The tunnel seemed incredibly dark after the bright sunshine outside…I was a bit apprehensive, but I held on tight to my Grandpa’s hand and walked forwards into the inky blackness… I could hear fairground music coming from somewhere ahead, but instead of cheering me up, I just felt sick, and apprehensive.
It was 1969 and I was 7 years old; enjoying a day out with my grandparents visiting Southsea Model Village. It’s very secluded, with high walls, built on the remnants of Lumps Fort, a Victorian shore defence used up until the end of World War I. I had a lovely time, exploring the little houses, and climbing the hill to the model castle which overlooked the sparkling waters of the Solent and the Isle of Wight.
It was really hot so we went down the 100ft Rifleman’s Tunnel to cool down for a few minutes. It leads down through the hill to a miniature fairground display; the sound of the fairground organ music floated up the tunnel as we walked down the slope.
My grandparents were looking at the displays, but my gaze was fixed on a dummy dressed in a soldier’s uniform with a thick overcoat over the top; he was a bit too realistic for my liking, with a bloodstained and dirty face. I looked away…but felt compelled to glance back after a minute or so…and he had moved! He was a few feet away from his original spot; I was scared stiff and ran as fast as I could back up the tunnel!
I completely forgot this incident until one summer in the mid 1990’s; I had two young children of my own and one summer’s day, I took them to visit the model village… Time stood still as we walked into the secluded garden; it hadn’t changed at all, and felt like a place from another era.
As they explored, the boys discovered the Rifleman’s Tunnel and of course, hurtled down to investigate. I was reluctant to chase them-I didn’t like tunnels-and the eerie sound of the fairground music floating up was making me feel really nervous. However, after five minutes of calling, I had no choice, I had to follow them. I took a deep breath, and walked into the semi darkness. The further I walked, the more scared I became, but I had to find the boys.
The tunnel opened out into the brick lined vault with the same displays; and of course as soon as I appeared, the boys shot off past me and ran back out into the sunshine, the echoes of their laughter ringing in my ears. I was alone-or was I?
As I turned to follow them my breath caught in my throat as I saw him. The soldier was stood in the corner to the right of the tunnel-the memories flooded back and my heart was pounding in my chest. I was terrified and about to flee when something made me stop. I stood and stared at him, taking in the details of his appearance. He was very young; his filthy uniform was ill fitting, the overcoat miles too big and hanging off his thin frame. His face was dirty and covered in scrapes with blood mixing in with the dirt. His hands just hung by his sides, these too were covered in scrapes, the nails broken and black, as though he had been scrabbling out of a muddy hole. His eyes were open but unfocused as though he was exhausted beyond his endurance. As I watched he took three steps forwards and looked directly at me; he opened his mouth as if to speak, but nothing came out. I had the strongest impression that he somehow remembered me from that other summer’s day, so long ago, and even that perhaps he had been waiting for me to come back. Another step forward and he raised his hands as if to plead for help-and then vanished into thin air…
I slowly walked back up the tunnel to the warmth of the sunshine and the sound of the children playing, collapsed onto a bench and sobbed. I will probably never know who he was or why he was down there, but as a mother and a human being I felt an overwhelming desire to ‘do something’ to try and help before I left, so I offered up a prayer to whoever might be listening to come and ‘rescue’ him.
Although I have been back many times since then the soldier has not reappeared, so perhaps he is at rest now…I hope so.
Southsea Model Village was built on the site of Lumps Fort, which was originally constructed between 1859 and 1869 for the defence of Portsmouth, located towards the eastern end of Southsea promenade. By 1902 it was armed as a coastal battery but the guns were removed in 1906. The fort was armed once more in 1914 as a beach defence battery and mounted a 6-pounder Hotchkiss heavy anti-aircraft gun. It was demolished at the end of the First World War, however, it was still in use by the military right up until the end of the Second World War; in particular, the SBS used it for training. The outline is still visible and websites such as Google Earth show it very clearly. In addition to the Model Village there is also an extensive rose garden on the site.
Although today this a beautiful and peaceful location, it was a rough and disreputable place back in the late Victorian period, somewhere that you would think twice about venturing out to for fear of being robbed, mugged or worse…
©Michelle Jones 2012