There are three main bridges across the Itchen but in June 2013, with a bit of creative thinking, I managed to fit seven into my seven mile walk. Numbers aren’t really my thing but some have a certain magic, seven is one of those. Actually mathematicians such as Pythagoras believed that certain numbers were mystical or lucky as much as they did their mathematical theories. So, if I’m nuts, I’m in good company.
23 June 2013
After a quick breakfast and a read of the last two posts on Ella’s blog, which made me feel strangely uplifted and eager to appreciate being alive, I set off on my river crossing fest. The weather was damp and drizzly but I wasn’t going to let anything spoil my good mood so I zipped up my wind and waterproof coat and set off. Bridge number one was Northam Bridge, the first major prestressed concrete road bridge in the United Kingdom. The idea of David Lance, whose estate was on the land where my little house now stands, it was built in 1799 to give better access to his property. Ninety years later the old wooden bridge was replaced by an iron bridge. Today’s concrete bridge was built in 1954 by Rendel Palmer and Tritton, who were also responsible for Waterloo Bridge in London.
Just after I’d hit the one mile mark I reached the steps to the sailing club slipway. At the bottom I set off along the riverbank. The path is good solid gravel bordered by raggedy grass and a few wild flowers. It follows the bend of the river past an industrial estate where I once worked overlooking the water. There were pink wild carrot amongst the normal assortment of dandelions, daisies, ragwort and buttercups.
At the rocky area beside my old office a pair of swans were rooting around in the shallows. They didn’t seem bothered by me and carried on searching for food. At the boardwalk I noticed the sunken wreck of a houseboat. When I worked in the office a hippy couple and their dog used to live on it. It must have been damp and freezing in winter and our boss, a huge bear of a Dutchman, would go out occasionally with food parcels. I wonder where they went?
A speedboat passed, towing another speedboat. I had no idea boats towed each other. On the far side I left the river for a while and walked the backstreets towards my second bridge of the day. Cobden Bridge was built in 1883 to link Bitterne Park, at the time a new village built by the National Liberal Land Company, with St Denys on the other side of the Itchen. The first iron bridge opened with the promise to be “free to the public forever,” while a toll had to be paid to cross the older Northam Bridge. Named after Richard Cobden, a Liberal Politician the iron bridge lasted until 1928, when it was replaced by this concrete bridge, manly to cope with increased traffic.
From the riverbank it’s easy to see that Cobden Bridge is a traditional arched bridge and far prettier from below than the rather square looking bridge at Northam. It’s also much smaller. I didn’t hang around because I had five more bridges to cross but a little further along the riverbank I did stop again, with good reason. Amongst all the swans gathered close to the jetty there was a black swan.
Black swans are natives of Australia and were introduced into Britain as ornamental birds . They are nomadic and monogamous, just like the white swans but, unlike them, they are often found singly. There are very few living wild in the UK. Sadly I think this is a lone bird. Last year I saw him at this same spot but it seemed as if the other swans didn’t want him around. Not long ago I spotted him down at Chessel Bay a good two miles away, at least I think it was him, how many black swans can there be along here? Seeing him swimming along with all the white swans and seeming quite happy in their company made me feel good. He seems to have made some friends, even if they’re not quite the right species. What a pity he doesn’t have a mate, I’d love to see some little black cygnets.
The canoeists were making their way down river, a little close to the swans for comfort. One white swan took off and very nearly sent a rower overboard. I wouldn’t fancy doing battle with a swan myself. If I find them on the path I give them a very wide berth, much as I love them. Once in a while one will fly up onto the Northam Bridge and sit in the road stopping all the traffic until it decides it’s had enough fun and flies off again.
Normally I follow the paved path along the riverbank which bears away from the river a little once you come to the reed beds. As I was wearing my new hiking shoes and they’re supposed to be waterproof, I thought I’d go off road and put them to the test on the long wet grass. On the grassy area there behind the trees I noticed two tents set up. I can think of better places to camp and better weather to camp in.
Now I was close to my third bridge at Woodmill, the place the Itchen stops being tidal. There’s been a watermill here since medieval times. The first saw mill was built by Walter Taylor, a famous naval block maker, in 1781 alongside two flour mills. Here he made rigging blocks until his mill burned down in the 1820’s. Then the present mill was built. Until the 1950’s flour was produced at Woodmill, today it’s an activity centre and there were canoeists setting off from the bank.
The road narrows and twists where the bridge runs behind the mill with a gap barely wide enough for one car. As this is a two way road it’s often congested. Sadly the high walls on either side mean you can’t see the river here, or the weir, although there is one tiny section of wire mesh fencing you can sometimes peer through in winter when there are no leaves blocking the view. Today I could barely see anything so I crossed and carried on.
Just over three miles and three bridges into my walk I left the Itchen behind and walked along Wessex Lane, roughly following Monks Brook. The leafy lane winds round and ends on Wide Lane close to Swaythling railway bridge where quite a few lorries and buses have become wedged in the past. There were none today and I’d reached my next bridge, this one has no name as far as I can tell and would be very easy to overlook, especially from the road. It isn’t pretty, just some railings and a gap in the trees but, if you look over the edge, the ribbon of water flows between banks of trees and wild flowers.
From here it was a few yards to the gateway of Monks Brook Greenway and my next bridge. This path leads through a very marshy area where I’m told roe deer, kingfishers and voles have been seen but not by me. Today I didn’t dally too long, just marched through to the pretty blue bridge. The trees overhanging the brook were reflected in the water along with a tiny hint of blue sky.
On the other side, after a short walk, I came to the twelfth century St Mary’s Church. There seem to be a lot of churches called St Mary’s. According to the Doomsday Book, this St Mary’s, in Stoneham, was owned by Richer the clerk who was, coincidentally, also the priest and holder of the benefice of St Mary’s Church in the centre of Southampton. Passing through the graveyard where gravestones stand at various angles, I came to my penultimate bridge.
This green bridge is not, in my opinion, as pretty as the blue bridge. It’s way more utilitarian, but it’s saved me from a muddy slip into the river on many occasions. Crossing the green bridge means avoiding the narrow dirt path beside the brook when it’s slippery after rain. Lets face it, that’s most of the time. Here the trees dip right down into the water.
I followed the footpath back towards the White Swan and, before long, I was at the last of my seven bridges, Mansbridge. This was once the southern most crossing point of the Itchen. There has been a bridge here since at least the year 932 although this one was built in 1816. When I was a child we would drive past the pub and across this bridge to visit my Nannie. The pub had strings of twinkling fairy lights which reflected in the river and made me think it was an enchanted place from a fairy tale. It’s also where I met Commando. Since then a new, bigger bridge has been built, actually in 1975, and the little bridge has been relegated to foot traffic.
Looking down the river from the bridge a blast of wind nearly took my breath away. The walk back towards Woodmill was tough. Honestly I’m pretty sure I could have fallen over and not hit the ground because the wind would have held me up. Just before the mill I turned off along the track towards the steep hill that runs up Woodmill Lane. At least the wind wouldn’t be in my face, or so I thought.
What was I thinking? Woodmill Lane is not only steep it’s long, more than two thirds of a mile. It goes on and on and on… The wind had changed direction slightly and, even though I’d turned, it was still blowing in my face. How does that work? Am I just doomed to be plagued by rain and wind? The lane winds upwards so you can’t actually see the top from the bottom. Every so often you round a bend and see there is so much more of it than you thought. Somehow I made it to the top and stood for a moment looking down at the spectacular view right over to the airport. I may have been just stopping to catch my breath of course.
Ironically, no sooner had I reached the top, I had to go back down hill again. The downhill bit wasn’t too bad, the trouble is it immediately led to another uphill climb. This was the final leg of my walk, a leafy lane up to the village.
So, seven miles and seven bridges. Not a bad walk all in all, eight hundred and thirty three calories burned and some hill walking practice. Not only that but the hiking shoes didn’t rub and stood up to the wet bits very well.