Allbrook to Bishopstoke fallen trees and lost dignity – first published 8 May 2014

My May 2014 quest to walk the whole Itchen Navigation from Winchester to Northam continued. Every time I came to a road I seemed to hit another problem and be left dithering. Highbridge Road was no exception. I looked at the sign pinned to the post and every section of the rest of the route had red lines and black crosses to say they were closed. The words ‘unsafe for use by the public’ didn’t sound good. I looked up the road towards Allbrook Hill, remembering all those Moonwalk training walks when I’d climbed it and how tough it had felt. Then I looked along the Navigation trail, the path looked dry and inviting but then so had the Brambridge end of Allbrook.

12 May 2014

The couple I’d met at Brambridge had said Allbrook was the worst stretch, but then the man I met had talked about water waist deep and a few weeks ago another walker had said there were trees down. There was a bit of pacing but, in the end, I started off along the path. I couldn’t come all this way and not at least give it a try could I?

Here The canal is actually a diversion to the original Navigation, built in 1838 by the railway company when the Southampton to London line was constructed. Within yards I was walking under the first railway bridge and, soon after, I was back to the real Navigation again. The path here has been strengthened by the Itchen Navigation Heritage Trail Project so it is pleasant to walk on. There is even a new weir, meant to protect it from flooding. Maybe they should consider something similar further along at Allbrook.

This is also prime house and garden envy territory and there were a couple of old favourites to make me smile even though my feet were beginning to feel uncomfortable squelching about in my wet boots. The bower with red chairs may not be the prettiest in the world but it captures my imagination and I’d love to sit there and watch the river. Further along the blue pergola and gate pleases me in a different way, it makes me think of a Monet painting for some reason, although I’m sure he never painted anything quite like that.

For a while, at least, I didn’t have to worry about water or mud and I could enjoy the nodding dandelion clocks on either side of the path. At Ham Farm I passed by the bridge leading to Twyford Road. This was the diversion I took so many times when Withymead bridge was out but it has served its purpose for now. There were aquilegias growing beside the path now, garden escapees no doubt, some were covered with dandelion seeds and I thought they made a good picture so I stopped.

My easy ride came to an end at the second railway bridge. The big muddy puddles weren’t nice but, let’s face it, my feet couldn’t get any wetter. When I came out on the other side the first of the fallen trees greeted me. This was a large tree that had been growing on the bank beside the water. It had toppled, rootball and all, across the path. Being short has some advantages and, although I had to stoop down to go under and then clamber over the smaller branches, it wasn’t too much of a problem and the path was dry again.

Before long I was at the lovely new bridge at Withymead. I will be forever grateful to farmer Henry Russell from Highbridge who built and donated this bridge to get the path open again. On the other side I found another fallen tree. This was a veritable teepee of branches and I was so caught up in finding a way under without bashing my head or catching myself on anything I missed a vital point.

Straightening up I began to walk along the trail on the other side of the fallen tree but something didn’t seem right. Nothing looked familiar. I stopped, puzzled, and looked around me. Weren’t there supposed to be some hatches here to cross? The path was overgrown with thick scrub and trees on both sides, it seemed to peter out ahead too. What I’d actually done was become so fixated on the fallen tree I’d gone under it when I should have gone round it and I wasn’t on the path at all I was wandering around amongst the trees between it and the water.

There was nothing for it but to turn back and clamber under the teepee of branches again. When I spotted two women on the bridge watching me I tired to look like I’d meant to go this way all the time in a vain effort to preserve my dignity. I’m pretty sure they didn’t buy it at all. The hatches were right where they’d always been, slightly screened by the fallen tree. I didn’t even have to clamber over anything to get to them. Doh!

The hatches were once part of a bypass channel to drain excess water and flood the fields by way of a small stream. From here the Navigation and the river Itchen flow together again for a while and there are the usual bends and meanders found in a river rather than the straight lines of a canal. It wasn’t long before I came to the next fallen tree. This one was slightly more problematic being very low over the path but also very thick trunked. I stood weighing up my options for a while. Going under was going to mean almost crawling on my hands and knees but climbing over wasn’t going to be easy as it was almost as tall as me. In the end I opted for crawling, feeling there was more dignity in that than falling or being left with my little legs dangling in the air. Not that I had a great deal of dignity left at this point.

After that it was back to a pretty walk with the river on one side and fields on the other. A plane flew over, reminding me the airport was just a few miles away and, apart from the rubbing of wet feet on wet hiking boots, all seemed well with the world. I even stopped to snap a picture of some bright water iris in bloom before I came to the bridge over the Barton River, a small tributary.

The Barton river once powered Barton Peveril Mill and the bridge crosses the sluices the little river flows through. Around here the Navigation and the Itchen part company again just before Stoke Lock. It isn’t there nicest looking lock with a footbridge into Bishopstoke, sluices and a fish pass but it is the last lock on this section and a route I’d like to follow one day if only to see where it goes.

Farm here the path is straight and paved, easy walking. The next Navigation marker stands close to another little bridge. I’m not sure where it leads but I really must come and explore one day soon because I have a feeling there are hidden gems to be found.

Before very long Stoke Bridge was in sight. This is where the next road crosses the Navigation and my next bail out point if I needed it. The road is Bishopstoke Road and it’s surprisingly busy and hard to cross. Eventually I made it and I was looking at the very last part of my journey, the trail from Bishopstoke to Mansbridge. Once again I found myself looking at a sign telling me the path was closed. There were those red lines and crosses again going all the way from Brambridge to Mansbridge. Seeing as I’d already walked more than half of the unsafe area I was pretty confident I’d survive the last part. What I wasn’t sure of was whether my poor old feet would.

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

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