…Okay, that’s the last dad joke for this guest post. I promise…
So just in case you haven’t managed to work it out yet, it’s Tony here again, guest blogging for Min while she shops for boots plans exciting new things for the blog in the coming weeks.
We’ve been based in Winchester for more than a fortnight now, putting us more halfway through our stay here (in fact, this time in a fortnight we will be in Singapore and, this time in two weeks and two days, we’ll be back home again! Eeeep!) For now, though we are – as you might have gathered from some of Min’s previous posts – thoroughly enjoying being in one place for a while. We’re all unpacked, and have dropped into a kind of normal family routine, albeit on the other side of the world. In the mornings I head up to the University, where I’m working on my OSP projects and getting a lot of writing done. Imogen and Toby do school work through until about 1 or 2 in the afternoon, and Millie… well, Millie just uses her newfound mobility to keep us all on our toes. (On an unrelated note, I’m predicting that in years to come, Millie will be our child who likes rollercoasters. And bungy jumping. And skydiving. Seriously, the kid has no sense of self-preservation at all…)
Outside, the seasons are changing, and we’re now well into a South West England Autumn. Which is rather like being in the middle of a mild Canberra winter. Maximum temperatures each day are hovering in the low teens, nights are down to two or three degrees, and the weather is grey and cloudy, but with occasional bursts of gorgeous sunlight. The trees are turning various shades of russet, the pavements buried under blankets of golden leaves which Toby is taking great delight in wading through at every available opportunity, and there’s a quiet sort of anticipation of the winter ahead. It’s very different from what we are used to.
And one of the things we are all really enjoying is just gradually exploring Winchester – finding the little hidden bits and pieces that you might miss if just visiting for a day or two. Min will no doubt be posting a few of these in the next couple of weeks, but I wanted to share one of my favourite parts of Winchester with you all.
Every morning, on my daily commute, I walk through the centre of town, past the rather glorious Winchester Cathedral, up and across the train lines and then through the West Hill Cemetery, which conveniently takes me right to the front gates of the University.
The Cemetery has quickly become my favourite part of the walk, to the point where a couple of my trips have ended up seriously prolonged, owing to me getting distracted wandering among the gravestones.
It’s an old Cemetery, no longer in use. The most recent burials I’ve managed to find were generally from the early 1990’s, but these are spouses of people long gone, finally re-united. For the most part, the last regular burials seem to have taken place in the 1950’s, but most date from a lot earlier than that.
It’s a place that completely sets the ‘writer’ part of my brain buzzing. For one thing, it looks almost exactly like the cemetery described in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book – built on the side of a hill, the graves are dotted in a seemingly random manner, with rough paths twisting among them from the bottom to the top. There are a couple of old trees keeping sentry, and a crumbling old gatekeepers cottage with gothic architecture at the entrance.
To add to the effect, the whole graveyard is a protected grassland area – a vital little refuge for the biodiversity of the chalk region, which lends it a gorgeous, unkempt air. Wandering through it during the grey silence of an autumn morning is an amazing experience.
And, of course, it’s full of stories. Winchester isn’t a young town, not by a long shot, and West Hill was the cemetery that oversaw (among other things) the late Victorian era and two world wars. Many of them are stories of love and separation, covering large swathes of modern British history (and are also, very often, amazing tales of re-unification…)
I posted on instagram a while back a picture of one of the amazing stories of people who waited, but there are also a few really touching stories of people who couldn’t:
And then, of course, there are the war graves. There are war commission graves dotted right throughout the lower half of the graveyard, and a cenotaph in the middle on the main pathway, but there is one particular little cluster of war graves which, even when the grass in the rest of the graveyard is at its longest, is kept neatly trimmed and tended:
In here are stories of those who died young –
One solitary Australian:
And many others. Perhaps the war grave that had the most impact on me, though, was this one here:
He was just a year younger than I am now, and the same age my great grandfather was when he was pulled into WW1, leaving behind a wife and children. There’s such a lot of loss in all war deaths, but this one really hits me.
My favourite graves, though, are the ones which are so old that they’ve been lost or forgotten, or are in the process of returning back to the amazing chalk soil – the ones where the stories are no longer etched in stone, but are faded past memory:
There are plenty of these dotted all around the cemetery – some have collapsed, some are overgrown with ivy or other plants, some have simply fallen and are slowly crumbling away. All of them evidence of the hundreds of lives and loves and stories, all tangled together in the chalky soil of this altogether very pleasant little corner of the world.