watch, didn’t think he was going to make the parkrun on time. We pulled over and offered him a lift. He was reluctant but also slightly lost so got into the car. It was a good job because the route he would have taken would have added lots of extra miles and he’d have completely missed the parkrun. As we drove on a compromise was worked out. We took him up the hill and back on track to make the start, then we dropped him off again. If it sounds completely bonkers that’s probably because it is.

Obviously, we arrived first. While we waited for our nutty friend to join us we had a stroll along the shore. It was a beautiful sunny morning with barely a whisper of breeze. Perfect for running, or walking come to that. We passed the set up team drawing a chalk start line including a few motivational words. Then I headed up to the little walled area where I’d taken photos of the runners last time. The shots I got, with flowers in the foreground and runners in the background were some of my favourites and I was thinking of trying something similar today.

Last time the little wall was topped with low mounds of pink daisies. Now there were red geraniums, very pretty, but too tall for my purposes. While I was looking around for another likely spot, I heard someone call my name. By chance John and Rachel had decided on the same alternative parkrun as us. As Rachel is still recovering from her surgery, this meant I had some company on the finish line too.

Rob appeared at more or less the same time and, while the boys chatted, Rachel and I found a good vantage point on the grassy shingle just off the path. Moments later everyone began gathering for the start.

Pretty soon hundreds of feet were thundering past us. Somehow I found John, Rob and a slightly trailing Commando in the crowd. Lee-on-Solent is a fast flat course, great for PB’s if it isn’t windy and wet. Today though, was just about the joy of running. The three friends weren’t really bothered about record breaking and Rachel and I were so busy chatting we almost missed them as they came back along the shore to the finish.

Luckily, we did spot them and I even managed to get some pictures. With the running all done we went off to get a coffee. The only problem being choosing from the huge number of cafes close to the finish. Then it was time to head back to the car, with a little joking about Rob enjoying his run home of course. For some reason he didn’t find this very funny. So, with three in the car instead of the two who’d set out, we headed back to Southampton.

If you’re a runner looking to do a little parkrun tourism, you could do worse than Lee-on-Solent. You’d be wise to check the weather forecast first though. On a wet or windy day, five kilometres up and down the seafront there can feel more like ten. If you’re looking for a PB course, this might just be it but beware, it can get quite congested for middle of the pack runners. The big bonus is the number of cafes around the finish line for your post parkrun treat.

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Moors Valley parkrun revisited

25 May 2019

Our normal Saturday usually begins with a quick drive to Southampton Common followed by parkrun. This morning though, a whole group of us were heading for Moors Valley parkrun instead so we had an earlier start than normal. At least we didn’t have any worries about getting lost. This was our third visit, although, for Kim, it would be a first. In fact, Kim was the main reason we’d chosen Moors Valley as she missed out last time due to work.

There were quite a few of us, most proudly wearing green 250 parkrun shirts. Those who haven’t yet reached such a lofty milestone were in their new Hamwic Harriers shirts. We also had a first time parkrunner with us. Sam’s girlfriend, Danielle, had been cajoled into running her first ever 5k. Commando kept prodding me in the hopes I would follow suit. We all know that’s not going to happen but he keeps on trying just the same.

Once all the runners had disappeared over the start line I wandered off towards the finish. It’s a beautiful setting, a large field with picnic benches to sit on, a lovely lake to look at and even a little train that goes round and round the park. The one thing missing was a finish funnel. Unlike Southampton parkrun, where the set up volunteers arrive at around eight o’clock to start getting everything ready, the Moors Valley volunteers just saunter slowly over from the start and set up while everyone is already running. Of course, with an average of just 366 runners, rather than the thousand or so at Southampton, their finish funnel is a much smaller, less complex affair.

The last two times I’ve been here I haven’t gone much further than the finish field. Today I decided to have a little look at the course, or at least the last part of it. Although I knew I’d only have fifteen to twenty minutes before the first runners appeared I walked past the giant dragonfly sculpture on the lake and began to walk the course in reverse. There was a vague worry about being trampled by runners or ending up in the water but I hoped I’d be able to find a good spot to take photos of the runners before that happened.

This part of the course is a fairly narrow path, mostly nice firm tarmac, with the lake on one side and fenced off fields on the other. Thankfully there were narrow grass verges where I thought I could escape the runners if I needed to. At least it wasn’t likely to be quite the mass stampede I’m used to in Southampton.

The views across the lake we stunning, meaning progress was slower than I’d hoped. Every few steps I got a different view of trees, clouds and blue sky reflected in the still, clear water. The wildlife I’d half expected to see was absent but there were lots of lily pads and a few real dragonflies, although none that wanted their photo taken.

While the view over the lake captured most of my attention, the other side of the path was not without its charm. Spikes of foxgloves made me stop yet again and I noticed a narrow, more or less dried up, stream on the far side of a broken wooden fence. This, it turned out, was the Moors River.

Mere trickle it may be but the Moors River is quite unusual. It begins it’s flow somewhere in Cranbourne as the River Crane, runs through Verwood then, just after it passes the northern most lake in Moors Valley Country Park, it changes it’s name to Moors River. It is also the last place in Britain where the orange spotted emerald dragonfly has been seen. If I saw any today though I didn’t realise and they certainly didn’t stay still long enough for photos.

A little further on a saw a small brick bridge. Right next to it was a parkrun marshal. After checking with him that the runners weren’t about to come zooming over the bridge, I realised this might be a hardly place to stand to get photos. A look at my watch told me it wouldn’t be long before the first runners appeared.

Finding the bridge didn’t happen a moment too soon. Seconds after I thought about the first runner appearing, there he was speeding by me. The first of our group, the very speedy Andy, was a little way behind him. He didn’t even notice me, despite all my shouts and cheers.

Adam came next. Even though he was flying so fast his feet barely touched the ground he saw me and gave me a grin and thumbs up.

Helen was next, then John and Rob. If I’d had to guess their finishing order this would have been exactly as predicted. Barring accidents or injuries, I was almost certain Commando would be next.

As soon as I thought about him he seemed to appear, galloping around the corner, thumbs up because he’d spotted me.

Now all the speedy runners had come past I knew things were about to get quite crowded on the path so I decided to make my way back to the start while there was still a chance of getting there. Without all the stops for photos it didn’t take very long. Commando was there waiting for me.

Sam and Danielle were the next of our group to cross the finish line. For a first ever parkrun, Danielle did brilliantly and hardly looked tired at all. Right behind them were Rachel, still recovering from major surgery and run walking, and Kim, who was keeping her company.

Once they’d crossed the line and got their barcodes scanned it was time to head back to our cars. Moors Valley parkrun is a bit of a journey but the venue is so beautiful it’s well worth getting up early for. Maybe next time I’ll actually walk the whole course?

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Parkrun tourism Southsea

6 April 2019

This week we decided to go for another spot of parkrun tourism. There are eighteen different parkrun venues in Hampshire to choose from but our rather random choice for this week was Southsea, around twenty miles down the motorway.

Obviously, it was an earlier than usual start and a rather crowded car, as we picked up Rob, John and Ian on the way but we arrived in good time, parked up in the Pyramids car park and quickly found the start on the far side of the Rock Gardens. Although the Southsea course, along the seafront to Eastney and back, was pretty familiar, being part of the Great South and Portsmouth Coastal routes, only John had actually run the Southsea parkrun before. It was also the first spot of parkrun tourism for Rob and Commando’s new running group, the Hamwic Harriers. Commando was even wearing his shiny new Hamwic Harriers shirt!

It was a touch on the chilly side on the seafront and, even in my warm coat, I was shivering. The runners in their shorts and thin shirts looked positively frozen. As it happened, we weren’t the only ones trying out the relatively flat, fast Southsea course. While we were waiting for the start, we bumped into Gerry.

The first ever Southsea parkrun was held on 5 October 2013, with 276 people taking part. These days it averages around theee hundred runners each week, a touch smaller than Southampton, but then almost every UK parkrun is. Weather plays an important role in the number of PB’s here. The course may be more or less flat but a windy day can make running one half a little tricky. Luckily today was relatively calm, if cold, but then, as all of our group were in the final stages of marathon training, none of them was planning on going flat out. Well, that’s what they told me anyway!

Frankly, it was quite a relief when everyone set off along the Esplanade and I could finally warm up with a little walk. As I’ve spent quite a lot of time wandering around Southsea while Commando has been running various events, my main plan for the morning was to dash to grab a coffee and dash back. Unlike most of the other races, parkrun doesn’t really leave much time for wandering anyway, even on a slow day Commando was likely to finish in twenty five minutes or less.

Although there are coffee shops on the seafront, past experience made me wary of trying any of them. The last time I tried that the coffe was so bad I threw it in a nearby bin after just two sips. There is only one Costa in Southsea and I reckoned, if I walked fast, I’d be able to get there, get a coffee and get back before any of the runners crossed the line. As plans go it was fairly unambitious. The most direct route is just over a mile there and back. Of course, I was starting off from a slightly different place than normal and, in typical fashion, managed to take a wrong turn which added a few extra minutes but did show me a rather interesting piece of graffiti I’d not encountered before.

For a moment I thought I’d stumbled upon a crowd of strangely dressed locals queueing outside a building. Closer inspection told me they and the building windows were all painted, along with a map of Southsea. Given that I was now technically lost, the map was quite handy.

The mural, near the roundabout between Clarendon Road and Granada Road, is the work of The Lodge Arts Centre, overseen by Mark Lewis. It’s constantly being updated with new characters so I may return another time for a closer look.

In the end, my coffee was not to be. I made it to Costa but found a rather long queue. There was no time to wait so I simply turned around and headed back towards the parkrun finish line. As walks go it wasn’t one of my most interesting and there wasn’t much time for photographs, although I did snap the slowly rising sun over Southsea Common.

My timing was impeccable. As I walked towards the finish line I could see the first finishers approaching. Moments after I reached the end of the funnel I spotted Commando, Rob and John heading along the Esplanade together. They’d obviously stayed true to their word and had a fairly gentle run. Ian, however, was nowhere to be seen. This was puzzling, as he is the fastest of the group.

Just as I began to worry that something had happened to poor Ian, someone tapped me in the shoulder. When I turned around, there was Ian grinning like a Cheshire Cat and holding up his finish token. He’d actually crossed the line first!

None of the Hamwic Harriers got a PB today and there are no prizes for being first finisher at parkrun but, all in all, I’d say our parkrun tourism adventure to Southsea was a success. The only downside was the distinct lack of coffee. Next time I think I’ll take a flask!

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Strolling, rushing and history bubbles

30 March 2019

Most Saturday mornings I can be found at Southampton parkrun. Usually I’m clutching a takeaway coffee and wandering around the Old Cemetery while everyone runs. Right now though Commando is at the long run stage of his training for the Southampton Marathon and today he decided he’d incorporate parkrun into his twenty mile run. This meant setting off at silly o’clock, parking near the Common, running seventeen miles then running parkrun.

Obviously I didn’t much fancy getting up before dawn then hanging about for several hours on the Common. Much as I love a wander, even I would find it hard to stay interested in old graves for quite that long. The temptation was to have a lie in and stay at home but, in the end, I descided to have a leisurely walk to parkrun and meet Commando after the run. Sadly, it didn’t turn out to be quite as leisurely as I’d have liked.

It started well. By my reckoning, if I left home at eight thirty, a good half hour after we normally set off, I could dawdle my way to the Common, stopping on the way to grab a coffee from the London Road Starbucks and still arrive before everyone headed off to the Bellemoor for the post run cool down. The last runners don’t usually finish until around ten o’clock and Commando usually mans the finish funnel after his run. There didn’t seem to be any hurry.

It was a beautiful, blue sky morning and the main road was surprisingly quiet. Before I crossed I stood for a moment admiring the outline of the remaining big tree between Juniper and Maple Road. On the other side of the road I strolled on, thinking about the way tree branches look like the bronchi and bronchioles of human lungs. As trees are the lungs of the world, this is hardly a coincidence.

On I dawdled, enjoying the weak spring sunshine. Normally I’d walk across Cobden Bridge and up through Highfield but today I’d decided on a different route, one that would take me past Starbucks. When I reached Northam Bridge I stopped and admired all the little boats in various states of decay on the gently rippled water. Where they come from is a mystery but I love the ever changing view.

As I reached the centre of the bridge a group of rowers from the rowing club passed beneath me and I stopped to watch them for a while, confident there was no rush. Saturday morning seems to be the time for exercise, whether it be rowing, running or just walking like me.

There was another stop to look over the bridge at the progress on the latest phase of development on the old television studios. A tall block of flats is currently going up. For some time I stood trying to imagine how it would look and wondering what I thought about it. We all live wrapped in our own little bubble of history, centred around the decades when we grew up. Change can sometimes be difficult to watch but our little bubble was once someone else’s change and this new change will be someone else’s bubble. Nothing stays the same forever.

On I went, past the new flats and houses, remembering walks to work when this was all overgrown wire fencing and rubble. There were berries and poppies to look at back then and a random gooseberry bush. Then someone shouted out ‘good morning ‘ and I turned just in time to see Luis zooming past on his bike. He must have been heading to parkrun too. He had around ten minutes to get there before the start but I was pretty sure he’d make it, more or less. Southampton parkrun rarely starts bang on nine o’clock anyway.

On foot it would take much longer but I had no need to be there for the start. At the level crossing I climbed the steps to the bridge, even though the gates were up. The views from the top are nice and I was in no hurry. A little clump of dandelions had taken root somehow near the top step. The bright flowers made me stop and smile.

There were no trains coming but I couldn’t resist a photograph looking along the tracks. The old gasometers and the struts of St Mary’s Stadium were just visible in the distance. At the top of the steps on the other side there was a view across Mount Pleasant towards Beovis Valley. The Old Farmhouse pub and the school tower stood out, landmarks in a sea of little terraced houses.

As I passed the school I looked at my watch. It was five to nine. I wouldn’t make the parkrun start but I’d never intended to. I had plenty of time to get a coffee and dawdle my way to the Common before the finish.

As I was walking up Rockstone Lane though, I suddenly remembered I had Commando’s barcode in the tiny pocket at the front of my bag. A quick check confirmed this. Usually I grab his token when he finishes and go off to get it and his barcode scanned while he helps with the finish funnel. His barcode stays in my bag so it never gets forgotten. Last night I meant to give it to him but I forgot and it was still in my bag. Without it he wouldn’t get a finish time.

All thoughts of getting a coffee and wandering on Asylum Green to look at the two monuments there dissolved. There was no more strolling. Now I puffed up the lane to the Avenue at top speed. Even the curious little house in the Rockstone Community Garden barely made me pause. Finding out about it would have to wait for another day.

The rest of the walk was a frantic march, racing against time. By the time I reached Cemetery Road I was hot and rather red in the face. It was quarter past nine. The first finisher would probably be passing Bellemoor corner about now. By the time I made the bag tree people were already on the finish straight. Finding a gap between runners, I dashed across the gravel and headed for the funnel.

Somehow I made it just in time to see Commando cross the line. Mission complete. Barcode and token collected and scanned. Now for a relaxing coffee in the Bellemoor. What a way to start the weekend.

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Whiteley parkrun

23 February 2019

It’s been a while since we’ve done any parkrun tourism, so, when Mark and Nicole said they were going to run at Whiteley this weekend, we decided to go along. It’s a relatively new parkrun and has been on our list to visit for a while so today seemed as good a day as any. As it turned out there were a few things we should have known beforehand.

Commando has run several CC6’s and RR10’s at Whiteley. One of the things I remembered most clearly about it was the Costa Coffee near the car park. This was obviously a huge bonus to my way of thinking. The other thing I remembered was the route, a fairly narrow track, with lots of gravel, trees water and even little bridges. While they were running I thought I might enjoy having a wander if I could find a trail that wasn’t part of the parkrun. Of course I didn’t say any of this, which was just as well because I might have looked a little foolish.

When we arrived the first thing I did was get my wonderful reusable take away coffee cup (thanks for that Commando) filled up at Costa. I was then expecting us to turn left, cross the road and head into the trees. We didn’t. It turns out the parkrun isn’t in the same place as the cross country series at all. It is, in fact, behind the shopping centre on a large L shaped field surrounded by houses.

Finding the start was relatively easy. There was a parkrun flag and a small knot of people in bright coloured Lycra. We had a little while before the briefing and the start so I took a team photo and we stood around chatting and people watching. Before very long we began to notice a lot of the runners seemed to be in fancy dress. There were several superheroes, people in Christmassy gear and even a couple of chaps dressed as beer bottles. It was all very odd.

In normal circumstances, the only people dressed up at parkrun are the ones completing a milestone run, unless, of course, it’s Christmas or some other special occasion. Either there were an awful lot of people with milestones, which would be quite a coincidence, or we were missing something.

We puzzled on this, thinking perhaps the people of Whiteley were just an odd bunch who liked dressing up for no particular reason, until the RD started his briefing. This was when we discovered we’d accidentally turned up on their hundredth run! Suddenly it all made sense. We also all felt slightly underdressed.

Luckily there wasn’t much time to worry about it because, in a very short time, the running began. From my point of view, as a spectator, it was both good and bad. The good part was that I had a great view of the stream of runners as they made their way around the outside of the field. The bad part was there was no where for me to go for a walk. Of course I could have gone for a wander around the shops but that isn’t really my thing.

So I stood and watched the runners go around the field until they disappeared around the corner. Then I watched as they appeared again. Commando and Mark, are both quite fast runners (although Commando would tell you he is slow), but today they were both running with Nicole who is a little slower. They all appeared around the corner more or less together. This wasn’t the end of it though.

Unlike Southampton which is basically a big figure of eight of the Common, Whiteley is three laps of the two adjoining fields. From a runner’s point of view this is not ideal. Commando, in particular, isn’t keen on courses that are several laps. He likes a change of scenery. On the plus side, it’s more or less flat. On a different day Commando might have been tempted to go for a PB, although all those sharp corners might not make this as easy as it looks on the face of it.

Once they’d gone past on their first lap I went for a little wander across the field. It was muddier than expected and quite slippery, so I didn’t go quite as far as I’d planned. Commando, Mark and Nicole all spotted me as they came around the corner from the second field. They’d all started off wearing sweatshirts because it was quite a chilly morning, now they all ran up the bank to meet me and throw their, by now, unneeded clothing at me. This is not the first time I’ve been a runner’s clothes horse and I’m fairly sure it won’t be the last.

Once they’d all gone past I thought I’d better head back towards the finish funnel. Their next lap would be their last. The finish funnel at Whiteley is very short, at least when compared to the monster funnel at Southampton. As I stood waiting I could hear the RD talking about finish tokens, wondering if they would run out as they only had four hundred or so. As a contingency plan he’d brought some raffle tickets to use. As their average attendance is just over two hundred this morning was probably a record breaker for them. They had 347 finishers in the end so the raffle tickets went unused.

The final plus point about Whiteley was that we had Costa just around the corner for our post run coffee. Would we run it again? Maybe, but next time we will make sure we have all the facts beforehand.

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Dismal day

5 January 2019

The second parkrun of 2019 began with a first. Young Cameron Sommerville-Hewitt, aged just 16, was trying his hand at Run Directing for the first time. This fine young man has somehow notched up more than one hundred runs and has a PB most people would envy (Commando certainly does). He’s been learning the ropes for a few weeks now and today, under the watchful eye of Event Director Rob, he donned the RD jacket and did a great job of organising things. When he turns eighteen he will be able to officially Run Direct on his own and will probably set the record for the youngest RD ever.

Despite all the brightly dressed runners, the morning was a dark, dismal affair but it quite suited my mood. The last few weeks seem to have been filled with losses. The first was my lovely neighbour of almost thirty years, then came a mother from my days waiting in the playground for my boys. They say these things come in threes and this was proved when we learned of the death of our martial arts instructor and friend, George. The first two deaths were not unexpected, both lovely ladies had been ill for some time. George’s death, however, was quite sudden and, although he was 83, it was a shock. His funeral was yesterday and today we planned to take some flowers to put on his grave. First though there was a parkrun to get through and some other graves to visit.

A walk in the Old Cemetery under a leaden, drizzle laden sky in the biting cold felt like a fittingly melancholy way to start a mournful day. While the runners were racing round with joyful abandon, I slowly wandered among the graves. Some, like that of William and Zillah Gear, felt like old friends. How many times have I passed by, smiled at the unusual name and wondered about the woman who once bore it?

The narrow path I chose turned out to be muddier than I’d expected but it led me to another familiar grave, that of Rebecca Arabella Dimmock and her husband, Charles. This grave first caught my eye because the name reminded me of TV gardener Charlie Dimmock and Rebecca Arabella seemed like a name that ought to be in a novel. Perhaps one day I will write it?

With no real aim I wandered this way and that, surprised to find Christmas baubles still clinging to some of the trees. Then I came across the grave of George Staur Madge, a wonderful name and an intriguing story. George was born in Southampton in 1834 but, at some point, emigrated to South Africa. Why is a mystery but he lived in Port Elizabeth, probably amongst the four thousand British settlers who’d set up home there in 1820 to strengthen the border region between the Cape Colony and the Xhosa people. How long he stayed there is unclear but, in 1881, when he died, he was living back in Southampton.

Close by I stumbled upon the grave of Ethel Bertha and Hector Young. Hector was mayor of Southampton between 1929 and 1930. He accompanied Prince Albert, Duke of York (later King George VI) when he laid the foundation stone for the Civic Centre and was involved in the planning of the Sports Centre in the early 1930’s. Poor Ethel Bertha was killed in the Southampton Blitz on 24 September 1940 and Hector never forgot her. In 1962 he donated a window to St Michael and All Angels Church in Bassett in her memory. The window, showing the Archangel Michael defeating Satan, was designed by Francis Skeat. He also formed a charitable trust, The Berta And Hector Young Trust for the relief of hardship for members of the Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service.

My meanderings were taking me towards the oldest part of the cemetery and, as I approached the chapels, I came upon a bench overshadowed by a tree whose branches were positively weighed down by festive baubles and trinkets.

This is not a part of the cemetery I visit often so there were a few interesting graves I hadn’t spotted before. One belonged to Hubert Napoleon Dupont. Born, Alphonse August Dupont, in France in 1805, he studied in the College de Valogues and the theological school in Coutances and was ordained as a catholic priest in 1854 but later abandoned Catholicism and became an Anglican minister. Whether this decision and his marriage to Suzanne Charley in 1857 were connected is unclear. Between 1856 and his death in 1876 he was minister of St Julien’s, the French church on Winkle Street. The inscription on his grave shows he was held in high regard.

The next belonged to Andrew Lamb, although the decorative script made this difficult to fathom. Born in 1803, he was Chief Engineer of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, later better known as P&O. Lamb was an innovator. He introduced, among other things, a boiler system to stop the build up of salts, patent life boats, a boiler with flat sided flues, a steam superheating device and an improved method of feed water heating for boilers. All these things would probably be of great interest to Commando Senior, who would understand them far better than I.

Lamb didn’t confine himself to engineering feats. In 1861 he became the first chair of the amalgamated Isle of Wight Steam Packet Co and Red Funnel Steamers. Ten years later he became the chair of the publishing company producing the Southampton Times and he was a JP and alderman. He built St Andrew’s Villa off Brunswick Place, and raised funds to build St Andrew’s Church on the lane near his house. Lamb was, undoubtedly, a very clever and philanthropic man and his death in 1881 must have been a loss to the engineering world and the town. Beside his grave is the grave of his son, Andrew Simon Lamb.

The grave beside these two was intriguing. It is a simple wooden cross surrounded by a kind of low wooden fence. The cross is engraved with the name Hugo P Hickman. The really curious thing is a painting of a house leant up against the cross. This is the first time I’ve ever seen a painting on a grave and I couldn’t help wondering if this was Hugo’s house or if Hugo was an artist. Sadly Googling didn’t satisfy my curiosity. All I discovered was that the grave belonged to Hugo Pendennis Hickman, born 23 June 1925, who died on 30 July 2003. Still wondering I headed back towards the cemetery gates and parkrun.

As if the day hadn’t been filled enough with graves, after a coffee and a bite of lunch, we headed out again to visit George’s grave in Shedfield. The drive there was a sad reminder of so many other, happier, drives to George’s gym on Black Horse Lane. This one ended with a pretty Church and a lych gate, beyond which was a graveyard.

The grave was already heaped with flowers but CJ bent to add ours to them all the same. George was a very popular man. So popular it had been standing room only in the church the day before. He was a real character. In his youth he joined the Royal Marine Commandos and became an instructor in unarmed combat. In later life he turned to teaching martial arts and this was where he met Commando, CJ and, much later, me.

Commando and CJ were rather good at martial arts. Commando learned Kung Fu before CJ was born and, under George’s tutelage, along with CJ added jujitsu, Karate and mixed martial arts to his repertoire. Fighting has never been my thing but George insisted on teaching me self defence. He found it amusing that I could only bear to train with Commando, as he was the only person at the gym I wasn’t scared to hurt. I can still hear him saying, “I’m going to teach you a naughty little trick now, in case someone comes out at you one dark night.”

George was a tiny man, not much taller than me and slightly built. Looks can be deceptive though. Even in old age he was more than a match for even the youngest and strongest of men. He was also full of interesting stories. The little grave seemed far too small to contain such a giant personality.

We couldn’t linger too long in Shedfield because, predictably, Commando had a race at Fairthorn Manor in nearby Curdridge. It was his last race as a Spitfire and my last stint as Spitfire photographer. We went. He ran. I took photos. There is little else I want to say about it except that a chapter has ended and our integrity is intact. So far this year seems to be all about endings.

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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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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.