Searching for the start of the Navigation – First published 8 January 2014

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Day two of my 2014 exercise program and I’d progressed to the second, tough Pump it Up section, all star jumps and elbow to knee stuff. Just when you think you can’t do another one it changes to something else, which is a relief until, shortly, you realise you can’t do another one of the new thing either. It made me wonder how I used to manage the whole thing from start to finish and then go off to work? I was shattered. What I wanted was a little nap, my eyes were actually closing. Still doing it for two days in a row was just a start, if I could stick at it I’d soon be watching those muscles tone up.

8 January 2014

One of the things I’m trying to make a point of, along with the Pump it Up, is going for a walk of some kind most days. Even just up the hill and back. Being unemployed it would be easy to fall into a slump and walking lifts the sprits so it isn’t all about exercise. As I did more then seven miles, half of it battling the wind, yesterday, I thought I’d choose something nice and easy today. Once I was all clean, dressed and wrapped up in my wind proof coat I set off on a two bridge challenge.

The normal two bridge challenge is the Big Bridge and the New Bridge, round about five miles. Today’s walk was Two Bridge Challenge Light, just over three and a half miles. There was method to my madness though. The original Itchen Navigation route started at Northam Wharf, just downstream of the Big Bridge. There was never a tow path on this tidal section of the Navigation but there are a couple of options that follow the river fairly closely, I was going to explore one of them today.

First thing the weather hadn’t looked too bad, no rain and not too much in the way of cloud. Of course, by the time I left, the clouds had gathered and I walked down towards the Triangle under a dismal, overcast sky. Bridge number one was Cobden Bridge, crossing from the Triangle to St Denys. The first bridge, an iron one, was built in 1883 as a free bridge, in direct competition to the Big Bridge (Northam Bridge) which was, at the time, a toll bridge. It was named after Richard Cobden, a liberal politician who was a campaigner for free trade. The concrete bridge of today was built in 1928 to cope with increased traffic and is still a busy thoroughfare.

The original Cobden Bridge
The original Cobden Bridge

At the middle of the bridge I stopped and looked downstream towards my village. The light was too dim to really make out all the houseboats moored along the route I’d just walked or really see the blue line of the railway bridge. A little bit of sun wouldn’t have gone amiss. Below me lots of little boats were tied up at all the wooden jetties.

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For a while I had to leave the river because there is no path right on the water’s edge. There are some waterside houses with views over the water along here and a path along the river for a very short distance. I went down just for a look and a different perspective on some familiar landmarks. Through the gloom I could just about make out the manor house in the trees opposite, maybe I’ll come back on a brighter day and get some decent photos. If it wasn’t for the train line you could walk a little bit further but I had to go back to the road to go under the railway bridge.

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Soon I was on the path that runs along the river bank from Horseshoe Bridge all the way to the Big Bridge at Northam. Back in the days of the Itchen Navigation I’m not sure bargemen or their horses would have walked on this side of the river but it’s the only path right on the riverbank nowadays. Right at the beginning of the path there’s a bench and a set of strange rusty sculptures. They are supposed to represent Jane Austin, Saints legend Matt LeTissier and Pete Waterfield, Olympic diver and southampton resident.

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The path isn’t pretty, just a metal rail and a walkway above the shingle shore line. It runs past a small industrial estate. Many years ago I worked there in an office overlooking the river. The job, call centre work, was horrible but the views almost made up for it. A little rowing boat was chained to the bridge and it reminded me of the house boat that used to be moored along there. A young hippie couple lived on it with their dog. They didn’t appear to have much money and our MD used to take them food parcels. We would watch them rowing back and forth to their home, the dog often swam.

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There were swans on the riverbank, the Itchen seems to be full of them, and looking back upstream I could see all the little boats I’d looked down on from the bridge. A blue houseboat was anchored in almost the same place the hippie’s boat used to be, at least I think it was a houseboat. Maybe the blue rowing boat belongs to the owners. I wonder if they have a dog?

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Across the river I could see the whole of the Big Bridge. Usually I’m looking at it from the opposite side. The wooden walkway follows the railway line. When I worked in the near by offices we sometimes saw the Orient Express go past and waved to the passengers. Little things to make me smile on a horrible day. They were all horrible days back then, they always are in call centres. When I came off the wooden walkway I could see the wreck of a boat, or what was left of it, right there on the shore line. I’m pretty sure it was the houseboat the hippies and their dog lived on. I wonder what happened to them?

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The rest of the path is nothing more than a gravelly, muddy trail beside the industrial park and the, now demolished, television studios. Today it was full of big puddles to navigate. I managed to get round with no slips and no wet feet so all was well. Pretty soon I was coming to the underside of the Big Bridge by the rowing club. Under the bridge I could see the yachts moored up along the river path close to my house. I could also see that the graffiti artists had been at work on the pillars of the bridge. What a shame they weren’t a little more artistic.

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From the under side the Big Bridge is nowhere near as nice as it looks from above but it is a very special bridge. The very first Northam Bridge was opened in 1799, the idea of David Lance who owned Chessel House and estate on the Bitterne side. Back then the nearest bridge across the river was Mansbridge two and a half miles away so a bridge into Southampton was pretty useful to David Lance. It was a wooden bridge and in 1889 it was replaced by an iron bridge. Right up until 1929 it was a toll bridge, the old toll house still stands today, on the Main Road quite near my house. None of this is what makes it special though. The modern bridge was built in 1954 and it is exceptional because it was the first major pre-stressed concrete road bridge ever built in the UK. I wonder if any of the people who cross it every day realise that?

The original wooden bridge
The original wooden bridge
The second, iron bridge
The second, iron bridge

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Once I’d gone under the bridge and was standing by the rowing club I was about as close as it’s possible to get to the original Northam Wharf these days. In the hundred and forty years since the last barge went along the Navigation towards Winchester things have changed. Back then the high water mark was about twenty five yards inland for a start and the quay would have been a little further along, somewhere close to where the Quay Warehouse is now on Drivers Wharf. It seems a shame that you can’t actually go there and that there is nothing to mark a spot of such historic significance. Maybe I should start a petition?

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With legs a little weary from all the jumping about of Pump it Up this morning I climbed the steps onto the bridge and crossed. When I came to the embankment on the other side I went down onto the grass. Surprisingly there are daisies flowering all along there. Maybe they think it’s spring?

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This grassy little embankment with its old stone wall is all that’s left of the original two bridges. I’m glad they left it there when they built the big new bridge because I like the old stone wall and I like standing on the grass looking out over the river. The stones of the wall may not be as old as the medieval city walls but they’re pretty old and they’re covered with lichen and moss. Some of the lichen seems to be almost fluorescent yellow at the moment and there’s some particularly fluffy, furry looking moss.

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The wall runs along to the river path beside all the fancy new flats with waterside views from their balconies. Behind it, right at the end, is the Skeleton Ship. Despite lots of Googling I’ve not been able to find out much about this old wreck that has been quietly rotting away all my life. Given where it is though and its shape, flat bottomed with a pointed prow and flat stern, I think it may be one of the old horse drawn coal barges that used to go up and down the Navigation all those years ago. What a shame we don’t make more of all this history.

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At home, researching Northam wharf, I became more and more convinced the skeleton ship was a coal barge so I began to Google like mad. Eventually I found an article about it. Some archeologists had investigated it and found coal dust between the boards amongst other things. It really did look like it could have been one of the coal barges from the Navigation and I started to wonder why no one was doing anything about all this? I mean, it’s our history and our heritage.

The coal barges on Northam Quay from Wikimedia Commons
The coal barges on Northam Quay from Wikimedia Commons

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After extensive Googling I found an email address for the man who wrote the article, he’s a professor of archeology at Southampton City Archaeology Department. I emailed him for more information and suggested more should be done to preserve the barge and maybe mark the beginning of the Navigation. Then I sent an email to the head of Southampton Leisure services along similar lines. I even contacted the lovely Peter Oates from the Canal Society.

Ok so maybe it was overkill. Perhaps I have too much time on my hands. Probably no one is really interested. I’m interested though so maybe, just maybe other people are too. All I know is, if anything can be done, I would be happy to help make it happen. Watch this space but beware, you may be watching for an awful long time because I have the feeling there is a great deal of disinterest out there.*

So that was my Two Bridge Challenge Light. In the spring or summer I think I’ll walk the Navigation again but, this time, I’ll start from Northam by the old Wharf and walk the whole thing right from the start to the very end in Winchester. Anyone want to come with me?

*I did eventually get an answer from the professor about the skeleton ship. It seems it was probably a coal barge used by the coal porters at Northam to take coal to and from the docks, probably in the early twentieth century, and not a Navigation barge at all. As for the Navigation marker at Northam, the head of Southampton leisure services wasn’t hopeful, having tried to get something done himself and been unsuccessful. Still, I tried!

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Marie

Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

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