by Katie Isham.
There’s some corner of an English field, in a park by the sea, where a gate leads to remembrance. Through an avenue of determined oaks and tired leaves clinging to the autumnal branches, a path cuts through a valley to the final resting place of many taken too soon.
Netley Military Cemetery is burial site formerly attached to the hospital dating back to the mid-1800s. It’s part of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and is a peaceful, yet poignant reminder of the lives lost through conflict. This week seems like a fitting time to file through the woods of Netley to pay our respects.
Royal Victoria Country Park is one of the best outdoor spaces in the city. Its location spans the perfect space between woodland and coast with a stunning view across the Solent. This location was also ideal for hospital site. Royal Victoria Military Hospital was built here for its easy access from the water. Queen Victoria granted her support and her name to the site as she laid the foundation stone in 1856.
The building was a formidable structure and offered care and respite to injured soldiers from the Crimean War and then from practically every conflict after that until its partial demolition in the 1960s, then full closure in the 1970s.
Those buried in this cemetery include people from the First and Second World Wars as well as family members of hospital staff. The graves remember British, Australian, Canadian, Belgian, German and several other nationalities laid to rest here. The grounds also include a Cross of Sacrifice that stands to attention over the regimental lines of white markers.
Reach the sacred ground by following the path behind the chapel and through the woods, indicated by the Commonwealth War Graves sign. Walk the carpet of fallen leaves to remember the fallen soldiers. The path camouflages with the canopy as the leaves fall around you and the autumnal sunlight stretches into long shadows.
The park is generally full of life and activity, yet this corner always seems to reflect the solemnity of those memorials spreading deep into the earth alongside the roots of the great trees standing guard. Few feet walk this way most of the year; you’re unlikely to pass any other visitors. Instead, share the space with the sound of the mournful laments whistled on the wind as the rustle of leaves ushers you toward the cemetery.
Past the gates, the steep hill ahead appears through the trees protecting the spectral soldiers frozen in marble. The hills roll as the ripples of a river bringing the weary souls home to rest. There are benches dotted along the highest crest of the garden. Take a moment to pause and reflect.
We know what Remembrance Day means. We shall not forget the sacrifice of those who have fought to protect our freedom. But sometimes, it’s worth really taking a moment to think. Each of these graves represents a young life ripped away from its family. Wrenched away from safety and comfort. For us. For us to have the freedom to live our lives the way we wish.
The graves at Netley Military Cemetery are a tiny representation of those who died for us. These hillsides of remembrance barely scratch the surface of the losses of families and communities here in Southampton and across the world.
Sitting under clear autumnal skies, blessed by the kaleidoscope of colours and the vibrancy of the changing seasons, legs contented from walking their own course, it’s always worth remembering. Remembering what we’ve been through and what we can learn as citizens of this world. Visit those who call this cemetery home, both the commemorations of lives taken too soon and the life that flourishes in the nature of the park around them, for us. Lest we forget.
Cost: Wandering through the cemetery is free. Parking charges apply in Royal Victoria Country Park. Any stops in the café, restaurant or shop may incur expenditure.
Accessibility: The paths towards the cemetery are paved but often covered with slippery leaves. The main paths through the cemetery are also paved but you can cross the grass through the graves. Some of the graves are sited on particularly steep inclines. Royal Victoria Country Park sits on the eastern banks of Southampton Water and is easily accessible from Netley or Hamble train stations.
Facilities: No facilities much more than a few benches in the cemetery but down in the main park, there are toilets, a café, a restaurant and a shop. Also, the chapel and tower that used be part of the Royal Victoria Military Hospital are open for further remembrance and historical information.
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