White Swans – first published 25 May 2014

In December 2013 the White Swan pub at Mansbridge flooded. Floods are not a new thing for the Swan, it happens with monotonous regularity and I suppose it’s the price you pay for sitting on the edge of the river. Usually the flooding is limited to once a year at most. Mostly it gets cleaned up and reopens in a week or so. The winter of 2013/2014 was different, the water rose, receded a little, then rose some more, all through December, January and February. It rose higher than I’ve ever known it, closing the whole road at times. In Late May 2014, it finally reopened and, of course, I had to go along to have a look.

25 May 2014

There is a certain amount of irony in the fact that the White Swan reopened on Thursday just as the sun disappeared and the heavens opened. In February when I passed by it looked as if the pub was sitting in the middle of the river rather than on the bank and I wondered if it would ever open again. After the Itchen Navigation extravaganza I said I’d stay away from the river for a while but, hearing the Swan was back in business I knew I’d have to go and have a look this weekend. If nothing else I wanted to see what they had done in the way of flood defences and if they were working. The storms during the week caused flash floods through our village. What would it be like down by the river?

At least when I left home Sunday was living up to its name with blue sky and cotton wool clouds. Fitting too that the first thing I saw when I got to the river was a pair of white swans close to Cobden Bridge. The swan theme continued further along the path when I heard the tell tale womp, womp, womp of swans wings and managed to fire off a few quick shots of the culprit making an ungainly take off. Ok so they aren’t the best photos but they were the best I could do in the few seconds I had before the swan landed again.

Around the bend in the river close to Woodmill things got a little noisy. A ring of lorries and caravans were arranged on the grass putting me in mind of the covered wagons seen on cowboy films. A horrendous banging was coming from the centre of the ring but I couldn’t see what was going on beyond the vehicles. My money was on a fair of some kind.

Close to the river bend a pair of canoes were on their way upstream. As I walked I watched them struggling against the current and, around the bend another pair of swans gathered protectively round a trio of fluffy grey cygnets, the first I’ve seen this year. The swan family stayed annoying close to the far bank which meant any chance of getting a decent photo was slim but I tried nonetheless.

The canoeists and I kept pace with each other as far as Mansbridge. The current running beneath the bridge seemed to be giving them problems though and I left them behind and carried on under the road bridge towards the pub. The last time I came this way, back in February, the water was knee high on the path. Thankfully, despite the heavy rain all week, now it was dry.

Scaffolding behind the pub sign told me there was still work going on and I wondered for a moment if I’d got it wrong and the pub wasn’t open after all. When I turned the corner it was a relief to see the open door and the people going inside. With a little thrill of anticipation, I followed…

When I was a child, maybe three years old, we used to have a twice weekly drive to Big Nanny’s house every Sunday, once to collect her and once to deliver her back. Dad would usually take me and some times we’d drive through Woodmill, others we’d drive through Mansbridge. The drives through Mansbridge were my favourite because we’d cross a little bridge and pass a magical place on the river. It seemed like a fairy tale house to me, sitting on the edge of the water with fairy lights all around the eves reflecting in the river and my three year old mind couldn’t imagine a nicer place in the whole world.

The first time I actually went inside the doors of that magical house I was nineteen. Things had changed a bit over the years and the road that wound around in front of it had been diverted over a new wide bridge so the childhood view I remembered could no longer be seen. Even so it was unmistakeable. Now I knew it was no fairy tale house but magic did still happen there. The place was the White Swan pub.

Inside, the pub was all brick and oak beams, or that’s how I remember it, and it was filled with bikers. My friend, Bonnie, and I had cadged a lift in a van to get there with no idea how we’d get home again but Bonnie knew quite a few of the locals so she was sure we’d manage to get another lift home at closing time. We were so certain of this we’d brought our crash helmets with us and as we walked towards the bar we must have been discussing this because a voice from one of the tables by the bar called out, “I’ll give you a lift home.”

When I turned towards the voice I saw a young man, long dark hair, black leather jacket, jeans and a cheeky grin.
“Let me buy you ladies a drink and I’ll introduce you to my friends,” he said. “My name’s Les.”
Perhaps I should have remembered Mother’s warning about speaking to strangers but, at nineteen, I thought I was invincible so I accepted the offer and was led to another alcove where a group of other long haired men were drinking. Les showed me to a seat and rattled off names I was sure I’d never remember.
“This is Wicksie, Crabbie, Lewie…, everyone, this is my new girlfriend.”
“Um, I only wanted a lift…” I said, not sure I was all that keen to be his new girlfriend but he wasn’t listening.
“Keatsie, he shouted over to a tall slim man playing space invaders on a machine nearby, “come and meet my new girlfriend.”
The tall slim man looked up briefly and smiled then went back to his game. That man was Commando. If course he doesn’t remember it at all.

The White Swan was originally opened in the early 1800’s when it was known as the Middleton Arms after the Middleton family nearby landowners. It wasn’t until 1830 the name Swan Inn came into being and in 1870 it was renamed again as the White Swan Hotel. The terrible floods this year had me worried it might never open again so, today, I was relieved to be walking back through the door once more.

Of course these days the place has gone very upmarket and become a posh carvery a million miles from the quaint little hostelry where I first set eyes on Commando. From the outside it may look much the same and I can almost see the rows of motorbikes lined up in front but it’s hard to superimpose the image in my mind onto the inside, especially after the most recent work.

The bar is much as it always was, although I seem to remember it being longer and having brick pillars back in my youth. The free wifi sign is new as is the fancy coffee machine but I was quite pleased to see both. As it was pretty busy with people coming for their Sunday lunch I didn’t feel comfortable about taking too many photos inside, although, when I asked, the staff were more the happy for me to snap away.

While the barmaid was making my coffee we had a chat about the floods and the new defences.
“We’ve done a lot of work to try to stop it flooding again,” she said, “but the trouble is the council won’t do anything about protecting the road and that was where the water was coming from so no matter what we do it will get through. It was coming up through the floorboards and there was nothing we could do to stop it.”

With coffee in hand I went out into the garden. This was where I always spent most of my time and very little has changed apart from the extended dining area and the pergolas providing a touch of shade. The flood defences are new of course and they looked pretty sturdy which is reassuring. The canoeists I saw earlier had finally made it under the bridge and were passing as I looked out over the water.

So I sat, sipping my latte and looking out over the Itchen. Back in the day there used to be a rickety old bridge across the river and, when I looked closely, I thought I could still see some of the old boards caught up in a fallen tree. Then again I could have been imagining it. I wished Commando was there with me to share the moment.

Once the coffee was gone I walked back through a door that hasn’t changed one bit and had a final look around. A new wall has been built to separate the busy dining area from the bar and I like the glass and bare brick along with the pretty display of herbs in pots beside it.

Apart from the pillars, which disappeared long ago, the bar doesn’t seem to have changed too much, although the leather sofas and chairs look far more comfortable than the wooden benches I remember. I like the little touches like old prints on the walls and an old clock. If it had been quieter I think I could have spent a long time looking around and taking pictures. When I noticed the fruit machine I had to smile, it reminded me of the space invaders machine Commando had been playing on when I first set eyes on him.

After a quick use of the toilet facilities and a final look around I was back out in the sun admiring the pretty hanging baskets. With one last look through the door I turned to walk back along the river towards home. You can be sure I will be back.

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

2 thoughts on “White Swans – first published 25 May 2014”

  1. Very interesting history of the White Swan. I came across your site when I was looking to find out what happened to the footbridge over the River Itchen to the White Swan Pub. I came across a photo of the pub in an album along with other photos of the Southampton area dating to the early Edwardian period c 1905 . In my photo there is a footbridge presumably lost to floods or just became unsafe? See photo on Flickr here https://www.flickr.com/photos/runninginsuffolk/40625143902/in/album-72157692389518091/

    1. I remember the footbridge back when the White Swan was my local. . It was fairly rotten and I never tired to cross it. There is still a small remnants of rotting wood today.

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