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.

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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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.

Much as I’d have liked to stay a little longer and maybe visit some of the other war graves, I had to get back to parkrun. There was just time for a quick look at the Belgian soldiers memorial. This too was surrounded by glass lanterns.

A few spots of rain were falling as I walked back across the grass. They didn’t come to anything though, apart from a rainbow over the parkrun finish funnel. Tempting as it was to go off in search of a pot of gold on the trail around Cemetery Lake, Commando and I had to leave quick smart. We had another race to go to in the afternoon.

The race in question was the next Hampshire Cross Country League event in Aldershot. Commando had never been there before and my only experience of it was a brief visit in June 2012 to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the Aldershot football stadium. Suffice to say we got lost. It also began raining torrentially which didn’t help matters much.

Eventually we found the place but couldn’t find a way into the car park. In the end we parked up at the side of a lane some distance away and traipsed through the rain and mud to the start line. It didn’t look like it was going to be a fun afternoon in the slightest.

The course could best be described as a quagmire, there had been two earlier races so the wet ground was well churned up before the race even began. The rain was so hard I abandoned any thought of getting my fancy camera out and, instead, stood dripping, squinting through my foggy glasses and tried my best with my phone. Commando was almost gleeful at the sight of it. He’d just bought some new spikes for his running shoes and was pleased to be able to test them out. Have I mentioned that runners are very strange people?

If lap one had seemed bad, lap two was even worse. The rain had been falling steadily and the runners had turned the mud into a dirty pond. Photos were getting harder and harder to take, mainly because everyone was so covered in mud it was difficult to recognise them.

There was a third lap, but, by then, I’d put my phone away and given up trying to take pictures, although I did whip it out once, to capture a very wet, muddy Commando heading for the finish. This was undoubtedly the muddiest cross country race I’ve ever watched. Later I learned there was a small stream on the woodland part of the course. On lap one it was easy to step over. By lap two it required leaping. On the final lap the stream had grown to such proportions the runners had to wade through. Still, it did wash off some of the mud briefly.

At the start of the day, in the soft mist and dawn light, putting on a jumper, hat and gloves seemed like a pleasant novelty. What I hadn’t bargained for was needing a dry robe and waders by the afternoon. Suddenly autumn and cross country race spectating didn’t seem quite so charming after all.

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All about races

October 2018

October seemed to be all about races. First there was the Ageas 10k. Actually that one was right at the end of September but let’s not quibble about a day or two. Commando was pacing a very slow, for him, fifty five minutes and I was supposed to be taking photos. As I was still suffering with the lurgie this was not as simple as you’d think. 

Runners are quite a germ phobic lot, mostly because they always seem to have important races coming up and don’t want to get sick. This meant I had to try to stay away from everyone so I didn’t spread my germs, whilst still getting as many photos as I could. There was some degree of success and a lot of coughing.

The next weekend was taken up with the Bournemouth Half Marathon. It was a stupidly early and slightly chilly start but, once I’d taken team photos and watched Commando walking towards the start line, I had a nice walk through Boscombe Cemetery.

You all know how much I like wandering through a cemetery, and this turned out to be the best part of the whole day for me. The Cemetery, designed by architect Christopher Crabbe Creeke, was opened in 1878. Entering from Kings Park, my first view was of the Jewish Chapel, looking rather atmospheric in the early morning light.

From there I took the main path towards Gloucester Road, stopping to admire the chapel in the centre of the cemetery. This beautiful building with its central tower and spire, looks more church than chapel. It was built in 1877, before the cemetery was opened, and contains both the Church of England and Nonconfirmist chapels. In the golden morning light the Purbeck and Bath stone almost seemed to glow. Unfortunately for me, the door was closed so I couldn’t get a look inside.

Frankly, I could have happily spent the whole day wandering around the cemetery looking at graves. There are more than forty three thousand to look at though and I had a half marathon finish line to get to at some point. In the end I had to content myself with a quick walk around the war plot. As Remembrance Sunday was fast approaching, this seemed fitting.

The plot is enclosed by a low box hedge with the war cross on the west side. The rows of plain white stones made sobering viewing. Most of those buried here died in Bournemouth’s auxiliary and private hospitals and are from World War I but seven are from World War II.

While my route to the finish line was going to be far shorter than Commando’s I knew I was bound to get tangled up in runners at some point. A quick look at my watch told me I really should get a move on so, rather reluctantly, with a quick stop to photograph the little stone lodge, I headed for the gate.

Luckily, I more or less knew the way due to previous Bournemouth Marathon adventures. Now my main plan was to get to the centre of Bournemouth as quickly as possible, get a coffee and find somewhere to watch the finish. Once I’d crossed the railway bridge and Christchurch Road I took what I hoped would be a shortcut through Woodland Walk. This turned out to be a mistake and gave me rather a longer, but probably prettier, walk than my previous route would have.

When I eventually got back on track I met with the first runners. Commando was not amongst them and I had no idea whether he’d already passed by or not. What I did have was quite a long and frustrating detour to get around them and onto the beach side of the road.

Eventually I made it and the cliff path was in sight. It was just a matter of walking down it onto Boscombe Promenade. In theory, this should have been when things got far simpler and my progress much faster. At first, getting to the finish line before Commando looked like it was going to be a breeze. There were barely any runners on this part of the course and I could almost taste the coffee. The sun was shining. There were beach huts, sea and sand to enjoy…

Things didn’t go quite to plan though. When more and more runners began to appear I had to decide which side of the course to walk on. I made the wrong choice and ended up at a dead end by Boscombe Chine Gardens. Only runners were allowed in the gardens and spectators weren’t allowed to cross the course. I had to turn and walk all the way back, past Boscombe Pier, and find a way across there. If only someone had thought to put up signs for spectators this frustration could have been avoided, along with the extra walking. On the plus side, I did see Commando and Rob twice on this stretch of the walk.

After the Boscombe Pier debacle I was stuck firmly on the beach side of the course and, fairly soon, there were so many other spectators I couldn’t see much of anything. So much time had been lost on the various detours I now had to rush if I wanted any chance of making the finish line before Commando. I might have done it too, if it hadn’t been for the chaos by Bournemouth Pier.

The crowds around the pier were so thick I could barely get through them. To get to the finish line I needed to cross the course but there were impenetrable barriers stopping me. The pier turned out to be a dead end. The only way past was to walk onto the shore and under it. On the other side there were no runners or spectators but the promenade was lined with barriers in preparation for the full marathon later in the day. On and on I walked in the sandy beach, getting further and further from the finish line. My legs were tired and I was looking desperately for a gap in the barriers. For a while I thought I was going to have to go all the way to Sandbanks. Eventually, after about a mile, there was a crossing point but now I had to walk all the way back up the other side of the course. By the time I reached the finish line again Commando had already crossed it. After lots of dashing back and forth, pushing my way through crowds, I finally caught up with him and a few other friends in the Lower Gardens.

The pleasant beachside stroll and relaxing coffee I’d anticipated never did materialise. Commando, Rob, Kim, Nicole, Mark and I had a quick bite to eat in MacDonalds. On the plus side, Commando enjoyed the race and got a half marathon PB. On the minus side, I walked over twelve miles trying to catch up with him and I never did get my coffee.

The next weekend it was back to Bournemouth for a Hampshire Cross Country League Race. As Bournemouth is actually in Dorset it seemed like quite an odd choice of venue. Thankfully this wasn’t such an early start but we did get stuck in a horrible traffic jam on the motorway and were almost late. Commando enjoyed the race. I’m not sure I enjoyed standing in the mud taking photos of him running round the same tree three times but I got some good photos, even if there was no chance of a walk.

Of course, in between the races there were all the normal Saturday morning parkruns too. All in all, October seemed to be nothing but one long whirl of runs. The biggest one came at the end of the month but it really deserves a post all to itself…

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Winchester, the last of the parkrun tourism

1 September 2018

We ended our month of parkrun tourism with a trip to Winchester. The original plan had been to run every August parkrun somewhere different but we squeezed an extra one in to help a young lad called Leo celebrate his hundredth run. As usual, getting to Winchester involved an earlier start than normal but we parked up close to Winnal Moors with enough time for me to dash past the Willow Tree pub, along Durngate Terrace to the High Street and grab a coffee and croissant to make up for missing breakfast.  Continue reading Winchester, the last of the parkrun tourism

Lymington, parkrunning and fairy doors

25 August

For three whole days after my last Running School session, I could barely walk. On day one, Commando laughed every time I groaned and winced as I tried to get out of the chair. It was slightly better on day two but I still looked like an elderly lady who had lost her walking frame. Yesterday I managed to get up the big hill without stopping, but it was slow, painful progress. Oddly, my Achilles hadn’t hurt at all, throughout this epic DOMS extravaganza, my calves were the problem. Today, apart from a little residual calf tenderness, normal service was more or less resumed and we were off to Lymington for another spot of parkrun tourism.   Continue reading Lymington, parkrunning and fairy doors

More parkrun tourism, Moors Valley revisited

18 August 2018

Now we’d been bitten by the parkrun tourism bug we couldn’t seem to stop. Rob said we should declare August parkrun tourism month and try a new venue every week. Everyone was talking about where to go next. The popular vote was Moors Valley and, even though Commando and I had been there last summer, we didn’t want to miss the fun so decided to go along too. Poor Kim had to work so couldn’t join us but our numbers were swelled by Ian and Kate.  Continue reading More parkrun tourism, Moors Valley revisited