Mystery of the ship among the trees

Guest writer Tim Pinks discovers how a Royal Navy vessel came to be transformed into an ancient woodland burial ground

SO how does, exactly, one of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy ships (originally one of His Majesty’s) become a beautiful burial ground in an ancient English woodland?

And how did a little piece of coincidence ensure my father, who was alive on the one…come to rest eternally in the other?

And one other question. How did something that was commissioned for war and destruction (but also for our defence and freedom), become something dedicated to nature and renewal, to our natural history, and rebirth?

Well, with a little bit of literary sleight of hand, an abracadabra and a touch of Tommy Cooper (one of dad’s favourites), just like this…

During World War Two (that’s the one after the one that ended all wars), Portsmouth was heavily bombed due to it being the Royal Navy’s biggest base. Among the many operations there was the Signal School. Communications, in other words. It was actually housed near HMS Victory.

So after heavy bombing in 1940 and ’41, it was decided that some of these services had to be moved, and hidden around the country. The signalling school was one of them.

On April 19, 1941, a place called Leydene House was approved to be requisitioned, and by August 16 it was commissioned as a land ship and the Signal School had a new home. They moved into the massive house, set within the lovely Hyden Wood, and the land ship HMS Mercury was launched. It was only a lucky 13 miles north from Portsmouth as the Solent seabird flies.

Leydene House was built for Viscount Robert and Lady Peel in the years after the Great War. Yes, that one, the war that ended all…anyway, once completed it was described by L.H Troyde thus: “No larger house has been built for at least half a century, or has been built since.” Over the years and decades, HMS Mercury was expanded until it was practically the size of a large village or small town.

Also over the years, King George VI (1943), Earl Mountbatten (1956 and ’58) and Queen Elizabeth II and Duke of Edinburgh (1991) visited, the latter on the occasion of its 50th birthday…along with the hundreds of thousands who had of course been piped aboard its woodland setting. Under such a canopy of trees with their resident birds, tweeted aboard, perhaps, would be more apt…

Up to half a million people passed through, it’s believed. Prince Charles was to visit too, in 2006, but by then, that whole little naval woodland world had changed.

Oh, and why ‘Mercury?’ Well, because, like many of the ancient Roman gods, Mercury was a god of many things…including messages and communication.

And then, in 1993…it closed down. Many, many of the old buildings were still there. There was even a cinema. So how did this ship (OK, yes, a land ship…well I did say there’d be a little bit of literary sleight of hand) turn into an ancient woodland? Well, it was already built in the woods, of course, to hide it from German bombing, so there were trees galore.

And so the great metamorphosis began. Most of the land was handed over to the Defence Land Registry and nearly all the buildings were demolished. Some 55 acres were gifted to a newly created Earthworks Trust to help set up The Sustainability Centre. Between then and now, all sorts of things would happen, all green, all good, and all sympathetic to the area.

The Sustainability Centre? Yes, and this is what they’re for, to quote from their own mission statement: “to demonstrate, develop and promote knowledge, skills, technologies and lifestyles that improve people’s quality of life without damaging the local and global environment.” 

There is a campsite which originally was just for ‘traditional camping’ but now has the added attraction of tipis and yurts to stay in.

If you’re an ageing crock like me and find getting up off the floor hard – funny, I find it easy enough to slide off my bar stool to get down there – then one of the few surviving buildings was converted into a green, eco-friendly hostel. So, happily, 2004 saw the opening of The Wetherdown Lodge.

And soon, very soon (work has gone on during the pandemic), the Longdown Wing of the lodge is due to be opened. I can’t wait.

There is more, so much more, to tell you about the old wood that became a ship. About how it is being reconverted into the ancient woodland it once was. About the surviving buildings that became the heart of a green revolution. And about the surrounding woodlands that became a natural burial site.

For this is the one thing I’ve kept secret up to now. As part of the re-rigging of the old boat, in 1997 the South Downs Natural Burial Site was set up and now trees, instead of crosses, stand in memorial over those who rest eternally there.

Among whom is my father, Alfred Herbert George Pinks. Known to everyone as ‘Bill’. You see, like his father before him, he joined the Royal Navy. And apparently, anyone who joined the navy who had the surname ‘Pinks’ was nicknamed ‘Bill.’ Anyway, Dad joined up towards the end of the war, 1944, and he ended up in communications…

… And here is where another twist of fate comes in. My father died rather too quickly, aged 81, in 2006, and it all happened too fast to ask him, if the worst came to the worst, where and how he’d like to be buried. But our mother – I have a brother, Mike – had picked up a couple of items about ‘natural burials’ and the one at HMS Mercury just grabbed us instantly.

It was only after he’d died and we were quickly arranging things and checking places out that we learnt it had been developed in the war for the signals section. And with goose pimples on the skin and shivers down the spine, the possibility that dad had served there was too big a coincidence to ignore.

Also, on a completely different note, the big motorbike I’d bought once I’d passed my test back in 1980 was a 650cc Norton. It was my dad the engineer who rebuilt the thing on his own into the beauty it became. The well-known version of the model was the twin carb ‘SS’ model – the super sports.

But when they took one of the carbs off to make it into a ‘touring’ model, they gave it another name – the Norton 650cc Mercury. Well, well. Sometimes you just can’t script it. I love a good coincidence, even though I do wonder sometimes if they really are coincidences…

One day, if they exist, I would like to view my dad’s service records, and see where he went. Was he, while he was based at Portsmouth, sent with others for a visit to the signal section up at HMS Mercury? Was he based there, but never mentioned it, even after I got a Norton Mercury? It’s of little matter. Dad loved the woods. He loved gardens and flowers and birds and animals, and always the woods.

And he loved walking among the trees. Before his knees got too bad he went on woodland walks with his friends (with a pub as an important part of the outing). After his knees were fixed he kept on going on woodland walks with his friends. Of course, still with a pub somewhere along the way too… So my brother and I have no doubt he’d have been very happy with the site we chose, among this island’s countryside he loved so much.

What else is there, near-abouts? Lots, actually. Apart from beautiful scenery of course, there’s Butser Ancient Farm and Old Winchester Hill, an area rich in Mesolithic archaeology, from those Stone Age hunter-gatherers from after the ice age. There are Bronze Age barrows and an Iron Age hillfort.

There are the remains of a Roman villa nearby at Bury Lodge, and perhaps best, for some, and most English of all, one of the two Hambledons in England. (The other is in Surrey, and there is a Hambleden in Buckinghamshire.) But this one is Hambledon, Hampshire, and it has an oh-so-typically-English claim to fame. It’s the birthplace of cricket.

Up the road, next to the Bat and Ball pub, is the delightfully named Broadhalfpenny Down, where England’s leading cricket club played their cricket from 1765 until the MCC formed in 1787. And the stumps are still standing as they still play cricket there…

But best of all, for my brother and I, a short distance over some fields and hedgerows, and some tracks and woods, is the old HMS Mercury, now the South Downs Natural Burial Site, where my once, always, and future father lies, among the tree-filled woods he loved to walk in so much.

My thanks to one Chris Rickard for his 50-page history of HMS Mercury, and to Christina Seaward at the Sustainability Centre for sending me the Sustainability Centre History booklet, and their permission to use any of their photos that don’t show individuals. Thanks too to Al Blake, the manager, for sending me a load of those photos. There will be more about the place and the people, and the flora and fauna, once we’re unlocked again and can wander, hither and thither, free and happy as clouds….

I shall leave you with a poem, which sums up the beauty of being buried in our beautiful woods. It’s becoming very popular at woodland funerals and it’s going to be read at mine too. Though hopefully not quite yet! I don’t care if it’s one day looked upon as being as common as Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ for a funeral…it’s a lovely poem.

It’s by the incomparable Pam Ayres, and combines not just her humour and heart, but her insightful sensitivity.

Woodland Burial, by Pam Ayres

Don’t lay me in some gloomy churchyard shaded by a wall
Where the dust of ancient bones has spread a dryness over all,
Lay me in some leafy loam where, sheltered from the cold
Little seeds investigate and tender leaves unfold.
There kindly and affectionately, plant a native tree
To grow resplendent before God and hold some part of me.
The roots will not disturb me as they wend their peaceful way
To build the fine and bountiful, from closure and decay.
To seek their small requirements so that when their work is done
I’ll be tall and standing strongly in the beauty of the sun.

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