The beginning of May 2013 and, in time honoured tradition, I stood on Tun Bridge looking down at the water wondering what to do. I couldn’t really see the authentic barge man’s path so I was none the wiser and I left the bridge making towards the car park to St Catherine’s Hill still undecided. As luck would have it, as I passed the Footpath sign I saw a man disappearing along the waterside trail. Maybe he knew something I didn’t? Then again, he may have been just about to run into trouble. Either way it made up my mind, I’d take my chances with the barge man’s path.
3 May 2014
With a little trepidation I negotiated all the parked cars, and set off. The man I’d seen had disappeared by this time but at least he hadn’t come straight back which had to be a good sign, didn’t it? At least the first part of the path looked fine, the narrow dirt trail was damp in places and I could see the odd puddle ahead but the sides looked to be intact. Feeling relieved I stopped to take a photo of Tun Bridge in all its glory. I couldn’t help imagining a barge being towed underneath.
Across the water I could just make out the tower of St Cross Hospital nestling amongst the trees. One of these days I’m going to explore it properly. The medieval buildings are one of England’s oldest surviving almshouses, providing private apartments for a small community of elderly men known as ‘Brothers.’ In the centre of the hospital’s quadrangle there is a Norman church whose tower I could see. For me though, the gardens are the real enticement.
Apart from a few crumbling edges and some muddy puddles, the path was fine, which was good because I didn’t fancy scrambling up the steep bank to the path above. When I emerged from the shade into the bright sun again St Catherine’s Hill towered above me. A little further on I stopped to take a picture of the workings of St Catherine’s Lock and the water tumbling downstream then I set off towards the disused railway bridge and the infamous Hockley Link Road.
Luckily I managed to cross the busy road without incident and I was soon back on the Navigation surrounded by greenery and wild flowers again. Across a shady little bridge and there was the river. With the water meadows on the opposite bank, birds singing and the sound of the river it seemed like heaven after the hustle and bustle of the road.
A new, low fence has appeared since I was last here and a sign told me this was to protect the natural wetland vegetation that has been planted to stop erosion. Sure enough there were plants growing all along the bank. Comfrey flowers in bud, lots of sedges and my first buttercups of the year. At the next river bend, swirling water told me I’d reached the next sluices at tumbling bay where the river and the Navigation divide.
After that I had water flowing on both sides of me and I was walking along a nice dry, gravelly path surrounded by lush vegetation. Soon I could see the hill I used to sit on on all those Moonwalk training walks. Somewhere up there was the village of Twyford. When I saw trees up ahead I knew I was coming to Twyford hatches. These were once used to flood the water meadows, these days it seems the meadows manage to flood all on their own.
Once I’d crossed the path over the hatches I knew I’d soon be at Compton Lock. There were cows in the meadow beside me and on the other side an old wooden bridge and bright yellow flowers. Pretty soon there was just one river again, navigation and Itchen flowing together for a while. This was always going to be the easy bit of the walk, with nice gravel paths and I was making the most of it with the knowledge that ahead there was almost certainly mud, maybe bank breaches and possibly obstacles I couldn’t get over.
Compton Lock was on the other side of the next gate. Some lads were fishing and I asked if they’d mind me taking their photo. It took a while to make them understand over the roar of the water flowing through the weir. Actually I didn’t really want a photo of them, it was the weir I wanted to capture but as they were on it I thought it only polite to ask. Wishing them good fishing I was on my way again.
This seems to be a popular spot and there were people coming towards me as I stopped to snap some pictures of the chamber of the lock. Last July when I came this way there were hoards of teenagers swimming but I think it’s still a little chilly for that. One last shot of the weir at the other end of the lock, hoping the fishing lads wouldn’t see and think I was a weirdo stalker and I was off towards Shawford.
It was almost midday and breakfast and my Costa coffee seemed like an awful long time ago. My stomach was grumbling and I wondered whether to stop at the pub for a snack when I got to Shawford. Chances were it would be packed out on a Saturday lunchtime and I couldn’t really afford the time but the thought was tempting. Still, the lovely houses with gardens going down to the river were a pleasant distraction. That and the tangles of tree roots on the path waiting to send me flying if I wasn’t vigilant.
A man was mowing his lawn in one garden and the smell of cut grass drifted across the water. Little clumps of trees grow on the bank here and I walked from light to shade and back to light again, with tantalising glimpses of houses in between. House envy is obligatory along here and I was dreaming of mowing my own lawn on the edge of the river, or at least watching Commando mow it.
This was where I saw my first swan. Actually I was surprised I hadn’t seen one along the weirs earlier but I guess they’re all somewhere sitting on nests. Wonder when I’ll see my first cygnet? When I came to the next triangular navigation marker, the Shawford bridge and the pub I still hadn’t decided whether to stop or wait for the rustic bench at Otterboure. I’ll tell you what I decided later…
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