May 2014 and the end of my epic walk was almost in sight. As I stepped onto the final stretch of the Navigation my feet were protesting. There were more than eight miles to go if I was really going to walk the whole thing right to Northam and I could feel the tell tale burning of emerging blisters. This was when I realised I didn’t even have any blister plasters in my bag. They probably wouldn’t have stuck anyway seeing as my feet, socks and boots were wet. It reminded me of some of those long Moonwalk training walks except my legs didn’t ache too. Small mercies and all that.
12 May 2014
The path ahead is the least interesting and most unkempt part of the Navigation so there would be little to take my mind off my feet. Still, it was at least dry and not as overgrown as I’ve known it. Soon there were meadows beside me and I passed the strange wire mesh contraption that has appeared in the last year or so. I’m not sure what it is but it may have something to do with fishermen or it may cover a culvert for drowning the water meadows.
Before long I was passing Conegar Lock, a name derived from ‘coney garth’ an artificial rabbit warren. This is a turf sided lock and the best preserved of its kind on the Navigation. Sadly, it has become so overgrown it’s easily missed even with the fancy new sign. In fact I’ve missed it myself many times when I’ve passed. A little further on a wooden footbridge takes the path to the other side of the canal. This is built in the brickwork of the tail of the original lock and, from the far side, you can still see a little of it in the step down from the bridge. When the canal was in use a wooden horse bridge let the barge horses and barge men cross at this point. As I crossed I imagined a hardy barge horse clip clopping beside me.
Not long after I’d crossed the canal I met a man coming the other way.
“It’s pretty muddy and flooded ahead,” he said. “Be careful how you go.”
“I’ve been through plenty of mud and water today,” I smiled “I don’t think my feet could get any wetter.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t have spoken so soon. Things started to get muddy almost at once. Somehow I managed to get around the worst of it by grabbing at branches as I went and I consoled myself with the beautiful views over the water meadows.
Once I’d passed the ford where I imagine the farmer leads his cows from one side of the canal to the other things got considerably worse. The path here is just packed dirt with no specially planted vegetation or fencing to protect the banks from erosion. There was a breach, a bad one I couldn’t get around. The water pouring onto the path churned up the soil and my boots sank in deeply and filled with watery mud. Who said my feet couldn’t get any wetter?
Thankfully, the bank is naturally reinforced by a thick growth of trees after this and, although I could no longer see the water and the path was very narrow, at least my feet weren’t getting wetter still. Soon there was another wooden bridge to cross. This one didn’t take me across the canal, this is where the Barton River, the tributary that left the Navigation back at Bishopstoke, briefly rejoins again before wandering off to join the Itchen. Once there were hatches and a horse bridge here, but they were destroyed more than a hundred years ago and, from now almost as far as Mansbridge, the canal is dry, or dryish, depending on the weather.
The path here actually crosses the dry canal, not that you’d notice, and comes out on the track leading to Chickenhall Lane. At the end of the lane the trail turns sharply right to rejoin the course of the Navigation. This is my least favourite part of all, hemmed in by trees in the main with the sewage works hidden behind them on one side. Fortunately there is no smell but there are usually plenty of tiny flies, sometimes so many you have to cover your nose and mouth for fear of inhaling them. Occasionally there are glimpses of the farmland to the left. These are the ‘buttercup fields’ where cows often graze and there were cows aplenty today.
The trail moves away from the original towpath for a while but comes back again in time to dip under Chicken Hall railway bridge. This bridge looks so makeshift and unstable, being made of corrugated iron and concrete filled sandbags, it always makes me a little nervous to pass underneath. This bridge was built in 1979 to replace the original brick version, it isn’t pretty but at least British Rail made sure it was wide enough for the Navigation to flow under if it was ever restored. Oh how I wish it was! Ground ivy has colonised the spaces between the sandbags and I stopped to take of photo of the tiny purple flowers so easy to miss but so beautiful up close.
Now, back on the original towpath, the trail is very overgrown and quite dark in places. I spotted some delicate little mushrooms taking advantage of the dim, damp conditions growing on a mossy old log. Through the occasional breaks in the trees the water meadows that make up part of the Itchen Valley country Park beyond slip in and out of view.
It was here I saw jelly ear fungi too, odd, alien looking things until you look inside and then they really do look like the inside of ears. There were four locks along this section of canal the first being Lock House Lock, so called because there was once a lock cottage here. These days it is a lock sadly lacking in water though.
There’s plenty of water in the Itchen Valley water meadows beside the path. They make for beautiful views but the path through the gate is badly flooded so I guess it will be a while before I visit the Country Park again. I saw my first ransoms of the year growing here. The next two locks, Decoypond and Sandy Lock are almost impossible to find amongst the trees and undergrowth. The airport is hidden too, behind the trees, but unless a plane is taking off or landing you’d hardly know.
Not long after this the path leaves the original towpath and runs noisily beside the motorway through a tunnel of trees. These are mostly willows, the trail is white with their fluffy seed heads and they’re blowing in the air. All I could think about were my aching feet and all I could hear was cars to one side and some lads riding little motorbikes behind the trees on the other. When I came to the motorway bridge and the Itchen I got a glimpse of the lads in the distance.
Under the motorway bridge and beside the motorway in the other direction for a while, each step took a huge effort and I couldn’t help thinking of the four miles ahead and how hard they were going to be. When I left the motorway and came to the final lock, Mansbridge Lock, it did at least offer a distraction and it does have water, if a little clogged and reedy. Beside it the final Navigation marker stood out amongst the greenery. It seems to me there should be one more at Northam but what do I know?
On the bridge over the tail of the lock I looked back and tried to imagine what it would have been like back when the barges went up and down all day. Now there was just a short gravel path between me and Mansbridge Bridge. This is where I really feel I’m on the home straight, or it would if I hadn’t decided to take a stupid diversion to follow the trail to Northam. At about this time I began to wonder about my sanity, especially as every step hurt.
Now the river and the Navigation are joined never to part. The signs by the bridge are confusing. Two signs for the same thing with different mileage. Whatever the real distance my feet were telling me I’d walked way more and they weren’t happy about it one little bit. On the other side of Mansbridge I made for the first bench I found and ferreted about in my bag for some chocolate to give me a boost. It was also a chance to rest my poor old feet. When I looked down at my boots they were caked with mud.
Dragging myself up from the bench I hobbled along to Woodmill. The new cafe was open and tempting but if I stopped I might never get going again so I forced myself to walk on by. Through Riverside I walked in a trance, finally resorting to my iPod in an effort to urge myself forward. The sight of the black swan, back from wherever he or she has been, dragged me from my reverie for a moment or two. Then I plodded painfully towards Cobden Bridge wondering if I’d have the willpower to cross it rather than walk the short mile home in the opposite direction.
Standing at the crossing waiting for the lights to change I had quite an argument with myself. “Go home,” “You’ve come too far to give up now.” Greenday’s Boulevard of Broken Dreams in my ears finally forced me to turn right instead of left and I looked down at the houseboats as I slowly trod the path towards my new office. Of course, once I left Cobden Bridge, I wasn’t really on the towpath any more. Where barge men once walked there are now rows of houses and you can no longer walk along beside the river.
On Horseshoe Bridge I finally came back to the original path, or as near as you can get to it any more. There was no boardwalk back then but I imagined I was walking in the footsteps of all those long dead barge men all the same. A little motorboat came up the river towards me and the familiar hippy wreck made me smile for a moment.
Under Northam Bridge I came to the little quay in front of the rowing club. This was as far as I could go. The original Northam Wharf was a little further along, a private wharf now. I wish there was one last Navigation marker here, something to show this really is the end of the long trail. I stood at the furthest point I could reach and looked across the water towards my home. A bus was crossing the bridge.
Painfully I climbed the steps up to the bridge and walked the final mile home with one last photo from the other side of the water by the skeleton ship looking over at Northam Wharf. When I finally took off those muddy boots my feet looked like I’d been in the bath for a week. There were blisters as I knew there’d be and my leggings were spattered with mud. All in all I’d walked fifteen and a half miles. Not as far as all that. With all the obstacles and a couple of stops it had taken almost as long as it took me to walk a whole marathon and it felt more like twenty miles with those waterlogged boots. Still I’d done it, walked the whole Itchen Navigation right to Northam Wharf just like all those barge men. I still wish there was a marker though!
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