24 May 2016
When I told Commando I was going to walk the Itchen Navigation to Winchester today and CJ wanted to come along, he was concerned. He didn’t think CJ would cope with a fifteen mile walk, no coffee stops and nothing but nature to look at. In fact he suggested we get the train to Eastleigh and start off there, on the pretty part of the Navigation. CJ insisted he’d be fine though so, fairly early (at least for CJ), we packed some sandwiches and drinks in my rucksack and set off.
The forecast was for sun but not too much heat so it seemed the perfect day for it. At Riverside Park they were cutting the grass and the river was deep dark blue, reflecting the sky. There were swans by the jetty but no cygnets so, with the length of the journey ahead in mind, we didn’t stop to look at them. A little further along the first red campion of the year caused a brief pause but we were soon on the march again.
As we approached Woodmill we could see a huge queue of traffic.
“Crikey, I hope that isn’t going to try to get through Woodmill,” CJ said, pointing to a huge articulated lorry at the front of the jam.
Over the years quite a few large vehicles have become stuck in the narrow, winding road through the mill and it always makes me wonder how they get so far without realising they’re never going to get through. Goodness knows it’s tight enough in a little Mazda. It looked as if we were about to witness another disaster in progress. At the last minute though, the lorry turned and headed through the car park and across the grass to the field to join a whole bunch of others. The circus was coming to town!
More large lorries were heading down Woodmill Lane so crossing the road took some time. Mindful we were still at the beginning of our journey, I increased the pace a little. When CJ stopped and started pointing and staring into the river I was a bit annoyed. If we kept stopping for every duck or dog we saw it’d be dark before we got to Winchester. When I followed his pointing finger with my eyes though I had to admit he’d spotted something very unusual. There was a large goldfish, a koi carp, in the river! This was most certainly a first!
On we went wondering how an ornamental fish ended up in the Itchen.
“Maybe it was a pet that someone thought was dead?” CJ suggested.
“Or it got too big for someone’s pond,” I added.
“It could have escaped from a pond. Perhaps it’s a Houdini carp?” CJ laughed.
The next stop was my fault. We were still making up scenarios for the carp in the river when we reached Mansbridge. As usual, I glanced sadly at the oak tree that was cut down after Storm Katie. This time though there were green leaves sprouting from the top. For a moment I thought it may have been ivy or weeds taking hold but a closer look showed the tree is still very much alive and growing. In my book that’s incredibly good news.
Even with more stops than planned we were making fair progress and it wasn’t long before we came to the first Navigation marker at Mansbridge Lock. Of course CJ had walked this much of the path with me before so it wasn’t the first time he’d seen it but he was surprised by the amount of water in the lock.
“The old canal is blocked off along this section,” I explained, “so it’s all rain water rather than river and stagnant. Obviously we’ve had more rain than I thought.”
As we walked on I explained how most of the locks were so overgrown it was almost impossible to find them. the only clues they are there at all are changes in the level of the path. Obviously he was listening because, as we came to the slope telling me we were near Sandy Lock, he started peering into the undergrowth.
“I see bricks,” he said proudly. “It must be a lock.”
“It’s the tail of Sandy Lock,” I told him. “If you look really closely you will see the sign.”
A Little way on we came to the head of the lock. Usually it’s even more overgrown and hard to see but straight away I could tell something had changed. The bricks seemed to have been moved and were piled up all higgledy piggledy. The lock had a little rain water in it but the real surprise was a row of bricks across the old canal. It looked like the old lock cil to me.
“I think someone has been clearing the canal and doing some work on the brickwork here,” I told CJ. “I’ve never seen the cil of the lock before.
Soon we were at the furthest point CJ has walked, near the side path to the airport. The trees turning the path into a green tunnel suddenly open out giving a view into the water meadows of the Itchen Valley a Country Park. CJ was excited to see cows grazing. There’s a gate in the meadow here and, seeing CJ poised with his phone, the cows began to charge towards us. Thankfully there was a barbed wire fence between us and them. Even so I couldn’t help thinking it looked a little flimsy and the cows looked big and fierce.
CJ got his photos and I was glad to be on the move again, putting some distance between us and the cows. Soon the trees encroached on the trail and we were once again in a dappled green tunnel filled with floating willow seed fairies. Our next stop was brief, to photograph bright blue speedwells growing in a puddle of sunlight.
Occasional glimpses of the water meadow showed fields filled with buttercups and soon we were at Lock House Lock. It looked as if someone had been cleaning up the masonry here since my last visit and I wondered who it was.
“I can’t imagine the council spending money on it when they wouldn’t even replace the bridge at Withymead. Maybe it’s the canal society?” I said.
“Why is it called Lock House Lock?” CJ asked, reading the sign.
“There used to be a lock cottage here, it was demolished after World War II. Some people call it Chickenhall Lock though because we’re not far from Chickenhall Lane.”
The next landmark was the rather Heath Robinson railway bridge made of corrugated iron and cement bags. CJ found it hard to believe trains went over it and, for once, there wasn’t a train in sight to prove they did.
“It doesn’t look strong enough to support the weight of a train,” he said.
“I know but it does. Mind you I don’t like being under it when a train goes past. I’m convinced it’s going to fall down. It’s been here for years and years though so I guess it must be safe.”
A couple of minutes later we could see the Itchen again across the fields. Soon we’d be walking beside it. As we strolled along Chickenhall Lane I told CJ about the bus depot at the other end and how easy it was to miss the bridge back to the Navigation.
“I’ve ended up going too far a few times and having to turn back,” I said.
We passed the rusty gate with the padlock leading to the private fishing ground and soon we were standing on the bridge looking down river. The swirling, churning water was a welcome sight after miles of almost dry canal and dusty paths. Looking upstream I pointed out the ford where I’d seen a woman in a bikini swimming years ago.
Close to the ford CJ stopped by a crumbling patch of bank to look at hundreds of little minnows in the clear water and I decided it would be a good place to sit and have our first drink. We’d walked almost six miles and, now we were away from the shade of the trees, it felt much warmer. The cartons of iced coffee were welcome and I was temped to take off my muddy shoes and dip my feet in the water. There were yellow iris on the bank so, while CJ tried to photograph the tiny fish, I took a picture of them.
Once we’d finished our drinks we went on our way again. CJ found a dried out clump of turkey tails and correctly identified them. He must listen more than I think he does. There were wild flowers to look at too, cow parsley, clover and comfrey. Ahead we could see Bishopstoke Road. The first section of the Itchen Navigation was almost behind us.
“Once we get across the road we’ll have reached the pretty part of the Navigation,” I told CJ as we passed through the kissing gate. “From here we will be walking by the river almost all the way. Are you ok to carry on?”
“Of course I am,” he said.
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