13 July 2015
Back in March I paid my first visit to the viaduct and, as CJ loves all things train, I was sure he would like it. Before long we were walking up the slope and CJ, his walking stick still in his hand, looked ahead and said “cinders and ashes,” quoting Thomas The Tank Engine I believe. We set off across the viaduct with me pointing out the benches and the lovely colourful woodcarvings in the shelters where the linesmen would have stood to let trains go past.
We snapped away at the views over the water meadows where the silver ribbon of the Itchen meandered. CJ got very excited about the restored signal and the old signal base and finally we reached the other side. Now we’d seen the viaduct from above I was hopeful we’d be able to get photos from below. If we walked along Five Bridges Road I knew we’d see it but, with the sun behind it, photos would be useless and we’d have to walk almost half way along the road at that. I thought we might have better luck walking along the verge of the Hockley Link Road. It turned out to be a wasted walk as the trees were too thick but at least we tried. From the M3 there are wonderful views but even I’m not silly enough to try to walk along there.
In the end I had to make do with what Wikimedia Commons had to offer. Beggars can’t be choosers I suppose. On the way back we did look to see if there was a way down behind the trees. It seemed as if we might have been able to get there had we been brave enough but CJ shook his head and gave me a look that said “don’t even think about it,” so we walked back across the viaduct instead.
There is one more piece of viaduct spanning the old Winchester Twyford Road that is now the footoath past St Catherine’s Hill. It’s disconnected from the viaduct walk but as we walked towards it I noticed a railing along the top. Surely there must be a way up there if someone had taken the trouble to put up a railing? Wanting to show off a little, I clambered through the trees and up the steep bank onto it. CJ looked at me as if I’d gone mad but I got an interesting photo looking down on the old road and the arch. It almost made up for not getting a decent photo of the viaduct from below.
When we reached the gate we’d left Plague Pits Valley by there were the sheep we’d been warned about, peacefully grazing a little way from the fence. Whether we’d passed them earlier without noticing or the farmer had put them out to pasture since we couldn’t tell. Some time ago I watched a farmer decanting cows from a lorry through the same gate. The farmers are allowed to let their livestock loose here to keep the grass short which is more environmentally friendly than mowing and cheaper for Winchester Council too I’d think.
St Catherine’s Hill, our silent companion for so much of this walk, loomed above us, a few walkers on the slopes. The rough grass at the bottom was a mass of wildflowers and the secrets of the earthworks on the eastern side still shrouded in mystery and hidden from us. It was quarter to three and we had a train to catch so they would have to wait for another day.
CJ spotted cows grazing in a field on the other side of the woefully dry and muddy Navigation and clambered down the low bank for a better photo. A few moments later he came back up.
“You can’t see them from down there,” he said, “the trees get in the way.”
“That is actually the real Navigation towpath,” I told him. “We could walk along there but it is narrow and a bit eroded in places, besides, there’s something up here I want to show you.”
Beneath the bank side trees dark mullen was growing, the bright yellow flowers and furry magenta anthers unmistakeable. A mass of forget me nots made a colourful backdrop and CJ waited patiently while I tried to take a decent photo. When we came to the barge bench, about half way along the path, I expected CJ to be impressed. Even when I pointed out the engraved names of the bargemen he seemed distinctly underwhelmed. Maybe taking the high road to see it had been a mistake? He did smile when I pointed out the name Northam Wharf, carved on the far end but it wasn’t quite the reception I’d hoped. Perhaps you need to have walked from Northam to Winchester to appreciate its full significance?
We were almost in sight of the end of the trail at Tunbridge when CJ called out, “Look Mum, there are swans down there,” pointing through the trees.
He wanted a photo because these were the first swans we’d seen all day and when we peered down the bank there were two tiny cygnets.
“We should have walked along the towpath,” I said, regretting taking the high road to show him the barge bench. “We could have got some nice close up shots.”
“They’d probably have swum away from us if we’d been down there,” he said. He was probably right.
As we’d already walked along Domum Road on the way to the Plague Pits I decided to go down the steps and cross the Winchester College playing fields. In part this was to see exactly what the dredgers were up to. It wasn’t a pretty sight. The huge yellow dredger was gobbling up the mud from the bottom of the river like some gigantic dinosaur, churning up the water and turning it to a brown mess with floating, uprooted weeds. The mud was being dumped unceremoniously onto the towpath in a massive cracked and sludgy mess.
I couldn’t help wondering what is going to become of the Navigation path here or the river for that matter. It’s all very well making one little stretch deeper the better to facilitate rowing for the students, but downstream things are drying out and silting up. The towpath and the bank side plants that stop it eroding will take years to recover. Even upstream by the hatches the water level is low and the banks are drying out and cracking. Perhaps there is some master plan I don’t know about but somehow I doubt it. The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust seem to agree with me. Only time will tell.
There was one more thing I wanted to show CJ before we caught our train home. We grabbed a takeaway coffee to keep us going and marched up to the top of the High Street with one eye on the time. Outside the Hampshire County Council offices is one of my favourite sculptures, a bronze Hampshire hog, they symbol of the county. It was one last thing to make CJ smile and a fitting end to our Winchester Adventure.
lt had been a day of disappointments mixed with pleasant surprises. The dredgers stopped us taking the towpath and made me worry about the river, the locked gate stopped us exploring the earthworks. On the plus side we saw a castle we hadn’t expected, sheep and surprise cygnets and we explored the viaduct, even if we couldn’t get the photos we wanted. All in all I’d say it was a success.