So there I was at the bottom of Allbrook Hill on Higbridge Road, facing an array of confusing signs about ford keys and bank breaches not knowing whether to carry on or bail out. It looked like my Winchester or bust plan might be doomed to failure. In the end I decided to risk carrying on along the Itchen Navigation and see what happened. Was this to be a decision I would regret? Only time would tell and all I could hope was, if it was totally impassable, I wasn’t too far along the path.
16 July 2013
The first thing I saw was the weir I’ve taken so many photos of from the road. There’s a little hut beside it with a blue roof and a blue door, I guess it must be something to do with the weir but I’m not sure what. This part of the river is a diversion on the original Navigation constructed by the railway company in 1838 when the London to Southampton line was built. Apparently the original Allbrook Lock is under the embankment somewhere but it seems to be long gone. Maybe the hut was a lock keepers shelter or something to do with the railway.
On I went, wondering all the time where the breach in the bank was and how I was going to get across it, if indeed I could get across. The path looked quite solid and fairly wide, the river was very clear with trees dipping their branches into the water on the opposite bank. There were quite a few people about, all going in the opposite direction to me. Where had they come from? Had they managed to cross the broken bank? I wanted to stop them and ask but I was a little afraid of their answers.
In places I could see through the bushes lining the path to the fields beyond. There were horses in one field and I tried to place where they might be in relation to the road I knew so well. A little further along two horses were in the shade right by the barbed wire fence seperating the fields from the Navigation. As I came closer I was horrified to see they didn’t appear to have any eyes! Closer still it turned out they were wearing some kind of white net hoods, maybe to protect their eyes from the glare of the sun. They didn’t seem to mind very much and, behind the white netting, I’m sure they were watching me pass.
When a shimmering blue dragonfly flew right in front of my face I turned my attention back to the river. They were everywhere dancing over the water. Try as I might I couldn’t catch one with the camera. They would settle on a stem right next to me and, just as I snapped, fly off. I’m sure they were doing it on purpose. I came home with lots of photos of stalks of grass and reeds.
In the end I crouched on the bank and waited. Of course none of them settled, so I took a few random shots of them in the distance, knowing they wouldn’t come out all that well. As I was crouched there someone passed behind me. Someone going in the same direction as me! This is a first for one of my walks, I see lots of people going the other way but never anyone going the same way as me. I’ve often wondered about that and put it down to the fact that, if we are all walking in the same direction, unless we are walking a lot faster or slower than each other, we will always be apart.
Giving up on the dragonflies I carried on and soon passed the man who had walked behind me. He was wearing a hat and a pink t-shirt. He said good afternoon as I passed him. It wasn’t long before I came to another halt. This time it was because I’d reached the broken bank, at least I thought it was the broken bank. There was a plank where the edge of the bank should be, held up on a kind of trestle affair. It was broken. The water wasn’t deep and a pile of logs looked like they could be used as stepping stones. I knew I could get across but whether I could do it without getting wet feet remained to be seen and I didn’t want to walk the rest of the way with wet feet, that way blisters lie.
While I stood wondering what to do I could hear the man I’d passed coming up behind me. It was now or never so I tucked my phone into my rucksack for safety and clambered tentatively across, using a usefully placed tree to steady myself. When I stopped on the other side to fish my phone out of my bag the man was beginning to cross. “Don’t laugh at me if I fall in,” he said.
“I won’t,” I replied. “I’ll help you out.”
True to my word I waited while he crossed, just in case he did fall. He was a cheery looking man with a round, smiley face, older than me, possibly retired. He made it across in one piece, rather more elegantly than I had if I’m honest. “Do you think that is the broken bank the sign mentioned?” I asked when he reached me.
“Oh yes, it definitely is,” he smiled. “I walk this way quite often, I’ve crossed it before.”
Well that was a relief.
Shortly after this I came to some people by a sluice which carrys water from the man made Navigantion to the Itchen, just behind the trees. They seemed to be unblocking it, pulling out soggy masses of reeds with long forks. The path is narrow here and they moved to let me pass. Behind me the smiley man was talking to them.
Not long after this I saw an odd sight on the opposite bank and stopped to take photos. There were ostriches running about the field. Now I’ve heard of ostrich farms and I’m told the meat is very nice, although I’ve never tried it, I’ve never seen a real live ostrich just gambolling about a field though. The smiley man caught up with me. “They say they’re going to close the path for about a week to repair the bank,” he said.
“We’ll that’s a lot better than the bridge that was stolen back towards Bishopstoke,” I replied.
“I can’t understand why people just vandalise things,” he said. “I mean, stealing something for profit is one thing, not that I agree with it, it’s just more understandable.”
During this exchange we’d walked a few feet and, when I looked back towards the river, you could have knocked me down with a feather, there were what appeared to be lamas sitting beside the water with ostriches running about in the background. Perhaps the sun was getting to me. I raised the phone to take a picture just to be sure.
“They’re alpacas,” the smiley man said. Well that settled that then. They have some strange farms around Otterbourne way for sure. I guess they’re farming them for their wool. It makes a change from sheep for sure.
Although I don’t generally like walking with other people because I feel I miss things, the smiley man was turning out to be quite useful. When we came to the point where the path crossed Kiln Lane I’m pretty sure I’d have had trouble finding the other side of the trail without him. He had lots of local knowledge. We fell into step together after that. A little further on he pointed out a pretty little bridge almost hidden in the trees. I took a photo and even then I could hardly notice it when I looked back at it. Left to my own devices I’d never have seen it at all.
I’d never have known what I was looking at either. When we came to a strange wooden contraption constricting the flow of the water to such a degree it became a gushing, noisy torrent where it could get through I wondered what it was. Turns out it’s a disused fish weir and the untidy looking wooden structure is an eel trap. Quite why people wanted to trap eels I didn’t ask, I’m guessing they were for food but I don’t fancy eating eels myself. From above the fish trap the water looked clear and calm with reeds waving in the current.
We were just past Brambridge Lock by now although I didn’t really notice the lock. That is what comes of walking with someone else. You spot some things you wouldn’t and miss some things you’d probably have seen. We’d been chatting, the smiley man was telling me about his flying lessons and I was telling him about Commando Senior who also loves to fly planes. For a while the path narrowed and we were walking single file again. Out of the shelter of the trees the sun was baking and I appreciated why the smiley man was wearing a hat. Why didn’t I think of that?
As the path widened the smiley man told me there was a little waterfall up ahead. Just after that we came to a low weir forming stepping stones across the river. An idyllic scene spread out before us, a woman sat on the bank and looked on as her husband and daughter walked across holding hands. I couldn’t help imagining the cool water on my hot feet. Behind them was a bridge, this was College Mead Lock. Without realising I’d managed to capture one of those illusive butterflies fluttering past just on the right of my photograph.
My new friend then told me we were close to Otterbourne waterworks and said, as I came from Southampton, I should look at the information sign as I might find it interesting. Before we came to the sign we passed some wonderful rustic benches, behind them there was a car park and I wondered if the little family had parked their car there. The sign was interesting. It told me the pumping station I’d just passed took forty five million litres of water from the river Itchen every single day and that water is the same stuff that comes out of my tap at home. I’d never really considered where my water came from until then but it’s kind of comforting to know it comes from this beautiful river.
Then there was the waterfall. Water tumbling over rocks made me feel cooler just to hear it. The waterfall was not quite what it seemed though, it is actually the remains of the top cill of College Mead Lock, so man made rather than natural. Still that didn’t take away from its beauty.
Shortly after this we head a new sound, a cockerel crowing, he sounded a little hoarse to me. Sure enough we were soon passing a farm. In the fields someone had a fire and smoke filled the air, drifting across the path. “I should think its a bit dry to be starting fires,” I said.
“I suppose they know what they’re doing,” the smiley man replied.
Again the path came out onto a road, this time by a stone railway embankment. We’d heard the trains several times along this stretch, a loud reminder of the reason for the demise of the Navigation. Now we were almost face to face with them. The path dipped back onto the navigation almost at once but, at the suggestion of the smiley man, I stuck to the road. If a man who didn’t balk at the broken bank for a moment said the path was quite difficult I wasn’t going to attempt it. Soon after we passed a pretty railway bridge. I’m pretty sure he said there was another footpath through the bridge leading to the Shawford Way, but I was hot and my water had run out so I could have imagined it.
The next part of the path ran behind some little railway cottages. “There’s a gypsy caravan in one of the gardens along here,” the smiley man told me. Sure enough there it was, covered in a green tarpaulin the burgundy caravan was well preserved, including the decorative paintwork. I’d have like to have stopped for a closer look but those are the perils of not walking alone and maybe I’d not have noticed it had I been on my own. I wonder if the people living in the houses were once Romanys?
“We’re coming up to Victor’s Bridge,” my new friend said.
Ever interested in local history, I asked why it was called Victor’s Bridge, thinking there must have been a battle I knew nothing about. The reason turned out to be more recent. Some of you may remember a TV series called One Foot in the Grave with a grumpy but quite loveable character called Victor Meldrew. Poor Victor, nothing ever quite worked out for him and his catch phrase was “I don’t believe it!” In the final episode of the show, Victor was knocked down by a car on a wet miserable night outside a pub close to a railway bridge. This was the bridge where the episode was filmed. It’s said fans actually laid flowers outside the pub. I was tempted to say, I don’t believe it.
On one side of the road that runs through the arch of the bridge there is the Pub, imaginatively called The Bridge, on the other, Shawford railway station. The station was opened in 1882 with the coming of the railways that made the Navigation obsolete. My friend was going to have a drink and maybe some lunch in the pub and then catch a train back to his home in Eastleigh from the railway station.
Now I don’t like stopping on my walks for more than a few minutes, it makes it so much harder to carry on, but I badly needed to refill my water bottle if I was going to make it to Winchester and the pub seemed an ideal place. As we stepped inside the cool, air conditioned pub, all dark wood and dim light after the brightness outside, the smiley man offered to buy me a drink. It almost seemed rude to say no and the thought of an ice cold diet coke was, I admit, very tempting.
We sat under a parasol on dark wicker chairs and sipped our drinks. We’d been walking together for quite some time but had not, until this point, exchanged names. The smiley man turned out to be Peter. Tempting as it was to gulp down my drink and dash off, I sipped slowly and we chatted. Peter talked about his flying lessons and his walks, I talked about my mad rambles. Like most people he thought I was mad to contemplate such long distances. Right about then the train back to Eastleigh seemed like a very good plan indeed. Should I dally a little longer, maybe have a bite to eat and then go back or should I go on to the end of the Navigation?