Early in December 2013 Pete, who runs Care For a Walk, happened to mention he’d walked the Itchen Navigation and there was a new, metal bridge at Withymead. Of course that meant I could, in theory, walk the whole Navigation. I say in theory because, in December, the chances were the stretch from the White Swan to Eastleigh would be too boggy to walk at all, if not actually flooded. Of course I was itching to go and have a look but, with the last fraught weeks at work and Christmas, I hadn’t found the time. Once Christmas and my job were behind me though I finally had my chance.
29 December 2013
Today’s plan was to check out the new bridge at Withymead. Much as I’d have liked to walk the whole Navigation from start to finish I knew from my Boxing Day walk there was flooding at the White Swan. The stretch from Mansbridge to Bishopstoke is muddy and tough going at the best of times, right now it’s bound to be impassable. Truthfully I wasn’t sure how passable the rest of the Navigation would be but I was going to find out, starting in Winchester and walking back towards Bishopstoke.
Commando gave me a lift to Southampton Central Station at about half past ten and I went inside to buy a one way ticket. As the next train wasn’t due to leave until five to eleven I popped across the road to Costa and grabbed a skinny latte to take away. This was strictly to warm my hands up you understand, it was a cold, icy morning and I had a long wait on the platform ahead.
Eventually I was on my way for the fifteen minute journey to Winchester on a nice warm train. Of course, with the railways, nothing ever runs smoothly and there was a slight problem at Eastleigh. The train my train was supposed to be coupled with was late and, when it finally arrived, it took ages to couple it up. I was desperate to get walking so the delay didn’t impress me much.
By the time I got to Winchester it was after half past eleven so I was running late before I even set out. Then, of course, I had to find the beginning of the Navigation, which I wasn’t particularly confident about. The only time I haven’t been hopelessly lost in Winchester was when Sirona came with me. Sadly, she wasn’t able to join me today so I was on my own. This may be hard to believe but I actually managed to get to the High Street with relative ease (ok, it was more luck than judgement) and once I was there I was almost confident I’d be able to find the way.
From my walk with Sirona I knew I needed to walk downhill towards the fifteenth century Buttercross and then on past Hamo Thornycroft’s famous statue of King Alfred The Great, the first king of the Wessex Saxons. After that I was a little hazy but I knew I was looking for a bridge. As it happened, not long after I’d passed the statue, I spotted the bridge, I was almost at the start of the Navigation!
The bridge is on Bridge Street (what a surprise) and, although it isn’t actually on the Navigation, it was my first sight of the River Itchen (if you don’t count from the train window). From this point on I knew exactly where I was going, even though I’d never walked in that direction so everything looked slightly unfamiliar. The stone bridge is attractive but I’m sure the houses, with their foundations in the river, must be a touch damp.
Although it was speeding towards midday the path was still very icy and there were a few hairy moments when I first discovered this and almost went up on my bum. After that I was a little more careful about putting my feet down, even if it did slow me up considerably. At the pretty little lock the water was frozen in places and the plants surrounding it were spiked with white ice. Below the lock the river was flowing fast and it seemed far higher than I expected which was a worry. Would there be flooding ahead?
Around the corner is Domum Wharf, the end of the Itchen Navigation, or, in this case, the beginning. From the bridge the river seemed even higher if anything, I could only hope the path wasn’t flooded or too muddy. The roof of the funny little house, half under the bridge, was still white with thick frost and the piles of fallen leaves wore a thick white coat, very pretty but, if the path was like that, I could very well find myself in the river rather than walking beside it.
On Domum Road a few walkers were taking the sensible option and using the road route. For a moment I considered following them but it felt like a bit of a cop out so, with some trepidation, I started across the little bridge towards the proper Navigation path. In the distance I could see someone walking towards me on the trail so maybe it wasn’t as bad as I thought. At least the bridge itself wasn’t too icy.
It didn’t take long to discover the trail was both exceedingly muddy and icy too. Wearing my proper waterproof hiking boots suddenly seemed like a brilliant idea. They have very knobbly bottoms so I had some grip, although, with all the ice, I probably could have done with my yak trax too. If only I’d thought to bring them. Maybe this wasn’t such a great plan after all.
As it happened, the ice was my friend. Because it was still so thick the mud was frozen solid and all I had to worry about was slipping on the ice. All I could do was hope the rest of the Navigation was as frozen. The water level didn’t seem too bad when I reached the hatches, at least not according to the water marker. Not that I could remember how high it had been when I last came this way. Swans were digging about along by the Winchester College playing fields, my first swans of the day. Seeing swans always makes me smile.
When I got to the gate the mud was so thick my boots went through the ice and sank into it. It was a struggle to get up the slope and onto the road by the next bridge. By this time it was about ten past twelve. I’d taken more than half an hour to cover about one an a half miles. This did not bode well for the rest of my journey. At that rate it would be dark before I got to Eastleigh. Thick, spiky ice crystals covered the stones along the top of the bridge and I looked down the river wondering if I’d bitten off more than I could chew with this walk. Was my plan too ambitious?
Originally Tun Bridge was a wooden bridge but it was replaced by a concrete one in 1926, presumably because it was rotten rather than vandalised or stolen like Withymead bridge further along the Navigation. Surely they didn’t have vandals back in 1926? Now there were two choices of path past St Catherine’s Hill, to the Hockley Link Road, one running at the bottom of the steep bank right beside the river and another at the top of the bank. If I was going for the authentic route I should be walking at the bottom of the bank as I did with Sirona back in September. It’s a very narrow dirt track though and I had the feeling it would be tough going, if not impossible.
As I stood dithe ring a young couple joined me, peering over the bridge and discussing the very same thing. They had a toddler with them and the woman had a baby strapped to her chest in one of those papoose things.
“If I was you I’d take the high path,” I offered. “I think that’s what I’m going to do.”
“It does look like it might be very icy,” the man agreed.
“And muddy,” I said. “I love the Itchen but not so much I want to go for a swim in it today.”
They were still on the bridge when I set off along the nice paved track at the top of the bank. I didn’t see them again but I hope they took my advice. In the summer when there are leaves on the trees you can’t see the river from this path but now, with bare branches, I could see enough to know I’d made the right decision. At one point there’d been some kind of land slip by the look of it and a tangle of mud and branches, complete with ivy, was blocking the path completely. I doubt I’d have been able to get past it and I may well have ended up in the river if I’d tried.
Taking the easy route also meant I got to see the sculpture of a barge about half way along, which was a bonus. The sculpture, called The Pausing Place, was designed by artist Abigail Downer and was unveiled in August 2011 to give walkers a place to stop and rest. Three metres long, it’s carved from Portland stone and bears the names of the bargemen who worked the Navigation between 1710 and 1869. It’s nice to see the bargemen remembered because I often think of them when I walk this way. When the Navigation was still used to transport cargoes of coal and wool their work was so important the Bishop of Winchester granted them exemption from fighting in the Neoplionic Wars. Abigail also designed the four triangular milestones along the route but more of those later.
This high path was once a continuation of Twyford Lane and, before the Motorway and the Hockley Link Road, was the main route connecting Winchester to Twyford and Portsmouth. It’s hard to believe such a narrow road once carried all that traffic but I suppose there was much less of it back then. Taking the old Twford Lane also meant passing what’s left of St Catherine’s Lock. Over its course the Navigation descends over a hundred feet and this is the summit lock, the highest point. As the original lock was turf sided apart from the bricks holding the gates, there is little still left to see. Once a water powered sawmill, perhaps similar to Woodmill, was attached to the lock but there’s no sign of that now either.
There is a modern sluice across what was once the head of the lock where the top gates would have been but it’s so overgrown with weeds and wild clematis it’s difficult to see it properly or get photographs. With the sun in front of me the fluffy clematis seed heads were haloed with light so I stopped to take a picture of them instead and, for good measure, another from the sluice looking downstream towards the brickwork of the top gates.
Once I’d passed the lock there seemed to be people everywhere. Most of them were making for the gates to St Catherine’s Hill, off for a little climb. Maybe if I’d had more time I might have joined them but I was already far slower than I’d hoped and adding a climb of over two hundred feet may have left me still walking after dark so, reluctantly, I decided to leave that for another day. Once there was a fort at the top of the hill, built in the third century BC and a twelfth century Norman Chapel dedicated to St Catherine. I’m not sure what, if anything, remains today but one of these days I’m going up there to find out. If nothing else the views must be spectacular.
After a quick stop to take a picture of the sheep grazing at the bottom of the hill I carried on to the old railway bridge where I had to leave the Navigation briefly. Once, a tunnel carried the canal under the Hockley Crossroads but, when the M3 was built, the water was diverted into a culvert to rejoin the Itchen a little further down the road.
As luck would have it, it didn’t take too long to get across the busy road and I was soon under the motorway bridge and back looking at the Itchen again. Mist swirled over the water giving it an eerie feel but the path was firm gravel, made even firmer by the freezing temperatures. At the sluice gate a little further on the river divides in two so I was walking on a thin island of land with water on both sides of me. On my left a pair of swans were right by the bank fishing around in the weeds. They didn’t pay me any attention as I passed by.
This area called Tumbling Bay passes through Twyford water meadows. The gravel path narrows as it snakes over the hatches used to flood the fields. At this time of year the three brick arches of Twyford hatches are easy to see, the roar of the water rushing through told me how fast the river was flowing. Thankfully it wasn’t slippery and I got across quite easily, even so I was quite relieved one more obstacle was behind me.
The path ahead looked firm and dry so I strolled along feeling quietly confident. Across the fields sheep were grazing and, in the distance, I could see Church Hill, a reminder of many other walks when I looked down over the Navigation wondering where the path at the bottom of the hill led. Now I didn’t have to concentrate so much on keeping my footing I could look around more and I spotted some fungi growing on a pile of rotting logs. They were Flammulina Velutipes or Velvet shank, just like the ones I saw at Riverside Park on Boxing Day. They remind me of cockle shells.
Maybe my attempt on the Navigation wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Then again, if the ice began to melt I could be in deep trouble. Just over three miles into a ten mile walk and I’d been walking for about one and a quarter hours so there was plenty of time left for melting. Would I make it to Eastleigh with dry feet?
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