Some days you start out full of brilliant plans but things conspire against you. At the end of June 2013 my plan was to walk the Itchen Navigation all the way to Winchester and then get the train home. That would give me a nice off road walk. There was even a little bit of research and a map downloaded in case I got lost (not that I’m well known for getting lost or anything) and I set out full of excitement for the walk ahead.
Things started off well with a walk along the familiar route down to the river and across Riverside Park. This bit I know so well I could probably do it with my eyes closed. When I got to the reed beds I came upon a young lad on a unicycle! This was almost the same spot I saw the man on the penny farthing a while ago and the woman on the rollerblades, it left me wondering if there is some convention going on for unorthodox forms of transport.
There were a lot of people about and I was really looking forward to getting onto the Navigation to get some peace especially the second half, on the other side of Bishopstoke Road because I’ve never walked that before and I wanted to see where it went in relation to all my road walks across Twford Down. I was pretty sure some of the interesting footpaths I’d been itching to explore then might be involved.
Just before I reached Mansbridge I saw the family of swans with seven grey fluffy cygnets. They seemed to be having lessons in diving down for weeds or insect larve so I stood and watched for a while. First the parent swans would dive and then, one by one, the cygnets would have a go, some were better than others with cute little tails stuck out of the water while others feebly dipped their heads in.
Soon I’d crossed the Mansbridge bridge where fishermen were setting up for the day, and was off, walking through the meadows towards the motorway bridge. There were teasels growing beside the path and an old bench, half rotted away. It wasn’t long before I reached Mansbridge lock, the first of many bridges across the navigation. Once I’d crossed the bridge the water soon ran out. This had confused me the first time I walked this way but, now I’ve read up about it I understand.
The Itchen Navigation is, in part, man made. Back in 1665, an Act of Parliament, no less, authorised improvements to the river to move coal and wool between Southampton and Winchester. The work took until 1710 to finish and utilised the river and a series of canals with locks to bypass difficult areas. At one point there was talk of linking it to the Basingstoke canal so barges could go all the way to London. Imagine that! I’d have loved to walk it had it ever been built. Barges we’re towed up and down with loads of goods for almost a hundred and fifty years, until the new railway, built in 1840 sent it spiralling into decline. It closed in 1869 and many of the man made stretches were drained or left to be choked with vegetation.
A little further on, just the other side of the motorway bridge, I spotted another lock, Sandy Lock I think, here the canal is more or less dry, just a boggy channel and, beyond the wooden structure of the lock, it’s filled to overflowing with bulrushes. The next lock I found was, I think, Decoy Pond Lock, so named because there is a small wood which once contained a duck decoy. The path was narrow and lined with weeds, tall grasses and nettles. Sensibly, I wore long trousers today but my arms were bare and I spent some time walking with them held above my head to avoid being stung. Soon I came to the odd corrugated iron railway bridge. It looks fairly rickety, built from sandbags filled with concrete, and last time I scurried through fearing it would collapse on me. Actually it’s stronger than it looks. Built in 1979 to replace the original railway bridge, it’s made of concrete tube hidden under the makeshift looking corrugated iron and sandbags. Even so I didn’t exactly hang around.
For a short while I was out of the trees and walking in bright sunshine which was nice, if a touch hot. The path soon wound its way back into the trees though and narrowed again. Here it passes close to Eastleigh sewage treatment works and becomes very overgrown. There were no unpleasant smells but the millions of tiny flies bought out by the warm weather made me cover my nose and mouth with my hand to avoid inhaling them. I saw cuckoo pint berries here growing beside the path and stopped long enough to snap them before rushing on.
Once I was past the sewage works and the flies I came out onto the track where I thought I’d lost the path before. The wide track is rutted from cars and a car was on it, moving towards me very slowly. As soon as I found a space to get off the track I did and the big four by four passed without even a thank you. He must have been heading for the locked gate further along that leads to the private fishery. Distracted by this diversion, I missed the next lock (or bridge) and ended up walking onto Chickenhall Lane. WalkJogRun set me straight again and I turned back, found the lock and crossed the bridge. This lock is Chickenhall Lock otherwise known as Lock House because there was once a lock keepers cottage there. Now I was walking beside the river again. In fact I had river on either side of me because the Navigation and the Itchen divide here. It was nice to have the sound of water bubbling along beside me once again and, although the iris seemed to be finished, there were lovely spikes of woundwort. Just past the ford white water violet were growing in the shallows. At least I think that’s what they were, I was too afraid of falling in to get close enough to be sure.
Once again I crossed the water, this time at Conegar Lock, where there are hatches to drown the water meadows. The river runs fast there. Now the buttercup fields were to my right but the cows were further away from the fence today. Most of the buttercups were going to seed too so the overall picture was not quite as pretty. Soon I was out in the open again, walking a narrow dirt path through tall grasses, with the river to my right burbling along. This was the final stretch of the path I took on my Itchen Navigation walk the other week. Just the sticky gate to tussle with and I’d be across Bishopstoke Road on onto new territory.
The gate took a little brute force and the road a long wait to cross. When I reached the other side I found a very worrying notice. Further along the path, it said, there was a bridge closed. This was not good news, although the notice said it would be closed for twenty one days from 5 June. A quick calculation told me it should now be open again, perhaps they’d just forgotten to take the notice down? I had to make a choice, did I ditch the navigation path in case the bridge was still closed and try to find another way back onto it further along or did I carry on and hope? Two things made up my mind, I had no idea where I could pick up the path again (the map with the note didn’t really explain) and the path ahead looked so inviting.
Unlike the rather narrow dirt path I’d been on this was paved, wide and, best of all, nettle free. The river was shallow and so clear I could see the weeds and stones along the bottom. The trees on the other bank overhung the river and some had been sawn off where they met the path to stop them blocking the way. They created mini bridges that someone braver then me could probably shimmy across.
At first the other side of the path passed by a playing filed with tennis courts and I could hear children playing. Just after this I came to the first bridge on this stretch of the river. There was another of the odd triangular stones just before I crossed, this one saying Northam to Bishopstoke 6 miles, 2 shillings. Was this the closed bridge now reopened?
Soon I came to Stoke Lock where there were sluices and the water churned into a frothing, bubbling torrent. The Navigation path passed this lock but I could see a footpath leading off somewhere on the other side. Now houses were visible between the trees across the water. I stopped for a moment and peeked through the curtain of willow feeling quite envious of the wonderful views the owners had from the bottom of their gardens.
Soon after this I came to another bridge with a small weir where the Itchen and the Navigation divide. There were yellow iris growing and I stopped to take a photo. Not long after this I crossed Barton Sluices, where the Barton River, a tributary of the Itchen, leaves the Navigation. There were fenced off fields and grasses flowering beside the wire fence. Across the river I could see cows in a feild and, in the distance, pylons like the ones at the bottom of Allbrook Hill. Surely I wasn’t as far as that? I really was feeling quite excited about the route ahead. In my mind’s eye I imagined seeing the steep rolling Twyford hills and, at the top, the benches I’d sat on drinking my chocolate milk on my long Moonwalk jaunts. Another tiny bridge came up, crossing yet another little rill. Each bridge gave me more confidence in my route ahead, as each could have been the repaired bridge.
My confidence was misplaced though. Not long after this I came to the broken bridge, Withymead Lock. I stood and I looked at it. There really was no way I could get across. The river was flowing way to fast to even think about trying to cross it.
All was not lost, the path on my side seemed to carry on so I followed it, thinking I might find another way across or another route back to the Navigation. It got narrower and narrower until it petered out completely though. Right at that moment I honestly felt like crying. Looking at WalkJogRun I could see I was close to Twyford Road, probably about a mile from the top of Allbrook Hill. The diversion to get back to that spot was too much though because I’d have to go all the way back to Bishopstoke Road and start from there, taking me miles out of my way, and even then I didn’t know where to pick up the Navigation again. There was nothing for it but to walk back the way I’d come.
The walk back was a sulky stomp. It didn’t seem as if anyone had done anything to repair the bridge at all as far as I could see so it didn’t seem as if I’d be able to walk this path any time soon. I was briefly pulled from my angry thoughts by a mooing beside me. I was close to the buttercup fields and, when I turned to look, there were cows, right up against the fence beside me sheltering in the shade of the trees. They watched me pass, quite docile and bored looking.
Cheeriness returned for a while, until I had to pass the fly infested sewage works, where nettles crowd in on the path. There were more cows not long after this, crowding up against the low fence watching me. These looked less docile and I hurried along, thinking, if they charged I could be in trouble.
So I did my fourteen miles, give or take, but not quite how I’d wanted to and annoyingly, WalkJogRun lost the satellite and switched itself off somewhere near Mansbridge at eleven miles so I couldn’t even track the actual mileage. When I got home and Googled the broken bridge it turns out it was vandalised. Why would someone do something like that? Sometimes I really don’t understand people.
With the aid of the iPad I have worked out how to get back onto the Navigation after the broken bridge. It takes a little detour along Twyford road where a footpath I’ve seen in passing cuts onto the Navigation just over a mile from where I left it. Of course the diversion will add some distance and I will miss this first, very pretty, part of the walk but maybe for my next long walk I’ll give it a try.