The first walk of May 2014 and I was all in a dither. Originally I planned to attempt the whole Itchen Navigation, starting in Winchester and walking right to Northam where the original wharf had been. The non stop rain, Southampton Central Station being closed for line repairs at weekends and the knowledge that there were trees across the path at Withymead made me wonder if I should think of another route.
3 May 2014
There was some messing about working out a fourteen mile route to Hamble but, when I got up today, I had a change of heart. This was mainly down to Commando who offered to drive me to Winchester once he’d done his parkrun. What was the worst that could happen? After all I knew plenty of places I could bail if needs be and I really wanted to try the whole Navigation right the way to Northam rather just from Riverside as I’ve done before. Yes the last part is basically my walk to work but there was something quite romantic in the idea of walking the route the barge men took all those years ago.
So I found myself standing on St Cross Road outside St Thomas’ Church looking at the narrow passage to the cathedral. The sun was shining, the scent of wisteria wafted on the air, I had snacks and water in my back pack and I felt optimistic, sort of. Sirona told me about this little passage and I first took it back last April right in the middle of a twenty six mile extravaganza of a walk, training for the Moonwalk. Back then there was a huge feeling of euphoria when the famous Winchester Cathedral came into view. This time, all I could think about was a need to go to the loo, even though I went before I left home. Luckily I knew there were toilets by the cathedral. Some other walkers were ahead of me and I wondered if the Navigation was on their agenda too.
Once I’d struggled through a gaggle of German tourists and used the loo I took a quick photo of the imposing cathedral door and set off along the avenue of trees towards the High Street. Yes, I’d liked to have stayed longer but there was quite a walk ahead, besides I thought I might just grab a coffee in Costa to start the walk off in style. There are no shops on the Navigation after all.
What I hadn’t bargained for was a Saturday market. The narrow street was lined on one side with all sorts of stalls and crowds of people milled about browsing. It was an effort to get through them and, when I saw the statue of King Alfred looming, I knew I’d walked right past Costa. I seem to be destined to be perpetually lost in Winchester. For a moment I considered forgetting the coffee and carrying on but I only had one bottle of water and a chocolate milkshake in my bag, it was hot, I needed the extra fluids. Well, that’s what I told myself as I struggled back through the crowds.
Eventually I set off again. This time I made it to The Weirs. This pretty little walk is not technically part of the Itchen Navigation but it is a man made canal. Originally the Itchen flowed in two channels following the foundations of the Roman town close to the cathedral. In 70AD this channel was dug to reduce flooding in the town and provide a defensive moat. Conveniently, it also leads to Blackbridge, and the wharf at the head of the Navigation. I put my coffee on the wall of City Bridge to free my hands and took a photo of the fast flowing water.
There were a few walkers around as I strolled along the path but, thankfully, it was quieter than the High Street. A quick look back at the old bridge and I made my way to the weir down by the old mill. With the bright sun making me squint a little, I looked over the lovely water garden and the wheels and gears controlling the weir. They seem to have survived the floods, although not long ago, above the bridge, tons of bags of gravel were dropped into the water to try to save the houses. I wondered idly if they were still there but there was no time for a detour so I guess I will just have to wonder.
There has been a mill here since the twelfth century the the current building was built in 1885. Named after Seagrim’s Fount, a stream diverted back in 1360 to increase water power to the old mill, it was once the city’s principal grain mill. These days it has been converted to fancy apartments and it’s covered in scaffolding which is a shame.
Around the corner some children on scooters came towards me and to took the opportunity to take a quick snap of the crooked old house. In any other city this would probably stand out as something special but half of the houses in Winchester are just like it. For me it stands out because, around the corner is Blackbridge and the wharf. Finally I’d reached the start of the Navigation. The old wharf buildings have been turned into exclusive houses now. Half of Winchester seem to be living in converted historic buildings and I have to say I’m ever so slightly jealous. Sadly my bank balance wouldn’t allow me to buy one though, plus it would be a long walk to work. This is where the Navigation really starts.
On Domum Road I went through the gate and onto Wharf Bridge, the oldest surviving bridge over the navigation, dating from the 1760s. Looking over the side down at the water that would be my companion for the next few hours I was pleased to see it didn’t look to high. From what I could see of it, the path looked fairly dry too.
It was dry too, at least the first part. Just before the first gate there was a spot where the canal had breached its bank, a reminder of all the flooding earlier in the year. It was easy enough to step over though and I was soon through the gate and on my way to the next weir. If this was as bad as it got the walk was going to be a doddle.
After the weir the manicured lawns of Winchester College playing fields mocked me from the opposite bank. The grass on my side of the canal was rough, long and lumpy enough that I had to watch my feet. Close to the next weir a large snapped off tree was another reminder of our wild and windy winter. On past the weir there was the first of the triangular navigation markers and, beyond, the gate to Tun Bridge. The slope up to the road was muddy, just as I knew it would be, but I was wearing my hiking shoes so I got through with no trouble and only minimal mud on the bottoms.
Walks like this always seem to be a series of decisions and my first major one of the day was coming up. Between Tun Bridge and Twyford there are two paths. One runs along the old road to Winchester, it’s paved and smooth. The other runs along the edge of the river and it’s narrow, probably muddy and possibly even breached and impassable. The trouble was I really wanted to walk what remains of the authentic Navigation path from start to finish. Was I going to bail at the first hurdle or go for authenticity? You’ll have to wait to find out.
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