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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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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Changes afoot

27 September 2018

When everyone around you is going down with colds and flu it feels like it’s only a matter of time before your turn comes. When I got up this morning there was a definite feeling of lurgie going on but I told myself I was probably imagining it. Besides, I had a package to deliver to a friend who lives close to the Millennium Flats so, ignoring a slight soreness of throat and muzzy head, my feet retraced footsteps from many previous walks. The route may have been all too familiar but the scenery has changed somewhat since I last came this way.

When I reached Northam Bridge I stopped for a while, leaned on the railings and looked at the calm clear water and the proliferation of boats in various stages of decomposition. In part this was because I quite like looking at the boats but also because my legs were feeling a little wobbly and my head more than a touch on the fuzzy side.   

Eventually I got moving again, albeit rather slowly. On the far side of the bridge it was clear a lot of building work has gone on while I’ve been walking elsewhere. There are new, rather swanky looking, flats on the old TV studio site and the ground is being cleared for even more. 

The flats look quite nice, especially the ones with balconies looking out over the water, although I can’t help wondering if the views will be obstructed by the next phase of the building work. Something else I wonder about is the blue painted fence along the river path. It seems a terrible shame to offer river views but not provide any access to the path. Hopefully, when the work is finished the fence will be removed.

Work is going on to build a play area and a small garden area. Trees are in the process of being planted and it looks as if it will be a nice place for the flat owners to sit. Hopefully the desolate park will also get a bit of a makeover once all the building work is complete. It could certainly do with it.

Summers Street has changed beyond all recognition. Once it was a street with just one house and now there are rows of new front doors and parking spaces. As I walked past the new buildings it was hard to remember the chain fence I used to pass each day with its overgrown shrubs laden with flowers or berries depending on the season and the little gooseberry bush that had always seemed so incongruous.

Around the corner the rubble and poppies have been replaced by yet more front doors and something that looks like shops to let. Hopefully they won’t end up being painted shops like the ones across the road.

Once I’d turned the next corner things began to look much more familiar. The industrial estate hasn’t changed a bit and the swans were still by the big rocks, just where they always used to be. They gave me an accusing look as I passed by. Whether this was because I didn’t have any food for them or because they wondered where I’d been I couldn’t tell. There were just two swans today and no cygnets at all. This has been a year sadly lacking in both swans and cygnets.

Beside the boardwalk the hippie ship was almost submerged. The shore around it seemed far more littered than I remember it. Someone had even dumped an old shopping trolley. It reminded me of the tin can sculpture I used to see every day when I worked on the industrial estate. The sculpture, a life sized woman made from hundreds of tin cans pushing a shopping trolley, was in the water close to the bridge. It was obviously not an official piece of artwork and, even though it was made of junk, it always made me smile. Sadly, in those days, I never had a mobile phone or a camera so I never managed to take a photo of her. This shopping trolley was definitely not a sculpture and I rather wished it wasn’t there at all.

Feeling sad that the poor swans have to live beside so much discarded human rubbish, I started off along the boardwalk. This, at least, was relatively litter free. Surprisingly, it was also empty of people. Usually there are cyclists and walkers going back and forth taking advantage of the short cut and the serene views across the river. It was quite nice to have the place all to myself for once.

About half way along my pleasure was interrupted by another sorry sight. A section of the boardwalk railing has been broken. This was obviously the work of vandals, as it must have taken quite some effort to break the railings and the missing poles were nowhere in sight. Why someone would do such a thing is beyond me but it made me sad to see it.

A little further on I found something to return the smile to my face. A large grasshopper was sitting on the railing looking for all the world as if he was sunbathing. He was even kind enough to let me take a few photos.

By now I was approaching the end of the boardwalk. Ahead the Millenium Flats were perfectly reflected in the still water and a small boat was heading downstream towards me. Idly, I wondered where it was going. Then I spotted a flash of bright orange in the trees beside the railway line. It was too big to be a plastic carrier bag caught in the branches. Curious, I walked on.

When I got close enough to see clearly I was none the wiser. The orange object looked like a sleeping bag made of plastic. It had a zip at the front and was hanging by two strings that looked as if they were toggles for a hood. As the breeze caught it, it danced. Whether this was just more litter, blown in from somewhere and caught in the trees or had been purposely placed there I couldn’t tell. Perhaps someone is sleeping rough nearby and using the tree as a wardrobe, or maybe it’s acting as a scarecrow or a warning of some kind? Puzzled I walked on.

At the end of the boardwalk I was pleased to see the sculptures and bench undamaged and litter free. I was also pleased to reach a patch of shade. So far almost all my walk had been in hot sunshine and my head, which had started out feeling filled with cotton wool, was now aching. In fact it was becoming clear my lurgie was certainly not paranoia. The bench provided a convenient resting place but I hadn’t brought any water or snacks with me and, despite the rest, my head didn’t feel any better for the shade.

If anything I felt worse for stopping and it’s took a great deal of effort to peel myself off the bench and carry on up the slope to Horseshoe Bridge. The climb took all the strength my legs had left and I was glad to reach the top. By now I’d walked two miles, more or less, not far on an ordinary day, but my legs felt more like they’d walked twenty two. How I was going to walk the two miles home was beyond me.

One foot slowly in front of the other took me off the bridge towards the Millenium Flats, past the scrubby area that was unaccountably cleared a few years back. At the time I thought the shrubs and trees would soon grow back but they haven’t. Today I noticed a small white gate I’m sure was never there before. Where it came from and why is a mystery as there is no path here, at least not one that leads anywhere. It all seemed very strange but, by now, my brain was feeling too addled to really think about it.

So I took my usual route thinking to go through the blue gate and walk down the steps past the moorings as I had so many times before. When I got to the gate though, there was a large and rather emphatic yellow sign. ‘Due to the antisocial behaviour in the past few months this private walkway is no longer open for public access.’ Sure enough, there was a lock on the gate and no way through. This was more than a little disappointing. The path runs at the bottom of a steep, grassy slope with an impenetrable fence at the top. It provides no access to the flats but does make a lovely walkway along the riverbank. At least it did. The owners of the flats, secure behind their high fences and locked gates, have made sure no one else can enjoy it any more.

Feeling rather cross and more than a little uncharitable towards the people living in the flats, I walked the long way round to the slipway. The extra steps didn’t make me feel any better but at least I’d almost reached my goal. My friend lives in one of the sweet little houses on the riverbank. She has enviable views and even a little jetty to sit on to watch the sun setting. She is a nurse with a generous spirit and more than deserves her riverside views.

Today, as I’d expected, she was at work so there was no chance to rest or sit and chat. The parcel, a little hat I’d made for her, fit easily through her letterbox. My mission was completed but I still had a couple of miles to walk to get home. They were not easy miles. My head and my legs protested all the way. Twice I had to stop and sit down. Once on a bench and once on some steps. The lurgie I’d been trying to ignore was getting worse with every step and, by the time I reached the main road again I was barely able to stay on my feet. With the world swimming in front of my eyes I managed to cross the road and walk the last steps to my own front door. It seems, no matter how hard you try, you can’t out run the germs or the changes.

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Winchester and Storm Ali

23 September 2018

At the end of the driest, hottest, sunniest summer since 1976, it was a touch disappointing when the day of the Winchester Half Marathon turned out to be one of the wettest, windiest days of the whole year, thanks to Storm Ali. The doom and gloom weather warnings didn’t exactly fill us with confidence but Commando was pacing the race so we wrapped up as best we could and set off bright and early. Continue reading Winchester and Storm Ali

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

Messing about on the river

16 September 2018

Usually on a Sunday morning the fast boys are up early and out running somewhere. Normally somewhere off road and muddy, as my washing machine can attest. This Sunday was a little different. Actually it was a lot different. Someone, possibly Rob, had the bright idea to go kayaking instead of running. Obviously this was something I couldn’t possibly miss, even if I had no plans to actually get into a kayak, being seriously deficient when it comes to balance and agility and not inclined to swin in the Itchen. As it turned out, watching the kayakers was the most fun I’ve had for ages and I got a nice walk into the bargain. Continue reading Messing about on the river

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

Climbing to the top of the chapel

13 September 2018

When we stepped inside the chapel it was empty except for the lady who sells tickets for the tower tour and a single guide. Entry to the chapel is free but there is a small charge to climb the one hundred and sixty six steps to the top of the forty six metre high tower. This was what we’d walked so far for and £3.50 seemed a small price to pay for a birds eye view of the park. Continue reading Climbing to the top of the chapel

Postcards from Victoria Country Park

13 September 2018

We left the beautiful new benches and set off across the park, our heads filled with the lost and wounded soldiers of so many wars. Neither of us said much as we walked across the grass of the cricket pitches towards the distant chapel. We were too busy thinking of all those past sacrifices made so we could live in freedom. War is neither good nor glorious but, when the alternative is to sit back and let evil and injustice prevail, it becomes an unpleasant necessity. Today we would be remembering those who gave so much.  Continue reading Postcards from Victoria Country Park

On a mission

13 September 2018

Today CJ and I were on a mission. In August the renovations on the Royal Victoria Country Park chapel were finally completed. Although we were both itching to go and visit, we both agreed it was best to wait until the school summer holidays were over and the initial burst of visitors had subsided before checking it out. This was not something we wanted to rush around in a crowd. So, we set off bright and fairly early for what would be the longest walk I’ve taken since my back troubles began.  Continue reading On a mission