18 November 2015
Driving from Twyford to Shawford really was new territory as I’ve never even walked this way before. The road is narrow and winding with lots of parked cars and there were a few moments when I wondered if I’d lost my mind to even think of such a thing. From the maps I knew there was a small car park hidden amongst the trees a little way after the railway bridge. Thankfully I found it easily and it wasn’t full. I felt CJ should have been more impressed than he seemed by my amazing driving and parking skills. Surely I deserved a round of applause or at least a “well done,” but all I got was “are we having coffee now?”
“Not just yet,” I said, “there’s a path I want to explore first.”
Although I’ve never driven to Shawford before I have passed through it many times on the Itchen Navigation and there were some trails on Shawford Down that I’d always wanted to try but never had the time for. Of course, I’d neglected to tell CJ about this and, by the way he rolled his eyes, I don’t think he was impressed. In truth I wasn’t sure if the trails would be walkable because, as CJ pointed out, “it’s a bit muddy.” Even so, we’d come all this way so we had to try and, if it didn’t work out I’d count it as a reconnaissance mission.
At the end of the muddy track we came to some steps leading upwards.
“Perhaps it won’t be so muddy higher up,” I said hopefully while heading upwards.
“Maybe,” he replied, not sounding all that convinced.
The steps were steep and, as usual, just the wrong size for my little legs so I had to take two steps for each one. CJ, with his longer legs and youth on his side, found it easier but we were both puffing a bit when we got to the top. Just as I was feeling relieved that the climbing was over I looked ahead and there was another set of steps at a slight angle to the first.
Trying very hard to look as if my heart wasn’t about to explode at any moment I pressed on with CJ puffing and panting behind. He may also have been swearing under his breath but the blood was pounding so loudly in my ears I could hardly hear. When, at the top of these steps we found yet more, zigzagging up the hill I gave up all pretence and said, “The view from the top had better be worth it,” in between gasping for breath. CJ said nothing at all. It’s quite possible he was more out of breath then me.
Even at the top there was more climbing. A flattened trail through the grass led up into some trees. It was slippery but not quite as steep and we ploughed on ahead until we got to a bench. The trail ahead seemed to circle the hill
“Let’s sit here for a minute and enjoy the view,” I gasped, although there really wasn’t much of a view because of all the trees but sitting seemed preferable to collapsing in a heap.
“Did you know Shawford means shallow ford and this was where Charles II crossed the Itchen when he was trying to escape to the continent after he lost the Battle of Worcester?” I said when I could speak properly.
“I didn’t,” CJ admitted.
“I think that’s St Catherine’s Hill over there,” I pointed in the one direction there was a view.
“Really?” CJ said, not looking convinced.
“It’s the right direction and it looks like it. Look at those trees on top. We’re a lot closer than you’d think.”
The flattened grass trail led in the direction we’d been looking so, after a bit, we set off again trying hard to avoid the worst of the mud. There were also rather a lot of cow pats, nice squelchy ones. Obviously there were cows around somewhere and to avoid slipping up in mud or anything worse we walked with our eyes on the ground. One particular cow pat was covered in orange speckles. At first I thought they were red ants but on closer inspection they were tiny orange fungi, each no bigger than a pin head. It goes without saying that I’m not really a connoisseur of cow pats or any other kind of animal dung but I’ve never seen anything like it before in my life. Anyone watching us would have thought we’d gone stark staring mad, crouching over a cow pat taking photos.
The fungus seemed like it must be something really rare and I was sure I’d have terrible trouble identifying it. As it happened it was simple and I’m pretty sure it was Cheilymenia fimicola or a close relative, Cheilymenia stercorea,. Both are described as small orange cups with bristle like marginal hairs and both like to grow on dung, especially cow dung. Apparently they have a habit of explosively discharging their spores simultaneously. If I’d known that I’d have hung around longer.
Now we were away from the trees we’d climbed up through the views were better and we picked our way carefully through the cow pats and mud looking out over the patchwork quilt of rolling hills. We saw no more dung fungi but, after a while we could see a stone cross in the distance.
“I think this hill is criss crossed with trails and we could probably walk right round,” I said, “but it’s really too muddy so let’s go and have a look at that instead.”
“Then we’ll get coffee?” CJ said hopefully.
“Yes. The pub is not far off and I think you’ll like the walk.”
As we got nearer to the cross it became obvious it was a small cenotaph and, behind it at the base of the hill, we could see the houses of Shawford. We stopped for a moment to look at the list of names inscribed on the white marble. A little further on we spotted the cause of all the cow pats, a small group of white cows were lazing about on the edge of the trail. In fact, as we got closer, one of the cows looked suspiciously like a bull. It was time to go back down the hill and get that coffee.
Rather than go back the way we’d come we picked out way carefully down the slope, slipping and sliding a bit but somehow staying upright. We ended up by the car park. If only we’d known we could have avoided the slog up those blasted steps. Still, lessons learned and I will know when I come back again.
Now we headed back along the lane we’d started out on but this time we turned off and went under the railway bridge towards a small row of cottages. An elderly man had just come out of one cottage and, as he approached he said, “Nice afternoon for a walk.”
“It is,” I agreed, “we’ve been up on the downs and we’re off to the pub for a coffee now.”
“Have you come down from Winchester?”
“No, we came in the car from Southampton.”
“The roads are too busy for me these days. I hardly even go as far as Winchester. Forty odd years ago though, I used to go down to Southampton on my motorbike. There was a club in a little place called Bitterne. Very hilly t’was.”
“That’s where we live,” I said. “I should think it’s changed a bit since then though.”
“Well fancy that,” he chuckled, “I should think it has changed a bit. Back then t’was all trees and hills and we used to park up in a big dip where there was nothing more than an old wooden hut.”
“Well the hills are still there and some of the trees but the roads are very busy. I should think it’s easier driving around here.”
“I should think t’would be. Well you enjoy your coffee and have a safe drive back to Bitterne. To my memory t’is a fair old distance.”
Beside the cottages a path ran right next to the river.
“This is the Itchen and this path is actually part of the Itchen Navigation,” I told CJ. “Every time I come this way I think how lovely it must be to live in these cottages, except when the river floods.”
“They’re set back from the river though and raised up,” CJ said.
“You’re right. They probably are quite safe and they have a drainage ditch between their gates and the path so that probably helps.”
“It’s a bit like a moat,” he said. “If I lived here I’d have a drawbridge I could raise if I didn’t like someone.”
“The best is still to come,” I said, “look in the next garden. What do you see?”
“It looks like a gypsy caravan!”
“It is. In the summer when it’s uncovered you can see the beautiful paintings around the door.”
In no time at all we had come to the bridge and the main road. The pub was in sight and I was pleased to see it was open. If it had been closed I may well have had a mutiny on my hands. The cottages we’d just passed were built as homes for railway workers in 1836, when the railway came to Shawford. It’s possible that the pub was built at around the same time but I haven’t been able to find any definitive information to confirm this.
“The Itchen Navigation carries on beside the pub,” I told CJ, “and that railway bridge next to it is where Victor Meldrew got run over and died in the last ever episode of One Foot in the Grave.”
“I don’t believe it!” CJ said, in a passable impression of the grumpy but loveable TV character’s catch phrase.
“They call it Victor’s Bridge these days. Apparently people even came to leave flowers outside the pub even though he wasn’t a real person and he didn’t really die.”
Inside the door of the pub there was a sign explaining everything I’d just said just in case CJ really didn’t believe it. It’s a lovely little village pub with traditional oak beams but pastel walls so it isn’t dark and dingy. We ordered our coffees and found a seat with a view of the bridge through the leaded windows. The Christmas decorations were up and it all seemed very cozy and jolly. All in all it was a fitting end to our day out.
“Perhaps we could come back in the summer,” I suggested, “we could check out the Downs properly and sit in the garden looking over the river.”
“As long as we don’t have to climb those steps again,” CJ grinned.