The last Sunday of 2013 and I was on the Itchen Navigation attempting an ambitious walk from Winchester to Eastleigh. I’d made it to the frozen path across the Twyford water meadows. The sun was shining which is always good but I was slightly worried it was going to melt the ice beneath my feet and make to path too muddy to walk on. It wasn’t long before I could see Compton Lock in the distance, my next landmark. So far so good.
29 December 2013
Back in the heat of summer the chamber of the lock was filled with teenagers paddling in the water. My main concern was running out of water. Now my water bottle was untouched and I was more worried about melting ice and mud. With no one else about I coimbed onto the bridge over the weir but I was too afraid of falling in to go further.
The bridge at the tail of the lock had a sturdy handrail so I felt more confident climbing to the middle and taking pictures of the weir from there. The water looked dark and cold, I shivered to myself and I continued along the path. Back in 2009 the Heritage Trail Project renovated the path on this section of the Navigation and I was glad of the firm gravel beneath my feet. It gave me the freedom to look around rather than watch my footing. A swan and a cygnet paddling gently upstream had me smiling again. In the field to my left a calf stopped grazing briefly to give me a stare. Behind him I could see the Spire of St Mary’s in Twyford.
Now I was getting closer to Shawford Road there were houses to my right on the other side of the river. The lawns sloping down to the river were still white with frost and, to my left, the flood water at the edge of the fields was topped by thick ice. Hopefully the path was the same, but not so much I’d be slipping on it.
Almost as soon as the thought crossed my mind, the gravel path gave way to dirt and the going started to get muddy. It was back to watching my feet again and navigating the mud as best I could. Thank goodness for my hiking boots. The fields beside me were more like small lakes there was so much flood water and I began to get worried about the path ahead.
Just before Shawford Road a swan swam majestically upstream towards me and I stopped watching my feet long enough to take a picture. It was one o’clock, I’d been walking for one and a half hours and was fast approaching the four mile mark. When I came to the Shawford mile stone I knew I was almost at Victor’s Bridge and the pub. There was quite a temptation to stop for a cup of coffee to warm my cold hands.
A mass of cars were parked outside so I decided to give the pub a miss. Slowed by ice and mud I was pushed for time and I didn’t want to be on a muddy Navigation trail when it started to get dark.
The section right after Shawford Road is paved and well kept because there are houses along there and the path is their only access. It must be nice to walk out of your door and see the river every day but slightly worrying when it floods. A small boat tied to a tree made me smile. It was filled with water but I imagined rowing to work every day, wouldn’t that be something?
The remains of Shawford Single Gate were hidden by undergrowth and the exceptionally high river. Across the fields Shawford House was hidden by the trees. I was more interested in a more unconventional abode in the garden of one of the houses. The beautifully restored gypsy caravan was one of the highlights of my previous walks. I think I’d rather live there than in a great big mansion.
Now there was another choice of paths, the Navigation along the bottom of an overgrown bank, or the sensible option beside the railway. I chose the latter but, going in the opposite direction, nothing looked quite the same. When I saw the railway bridge I was confused. In my memory the arch was further along the path, close to where it rejoins the navigation. The road ahead had a sign saying Private Property although I was sure it was a footpath. For a few moments I wondered what to do. In the end I decided to ignore the sign and walk on.
It was the right decision. The arch I remembered was further along the road. The path towards Malms Farm was as muddy as I’d feared. I slipped and slid my way along, in some places way too close to the water for comfort. Once I’d crossed to the other side of the river the path got wider and further from the river bank but no less muddy. The ice had begun to melt, releasing all the frozen mud. Before long my boots were caked but at least the knobbly soles kept slipping to a minimum.
On the narrowest and muddiest part of the path a group of people were coming the other way. The woman was wearing nice, fur topped boots, a fashion item rather than something to walk in, and a black wool coat with a cinched in waist and fur round the hood and bottom. I stood to the side as much as I could without actually climbing into a bush and they passed. As they did the woman slipped and grabbed at me to save herself. Luckily both of us stayed on our feet, I’d have hated to see that lovely coat all caked in mud.
The closer I got to Otterbourne the muddier the path became. When I came to the pretty little waterfall, actually the remains of the cill of College Meads Lock, I knew I wasn’t far from the waterworks. From then on I was convinced the going would get easier, plus I could stop for a while on the rustic bench and eat the snack I was looking forward to, some chocolate coated gingerbread. At half past one and almost five miles into my walk, my tummy was telling me I needed it.
The path got muddier and muddier. Once I’d crossed the bridge at the tail of College Meads lock, the river was so high it was encroaching on the path. I squelched my way towards the benches. Just beyond my resting point the bank was completely breached, the river had flowed right up to the tree line. Feeling rather worried I sat down and fished around in my bag for my snacks.
This was when I discovered a sandwich bag filled with four chocolate covered gingerbreads does not combine well with a ruck sack and five miles of walking. What I had was a bag full of chocolatey, gingery crumbs. I ate a couple of the larger chunks and considered my options. Did I walk the mile back to Shawford Road and catch the next train home or did I test out my waterproof hiking boots and the depth of the water and hope this was the only breach? Turning back sounded a lot like giving up but it also sounded the sensible option. Hmm, sensible, daring… Which should I choose?
Kiln Lane was only three quarters of a mile away, if I could make it that far, I could bail out and take the road route to Allbrook if need be. So I put the rest of my gingerbread crumbs back in my bag and squelched towards the breach in the bank. By a combination of walking in the bushes and the shallowest part of the water I managed to get through although I did have to stop once to retrieve my wooly hat which got caught on a branch and pulled off.
Just below the breach and not far from the tail of College Meads lock, there’s a low weir. Back in July, a father and his young daughter were using them as stepping stones while the mother watched on the bank paddling her feet. Then the top stones of the weir were visible above the water, now the river was so high it was hard to tell there were stones there at all.
Below the Otterbourne Waterworks there’s another bridge across the river. This one isn’t really a bridge though, it carries water pipes from boreholes on the other side of the Navigation. It may be purely functional but I think it’s also quite picturesque, proving industry doesn’t always have to be ugly. On I squelched through the mud, hoping things were going to get better but not entirely sure they would.
Not far from Kiln Lane the Itchen meanders back to join the Navigation canal for a while. Through the overhanging trees I could see another swan making its way up the river. The frost was still clinging to the plants in the undergrowth and the edges of the river were solid ice. Unfortunately the path wasn’t frozen though and, in one unexpectedly deep muddy puddle, my foot sunk in so far the mud almost reached the top of my boot. The was a horrible sucking noise as I pulled my foot back out, not knowing if my boot was going to come with it. Luckily I’d laced them tightly and the boot stayed on but the mud was close to spilling over into my socks.
From then on I was more careful where I put my feet. Before long and without further mud related incidents, I reached Brambridge Hatches and, shortly after, the fish weir and eel trap just above the lock head.
When I reached Kiln Lane, where Brambridge crosses the river, an elderly man came towards me from the direction of Allbrook. A quick look at his boots, which were the same make as mine, told me the going ahead was better.
“It’s very muddy towards Otterbourne,” I warned him, “and there’s a breach in the bank by the waterworks.”
“There are several breaches in the bank towards Allbrook,” he replied, “but the worst is only four to six inches deep.”
Four to six inches seemed quite a lot but, if he’d got through, then surely I could. I thanked him, he thanked me and we were both on our way. How bad could it be? Maybe the water would clean the mud off my boots.
The land where the farmer with the gun stood watching me pass in September was completely flooded. Where pigs had frolicked under the trees was now a small pond but I could see ostriches and alpaca in the fields behind. Further along even more alpaca were grazing.
Here the path runs on an embankment for about a quarter of a mile. This is the biggest earthwork on the whole Navigation, five or six feet high and built in the eighteenth century which makes it quite a feat of engineering. The area is prone to bank breaches so it was no surprise when I came to one. Water was flowing right across between the canal and the river but it didn’t seem too bad and not anywhere near the four to six inches the elderly man had mentioned. Walking through was easy and, happily, my waterproof boots stood the test.
Ahead I could see a few big puddles, possibly other bank breaches, but they looked like I’d be able to get round them. Soon it became apparent that the whole path was one breach after another. There was no getting round the next, it crossed the path completely and flowed into the trees from the canal to the river. I crossed at the narrowest point. This time the water came above my laces, my feet felt cold and I thought my boots were leaking but, when I got to the other side, my feet felt dry. The cold feeling was the icy water swilling around my boots rather than leaking in. At least there was less mud on them.
The bank may be five or six feet high but the water was lapping over it as if it wasn’t there, much more rain and it would be completely submerged. There was no narrowest point at the next breach. The water was flowing so fast the ground on the Itchen side had begun to crumble away and a small waterfall gushed down into the river. This time the water came almost to the top of my boots as I waded through. Trying not to splash too much for fear waves would rush inside, I took it slowly. On the other side my feet were freezing but still dry.
Now the canal spilled across the path for as far as I could see and all I could do was walk through and hope. At one point it was so deep I had to walk on tip toe to keep the water from rushing into my boots. By the time I saw the little blue roofed shed at the top of Allbrook Weir, I could hardly feel my toes but at least I knew I was almost at the road.
The weir at Allbrook is used to measure the flow of the water and was constructed over the gates of the original Allbrook lock. The watery stairs coming down from the weir to the bridge are actually the chamber of the old lock. The water was higher than I’ve ever seen it before, completely covering the pipes that run down the side like handrails even with so much water spilling out through the breaches in the banks above.
Across the road the Navigation continues under the railway bridge towards Withymead. This was the bit I was really interested in but, as I’d never walked all of it before, I had no idea what to expect. How flooded would it be, how muddy? Another choice to make then, walk up Allbrook Hill and leave the Navigation or press on ahead into the unknown…
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