My first attempt at walking the whole Itchen Navigation could easily have ended in Shawford. It was a hot July day and, even after a rest and a cool drink in the pub, I was feeling tired and overheated. Dithering as usual I’d left the pub and, after a little look at Victor’s famous bridge and a long look at the station that could so easily take me home I turned, quite reluctantly to the Navigation. The path ran through a cutway beside the pub. The sign said Winchester three miles, that didn’t sound so bad, not much more than the walk to work.
16 July 2013
The view as I crossed the bridge to the path running alongside the river was one of the best yet. Cool green water reflected the trees, grasses and reeds and, in the distance, a swan was preening. Apparently there is a mill here but I didn’t see it, probably because I was too enchanted by the view upstream.
Another of the triangular stones told me the distance between Northam and Shawford was nine miles. I’m pretty sure someone needs a new tape measure because I’d followed the path, as much as I could, to Shawford and I’d walked almost eleven miles. Ok, so there were the miles between home and Mansbridge but still, it didn’t give me much confidence on the three miles to Winchester sign. Oh well onwards and upwards.
There were houses on the other bank here too, just like the runup to Allbrook. If anything they were even nicer. The roof of a thatched cottage caught my eye. With the blue sky overhead, the wildflowers along the bank and that little cottage it was the perfect English country scene.
This path was far more open than the rest of the Navigation, mostly water meadows filled with swaying grasses. With less shade from trees it wasn’t long before I was feeling the heat. More butterflies and dragonflies crossed my path but now I was too hot to bother trying to take photos, all I could think about was the next bit of shade. There were trees ahead and I hoped the path went through them. There also seemed to be people, quite a few of them.
I’d reached Compton Lock, sometimes called Twyford Lock. Peter had said people often swam in the lock in summer and sure enough they were. By the bridge at the tail of the lock some girls were sitting on steps chatting and dabbling their feet in the water while another swam.
A little further along a group of teenagers were making a game of tumbling through the weir on inflated inner tubes and little blow up boats. It looked like fun and of course the boys were all trying to outdo each other to prove their bravery. I guess the weir is a rite of passage in these parts but it was good to see them all having such harmless fun. If I was thirty years or so younger, I could happily have joined them. Instead I climbed into the top of the weir to take a photo from above.
Time was getting on so I pressed on along the path. There were people everywhere, laying in the water meadows, having picnics, just enjoying a beautiful summer day. Sometimes I wonder what drives me to walk all these miles when I could be laying in a water meadow watching dragonflies. By now I knew I was level with Twyford and, looking across the meadows, the hill in the distance seemed familiar. I couldn’t be sure but I thought it was where I’d sat drinking my milkshake listening to Jason Mraz on the same trip I’d seen the goats. In fact I have sat there many times looking down over the river to the spot I was walking on right then.
On I went through the water meadows, thankfull I’d filled my water bottle in the pub at Shawford. There were trees ahead and I couldn’t wait to get to them. The sun seemed to be getting hotter, the air heavier and more humid. Looking across the river I could just make out traffic on the road. I must be getting close to the Hockley traffic lights and, across the road, Five Bridges Road.
As I came to the trees I crossed the hatches at Twyford Meads. The three little brick arches with a channel coming off was part of the system used to flood the water meadows. From the seventeenth century right up until the 1930’s the water meadows were farmed. The hatches and sluices found along the Navigation we’re used to flood parts of the meadows. Workers, called drowners, placed turf over carrier channels running along ridges in the meadows and water would trickle into drainage channels and cause flooding. This process began each year in winter encouraging early spring grass growth and spreading silt and nutrients.
Looking back at the distant hill I was sure now it was the one in Twyford where I’d sat on the bench in Church Lane. The stand of trees right at the top was probably hiding St Mary’s Church with its ornate clock tower. I felt strangely nostalgic for those journeys somehow. I could have done with a bench in the shade too.
When I came to a crossroads I followed the signs for Itchen Navigation rather then the right hand path saying, simply footpath. Checking this other footpath on Google it seems it lead back up to the main Twyford road and was the original course of the Navigation. The path I took, over a little wooden bridge, took me to the bridge under the M3 motorway and then, straight afterwards the Hockley Link Road. The Navigation was diverted here when the motorway was built, culverted under the roads.
Out on the road I walked up to the traffic lights and crossed where I’ve crossed so many times before. On the path to Five Bridges Road the first sight to greet me were some pretty mallow flowers growing right by the road. With a longing look at the very familiar route, where I knew there were cows, sheep and goodness knows what else, I took the untried path having no idea where it would lead except that Winchester would be at the end of it.
The path I was taking now followed the route of the old Twyford Lane which, before the advent of the motorway, was the main route into Winchester. The Navigation used to pass diagonally under the Hockley Traffic lights in a tunnel with full head room. It’s hard here to know where the ‘real’ Navigation is, or was. The railway bridge I passed beneath carried Twyford Lane and this was where the the Navigation and the path I would walk on divided. My path was wide and tree lined, high above the water. Looking down the banks to my left I could see the river and the original, eroded path below but it looked unwalkable.
After a while the trees to my right thinned out and I could just glimpse St Catherine’s Hill towering above me. From this close I could see the steps winding to the top. It looked like a horrific climb and I was pretty glad I wasn’t doing it there and then in the heat. From St Catherine’s Hill to St Catherine’s Lock, the bubbling of water alerted me to its presence and a sign told me a little more about it. There used to be a sawmill here, powered by the water, much like Woodmill way back at the beginning of this journey.
The lock housed the mill wheel. When the mill wasn’t running the lock filled with water and the barges came through. The lads from Winchester college used to run down the roof of the mill and jump in, in a game of dare similar to the young lads I’d seen whizzing through the weir at Compton Lock. Some things never change. I stood and looked at the mechanism of the old lock, relishing some shade after so much sun.
There was no time for stopping long and I was soon off again. Now I could see over the river and across the fields, just make out the tower of St Cross Hospital in the distance. The views were stunning. On the path I came to a barge shaped sculpture inscribed at one end Domum Wharf and at the other Northam Wharf, the start and the end of this path. My journey’s end at Winchester was so close I could almost taste it.
The path ended with a bridge, a mirror image of the bridge at the other end but this one led to St Catherine’s Hill. There was no way I was taking that route. Where to go now? There was another path but it led across a bridge over the road away from the river, had I missed something somewhere and, if so, where? There was nothing for it but to follow it.
After such a long journey I was feeling quite cross with myself for going wrong, if I had gone wrong, maybe the original path was no longer there. Then I saw some steps and they were heading in the direction of the river. I walked down them and came out on a playing field, the playing field of Winchester College to be precise. There were people everywhere and a group of Japanese students came towards me, one girl was playing music on her phone, paying scant attention to her surroundings. I wondered how she could be unmoved by such a beautiful setting.
Along the river path I could see tiny minnows swimming in the crystal clear water. I was just shoes and socks away from a free fish pedicure, not that I’m sure I’d actually like one. This field reminded me very much of Riverside Park, except way more manicured and prettier. On the opposite bank I could see a sluice and people walking. I was pretty sure that path was the Navigation but I have no idea how I could have got to it. Even now, looking at the map, I can’t see. This needs further investigation.
This section of my journey was undoubtedly the most beautiful. As I came to the very end of the path the view was probably the most spectacular of all. As the river bent there were some little cottages, their red brick facades reflected in the clear, still water. It could have been a picture postcard.
My journey on the Navigation ended with an unexciting walk up a footpath onto Domum Road. Then, a few houses along, I saw the sign for the Itchen Navigation. It was a rather rough track that had obviously once been cobbled running between the houses. Yes I did walk down it and I did see the path I should have been on if I’d only known how to get there. Tempting as it was to walk along it, just to say I had, it had to wait until another day. I had Winchester ahead of me and a rhino to find after all.