6 January 2016
Last night the weatherman on the evening news told me the country would be shrouded in mist and fog for most of the day. My weather app appeared to agree. All Autumn I was waiting for a chance to take photos of mist swirling over the river but all we had was rain. This looked like it would be my chance so I went to bed thinking about an early morning riverside walk, swans emerging from eddies of mist, maybe even black swans.
Feeling optimistic I got up early, thinking about warm clothes, tissues to wipe wet glasses, bread to tempt black swans and swirling mist. The route was set. As soon as it began to get light I’d be off. Then it did begin to get light and, to my dismay, I looked outside and there was no mist, not even a tiny wisp. For a moment or two I thought about just staying home and sulking. In the end though I decided to walk the route anyway. Maybe there’d still be some mist down on the river, if there ever had been any of course.
Down at Chessel Bay any illusions I may have still harboured were shattered once and for all. There were clouds but the water was mirror clear without even the slightest haze. A quartet of swans turned their backs on me at the viewing platform, if only they’d known about the bread in a bag in my pocket. All were white but that was exactly what I’d expected. Now I know where those black swans and their cygnets are hanging out.
The skeleton ship didn’t look nearly as interesting without a blanket of mist tumbling over its rotten beams but, on the embankment,nthere were daisies I wouldn’t have seen if it had been so that was something to be grateful for. Like the daffodils I saw yesterday they are obviously confused about the season. Me too! It was hardly cold enough to do my jacket up, although it is colder than it has been. This is probably not something to moan about, not least in terms of the heating bill. When the cold does come, as it inevitably will, I shall look back on days like these fondly no doubt.
On the other side of the bridge, in front of the rowing club, a cormorant sat on the edge of the water preening himself. He was so intent on the task in hand I managed to sneak up quite close before he even noticed. Even then he flinched for a second but continued to ignore me. Then it was onwards under the bridge with a quick look at some new, inspirational graffiti and along a very puddle ridden and muddy river path.
For a moment or two I stood near the log pond looking out over the river hopefully for signs of fog. The far bank was as clear as day and I walked on. There seems to be a lot of action on the demolished TV studio site with diggers moving about and lots of men wandering around but very little in the way of progress as far as I can see. They appear to be simply moving piles of rubble from one place to another but what do I know? There must be a plan even if I can’t see it. One pile of rubble near the fence looked like it contained the remains of the makeshift camp I used to pass, all bits of carpet, blankets and what looked like an old mattress. I wonder what happened to whoever was living there?
The swans and gulls were in a frenzy by the big stones on the corner. A knot of people working in the offices there were on a break and throwing bread through the fence. The swans on the Itchen certainly seem to get their fair share of bread and the gulls nip in and steal as much as they can. At the end of the boardwalk, beside the hippy ship, one swan was obviously not hungry, or she’d missed all the commotion. She stood, looking out over the river seemingly lost in thought, and completely ignored me as I passed.
My hand went to my pocket and I thought about throwing some of my bread but decided to keep it to tempt the black swans at riverside and carried on across the boardwalk. Further on, the red hull of Dutch Courage was reflected in the calm water and I wondered about Suki II, who’d been moored in the same spot for so long last year. Where did she go? Would she ever return?
So far it had felt like my old walk to work but now I turned my back on Horseshoe Bridge and headed for the path behind Millennium Flats. The moorings were strangely empty, not even a duck or a gull, although something gull like was flying over the flats on the opposite bank. Perhaps the owners had all gone off somewhere warm for a Christmas break. It must be nice to have a boat and go sailing off whenever the mood takes you. Around the corner there were two boats and one solitary gull sitting on one of the motors surveying the assortment of bouys and markers on the still river. Even the slipway was empty, no boats being launched, no swans squabbling and preening. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so quiet.
Then it was road walking for a while. Tempting as it was to nip across Cobden Bridge to the park I decided to stick to my original plan, more or less, and carry on along the west bank of the river even though there is very little river to be seen on that side. In Priory Road there were campanula blooming on a low garden wall, another flower that has woken too early and is stretching and yawning thinking it’s spring. Looking into gardens trying to spot the signs of a false Spring did at least break up the monotony and I saw several more clumps of campanula in other gardens.
At Saltmead I finally broke from the road and made my way down to the river again and the small stretch of path running along the bank. Saltmead is a fairly new road of small modern houses, possibly named with a nod to the salt meadows that may once have been here. This and another path near the bridge are the only accessible parts of the western riverbank until Woodmill, unless you fancy a little trespassing. It is also as close as I could get to the place the black swans are hiding out, although further up river. For a while I stood by the railings watching the swans milling about by the jetty on the east bank. Pretty soon they’d spotted me and were swimming across the river hopeful of bread. Leaning over the railing I peered down towards the mooring and the little boats, hoping to see the black swans but they were nowhere in sight so I kept my bread in my pocket and carried on a little way with a stream of expectant swans in tow.
Pretty soon I’d gone as far as I could, the gates to the waterworks blocked the way ahead and the swans, realising I wasn’t going to feed them, had left me. Now I was close to the reedbeds. It was interesting to look at the river from the other side but I’m not sure whether it was worth all the road walking. Now there was nothing for it but to turn back to the road and head for Woodmill.
It was less than three quarters of a mile to Woodmill Lane but the walk through an industrial estate and along a busy road felt like more. In fact it seemed to go on forever and I was glad to come to the railway bridge and turn towards the river again. My original plan had been to walk along Wessex Lane, past St Mary’s Church and through Monks Brook but, in the absence of any mist, I changed my mind. There would be no atmospheric photos of grave stones or mist rolling along the brook so it seemed a pointless detour. Instead I carried on through the mill towards the park.
Pretty soon I was looking across the river to the place I’d been standing earlier. The walk through the park had seemed far shorter than the walk to get to it although from the railway bridge to where I was standing was almost exactly the same distance as the walk from Saltmead to the railway bridge. Interesting surroundings certainly make the miles go faster.
Pretty soon I’d reached the jetty and my hand went to my pocket and the bag of bread. Someone had got there before me though. A woman was on the jetty with her own bag and the swans and gulls were gathered, squabbling for the spoils. Amongst them was one adult black swan. I looked around for the other and the cygnets but they were nowhere to be seen. Unlike gulls, swans are not actually greedy creatures and will only eat when they’re hungry. Perhaps the babies had already been fed today, either at the jetty or by the people in the houses in Priory Road.
It seemed rude to muscle in on the bread thrower’s fun so I stood on the bank and waited until her bread ran out and the swans began to disperse. Then I crumbled my two granary crusts (no one likes the crusts in our house) and threw them into the water little by little. A few swans came over for some desert, including the black swan, but there was certainly not the feeding frenzy there often is. Interestingly, the black swan seemed to be the most aggressive in his pursuit of bread. Whether he was especially hungry or by nature more obstreperous I don’t know but he did a lot of snapping and pecking, chasing the mute swan cygnets away from the crumbs with a nip to the tail. A few pigeons got in on the act and the gulls did their best to catch the bread before it ever got to the water.
Some people say you shouldn’t feed bread to the swans and I would agree that white bread is especially bad for them. In fact mouldy bread can kill both swans and ducks. In our house we don’t eat white bread anyway and the two meagre slices of granary bread I gave them today might not have been the best thing but it certainly wouldn’t have done any harm spread between seventeen swans and countless gulls and pigeons. At this time of year, when other food is scarce, a little granary bread as a supplement to the grass, weeds and insects they generally eat can only help them survive the winter, especially the growing cygnets. Even so, I should probably buy some grains if I plan to keep feeding them.
Walking back towards the Triangle, I wondered what had become of the black cygnets, were they hiding out? When I was on the other side of the river I hadn’t seen them and they hadn’t come across the river for bread. Then I spotted something moving amongst the boats on the other side of the water. At first I thought it was ducks or gulls but then I spotted an adult black swan. At least I knew they were still ok, even if I couldn’t really see them.
After that it was up the slope to the Triangle, with a quick look at the leaning tower of Bitterne Park and home. There was one last out of season flower on the way, a dirt spattered periwinkle, vinca major, against a garden fence. There had been no mist so I’d got no misty pictures and seen no black swan cygnets. It seems the weatherman is not to be trusted but I can hardly complain. Any walk along the river is a good one.
Tonight the weatherman was talking about snow ahead, feet of it. Nice as the idea is, as long as I don’t have to drive anywhere in it, I’m not holding my breath. I predict a continued heatwave and more rain.