A city of stories

Portsmouth, or as it’s affectionately known, Pompey, has so many stories. 

Of course, everyone has heard of Charles Dickens, born in this city, and Arthur Conan Doyle, who invented Sherlock Holmes while practicing medicine near Elm Grove. Everyone knows their novels and short stories and, I suppose, it was inevitable that I'd base one of my own stories here. The Wretched is that story, a creepy and horrifying tale of a malevolent and evil force rising up to affect and change the lives of two teenage boys. 

Growing up in Stamshaw, with friends next door and across the road, and enemies a little farther out, was largely a happy time. Pushing an arm through a mound of building sand - dumped in the road for a nearby house renovation - to make tunnels to drive my Matchbox cars through; cycling to Hilsea, Foxes Forest, and around the island; and setting up ‘dens’ in trees that overhung the garages at the end of our road:

I’d lived in Portsmouth my entire life. The city was different back then, during the seventies and eighties. The place was an urban sprawl but there were still places to explore. It had yet to develop into the built-up and student-saturated island that would extinguish the places where a teenager with a sense of adventure could go and explore.

David E. Gates, , The Wretched, 2016

Childhoods past

Climbing through the railings underneath Clarence Pier is a particular memory. Memories of a time when, unlike today, children largely played outside, in the streets, shouting ‘car!’ at the occasional interruption to whatever game we were playing in the road, forcing us to suspend our activity and wait for the vehicle to pass:

The fair, Clarence Pier, right on Southsea seafront near the hovercraft terminal, was busy. People moved in every direction, going from ride to ride. We'd ridden all of them at one time or another. The only ride I didn't like, but which Eddie loved, was the Meteor. It was a huge horizontal round cage, which spun clockwise. The centrifugal force of the ride pinned you to the outside of the structure. Once up to speed, the machine would then lift the rotating cage until it was perpendicular to the ground, still rotating and holding people in place against the wire mesh that ran around the outside of the circle of metal. I'd seen someone vomit on it once. All but one person on the ride had been hit.

David E. Gates, , The Wretched, 2016

I was nearly struck by lightning during a storm as myself and a friend made a run for it from the Monkey House (there were no monkeys) in Alexandra Park, only returning there to wait it out after the bright flash and incredibly large ‘bang’ stopped us in our tracks. 

‘We thought it had hit you,’ one of the people taking shelter told us. 

Pompey explorers and the scrapyard

I would explore the locale, especially areas ‘prohibited’ unless you lived there. Like the back of the flats in Winstanley Road, or sitting and chatting with Joey Noble in the uppermost landing which led to nowhere of the large block of flats that stood between Winstanley Road and Newcomen Road. 

I, and sometimes my friends, would jimmy along ropes to get onto barges that allowed access to Harry Pounds’ scrapyard. We’d explore the military tanks containing empty ammunition shells hidden under giant concrete weights used for mooring ships to and enjoy the intense heat within the abandoned hovercraft that waited to be stripped of its useful wares upon the beach: 

One such place that the ravages of development had yet to reach was the scrapyard. Owned by a local man, by the name of Pounds, the scrapyard was a huge estate of broken, worn-out and derelict vehicles, sitting on plinths and waste ground, waiting for the stripping down and recycling of anything of worth from their innards and exteriors. A dangerous place, if you were aware of the potential for things to go wrong. But for me, a fourteen-year-old pubescent teen, it was a treasure trove of discovery. Not just of the machines that littered the large expanse of land adjacent to Alexandra Park, but of myself and my sexuality. Pounds' scrapyard was an Aladdin's cave of adventure and wonderment for people like me and Eddie. Situated on an area of wasteland on the edge of Stamshaw Harbour and half alongside Alexandra Park, it was a maze of junk of every description.

David E. Gates,, The Wretched, 2016

It’s hard to convey a true sense of the wonder of it all to boys of our age:

Every kind of transport that ever existed seemed to have ended up there at one time or another. Everything from cars to cranes, helicopters to hovercrafts. The scrapyard was an array of broken machinery and battered, tired and worn-out vehicles. Motorcycles, trains, military transport vehicles, airplane engines and the empty husks of buses and boats peppered the area, with no clear organisation as to where they were placed. Like ghosts trapped in a turgid purgatory, these once wondrous inventions sat frozen in a lake of mud and metal; their final resting places remained undetermined whilst they awaited their eventual fate of being stripped of all that was of value. There were old warships and barges moored to wharfs which were only accessible from the scrapyard itself or from the road that led up to the Mountbatten Leisure Centre, located in the grounds of Alexandra Park. Huge army tanks were buried under massive blocks of granite, which were stacked unevenly in a huge pile by the shoreline. We'd frequently climbed on and under the huge blocks, about a metre or two wide and high, with no regard for the fact that should they have moved we'd most certainly be crushed or trapped. A large diesel locomotive, its painted livery faded and peeling, stood to the side of one of the paths. This once great and powerful engine looked stranded without rails to take it anywhere.

David E. Gates, , The Wretched, 2016.

Pompey spectres

We'd hear tales of hauntings. Of boats in the harbour, awaiting the same fate as the hovercraft, that had lost crewmen whose spirits roamed their narrow corridors, engine rooms and decks, cursing all those that they encountered:

We walked along the road, heading for Tipner Lake, which was on the other side of the motorway. Tipner Lake was another small harbour where they brought the new ships and other sea-going vehicles before moving them into the area of the scrapyard that we frequented. I could see right into Stamshaw harbour which was enclosed between Alexandra Park and the M275 motorway, on the western side of the island of Portsmouth. The boats were all leaning to one side, their liquid support having run away in eddies and rivulets of salt water, which now sparkled in the late sunshine, towards the main harbour and onwards into the Solent and the Atlantic Ocean beyond.

David E. Gates,, The Wretched, 2016.

Relatives or parents would relay stories behind the Mother Shipton statue that adorned the frontage of the pub bearing the same name. Folklore, that I would share - and which would scare my sisters to the point where they'd run to my mother screaming and I would suffer a beating by horse crop for upsetting them - that suggested whatever fate befell the statue would fall upon the residents of the public house:

I'd heard stories of a prophetess named Ursula Southeil, pronounced ‘sooth-tell’, who was known locally as ‘The Mother Shipton’. A hideous woman, born from a fifteen-year-old mother rumoured to have existed in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. She was a strange woman, both in looks and in nature. Her nose was large and crooked, her back bent and her legs twisted. She allegedly became a magnet for people from far and wide who came in search of her strange powers and remarkable prophecies. Prophecies that were made folklore only by the fact her surname bore semblance to ‘sooth-teller’. Mother Shipton's orphaned fifteen-year-old mother, Agatha, was said to have cavorted with the Devil. The Devil, it was said, tricked her into unseemly behaviour, giving her the power to shapeshift, change the weather, tell the future and the past, heal or destroy. And it was believed some, if not all, of these powers were transferred to her offspring. There was even a pub, located near to where I grew up in Portsmouth, named after her. I’d scare my sisters with stories of how she would be coming to get them and how she would tap upon the windows as she flew from house to house seeking out rotten souls before returning to a derelict property to hide away.

David E. Gates,, The Wretched, 2016.

These and many other tales found shape in The Wretched, a story partly based on real events from my life and partly on the legends and myths behind some of the spookier tellings that have been handed down from one generation of Pompeyites to the next. This blog, I hope, gives a flavour of all of that.

A legendary city

Portsmouth, Pompey, is legendary for many things: its history, its people, its football team, among them. 

But, for all those that visit, or have grown up there, the memories of the island, its influence and its own unique language (you will very rarely hear the words ‘squinny’ or ‘dinlo’ uttered outside its borders) are, along with its unique topography, what make it what it is. 

Portsmouth, Pompey. Forever. 

David E. Gates is the award-winning and prize-winning author of Access Denied, The Wretched, The Roots of Evil, The Ghost of Clothes, Omonolidee, First Words, and Unzipped: The Mind of a Madman and The Deeper Roots of Evil, along with numerous short stories, poems and articles.

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