The Sunday after the Manchester Marathon and it was time to get off my bum and get walking. With one eye on the hundred miles a month I’d pledged to walk in 2014 I knew it had to be a reasonable length walk too, not just a half arsed stroll along Riverside to the Swan and back. Setting myself such a challenge certainly motivated me to get some miles under my belt. There’d been some thinking on the subject and a half baked plan to get a bus to Totton and have a look at the Ealing Tide Mill but, when I got up on Sunday morning, it was a beautiful sunny day and I decided I’d check out the Navigation instead. It seemed fitting to be swapping the Manchester canals of the previous Sunday for Mansbridge and the Navigation.
The last time I walked the Navigation it was the end of December. There was ice, mud and breached banks and I knew it would be a long time before I’d be able to walk that way again. We’ve had a bit of dry weather since then so I thought I’d give it a go, maybe walk to Allbrook where all the breached banks were and see what was what then get the bus back from Eastleigh. Ok, so I wasn’t sure there would actually be a bus but I could Google it when I got there and, if worse came to worse, walk back or get the train.
When I left home Commando was thinking about going for a run. As I marched towards The Triangle he came out of a side road in front of me and disappeared off towards Cobden Bridge, totally unaware I was behind him. It was nice to be walking through Riverside Park again, rather than walking past it as I go back and forth to work, looking across wishing I was walking that way instead. The bank was speckled with dandelions and celandine and there was a swan seagull melee by the viewing platform where people were throwing bread. As I got closer I noticed even the ducks were getting in on the act although the swooping seagulls seemed to be getting more than their fair share, snapping up the bread before it even hit the water.
The grass in front of Woodmill was liberally dusted with daisies and dandelions and the sky above a beautiful blue with a few small fluffy clouds. I began to regret wearing my parka but, if I did manage to get onto the Navigation, I’d need it to protect my arms from the overgrown nettles and brambles at the Southampton end. When I crossed the road I saw my first ducklings of the year, a duck and drake swimming upstream with four fuzzy little ducklings opposite the climbing wall of the activity centre. I went on my way with a smile.
Before long I was on the first part of the Navigation proper at Mansbridge. After the crowded riverbank it was a relief to be walking all alone and the path seemed dry even if the ground on either side was pretty wet and boggy. How long that would last I wasn’t sure. I strolled along happily with Greenday in my head singing Boulevard of Broken Dreams
‘I walk a lonely road
The only one that I have ever known
Don’t know where it goes
But it’s home to me and I walk alone’
OK so maybe I’m the only one who has songs going on in their head a lot of the time and it wasn’t exactly a boulevard but I was hoping it wasn’t going to turn out to be a trail of broken dreams.
When I came to the little bridge just before Mansbridge Lock I met a man walking a dog coming the other way. Thankfully I wasn’t actually singing out loud. He said good morning and I asked what the trail was like further along.
“How far are you going?” he asked.
“Maybe Albrook to look at where the banks were breached in December,” I told him.
“There’s a little bit of mud further along but nothing too bad,” he said, “but just before Withymead there’s a tree down. A young lady like you would probably be able to get over though I should think.”
After a little small talk where the man echoed my thoughts on the lack of money spent on the Southampton end of the Navigation and what a shame our council couldn’t be as proactive as Winchester’s we parted company. As I walked away I smiled at being called a young lady but the thought of the fallen tree was a worry. After all my legs are short and I’m not exactly known for my mountain goat capabilities as Commando is all too fond of reminding me. There were visions of me ending up in the river or stuck fast half way over the tree on a lonely path. A girl could starve to death, well eventually anyway. Commando would probably come looking for me in the end, wouldn’t he?
At the lock I stood contemplating my options. Would I really be able to get over the fallen tree? What if I got there and I couldn’t? I looked back at the bridge dithering. I started walking on but I was still in a quandary, should I keep going towards Albrook and maybe get stuck at the tree or in the tree. What if I got through and couldn’t find a bus? I know I needed to put in some miles but its seven miles to Allbrook and another mile to Kiln Lane if I wanted to check out all the breaches in the bank, sixteen miles was a little more than the ten or eleven I’d been planning. Should I bail at Eastleigh and walk back or should I risk it?
In the end, still in two minds if I should attempt to get to Allbrook or not, I decided to keep going forward for the time being. If nothing else I would know for sure what the path between Mansbridge and Eastleigh was like and there was plenty of time between here and there to make up my mind how far to go. Pretty soon I had my first encounter with the motorway. Not far from Mansbridge Lock I was walking beside it, traffic roaring in my ears and cars just visible through the trees. Then came the bridge under it, funny to think of all the cars whizzing by overhead and me with the beautiful calm of the river ahead of me.
The trail moves away from the river after the bridge, following instead the disused Navigation canal close to the perimeter of Southampton Airport. Despite all the rain we’ve had there wasn’t a great deal of water to be seen although I could hear some trickling from a culvert half obscured by undergrowth and the water iris seemed to be in fine form. This trail will be a mass of yellow when they’re in flower.
To my right I could see the Itchen Valley Country Park through the low fence. Ahead there was a gate and I was tempted to go though, cross the bridge over a meandering tributary and walk that trail instead. In the end I stayed where I was, mostly because I wanted to know how clear the Navigation path was. This turned out to be a good move.
A little further on the trail I would have been walking if I’d gone through the gate was flooded. Instead of a path there were clouds reflected in water broken up only by the odd clump of grass. On the other hand the Navigation trail, being on slightly higher ground, was dry as a bone. Maybe later in the year when things have dried out a bit and getting through the gates doesn’t require wading I might give it a try. There could be a good circular route from the river through to Allington Lane. Then again, I have no idea exactly where it goes so I’d probably just end up getting lost.
The Navigation trail continued, slightly muddy in places, just like the man on the bridge had said, but nothing I couldn’t cope with in my hiking boots. In places the thorny branches of blackthorn and hawthorn crept onto the path and I was glad of my parka. The blackthorn is in flower, white petals fluttering down onto the trail and the hawthorn, waiting to takeover, is full of buds, the branches draped with lichen.
As I’d expected there were plenty of fallen trees beside the trail and in places they’d been sawn into logs and left in the undergrowth. One pile of logs caught my eye. Despite being just chunks of dead wood with no roots of any kind new shoots were sprouting from every crevice. It was almost as if no one told them the tree wasn’t alive any more so they carried on regardless. Somehow I can’t see them coming to anything but you never know I suppose.
Towards the end of the airport runway the path begins to widen and I found myself surrounded by celandine flourishing in the extra light. Glancing across at the country park trail through a veil of fluffy clematis seed heads things looked a little drier and the mass of blackthorn flowers had me thinking of all the sloes to come in autumn.
Lock house lock told me I was leaving the airport behind. Once there was a lock cottage here and people lived there but it was demolished after the World War II and I’ve never quite worked out where it used to be. It strikes me as a lovely place to live though. Across the fields a long regimented line of trees screens off Hog Wood and Allington Lane.
The path closed in after that and I found myself walking through a succession of arches made of blackthorn, hawthorn and the odd tree. When things opened up again I knew I was getting close to the railway line. Here the trail is very narrow. On one side the bank slopes upwards too lumpy and uneven to walk on and the other drops off sharply into a reed filled bog. It takes a lot of concentration not to slip and I’d never hear the end of it if I did and came home covered from head to toe in mud with reeds sticking out of my hair. This is where walking poles would come in handy.
At the other side I was greeted by a fungus covered log. It was a two for the price of one log, one fungus that looked like it might have been turkey tails before the slugs started eating it, the other blackened and shrivelled to the point I couldn’t tell what it might have been. Then I was at the bridge and I knew it was almost decision time. In about a mile I’d be at Bishopstoke where I’d either have to cross the road and walk towards Allbrook and the fallen tree or turn left and head back towards Eastleigh.
Each step I took I changed my mind. I really wanted to see if the banks were still breached at Allbrook but I didn’t want to get stuck at the fallen tree at Withymead. I’d come this far I should really carry on, then again it was a long walk if there were no busses back. When I saw the Itchen again across the fields I knew I was almost at Chickenhall Lane and the final stretch before Bishopstoke. I stopped to look at a clump of forget me nots and made a snap decision, instead of crossing the bridge and carrying on along the Navigation I kept going along the lane.
Maybe it was the lure of the skinny latte but soon I was passing Eastleigh station and heading for the Swan Centre. While I waited in line I texted Commando to tell him where I was then, coffee in hand, I set off towards the airport. All the way down Southampton Road and Wide Lane I was contemplating my next move. The road is fairly uninspiring so there wasn’t much to distract me other than sipping my coffee.
By the time I’d reached the airport I’d decided I’d cross the little blue bridge at Monks Brook and walk along Wessex Lane to Woodmill, maybe I’d even stop off for a look at the graves at St Mary’s cemetery, I’ve been meaning to do that for ages. Green alkanet were flowering on edge of the flower beds by Parkway Station, the tiny blue flowers so much like forget me nots I thought that’s what they were at first. A quick look over the fence at the planes outside the airport and I was across the road going under the motorway again but with no pretty views this time.
The half mile between the airport and Monks Brook at least had the advantage of houses and gardens. Many of them had trees full of pink blossom and I stopped to take a few photos. I’m a sucker for pink blossom. One final road to cross and I’d be at the brook. I looked both ways and stepped onto it only to be faced with a little black car heading for me. It wasn’t turning it actually seemed to be driving right at me. I jumped back alarmed until I noticed Commando at the wheel. No, he wasn’t trying to run me over, at least I hope not, he was pulling over to pick me up. Saturday was Philo’s birthday, he’d been working and we’d been at the football so Commando was on his way over for a quick visit. Did I want to cut my walk short and come along?
Ok, so I know I need to pack in some miles if I’m going to hit my hundred mile target for April. I know I need to walk off a few of the pounds I put on after the redundancy bombshell. I know this whole walk seems to have been about me changing my mind and recalculating my route but I’d done almost eight and a half miles… Of course I got in the car. Monks Brook and the cemetery could wait for another day.
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