24 May 2016
With one last look at the alpacas In the field, we crossed the road at Kiln Lane and I showed CJ the half hidden entrance to the next section of the canal.
“If I hadn’t met Peter, the smiley man, that first time I might never have found it,” I told him. “It’s one of the few places you can get lost on the Navigation.”
Then we carried on, hunger driving us to pick up the pace and get to the rustic benches as soon as possible. There aren’t that many dry places to sit on the Navigation, even in the middle of summer and this is one of the muddiest stretches.
Pretty soon we came to the fish weir near Brambridge Lock. A man was on the other side of the water, passing through a gate with a Private Property sign, and I wondered how he got there. Above the weir all was deceptively calm and green and we peered across the water at an array of sluices while the man loitered half out of sight. Perhaps he was there to tend to them?
Out of the trees again, we saw our next swan sailing majestically upriver. If ever there was an idyllic English country scene this must surely be it, fields of buttercups, a ribbon of water reflecting blue sky and wildflowers, butterflies and bees darting about.
While CJ was chasing illusive dragonflies I looked at the wildflowers and discovered a curious creature clinging to the underside of a leaf. At first I thought it was a dragonfly and, when I raised my camera, I fully expected it to flutter away but it didn’t. It sat perfectly still as if it was glued. A closer look told me this was a mayfly, in fact it was almost certainly a subimago, the final stage of a mayfly nymph, undergoing its final moult. The mayfly is the only insect with a winged nymph form that undergoes a moult and this chap probably couldn’t have moved if it had wanted to. For me this meant a good look at its beautiful lacy wings.
Across the river there was a strange shed that I don’t remember seeing before and I wondered what it was for. It seemed odd to have a shed in the middle of a water meadow. We were close to the Otterbourne waterworks by this time. We could see the low weir with stepping stones and the bridge over College Mead Lock. It was reassuring to see how clean and clear the water looked, knowing the stuff that comes out of our taps is drawn from the river here.
It was also a relief to know the rustic benches were just around the corner and we would soon have lunch. CJ stopped for a closer look at the weir and I pointed out the odd bridge down stream that is really a pipe carrying water.
“The water looks clean enough to drink just as it is doesn’t it?” I said.
“I’m not sure I’d want to drink it straight from the river, even if it is the same stuff that comes out our taps. I’m pretty sure they treat it before they send it to us.”
“You’re probably right but I wouldn’t be worried about drinking it if I had to.”
The benches looked pretty as a picture, the sides covered in fungi, surrounded by hawthorn blossom and backed by green fields. Someone had left a fleece jacket on one, probably one of the dog walkers we’d seen. If there is a better place to sit and eat lunch I don’t know where it is. We lingered over our sandwiches watching dogs and walkers come and go. There’s a dog dip here, designed to keep dogs from going into the river in other places and eroding the banks. One very elderly Labrador had to be helped in and out of the river.
Eventually we had to drag ourselves away and cross the bridge. As we passed I showed CJ the cil of College Mead Lock, so crumbled now it looks for all the world like a little waterfall. Then it was on towards Shawford. Under spreading horse chestnut trees covered in blossom, we crossed the river again and passed Malm Farm.
On the dirt trail beside the railway arches we found two eggshells, speckled blue and probably belonging to a blackbird. They looked as if they’d been stolen from the nest and broken open, one had yolk beneath it.
“Do you know where you are yet?” I asked CJ as the first Shawford cottages came into view.
“Um, not really,” he said.
“You will in a minute,” I laughed.
When he saw the railway arch leading to Shawford Down he remembered.
“This was where we met the man who used to ride his motorbike to Southampton,” he said. “We’re near Victor’s Bridge.”
With memories of our walk on Shawford Down we strolled along the raised path between the river and the cottages towards Shawford Road. The gypsy caravan was still enshrouded in a tarpaulin which was disappointing. I’d like to have shown him the wonderful decorations on its paintwork.
On the other side of the road we found our next Navigation marker.
“Nine miles?” CJ said. “It feels like more than that.”
“I have to admit I’m not entirely convinced by the distances on these markers, especially as this one says Northam to Shawford. The one at Mansbridge says twelve miles to Winchester, it’s about three miles from Shawford to Winchester and at least another two from Mansbridge to Northam so it doesn’t really add up. If you’re getting tired we can always stop at the pub for a coffee but we won’t have time for one in Winchester if we do.”
“I’m fine. I just thought I’d walked further than nine miles that’s all.”
Shortly after this CJ spotted a strange contraption in the trees. It may have been there all along and I’ve never noticed it but I had no idea what it was. It looked like a kind of box or maybe a part of a tunnel, with large chains hanging from it. Neither of us could decide whether it had something to do with the canal, the railway or something else altogether. Puzzled, we walked on.
Then things took a very strange turn. A little way along the path we could see people. Unlike most people on the tow path they didn’t seem to be walking and it looked led as if they were having quite a heated exchange with lots of arm waving. Personally, I didn’t fancy getting mixed up in it but we had no choice but to keep going and hope we could sneak past without them noticing. When we got closer though, another figure came into focus and it wasn’t human. It was also very large, maybe a pony?
Closer still with clearer vision we could see it was a cow. Well, we hoped it was a cow. The women seemed to be trying to shoo it along the trail. The cow wasn’t having any of it. It was far too busy eating the vegetation along the canal bank. For a second I thought it might be their cow and they were taking it for a walk.
“I think it’s escaped from the meadow,” the woman in the pink hat said when she spotted us. “There are quite a few just like it on the other side of the hedge.”
“I think it worked out how to get through the kissing gate,” the other woman said.
When she spoke I realised she was on the river side of the barbed wire fence. She had a dog with her and, in her smart summer dress, didn’t look dressed for walking. Then the woman with the hat moved and I could see this was most definitely not a cow, it was a bull, a young one but still…
We couldn’t go forward without somehow getting past the bull who was more or less blocking the path. Memories of a new report I’d seen about a woman walker being trampled to death by cows came flooding into my head. Instinct said turn around and go back as quickly as possible. If the bull decided it didn’t like all these humans waving their arms about and shouting at it and charged we’d be in trouble. There was nowhere to go other that over the fence and into the river, or maybe through the prickly, nettle strewn hedge. In fact there was a barbed wire fence running through the hedge too so we were trapped. It seemed a shame to cut the walk short after coming so far but I couldn’t see what else we could do.
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