Lots of small steps

29 June 2019

This week I have been getting my head around the enormity of the two challenges I’ve undertaken. The Million Steps Challenge doesn’t begin until 1 July but I’ve worked out I will need to walk around eleven thousand steps a day. Training for the Clarendon Marathon should more than take care of that.

When people learn you are walking a marathon, they often think it must be easy. This is especially true of runners, who usually say, “but you’re only walking it,” as if walking makes covering twenty six point two miles somehow easier than running it. The fact is, however you do it, it’s bloody hard. As a non runner, I can’t imagine running that distance and I have every admiration for anyone who can. Even so, I know from experience walking it is equally hard. You are on your feet twice as long for a start and, unlike running, where quite a bit of time is spent mid air (as anyone who’s seen my photographs of runners will notice), walkers always have at least one foot on the ground supporting their weight. It seems to me that the extra effort involved in running is cancelled out by the extra time and stress on the feet walkers suffer. Commando agrees, having run long distances and walked a few with me, he says running is actually easier over the same distance.

Anyhow, the upshot of taking on the Million Steps Challenge and the Clarendon Marathon is that I need to get walking. Getting the miles and steps in is going to be about lots of small steps rather than one big one. This week that has mostly been about tweaking my normal routine and changing my normal route to the village a little to add a few more steps. Some of these steps have been quite literal, like those leading from the bypass, others more figurative, like walking a longer loop instead of straight there and back.

A couple of appointments helped me fit in quite a few extra steps too. The first was in Woolston on Tuesday, giving me a nice four mile round trip. As usual, paranoia about being late meant I left with plenty of time and had a nice gentle stroll down Peartree Avenue past the little church on the green.

On Bridge Road I spotted a ghost sign on the front wall of a shop. Quite how I’ve missed it before is inexplicable given how often I’ve walked past over the years. It was badly faded but I could make out the words ‘manufacturers of fine..’ and ‘coke and briquettes.’ Perhaps it was a coal merchant at one time? Kelly’s Directories list it as William Barrett boot maker from 1925 to 1964, so maybe that is where the manufacturers part comes in?

On the corner of Lake Road there is another ghost sign. In fact it looks like several business have painted over it over the years. Sadly, this makes it almost impossible to decipher. I can just make out the words ‘sport,’ ‘engineers’ and ‘overhauls,’ though so I’m guessing it might have been a garage or bike shop at some point.

There was even time for a little wander around what used to be Vosper Thorneycroft. The sculpture outside Metricks is a favourite of mine and it was interesting to look down over the next phase of building work and wonder what it would eventually be like.

The meeting went much as I’d expected. I was left full of coffee with a list of things to do for a new copywriting and photography project. Walking home, the ghost signs were fresh in my mind and, as I walked, I couldn’t help looking out for more of them. Back on Bridge Road I noticed one on the side wall of the memorial mason’s shop. As the shop is still in the same hands though I’m not sure that really counts as a ghost sign.

A little further up the road I found more signs above the Co-op. Sadly, one was obscured by a satellite dish and both were so faded I couldn’t make anything out. Even so, I took a photo. These little mysteries always make me smile.

There was a bit more walking later in the day too. Commando was running the Lordshill Magic Mile on the Common and I was tasked with taking photos. Quite a large group of Hamwic Harriers turned up to run. Their bright red shirts made them nice and easy to spot.

On Wednesday night there was more walking on the Common when I went to take photos of the Hamwic session. This involved running laps of the boating lake so, while everyone went for a warm up run, I headed straight for the lake. It must have been my lucky night because, when I got there, I found two mute swans and two fluffy cygnets. When the runners arrived they couldn’t understand why I was so excited. Then again, I don’t think the swans understood why all the runners were going round and round their lake either.

On Thursday the weather suddenly got very warm. It was as if we’d gone from late winter to full summer overnight. After slathering on lots of sun cream I managed a long loop to the village but it felt like tough going. The bees on the roses by the bypass steps seemed to like it though.

Friday was also very hot and, following on from my Tuesday meeting, I had another appointment, A new preschool is opening close to Bitterne Manor and part of my job was to go down and take some photos to use on their website. The walk involved another slathering of suncream and lots of dodging from one patch of shade to the next. It also took me past the funny castle like house on the corner of Vespasian Road. Bitterne Manor is built on the site of the Roman fortress settlement of Clausentum and Vespasian Road is named after the Roman emperor of the time. The odd little house, built in the style of a Martello tower, is on the corner where the defensive ditch would have been. It is not a defensive tower though, or even of any great antiquity. It’s just a folly, built in the mid nineteenth century. Even so I love its quirkiness.

Somehow I made it to the new preschool without expiring from the heat. Luckily no one commented on my red face. After a bit of chat about what was expected and a few photos of the charming garden, complete with an old boat for the children to play in, I was given a tour. This was when things got very interesting.

When I was shown the small back garden, where the children will one day be growing vegetables, I spotted a section of ancient looking wall. This was very exciting. Clausentum was the forerunner of the town of Southampton. It was built in around AD 70 or so using the sharp bend in the river and ditches to enclose the settlement. Inside wooden huts and wharves were built. Later stone buildings replaced the huts and, in around AD 350, a bath house with four rooms was built and the whole area was enclosed by a stone wall. At the other end of the building I discovered another section of wall. Could these be part of the original wall?

Clausentum was abandoned about three hundred years before the Saxons settled in Hamwic on the other side of the river. The Manor House was built using some of the old Clausentum stones and masses of artefacts have been uncovered in the area. In fact there are restrictions on digging anywhere in the surrounding roads, even in gardens. The remains of the bath house wall are in the grounds of the Manor House but they aren’t accessible to the public.

The pieces of wall I found are certainly very old. Whether they are actually connected with Clausentum or not remains to be seen but it felt like an exciting discovery all the same.

Once I’d taken all the photographs I needed for my project I decided to have a wander along the shore before I headed home. There was a cooling breeze ruffling the long grass and the tide was low so I walked right down onto the slippery shingle. There’s an old iron boat abandoned down at the water’s edge. I’m told it is the remains of a Royal Navy Harbour Defence Launch. Whatever it is, I do love the dilapidated look of it.

Even with the breeze the heat was getting oppressive and I was wishing I’d brought a water bottle with me. It felt like time to head for home. Rather than go back the way I’d come, I decided to walk back through the woods beside the Manor House.

At first this seemed like quite a good plan. Then I reached the gate and had to leave the shade and walk along the road. It was not the most pleasant walk I’ve ever had. In fact I felt as if I was in serious danger of melting. Every step was a struggle but I did make it home eventually.

It was just as hot this morning when we went to parkrun. The cool of the Old Cemetery was very welcome. Commando had told me a bench, like the one in the village, had been installed near the chapel so I had a mission to keep me amused.

There are actually three chapels in the Old Cemetery. For some reason I’d been expecting to find the new bench outside the Church of England chapel, just inside the gate. It wasn’t there so I kept on walking.

This was no real hardship, even in the heat. There were wild sweet peas, clambering over the graves near the Non-Conformist chapel. When I straightened up from taking photographs I caught a glimpse of something bench like near the chapel door. Moments later my mission was complete. I’d found the bench.

For the next quarter of an hour or so I wandered slowly through the shady cemetery, dreading going back to the flats where the finish funnel would be scorching hot with no shade at all. It had to be done though and I comforted myself with the thought that all these little bits of walking will probably pay off when I’m struggling my way through the Clarendon Marathon, even if none of my steps this week will actually count towards the One Million.

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Two challenges

21 June 2019

A little while ago I saw a Facebook post about a challenge to walk one million steps between July and September this year. Thirteen weeks walking around 11,000 steps a day seemed doable and the money raised would go to Diabetes UK. As my wonderful Mother in Law, April, suffered with type II Diabetes, it was a charity close to my heart so, on a whim, I signed up.

A few days later a Twitter post from my lovely friend Kim said she’d signed up to walk the Clarendon Marathon in early October. It wasn’t really a surprise, she’d been talking about it for a while and had even asked me about my two Moonwalk marathons. What was a surprise though, was the reply from Commando saying he’d signed me up to do it with her! Luckily both things worked together rather well but it meant I really was going to have to up my game and get some miles in.

Commando, possibly feeling a little guilty, bought me a brand new Garmin so I could track my miles and steps better. Armed with this and a training plan, the walking began in earnest this week. It started on Monday when I added a bit of extra distance to my normal daily walk up the hill to the shops by taking a longer route. On Tuesday I walked to the big supermarket in Portswood to get my daily milk and newspaper rather than just up the hill. This more than doubled the mileage but there was a bit of an issue.

Not long after I left home the rain began to fall. This wouldn’t normally have been a problem as I was wearing a light mac, but I was also wearing leather sandals. By the time I was half way across Cobden Bridge my feet were soaked and I could feel the burn of a blister starting on my left foot. As a start to a walking marathon training programme it wasn’t great.

A packet of blister plasters was swiftly added to my shopping list. I sat on the steps just inside the door of the supermarket to put one on. Then I went back out into the rain and walked home again with my four pint carton of milk and my newspaper.

On Wednesday I added miles to my normal up the hill shopping walk by going through the local woodland called Hum Hole. All the rain we’ve had meant it was extra green but the normally slippery path has been resurfaced since I last walked this way. Rather than being slightly slimy and slippery in the wet it is now grippy and beautifully spongy underfoot. Commando thinks they may have used recycled tyres, which seems like a brilliant plan on many fronts.

At the very top of the steep climb I paused to get my breath and looked up into the dripping trees. When I saw a woodpecker I could hardly believe my eyes. Often I’ve heard them pecking away in the woods but this was the first time I’d ever actually seen one. Of course, by the time I’d raised my phone to take a photo it had flown away so all I got was leaves and a moody looking sky. On the way home I spotted a new commemorative bench at the top of the hill. It’s really rather beautiful with its red poppies and it must be very new because I’ve not noticed it before.

Thursday saw me back on my Monday big loop up the Hill. There were different gardens to look at and one, filled with poppies caught my eye so I stopped to take a picture. It wasn’t until I got home and looked at it properly that I noticed the tortoise hiding amongst the flowers!

To add a little more distance I stopped off at the Village church and visited Pappy’s grave. Walking back through the precinct the clouds ahead looked threatening so I upped my speed on the way home. Luckily it’s all down hill. Unluckily, I didn’t beat the rain and got quite wet.

Kim and I had come to the marathon training game a little late to fit in a full training schedule but, luckily, we both walk, or in Kim’s case, run, a fair few miles every day anyway. The plan was to walk alone as much as possible but to have one long walk together each week. As Kim works shifts, it wouldn’t be the same day each week but today was our first.

The plan was to start from my house and walk to Southampton Common by way of Eastleigh, a distance of around eight miles. Commando and Rob would meet us in the Bellemoor for lunch and a Hamwic Harriers brainstorming meeting. It was a beautifully sunny morning, far warmer than it has been of late, and it looked as if we might even get there without getting wet.

Walking across Riverside Park towards Woodmill, I hoped I’d see the mute swan cygnets again. Today they were on the far bank though, just grey specks in the distance. There were a couple of black swans a little closer and they, and the good weather tempered my disappointment a little.

This walk reminded me of all the long walks I did to train for the two Moonwalks. Both times I’d taken a route along the river, adding a little more distance each week until I finally ended up walking to Winchester then turning around and walking back. The memory of all those lonely miles reminded me of the enormity of the task ahead. A few doubts began to creep in. Now I’m much older and probably not as fit. Will I really be able to do it all again?

Of course this time I wouldn’t be doing it alone. As I didn’t want Kim to start having doubts too, I painted a confident smile in my face, put an extra spring in my step and pretended I wasn’t worried. We walked together along the riverbank towards Mansbridge chatting away as if this was just any old walk. We laughed at the haughty looking greylag geese and reminisced about the day of the kayaks.

About half way to the bridge we came upon a family of mute swans with four beautiful grey cygnets. Seeing them certainly made up for my earlier disappointment. As we walked on I told Kim about the orphaned cygnets at this exact spot a few years back. We both wondered if either of the parents was one of those same cygnets? It was such a lovely idea we hoped we were right.

In no time at all we’d reached Mansbridge. From here I’d normally take the trail along Monks Brook towards Eastleigh but, with so much recent rain, this didn’t seem like a good idea. It’s muddy along there at the best of times and neither of us fancied a swim in the brook. Instead we walked along Mansbridge Road, just as I used to do when I was Moonwalk training. In fact, I probably haven’t taken the road route since then so it added to the deja vu feeling I’d been having on and off since Cobden Bridge.

Before I knew it we were passing the airport, stopping briefly for a picture of all the poppies on the verge by the Spitfire sculpture. The miles really seemed to be going far quicker with a little company and some chat.

We finally departed from my old Moonwalk route at Lakeside. Rather than carrying on up the road to Eastleigh we headed across the park towards North Stoneham. There was a quick stop for a toilet break in the fancy new building and a brief sit down on a bench for a snack. Snacks are an important part of long walks. Not only do they give you energy, but they also give you something to look forward to to break up the miles. Today I’d brought some of the chocolate salty ball running snacks I make for Commando. They’re basically dates, peanut butter, coconut oil, cocoa powder and oats with a few extras thrown in. Kim loves them so she was delighted I’d brought them.

We stopped for barely five minutes and then we were off again. The next part of the route had been worrying me a little all morning. In the past I’ve often walked across Lakeside, taken the bridge across the Monks Brook ford and crossed the road to Stoneham Lane. Now though the whole road layout has changed and I wasn’t sure if we could still get through. If we could it might not be as easy as it had been.

In the end my worrying was all for nothing. There is a new pedestrian crossing, albeit temporary, just the other side of the bridge. It took us to the beginning of Stoneham Lane, at least what used to be the beginning before the new part of the road was built. This part of the lane was always the most difficult to walk because it bends sharply and there aren’t even any verges to jump on if a car comes. Now though, there are no cars so it has basically become a very wide footpath. Today it was lined by big orange barriers and cones. What purpose they served we never did work out.

Once we’d passed St Nicolas Church it was fairly easy going. There’d been no more progress on the pavement since I last came this way but almost all of the lane did have a pavement and, in no time at all we’d reached Burgess Road and the Common felt very nearby. Of course it is all uphill but, with someone to talk to it didn’t seem too bad.

By the time we got to the Common there were a few worrying looking clouds on the horizon but we didn’t have far to go by this time so we just kept walking. We made it to the Bellemoor before the rain fell and discovered we’d also beaten Commando and Rob. Not bad going at all for our first marathon training walk.

Annoyingly I accidentally stopped my Garmin atLakeside so the walk is in two parts
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Colour on the Common

27 April 2019

Because the fair has been on the Common for the last couple of weeks the parkrun start, finish and route has had to temporarily change. Last week, in an early Saturday morning haze, we totally forgot and ended up walking through the eerily deserted fairground.

Our mistake made for some interesting photographs of what would have normally been the finish funnel being set up. This week we remembered and took a more scenic walk to avoid disturbing the fairground workers sleep with our chatter.

This involved a longer walk than normal on the diagonal path from Bellemoor Corner towards the crossroads. It wasn’t what I’d call a hardship, especially crossing the little bridge and looking over the side at the Rollsbrook stream. Almost all the little streams hidden on the Common are tributaries of the Rollsbrook stream. It rises just south of Cuthorn Mound and runs under the Avenue then roughly south west across the Common to the southern side of the cemetery. One of these days I might try to follow its path to the Rollesbrook Valley Greenway and have another attempt at finding Conduit Head. Today was not that day though.

Today there were a thousand or so people gathered near the Cowherds Pub waiting for parkrun to start. Obviously my plans didn’t involve any running. Instead, as soon as the runners had set off I headed back towards the crossroads, keeping to the grass to avoid getting caught up in the run. About halfway between the finish funnel and the crossroads there’s a grassy trail running off into the trees. As soon as I reached it I turned away from the stream of runners.

Within moments the noise of the parkrun had faded away and I was alone. Birds were singing, the sky above was mostly blue and the bright spring green of the new leaves all around made me smile. I dawdled along the trail, stopping to watch a robin who didn’t want his picture taken, admiring the shapes of dead branches and enjoying the peace.

The trail crosses a makeshift wooden bridge and emerges from the trees just east of the artesian well. A little further west, at the crossroads, I could hear the marshal cheering the runners on. Turning west, I left the well and the runners behind and headed towards the faint hum of traffic on the Avenue.

When you’re in the middle of the Common it’s easy to forget you’re also in the middle of a city. With trees, trails, lakes and nature all around the hustle and bustle and busy roads seem like another world. The traffic is never too far away though. The Avenue cuts through the Common, dividing the west side, with the parkrun, Cowherds pub and Old Cemetery, from the smaller east side where Cutthorn Mound is hidden. It isn’t easy to cross the road here, it’s one of the main routes in and out of Southampton and almost always busy. There is an alternative though, the subway otherwise known as the Beyond Graffiti tunnel. This was where I was heading.

Beyond Graffiti began in the late 1980’s as a youth project run by youth workers Mike Banks and Jacquie Lee, to help and inspire young artists, musicians, poets, writers and the like get together, harness their talents and express themselves. The Beyond Graffiti tunnel grew out of this project when, in 2004, graphic designers Corbin Adler and Michael Flibb were asked to spruce up the old paddling pool kiosk and got local youngsters involved. The murals were so poplar the council agreed to set up a permanent art project in the underpass, somewhere young graffiti artists could paint and be creative without getting into trouble. Walking down the slope towards the tunnel always give me a little tingle of anticipation. The artwork is ever changing so you never quite know what you’re going to find.

Good graffiti in the right place is a joy to behold, at least in my opinion. I’m not talking about mindless tagging, names scribbled on street furniture and private walls. To me that is just territory marking, like so many dogs cocking their legs to say they were there, the signature without the actual artwork. There’s been a lot of that about lately, especially from a complete moron calling himself cams wasp, who thinks it’s clever to paint his name everywhere, even over the real artwork on the painted shops in Northam.

The artwork in the Beyond Graffiti Tunnel is constantly evolving though. Of course there are scribbled tags but they don’t last long and some of the real artwork is stunningly beautiful, thought provoking or amusing. There were a few that caught my eye today and I stopped to capture them before they disappeared.

So I slowly walked the length of the tunnel, taking a photo here and there. Then I turned round and walked back, thinking about other dull areas of the city that could benefit from this kind of sprucing up.

Soon enough it was time to leave the vibrant colours of the tunnel and head back through the bright spring greens of the Common to the equally colourful sea of Lycra at the parkrun finish. Most Saturday mornings I’m on the opposite side of the Common, wandering around the Old Cemetery looking at graves and wild flowers. Today, thanks to the fair, I had a far more colourful morning walk.

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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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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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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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September in the Old Cemetery

22 September 2018

It was one of those dull mornings, with a uniform layer of steel grey cloud blotting out the sun. The air held the first autumn chill and, for the first time in ages, my coat and hat came out for our early morning trip to the Common. The parkrun team were setting up when we arrived but, after a brief chat, I set off for the Old Cemetery. Today there was no particular mission, just a need to be alone with my thoughts. Continue reading September in the Old Cemetery

Gravehunting, a photographer’s story

8 September 2018

Several months ago I saw a photograph of Francis Godolphin Osbourne Stuart’s grave on a Facebook local history page and discovered it was hidden somewhere in the Old Cemetery. This little bit of knowledge set off a search that would take up my Saturday mornings for the whole of the summer. The Old Cemetery is huge and maze like. This summer it was also very overgrown. With no idea of where the grave was it was never going to be easy but a walk in the Old Cemetery is never a hardship.  Continue reading Gravehunting, a photographer’s story

Scorched earth in the Old Cemetery

23 July 2018

Unbeknown to us, while we were camping in the hot, dusty Catton Park field preparing for Thunder Run, a small disaster was unfolding on Southampton Common. On Saturday, a fire broke out in the Old Cemetery, caused, it’s believed, by the unrelenting sun shining on broken glass and setting fire to the desiccated and overgrown grass. Commando read about it in the local paper and, once we’d unpacked, rested a little and dashed around the supermarket to stock up for the week, we went to have a look.  Continue reading Scorched earth in the Old Cemetery

More tales from the old cemetery

December 2017

It isn’t always easy to get out of bed early on a Saturday morning and go to parkrun. Often there is a great temptation to roll over, pull up the covers and let Commando go on his own, especially on cold, frosty winter mornings. After all, it isn’t as if I’m actually going to run. Sometimes though, those are the very best mornings of all to be walking down Cemetery Lane towards the Common. Despite the icy air burning my lungs and the cold nipping at my fingers and toes, the golden light of a new day makes me glad to be there. Continue reading More tales from the old cemetery