24 May 2016
We’d reached Bishopstoke and the more scenic part of the Itchen Navigation without incident. Well, apart from the circus, a koi carp in the Itchen and some slightly scary cows behind a flimsy fence. CJ seemed to be holding up well, despite Commando’s misgivings. It took a while to get across the road, it always does, but soon we were on the other side of Stoke Bridge looking at a much wider, tarmacked path.
“This is where the signs about the stolen bridge were when I first came this way,” I told CJ but he wasn’t really listening, he’d found a sign of a different kind and was trying to read it.
It was rusty and old but, with some difficulty we made out the words ‘cycling along this footpath is prohibited.’
“Maybe they need to get a better sign,” I said, “because I’ve seen plenty of cyclists along here. In fact I’ve almost been run down by a few of them.”
A passing man heard me and chipped in his thoughts.
“They’re a bloody menace along here,” he grumbled.
We all walked in step for a while and the man regaled us with tales of all the times he’d nearly been run down and what he’d like to do to the culprits.
Soon we’d reached Stoke Lock, or what’s left of it. The original brickwork of the lock is almost unrecognisable under the modern footbridge, sluices and a fish pass. Once this path was more open but trees have encroached on the towpath since the water meadows were fenced off. Even so, the tumbling water and the dappled shade made for a pretty picture. At this point we parted company with the man. He was heading for Bishopstoke across the footbridge and seemed surprised to learn we were walking all the way to Winchester.
“I’ve often wondered where the path went from here,” he said. “I didn’t realise it went that far. Maybe I’ll walk it one day.”
“Funnily enough I’ve often wondered where the path across the footbridge went,” I said.
“Only Church Road,” he laughed, “but there’s a pub, The Anglers Inn.”
CJ was still marvelling at the stillness of the water upriver of the boiling tumult of the sluice when a cyclist came zooming past at breakneck speed. He missed us by inches then turned onto the footbridge.
“That man’s going to have another near miss any minute now,” CJ said.
We carried on, wondering who would come out worse from the encounter.
A few minutes later we came to one of my favourite spots on the canal. Willows have grown on the path as it winds along the meandering river bank, forming a green bower filled with stippled light and reflections. It makes for beautiful photographs and, of course, I couldn’t resist a stop. Once I had my pictures CJ crouched to take his own shots. It’s the sort of place you could stop all day.
There are houses on the opposite bank here, their gardens running down to the river. if ever there was a case for house envy this must be it. Rhododendrons blooming on the bank added a touch of pink to all the greens and caused another photo stop. At this rate it would be dark before we reached Winchester.
When we came to the sluices used to drown the water meadows CJ was fascinated by the water pouring through.
“Why do they flood the water meadows?” he wondered.
“The silt from the river improved the soil. Irrigating the meadows in spring kept the frost at bay and meant the grass grew earlier too. They don’t flood the meadows these days by they’re still used for grazing,” I pointed to the horses on the far side of the buttercup filled field fenced off from the trail.
With fields to our left and the river bank teaming with yellow irises to our right the sinuous path was a huge contrast to the first section of the canal. Silky willow seeds floated around us and seemed to sparkle in the sunlight. We stopped for a moment to look at a low branch overhanging the path. The seeds seemed so prolific it was a wonder there weren’t a thousand willows lining the bank. Then CJ spotted blue dragonflies fluttering above the water. One settled right next to him and he snapped a shot I could only dream of. My own pictures captured blue blurs in the main but one was at least recognisable as a dragonfly.
Eventually we moved on and soon the meadows on the opposite bank opened up. When the pylons came into view I knew we were almost at Withymead.
“Those buildings in the distance are part of Highbridge Farm,” I told CJ. “The owner, Farmer Russel, was the man who replaced the bridge. If it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t be walking this way because we wouldn’t be able to get across the river.”
Crossing one more set of hatches we came to the bridge. I pointed out the brickwork of the old lock and the tree overlooking it with a natural seat.
“More than once I’ve sat here and drank my chocolate milk,” I told him. “Try it out, its surprisingly comfortable.”
He sat and we stopped for a snack to keep up our strength until lunch.
Feeling fortified by our short stop we crossed Withymead bridge.
“Behind those trees is Eastleigh Railway Station,” I said, to give him an idea of where we were.
The river meanders between Withymead and Allbrook in a wide loop under the railway line and back again and, before too long, we came to the first of the two bridges. Beyond it we passed the first of the rustic benches.
“We’ll be eating our lunch at the next ones like this,” I said, “but we have a way to go yet.”
The gardens of the Twyford Road houses slope down to the river and we both agreed it would be nice to have the river at the bottom of the garden.
On our side of the river we found aquilegia with willow seeds clinging to them and purple comfrey buzzing with bees. We passed Ham Farm and I pointed out the path leading off of the Navigation.
“This was where I had to rejoin the trail when the bridge was closed,” I explained.
Further still I pointed out the red chair in a leafy bower by the river bank. It always makes me smile and dream of sitting there to while away an hour.
Under the second railway bridge we came to Highbridge Road and the tumbling stairway of water that was once Allbrook Lock. In 1838, when the London and Southampton Railway was built, the canal was diverted slightly and a new brick lined lock created. The original lock was buried somewhere under the railway embankment to the south of the road and lost forever. For me the sight of the roaring waterfall was a familiar sight but CJ could hardly tear himself away. He stood filming the water with his phone while I explained that the stairs of water effect was a fish ladder installed in the chamber of the replacement lock fairly recently.
Along the path we stopped again to look at the top of the weir where the lock gates used to be.
“This weir is used to measure the flow of water on the Navigation,” I explained.
“What’s the little house for?” he asked.
“Ah, that’s something I’ve always wondered about,” I said. “I think it may be something to do with the railway but it could be to do with measuring the water flow.”
“Whatever it is I think that warning sign about deep water is a bit superfluous,” he laughed.
On the other side of the path we could see across the fields of Higbridge Farm. CJ was surprised to see an ostrich wandering about.
“There are sometimes goats too,” I told him. “Once, on a very cold rainy walk I saw them climbing a tree on the other side of the road. I thought I was hallucinating for a minute I was so wet and tired.”
For some reason the farmer has dug a huge pit and it was filled with greenish looking water. We walked on wondering what it was for?
A little further on we spotted the first swans we’d seen since Mansbridge. They were sitting on the opposite bank on what could have been a nest but there were no cygnets in sight. Further still we saw sheep through the Highbridge Farm fence.
“This was where I saw the horses in sunglasses,” I said. “They were wearing some kind of white cloth eye wear. When I first saw them, it looked as if they didn’t have any eyes and I was horrified.”
“This is the part of the canal that floods the worst,” I said was we carried on along the path. “The canal is higher than the river here and, when the water breaches the bank, it flows like a river across the path. I’ve had to wade through it more than once. They’ve repaired the path since the last floods so, hopefully, it will hold this year.”
At the point of the original breach, back in July 2013, a short stretch of boardwalk, like a bridge, has replaced the path altogether. Beneath it a channel has been cut to allow the canal to drain into the river on the other side of the path. Hopefully this will help the flooding situation in future. As we crossed I told CJ all about meeting Peter, the smiley man, and how he’d walked with me and pointed out lots of interesting things I might otherwise have missed.
“A bit like you’re doing now then,” he said.
On the other side of the sluices a man was standing on the far bank fishing. The land belongs to Heisting Alpaca farm and I guessed the fisherman must be the same farmer who had stood looking rather menacing with a gun in his hand when I passed a few years back. We could see alpacas across the field and, when we came to the boardwalk the farm had stood on that day I told CJ the tale.
“I’m not sure what kind of threat he thought I was but he frightened the living daylights out of me,” I said.
“He looks quite peaceful now standing there fishing,” CJ noted. “Perhaps you imagined it?”
By now were were approaching Kiln Lane and not too far from our lunch stop. I was feeling quite peckish and I’m pretty sure CJ, who eats far more than I, was starving. To his credit he didn’t once complain.Whether he’d make it to the end of the Navigation or not was another matter though.
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