Stumbling upon the Itchen Navigation – first published 15 June 2013

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During my Moonwalk Training I’d spotted a trail at Mansbridge called the Itchen Navigation. Once I’d even attempted walking the start of it but had given up after a short while because it was muddy, overgrown and I got a bit scared. In June 2013 I found myself in Bishopstoke looking at it from a different vantage point and, taking my courage in both hands, decided to have another crack at it. After all, what was the worst that could happen?

15 June 2013

There was a plan to go to Eastleigh and walk back through Bishopstoke and Fairoak, a route I’ve not tried before. Either way I was starting by walking the familiar river path. The new hiking shoes were getting an outing. This would be their first longish walk so I had my fingers crossed I didn’t end up with blistery, painful feet.

Down by the Triangle the river was very low, the stones at the top of the bank bright with yellow sedum flowers. By the time I reached Woodmill I’d taken my coat off and tied it round my waist. The sun was out and it looked like being a beautiful, if slightly windy, day. So much for the weather forecast, I thought, cursing myself for bringing the coat at all. Across the road on the Mansbridge side of the river the ducks were all lined up on the bank sunbathing.

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Once I’d crossed the little bridge by the White Swan I took to the woodland path. It seemed a lot greener than the last time I came this way back in early May but, with the recent rain, it was still muddy in places. This was going to be a real test for my hiking boots, especially as I decided to forgo the drier route over the green bridge and walk beside the river towards the blue bridge. The first muddy puddle wasn’t too bad, there was a path skirting round it but the second was a different matter. This mud stretched right across the path and I wondered for a moment if I’d been over optimistic coming this way. In the end I put my phone in my pocket in case I slipped and picked my way across. Thankfully I made it without ending up in the river.

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It was quite a relief to reach the pretty blue bridge because I knew the path after that was nice firm gravel, even if either side is marshy. There were white comfrey flowers all along the path, mostly a little past their best and going to seed. Comfrey makes a great green manure and is a good compost activator. It’s also a medicinal plant. Commonly called bruisewort or knitbone, it has wonderful healing properties. You can make a salve by infusing it in oil to treat burns, cuts, grazes and it’s even been reputed to heal broken bones.

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Walking up towards the airport I spotted a bee ransacking a penstemon that has probably escaped from one of the nearby gardens. Everyone has been very worried about bees lately, saying there aren’t many about and blaming pesticides and disease. While I’d rather people didn’t just randomly spray pesticides about and I’ve no doubt there is a problem, I seem to be seeing lots of bees. Maybe I’m just lucky.

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The Ford factory looked deserted. Normally when I walk this way the car park is full and, depending on the time of day, there are workers coming and going. The plant is due to close for good this summer, another casualty of this depression and the ever increasing use of cheap foreign labour. It seems so sad to see yet another empty factory and to think of those men, some of whom have worked there all their lives, losing their jobs. Maybe it is cheaper to make transit vans in Turkey but what about the cost to all those men and their families just so people can save a few pounds on their vans. Then it was on past the airport with thoughts of Costa coffee in my head.

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This stretch of road is lined with lime trees some of them overhanging the path with branches so low you brush the leaves as you walk by. One tree was infested with nail gall, lots of little red horns growing through the leaves. These odd looking growths are caused by mites who spend the winter in crevices in the bark of the tree and then scuttle to the underside of the leaves to suck the sap in spring. They live inside these funny red tepees until winter when they wander back to the bark again. Luckily they don’t seem to hurt the tree at all and they actually look attractive in a weird way.

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At the Swan Centre I ordered a Coffee Cooler, the Costa equivalent of a frappuccino. Now I wish I hadn’t. When, eventually, my plastic cup was presented to me I could tell at once it wasn’t right. I don’t like making a fuss and, for a moment, I thought about just taking the iced coffee I’d been given and saying nothing, but I didn’t. “Excuse me, but this isn’t what I ordered,” I said. The young girl serving just looked at me blankly.
“It’s a Coffee Cooler.”
“No, it’s an iced coffee, they’re not the same thing. It should be crushed ice, really thick.” I explained.
“They are normally thicker,” she said, grudgingly taking it back.
There was a bit of a whispered conflab behind the counter and the lad who’d made my drink started again. What came back was still not a Coffee Cooler, although it did seem to have more ice in. I gave up and took it but I was not a happy bunny.

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So I set off on Bishopstoke Road, somewhere I’ve never walked before, although I’ve ridden my motorbike along there way back in my teens. The road leads through Fairoak and then, via a long, mainly pavementless lane, back towards my village. Crossing the Itchen I noticed it seemed to be flowing pretty fast. When I got to the sign telling me I’d reached Bishopstoke I noticed another sign. This was for the Itchen Navigation Path.

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Back when I did my first ever Moonwalk training I’d attempted this path from the other end. It leads all the way from the White Swan to Winchester. At the time I’d found it tough going, quite overgrown in places, a bit muddy but, more importantly, frightening because it was so lonely. These days lonely, off road paths don’t scare me. As I stood there wondering whether I should give it a try, a dog walker came out so I figured it must be passable. At the end of a short track there was a gate. It was a bit stiff and my tussle with the Itchen Navigation Path almost came to an end right there. Eventually I managed to open it and crossed the bridge on the other side. The river really was flowing very fast, there were foaming white eddies and a turbulent looking current. Yellow iris grew on the bank and more of those bees that are in short supply this year.

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The path ran right beside the river with fields on either side. When I came to a wooded area I found another bridge, the water beneath so clear I could see the stones, but churned up by the speed with which it flowed. After a while the trees opened out a little and there was a buttercup filled field of grazing cows. The haze of yellow flowers and the sedate animals made me glad I’d chosen to forget my original plan.

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The field was fenced off and the path was very narrow and overgrown making the river a little close for comfort. There were nettles amongst the grass and I had to step carefully to avoid brushing against them. I cursed my choice of cropped leggings and picked a dock leaf just in case. When I came to the end of the field there was a ford and I wondered if the farmer lived on the other side. More iris grew along the riverbank here and more bees.

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Then I came to another bridge. Downstream the river seemed to divide. The bridge was in a small stand of trees and, on the other side, another field with yet more cows but no buttercups, well, not many. The path seemed to be moving away from the river and, once I’d passed the cows, I saw a strange rusty gate festooned with green barbed wire. Shortly after there was a sign, Lower Bishopstoke Fisheries, Private Keep Out!

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The path I’d been walking on turned onto a wide rutted track lined with trees. Before long I could see the entrance to what I assumed was a farm. This had me worried. Maybe I’d gone the wrong way, perhaps I should have tried the gate, despite the fisheries sign. Just as I was about to turn back and check if the gate would open some dog walkers came the other way with a cheery “good morning,” so I carried on.

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Not long after this I came to a tunnel made from corrugated iron and concret blocks that looked as if they’d been made inside sandbags. Looking at WalkJogRun I could see I’d just walked under the railway line and not long after this I heard a train. From then on the terrain changed and things got a little muddy. I was glad of the waterproof hiking shoes but I still picked my way through the driest parts. At one point a pile of thick branches had been laid on the path, maybe to make it easier to get across the mud. There were more trees here too and I saw what I think may be jelly fungus on one. I’ve never seen it before but I’ve read about it on my New Hampshire friend’s blog and he knows lots about fungus.

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Shortly after this more dog walkers passed. Why was everyone going in the opposite direction to me? Did they know something I didn’t? I checked WalkJogRun run and saw I was now walking behind the airport. Not long after this I heard traffic noises. I must be nearing the motorway bridge, the place I’d turned back the first time I’d tried this path. I could just see traffic whizzing past between the trees. The river, or a tributary of it, reappeared at the exact same time I reached the bridge under the motorway. There were bulrushes beside the path. On the other side of the motorway bridge the path turned away from the water again and ran alongside the noisy motorway, shattering my peace and quiet for a while. When the path divided I carried on straight, until I realised I was heading towards the overspill car park of the Ford Factory thanks to a quick check on WalkJogRun. Thankfully I didn’t walk far and soon, I’d retraced my steps and was back where I should be. Note to self, keep to the left path coming back or the right going out.

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A little later I came to what looked like the remains of a bridge, brick and stone pillars but nothing spanning them. There was no water to cross though so maybe it wasn’t a bridge or maybe it crossed a tributary that has now dried up.

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There was a strange triangular stone beside the path with an inscription about barges. Of course this was the navigation path so I guess there were barges running along it at some time. The sign seemed to be about charges to travel from Northam, where the Big Bridge is, to Mansbridge, one shilling and three pence. Then I came to yet another bridge with sign that explained the stone and brick pillars I’d seen earlier, were supports for a lock gate. Obvious really. The Bridge was built on one of two lock gates. Three hundred years ago, barges carried wool, timber and coal from Southampton to Winchester before the railways made them unnecessary.

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In no time at all the little bridge by the White Swan came into view. I was almost home, well about two and a half miles away which is close enough. The Mansbridge swans and their seven cygnets were struggling not to drift down towards Woodmill in the fast flowing current. They had seven cygnets last year too.

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Further on, close to the mill, the canoe school was holding a lesson. As I walked towards them one canoe turned turtle dumping its occupant into the freezing river. He was climbing out as I passed. “That looks cold,” I said.
“It’s freezing,” he agreed. Rather him than me.

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On the final stretch, between Woodmill and the Triangle the wind was gusting into my face buffeting me around and making walking an effort. The poor trees bent this way and that and I decided to move away from the river for fear of being blown in. I didn’t want to end up like the wet canoeist I’d just seen.

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When I walked in the gym door and turned off the WalkJogRun I was a little short of the twelve miles I’d planned. The new hiking shoes held up well and my feet are fine, I burned over one thousand two hundred calories plus I feel pretty pleased with myself for conquering the Itchen Navigation path. Actually I only conquered about a third of it, maybe next time I’ll go the other way and make it all the way to Winchester!

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Marie

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

4 thoughts on “Stumbling upon the Itchen Navigation – first published 15 June 2013”

    1. It’s a lovely trail, about twelve miles long with lots f different flora and fauna and some interesting locks and bridges. This was the first time I’d walked any of it but I’ve since walked the whole thing in both directions. There’s always something new to see.

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