the unexplored path – first published 26 May 2013

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A sunny Sunday in late May, and a new pair of walking boots seemed like a good excuse for a walk, as if I ever needed one. Add to that a path I’d been meaning to explore for a while and you have a nice little afternoon stroll. As it happened it wasn’t quite what I’d hoped but at least I ticked it off my list.

26 May 2013

After we’d all had lunch Commando Senior said he was going to have a nap so I thought I’d try out the hiking shoes Commando bought me for my birthday. Obviously, as they are new it wouldn’t have been wise to go too far in them so I decided to explore the footpath along the water’s edge down by Gigi’s cutway. CJ reckoned it was possible to walk all the way along the bay there but I wasn’t so sure. I had an idea it would be a dead end but, either way, I thought it would be well worth checking out. There are two gates leading to this path, just a few yards apart and I walk past them often on my way to work. Every time I see them I wonder where the path leads but, until today, I’ve never really had the chance to find out.

There was spirea growing by the little railway bridge, hundreds of tiny five petaled white flowers intertwined with the privet growing wild there. A little further along I smelt the scent of lilac long before I saw the white flowers. I’m sure my own purple lilac has a stronger scent but both are unmistakeable. Down the slope I decided to take the first gate being careful of the nettles growing along the path. From bright sun the dappled shade of the woodland path felt chilly and I wondered if I should have worn a jacket rather than a sleeveless top over my cropped jeans. There may have been hawthorn flowers in abundance but it still felt like I’d cast a clout a little soon.

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The path runs between the railway track and the river although the trees are so dense in places it isn’t always possible to see either. This tiny wooded area is actually a remnant of the ancient woodland that once covered the whole area, including the place my little house now stands. Mostly it’s made up of oak and birch with trees growing right down to the water’s edge. Every so often little trails run from the main, man made path, down to the river. This is the only semi natural shore left on the river Itchen.

There were patches of bluebell here and there along with white squills. Studying the undergrowth for plants certainly slowed me down but this wasn’t a walk where time really mattered. When the path divided I took the lower option keeping close to the river, if necessary I could explore the other trail later but I was pretty sure the two joined again a little further along. Being such a narrow band of woodland with the railway line right beside the higher path there was really no where else it could go.

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My path led me almost to the shore and I looked out over the river where the sunlight danced. With the trees almost dipping their roots into the salt water I wondered how they survive. When I spotted yellow water iris amongst the reeds I took one of the side trails to get a closer look and was rewarded by the sight of two swans bobbing about on the waves. The oak tree branches here actually bend right into the river.

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Once I climbed back onto the proper path I came to a little bridge over a small stream. When I’d crossed this I saw tall ferns, not ten foot tall like those mentioned by my friend in New Hampshire in his recent blog but above my sboulder so a good four feet tall. Along this part of the path amongst the ubiquitous dandelion clocks I also saw buttercups and stitchwort, of course I wasn’t sure what the little white flowers were at the time, with the five pretty petals so deeply cut they look to have ten. Even at home it took me a while to identify it.

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The path wound around the bend in the river and now and again I’d get a glimpse of the water through gaps in the trees. Here I could see the water lapping at the gravelly shore and two more swans, or perhaps they were the ones I’d seen earlier. I could also hear voices and music. There were a group of young lads right on the shore fishing. They had a radio on which seemed a shame when the birds were singing. I left them to their fishing and carried on, although I was worried the path was running out as it got closer and closer to the shore.

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This was where I noticed the little blue flowers of Veronica growing beside some driftwood. One tree looked at first to have been burnt and I wondered if the lads who fish along here had been lighting fires but on closer inspection it was actually black lichen. Then the path really did run out. Had the tide been out I could probably have walked along the shore for the last bit because I could see form WalkJogRun that the road leading through the little shipyard was less than half a mile away. There was a very thin trail leading into the woods but it was so narrow and poorly defined with brambles and branches crowding over it I didn’t dare attempt it, especially as I wasn’t certain if it would lead anywhere or just peter out. I was fairly convinced it would be the latter option. Maybe I will have to study the tide times before I try this path again or even try it from the opposite direction in the ship yard.

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When I turned to go back I spotted a lone black swan on the water. I must have walked past him going the other way and not seen him. Black swans are quite a rarity, originating in Australia and brought to the UK as ornamental birds for private collections, some escaped into the wild but when they were last counted, in 2003, they numbered just forty three. Some time ago I saw a black swan on the river down by Riverside Park so I’m guessing this is likely to be the same one. What a lonely life he must lead.

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Feeling slightly disappointed that I’d not been able to go further I made my way back through the trees towards the two gates, wondering as I did if the trees I passed really were left over from that ancient forest or if these were merely their descendants. Their trunks were fairly thick and I know it’s possible to estimate the age of a tree from this but I had nothing to measure with, besides, I should think growing on the sandy clay right at the edge of the river would be likely to make them slower growing than most.

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My next problem was where to go next. I’d been out for around half an hour and walked barely a mile, mostly due to all the stopping to look at things, going home so soon after such a pathetic distance seemed like a cop out but where else to go? The woods behind the green were one option, they’re part of the same ancient woodland after all and it might have been interesting to compare the two. As it was only days ago I last walked that way I decided against it though and plumped instead for the little bit of woodland by the Manor House. I’ve only ever walked that way once and it was quite a while ago, plus it meant passing the odd little castle turned into a house and that was bound to make me smile.

Most of the walk was along the main road which was hardly what I’d planned originally but then this walk was more about discovering the path I’d just explored and breaking in my new hiking shoes than anything else. As it was Sunday the road wasn’t too difficult to cross and I set off along Vespatian Road. This road is named after the Roman Emporor who built the Collusseum and played a part in the invasion of Britian back in 43AD. He and his armies marched through Hampshire, subjugating the natives and soon after the invasion the town of Clausentum was built on this very spot.

Right on the corner I came to the dumpy little castle that is actually a house sandwiched between two normal houses. This folly is more reminiscent of a chess board rook than a real castle but still it must be nice to live in a castle, however small and however quirky. Since my last visit in February the roses around the door have blossomed making this one of the most welcoming looking castles you are ever likely to see.

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Before too long I came to the entrance to the little piece of woodland by the Manor House. This hosue has existed in one form or another since at least Norman times and was built from the stones of Clausentum. Owned and used by the Bishop of Winchester and his court while on his travels it was a distribution centre for wine and salt. The salt was actually panned in the river Itchen. It has a long and troubled history, used as a farm until labour became too scarce after the black death, the house and farm land was let to tenants and tenant farmers for more than four hundred years.

In the early part of the nineteenth century the house was sold and the new owner rebuilt it. Then in the middle of the nineteenth century the chairman of the Southampton Dock Company, Steuart MacNaughten, married into the family and took up residence. The property remained in the MacNaughten family until, badly bomb damaged during World War II, it was sold to an architect and converted into fourteen private apartments which is how it remains today. Local road names, Steuart Road and MacNaughten Road celebrate this family but I wonder how many of the residents are even aware of this fact?

Along by the river there is a grassy area with benches and I’d thought to sit and look over the water for a while but there were too many people about. One family even seemed to be having a barbecue. In the end I walked through the woods back to the road where I could just barely glimpse the house through the leafy trees. There was nothing for it to cross the main road again and make my way home along the waterside path I use so often. Of course this led me past the big old eucalyptus tree and the viewing platform, right back to the two gates.

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As I hadn’t actually gone through the lower gate I decided I would walk that way until the path rejoined the one I’d already taken, just in case there was something I’d missed. It turned out that the paths come together within a few yards so I walked back up the slope to the railway bridge and it was here that I saw the last interesting plant of the day, oxalis, or wood sorrel, covered with pretty pink flowers. These are edible but quite bitter and traditionally used to cure a variety of illnesses such as sore throat, cramps, fever and nausea, they are also a source of vitamin C but, in very large doses, can be slightly toxic.

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So that was my first outing in my new boots, just over two and a half miles and it took me more than an hour but, still, it was interesting and I have another woodland path to add to my list. My boots did fine, they didn’t rub and I have no blisters. Having said that they do feel quite strange after the Skechers and I think they’ll take a bit more breaking in yet.

 

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Marie

Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

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