One hundred years

11 November 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Goodbye, hello, Remembrance and mud

10 November 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Heaven and hell

13 September 2018

Back on the first floor we entered the upper gallery of the hospital chapel. In front of us was a glorious stained glass window and a beautifully painted ceiling. For the poor wounded soldiers, fresh from the horrors of the front line, the sense of peace and quiet here must have felt a little like heaven. We stood for a moment or two drinking in the atmosphere and then walked slowly along the line of pews reading the stories of some of those who once worshipped here.  Continue reading Heaven and hell

The importance of Remembrance

11 September 2017

Another dark and dismal Saturday morning at parkrun was brightened a little by  the golden autumn foliage on the Common. It feels as if the leaves are clinging on for longer this year, maybe because we haven’t had too much windy weather yet. There wasn’t too much time to hang around admiring the show this Saturday though, because we had a remembrance service to go to. Continue reading The importance of Remembrance

Mist and other ephemeral things

2 November 2017

For my first walk of November I had the most glorious autumn morning. When I left Home the sky was blue and the sun was trying hard to burn off the morning mist as I crossed the railway bridge. On such a lovely day it was impossible not to walk along with a huge grin on my face, even if it did make me look like a loon. The plan was to walk into town to have a look at a new sculpture I’d heard about.  Continue reading Mist and other ephemeral things

Remembering heroes

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11 November 2016

My original plan for Armistice day was to walk to Netley and stand at the War Memorial in the military cemetery to mark the silence. This seemed to be the week for plans not working out though. CJ had an appointment in town and there was no way he would make it from there to Netley in time even if I drove him and waited. Of course, I could have walked to Netley on my own but, as he was so keen to mark the silence with me, this didn’t seem very fair. So I found myself hanging around outside Holyrood waiting to meet up with him.  Continue reading Remembering heroes

Rain, rain go away

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11 November 2015

After my first, unsuccessful, hunt for black cygnets I was determined to go out every single morning and trawl the riverbank until I found them. Unfortunately this didn’t happen. The rain that began as my walk ended continued unrelenting over the next week. Once or twice I got my boots and coat on but was beaten back at the door. There was some struggling up the hill to the shops getting soaked and some driving up the hill to avoid getting soaked. On Saturday I foolishly went with Commando to watch the Parkrun. The Common was all giant puddles and soggy leaves and I somehow got volunteered as a marshal. Wet and cold don’t even cover it. Continue reading Rain, rain go away

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month

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11 November 2014

Despite my pledge to attempt to reach Scotland on my virtual coastal walk this month, this weekend was turning out to be a bit of a washout in more ways than one. The planned Sunday walk was scuppered by Commanndo’s plans and my plan to walk to the dentist and back on Monday fell victim to heavy rain and food shopping. That left Tuesday as my only chance to fit some miles in. The weather forecast was hardly inspiring. Even so I planned out an ambitious walk, considering the chance of heavy rain, to Victoria Country Park. In fact it fit rather well with the date, 11 November. Continue reading The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month

Remembrance Sunday

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9 November 2014

Sunday was about remembrance in more ways than one. It began with two minutes of silence and the Queen laying a wreath of poppies on the cenotaph in London. Of course we weren’t there, we were standing silently in the gym watching on TV and thinking of all those who gave their lives for our freedom. Continue reading Remembrance Sunday