On 11 September 2013 I went for a little walk. When I say little, I meant about fourteen and a half miles. For once I wasn’t walking alone, I had Sirona with me. In my defence, she did know what she was getting into.
11 September 2013
At eight thirty I set out towards the White Swan and a meeting with Sirona. It was slightly chilly and a beautiful mackerel sky told of a change in the weather. Whether this meant for better or worse remained to be seen. Whatever nature chose to throw at us we were prepared with spare socks waterproof coats and hats, snacks and water.
The sky was so wonderful I stopped to take a few photos on my way through Riverside Park. The dusky light and bright clouds turned all my pictures to silhouettes. Back towards the bridge the sky looked like a seascape suspended above me and I thought I detected a hint of blue so I crossed my fingers for good weather as the sun rose.
The river seemed clear and green after my weekend encounter with the muddy old Thames. Only the reflection of the trees hid the green weed streaming with the current below the surface. By this time I was close to Mansbridge and, as I rounded the bend, the family of swans appeared, all seven cygnets present and counted. It won’t be long before their brownish grey feathers begin to turn white and it becomes difficult to tell children from parents.
We met outside the pub. Although I was pretty sure Sirona could manage the whole Navigation walk, I had contingency plans for places we could bail out if necessary. Walks of fourteen miles plus aren’t easy when you’re not used to them and there’s been a fair bit of rain over the last few days so I was worried about mud. The Navigation between Mansbridge to Eastleigh can quickly become impassible, so I was pleased to find the ground nice and solid. We marched along, with Sirona in front setting the pace, through the noisy section beside the motorway and under the bridge where we picked up the river again.
Beside the Itchen Valley Country Park the band of blue sky seemed to be growing. Something about the scene reminded me of Africa, the skies in the morning over Agadir. Sadly there was nothing of the African heat about it and I still had my pink hat on to keep my ears warm. Sirona is not easily embarrassed and didn’t seem to mind being seen with me, not that there was anyone to see us.
We crossed the first bridge by Lock House Lock and Sirona noticed a little plaque on the stone wall telling us where we were.
“That’s new,” I told her. “The first time I saw it I thought it was a disused bridge. When I got home and Googled it I found out it was a lock.”
We got into a conversation about how we ever found these things out before Google. Without it I would never have known there was once a lock cottage right there by Lock House Lock, or that someone lived there right up until the end of World War II when it was demolished. These days it would be a noisy place to live with the airport right in the back garden.
Crossing the bridge off Chickenhall Lane Sirona thought it would be a great place to play Pooh Sticks, the game Christopher Robin and Winnie The Pooh used to play by throwing sticks off a bridge and watching to see whose came out the other side first. Sadly, we didn’t have any sticks and had to content ourselves with watching a leaf float under the bridge. Somehow Pooh Leaves didn’t have quite the same ring to it.
There were cows in the buttercup field but the buttercups are now long gone. The field was much prettier when it was a haze of yellow. I wondered if eating all those buttercups made the milk taste better. For once I didn’t have to wonder to myself and Sirona didn’t even think it was a silly question. It’s good to walk with someone who thinks things like that are sensible musings.
There were teasels along the riverbank. They were once used as a natural comb for raising the nap on woollen fabrics. The dried flower heads were attached to wheels or spindles called teasel frames. By the 1900’s metal cards or combs had replaced the poor old teasel but some weavers still prefer to use them as they’re less likely to rip the cloth than metal. They make nice dried flower arrangements too.
A little further along there were some pretty orange spotted flowers I half recognised. It wasn’t until I got home and Googled I realised they were spotted touch me nots, impatiens capensis. The name comes from the fact that the seed pods explode if you gently touch them. The sap used to be used to treated skin rashes. Scientific studies have since shown they have no effect, it must have been a placebo, people believed it worked so it did.
We were coming to the stolen bridge. When I last came this way the sign said the path would reopen at the beginning of December or when the bridge was repaired, whichever came first. Not exactly a clear timescale. The new sign at Lock House Lock suggested some work had been been going on, did this extend as far as bridge repairs? I harboured a tiny hope it did.
While we stood waiting to cross the busy road I explained that Withymeads Bridge was more than a mile from the gate, if we took a chance and it was still out, we’d be adding two to three miles to what was already a long walk. We needed to be sure before we set out along that path. Peering between the speeding cars at the gate and the fence where the sign had been we could see the orange fixing tape but no sign! It looked like it might be good news.
Eventually we managed to cross the road. We were about to set off along the path, when something made me look down. The sign was on the ground, it had come adrift from the fence. I picked it up. It now said the path would reopen at the end of February 2014 or when the bridge was fixed, whichever came first. Still not very clear and quite a blow.
So, instead of the peaceful riverside walk we’d hoped for we set off along Bishopstoke Road towards Twyford Road where I knew we could pick up the Navigation again. As we walked we talked about the bridge. How difficult could it be to replace a simple wooden bridge across no more than nine or ten feet of water? Maybe I should just pop along to B&Q and buy some wood then set CJ to work, he’d have it fixed within the week.
After a detour of just over a mile we were back on the Navigation, looking across the river quite enviously at the back gardens of the houses on Twyford Road. One in particular has always caught my eye, the back of the house juts out into the tree trunks on the riverbank and seems like a tree house. “That’s Ham Farm,” Sirona told me. For all the times I’ve walked along Twyford road admiring the thatched pub and all the times I’ve looked at that ‘tree house,’ I’ve never put the two together. It’s quite handy having a walking companion who knows the area.
“Wouldn’t it be lovely to have a view like that from your back garden?” I mused, pointing at a shady little arbour with red chairs and a bird table.
Under the railway bridge and we looked out over the open fields on Highbridge Road. There were cows grazing on the far side seemingly unperturbed by the overhead power lines or the huge pylon. This was the field where I saw goats in the trees on one of my walks. I’ve never seen goats there since but that day it was pouring with rain and the goats made me smile. The clouds suggested we could be getting wet before long. Good job we both had waterproof coats.
At Allbrook Lock another sign had appeared. Personally I’d rather the money had been spent on bridge repairs although the signs are nice and I suppose it’s good to know what you’re looking at.
“Look, horses in cow pyjamas!” I said, pointing at the field beside the track. Sirona was slightly puzzled, until I explained the black and white splotched horses look like they’re wearing cow suits to me. Sometimes I forget not everyone sees the world as I do. One was just the other side of the brambles beside the path and we stood on tiptoe to get a better look. Sadly neither of us is very tall so we could only see its ears and the top of its head.
A single swan, swimming slowly upstream, hissed at us as we passed by. Obviously we weren’t welcome but I’m not sure why. It’s rare for a swan to hiss unless it feels threatened or you pass too close to a nest. It’s a little late in the season for a nest so perhaps this particular swan was having a bad day. Whatever it was we didn’t hang around, I can’t say I fancy tussling with a swan.
The breach in the bank, where I had to clamber over logs and met Peter, the smiley man, has been fixed. There really has been quite a bit of investment along the Navigation in the last couple of months, which makes me wonder why the bridge at Withymead hasn’t been made a priority.
Not far from the sluice the Itchen loops back from its meandering path through the fields and closes in on the Navigation canal. We were walking with the canal to our left and the river to our right. It’s quite wide at this point like a lake surrounded by trees dipping their branches into the cool green water. The two run side by side for a while, until the Itchen wanders off again and it feels like walking on a long thin island with water on both sides.
Before long we were passing Malm’s Farm where I’d seen the ostriches and alpacas back in July. The ostriches were a little camera shy this time and the alpacas, who’d been lazing under the trees on the riverbank last time, were nowhere to be seen. We did spot some pigs rooting around in the shade. As we went on our way, the farmer, gun in hand, stared at us suspiciously. Goodness only knows what he thought we were doing, casing the joint for a poaching escapade perhaps?
Crossing the bridge on Kiln lane we rejoined the Navigation, now the water ran to our right but it’s hard to tell whether this is the river, the canal or both together at this point, even looking at the map. Before too long the river wanders off sharply to the right, along with another stream or tributary. We marvelled at the rushing, boiling water at Brambridge lock where the river is forced through the eel trap and fish weir. Above the lock the river is so still and calm it seems out of step with the turmoil below.
At Brambridge Hatch another of those signs had sprung up. The hatches were once used to allow the water to return to the river on either side of the lock gates. The mechanism is still there but now it’s a curiosity rather than a necessity. We were walking towards Otterbourne water treatment works and I told Sirona how the water we drink is treated there and comes from the river.
The earlier promise of blue sky seemed to be coming to nothing as we looked out over the fields on the way to College Meads Lock. Sirona was very taken with the dark plum colour of the flowering reeds and then again by the purple of the thistle flowers. Purple is her favourite colour. The tail of College Meads Lock came into view and I told her how I’d seen father and daughter walking across last time I’d come by. Wthout the sun the water didn’t look quite as inviting.
By now my stomach was grumbling and I suggested we stop for a snack at the rustic benches. Sirona thought this was a great idea as she was feeling hungry too. Right next to the benches a hazel tree was bursting with nuts hidden under the leaves, I lifted a branch to show her but the nuts were not ripe which was a shame.
By this time I’d walked ten miles, more or less and Sirona had walked seven and a half. We were getting close to Victor’s bridge at Shawford, the next bail out point, about four miles from Winchester.
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