Monks Brook, heat and an invasive species – first published 14 July 2014

My mid July walk in 2014 had started off on a sour note but had soon improved when I had an up close and personal visit with a black swan. As I walked on towards the reed beds and, ultimately, the White Swan pub, I sipped my water. The early morning rain combined with the sun seemed to have sucked up all the air and left behind a damp stickiness. Even along the river there was little breeze and my pace slowed considerably. Still, I told myself this was not about speed but about getting out and walking, enjoying the nature around me and the sun on my skin, if not the sweat trickling down between my shoulder blades.

14 July 2014

In an effort to keep as close to the water as possible in the belief it would be cooler, I left the path and walked through the grass behind the reed beds. For my trouble I picked up a nice collection of grass seed with my leggings. As I stopped to brush them off a butterfly flittered past.

Back on the path again and around the bend there seemed to be a commotion of some sort going on at Woodmill. There were more cars than I’ve ever seen parked up by the slipway and a crowd of people, some with parasols and picnics spread out on the grass. As I got closer I could see home made rafts and oars. It looked like some kind of raft building competition. Interesting as it might have been to stay and watch I’d already wasted enough time watching swans, not that I’d really call that a waste.

There were no swans on the second stretch of river across the road, just Canada geese and so many fishermen I could hardly see the water. Fishing is a mystery to me. I’m never sure if the attraction is the fish or the sitting around doing nothing much. Three cygnets swam past but, with all the fishermen, I couldn’t get a decent picture, which is a shame. I wondered where the swan parents were as, although they were older and bigger than the ones by the boardwalk, it’s unusual to see cygnets without their parents.

At Mansbridge I dithered for a moment thinking of taking the Navigation to Eastleigh, there may not be much in the way of water at the Mansbridge end but there would be shade. In the end I decided against it and turned towards Monks Brook instead. There’d been no rain since I left home but the bindweed along the path to the brook was splashed with drops of water and some tiny little insects, almost too small to see, smothered the flowers, maybe thrips but I’m not sure. One black beetle hid right in the centre of one flower and I wondered if he was eating the thrips or if he was their prey. The smaller, pink tinged bindweed flowers seemed mostly free of these little creatures for some reason

As I made my way towards the stream and the green bridge I was surprised to see a mass of pink flowers on a profusion of tall plants that seem to have sprung up from nowhere since I last came this way. When I got close enough for a proper look the flowers were beautiful and quite unusual, a little like a very large and showy snapdragon. They were all borne on the tips of the branches, so high I had to stand on tiptoe to get a picture. I had no idea what they were and didn’t find out until I got home.

On one side of the path all the flowers were pale pink and on the other they were far darker, whether this is down to the light, the soil or something else altogether I don’t know. I do know what they’re called though. It turns out, from a bit of judicious Googling, they are Himalayan balsam, producing a sweet, sticky and edible nectar. They are also highly invasive. First introduced into the UK in 1839, coincidentally about the time Japanese knot weed was brought here, they were touted as easy to grow ornamental plants. Unfortunately the seeds are both prolific and far reaching. The seed pods explode when touched and shoot seeds as far as twenty three feet away. No wonder there were so many of them.

With such an efficient seed dispersal mechanism they had escaped from the gardens within ten years and began to spread along the riverbanks of England. These days there are efforts to get rid of them, mostly by wildlife trusts. I can see why, especially as they may have allopathic properties, excreting toxins that harm neighbouring plants and give them an advantage when space is limited. Even so, I’m not sure how I feel about trying to eradicate a species of plant, no matter how invasive. I understand the reasons, I value the native wild flowers very highly but it still seems sad. Apparently the seed pods, seeds, young leaves and shoots are edible so maybe we should be thinking of farming them instead of wiping them out.

Once I left the brook behind and got out on the open road in the sun it soon became clear just how much the water had been cooling me. Before I’d gone very far at all it was obvious I was in trouble. It felt as if there was no air. Every breath was an effort and sucking in enough oxygen while simultaneously walking wasn’t really working too well. Sweat was dripping from me but it wasn’t making me any cooler and my head was beginning to throb. In fact I started to feel slightly dizzy.

By now you will probably have worked out I’m quite stubborn. The word I prefer is tenacious but Commando insists on using stubborn and, if I’m honest, he’s probably right. When I set out to walk a certain number of miles or to a certain place it is rare for me to turn back unless I’m actually lost or find an interesting diversion. Sunday was one of those days where I was neither lost or exploring. I was in trouble.

Even though I’m blonde and fair skinned hot weather doesn’t normally cause me too many problems. In fact I like the heat and even in Egypt in the low fifties (Celsius) or Morocco in the high forties I was hot but fine as long as I drank enough and slathered on the sun cream. The one time I remember having problems was in Cyprus. It was only in the low thirties but very humid and I struggled, so much so I thought I was going to faint when out on a walk with Commando. If course I was much heavier back then but This was exactly how I felt on Sunday.

Strangely enough there is a scientific reason for this. Humid air contains a lot of water vapour, even if you can’t see it. The sweat on your skin can’t evaporate and cool you because there’s already too much water in the air. Unbelievably, the air is actually denser when it’s dry although humid air feels heavy and ‘close.’ Blood goes to the surface of your skin in a vain attempt to get cool. More blood to the skin means less blood to the muscles and brain, hence the exhaustion and foggy head. This is the beginning of heat stoke and it is not fun.

There was no way I could carry on along that road with no shade and no breeze. Even the thought of a latte at the Swan Centre wasn’t enough to keep me going for the next two miles. I turned around and made my way back to Monks Brook and the shade. As I plodded back my mind was a befuddled whirl of thoughts. I really needed somewhere to sit down and have a rest and a cool drink from my water bottle. The only place I could think of was the church yard across the Green Bridge.

It was cooler by the water and I did start to feel a little better almost at once but my head was aching and I was weary even though I’d walked less than four miles. Across the bridge I walked through a tunnel of trees with the sun slanting through where it could. St Mary’s church, South Stoneham, is a church I’ve passed many times and always meant to stop for a closer look so this was my opportunity. First though I needed to rest. I sat on the edge of a large and very ornate tomb, more of a monument really it covered the whole grave and had a wide platform around the edge. It felt slightly wrong but I made sure to perch right on the edge well away from the actual grave. It did occur to me that, if I actually expired, I would fall back onto the grave. All anyone would have to do was shovel some dirt on top of me, job done.

While I sipped my water and ate a couple of squares of dark chocolate I looked up at the church, one of the two remaining medieval churches in Southampton still in use (the other being St Michael’s in the city centre). The original South Stoneham parish has been eaten up by Swaythling, Portswood, Mansbridge and other nearby suburbs. There is no South Stoneham village, as far as I can tell there never was, and the church is actually in Swaythling these days.

The earliest remaining part of this beautiful stone church is the chancel with a twelfth century chalk arch and, as with all old churches, bits and pieces have been added or upgraded since. The bell tower is late fifteenth century and fairly plain as these things go but there is a sundial above the belfry window on the south side with the words ‘so flies life away 1738’ inscribed. Above the door an empty niche makes a curious statement. What was it supposed to house and why is it empty?

Once I’d decided I wasn’t actually going to die I had a slow stroll around the graves. For me, old churches are interesting but the graves are the thing that really fascinate me. Here they are very old with leaning stones and many words too weathered to read. Amongst the various crosses, head stones and chest tombs like the one I’d sat on, some were almost totally overgrown with moss others cracked and sunken.

After reading a Dennis Wheatley book called The Ka and Gifford Hillary in my teens I vowed I would not be buried just in case I wasn’t really dead. I know this is highly unlikely in these days of modern technology but I still don’t like the idea of being under the ground. Yes I know that whatever makes me, me will be long gone, but I still feel that way although I love the look of old graves, the mosses and lichen, the weathered words and glimpses into the past.

Behind the church the graves are overgrown with grass and weeds. I waded through, picking up more seeds on my leggings, to look at the huge tombs on the far side. It was a mazy, tiptoeing walk to avoid treading on any graves or disturb the occupants sleep (yes I know I’m sounding nutty again but I can’t help how I feel). They were so overgrown and crowded together I could only take pictures of the details. Why are these graves so overgrown when the others are tended?

Once I’d made my way, oh so carefully, back through the grass and graves to the path I took a closer look at the boundary wall. This is a listed wall, although I didn’t know that at the time. It’s tall, maybe eight feet, of early eighteenth century red brick weathered and lichen covered with ferns or spleenworts worked into the crevices. I could have spent hours just exploring it but I was hot and my head still felt fuzzy. It was time to turn for home.

So I left the church behind with a last look at the beech nuts on a copper beech. This will not be my last visit for sure. I turned onto Wessex Lane, thinking to get home faster. Of course this took me back quite quickly, to Woodmill where the raft race was going on. That was when I remembered the new coffee shop. Maybe I could have my latte after all.

It was the first time I’ve ever been inside the mill and, as I waited for my coffee I looked around at the high ceiling and the walls stacked with canoes. I’d like to have looked around more but I really needed to sit quietly and drink my coffee. Latte in hand I sat on a bench outside and watched the raft race unfold. It seemed like this was one of many but it was exciting nonetheless.

Parents shouted from the bank and canoeists helped with instructions from the water. One raft was way ahead and one, going in the wrong direction, way behind. I felt bad for the children trying so hard and getting nowhere but they persevered and made it around the course in the end. I cheered with everyone else when they made it to the slipway again.

Then it was time to go home. This was when I made a rather silly decision. Feeling better from my rest and some milky caffeine, I decided to walk up Woodmill Lane instead of following the river. In my fuddled mind this made perfect sense. I needed to go to the village for skinny milk and a few bits and pieces, if I walked this way I’d be able to pop in on my way home. What I hadn’t thought of was the two miles, almost all of which is up hill. Steep hills at that.

There are no photos. By the time I got half way up Woodmill Lane I could barely lift my arm never mind my phone. Somehow I struggled to the top then down the other steep side and back up the next hill at Mousehole Lane. When I finally made it to Sainsbury’s I felt like climbing into the first freezer cabinet I came to. Obviously my brain was completely addled to even consider those hills when I could have taken the relatively flat river route. Still, I made it home in one piece and survived to walk another day.

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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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