Thursday, 19 March 2015
Running up through the eastern side of Southampton Common is the main road out of town towards Winchester and ultimately to London, known along that stretch as the Avenue. This busy thoroughfare cuts off a narrow vertical slice of the Common, which sits alongside the university campus and the residential area known as Highfield. Because it is nowhere in particular -- a long and narrow transitional green buffer between highway and suburb -- it is actually wilder and denser than much of the main Common. It is also more dangerous: students are advised to avoid its few, poorly-lit paths at night as, unfortunately, serious assaults happen there most years.
The road leading off the Avenue into Highfield cuts through about 200 yards of this tangled urban wilderness. I walked over to the university earlier this week by this route, and in a steady light drizzle the emerging spring colours were subtly enhanced. In a matter of weeks, new leaves will start to obscure and darken the woodland, and the undergrowth will become impenetrable; already, thorny loops of bramble are booby-trapping the ground. If you do wander about in there, however, you may notice the bumps and ditches of some old foundations. During World War 2, military huts of various sorts were built there, mainly in preparation for the D-Day landings. After the War, these were squatted for some years by the homeless, bombed out during the Blitz, before being dismantled.
Somewhere on the Common -- perhaps on this side of the Avenue, perhaps the other -- there is also the concealed entrance to an underground bunker, which was to be the hideout for members of a so-called Auxiliary Unit of the "British Resistance", recruited from the Home Guard and trained in sabotage in anticipation of a German invasion. Remarkably, my grandfather was a member of this very unit; we are not a Southampton family, but in 1939 he moved here to take up a job at a printing firm, and as an ex-infantryman had joined the local Home Guard at the outbreak of war. After the war I know he showed the bunker's location to my uncle but, unsurprisingly, seventy years later he can't remember where it was. I wonder whether anybody does?