28 March 2017
After more than a week of doing as I was told, resting my knee and not walking anywhere I didn’t absolutely have to, I was going stir crazy. The knee was getting better every day, athough it was still swollen and unhappy with being bent much. My tolerance for sitting around had reached breaking point though so, today, I decided to go for a test walk. The plan was to take a leisurely bus journey to Milbrook and then a gentle stroll over the causeway to Eling. All in all it would be less than five miles and almost all flat.
Some time ago CJ and I drove to Milbrook with a plan of walking to the Tide Mill at Eling. We parked outside Matt’s house and that was where the plan fell apart. Obviously I couldn’t very well just leave my car outside without going in to tell Matt. This involved coffee. It also involved lots of chatting. It was a lovely morning but we never did make it to the Tide Mill. At the time I promised CJ we would go back and try again. Today was that day.
Of course I could have parked outside Matt’s house again but the chances of getting to the mill would have been slim if I had. Then again I could have just driven to Eling and parked by the mill but, if I did that, there’d have been barely any walking to test my knee. The bus took longer but a return ticket didn’t cost much and I didn’t have to disturb Matt or worry about my car.
The first part of our walk took us over the causeway to Totton.. The sky was cloudy and overcast and the River Test looked decidedly grey and gloomy as we looked down at Test Lane where we were walking a few weeks ago on our way to Testwood Lakes. The Tide was high so it was a good job we weren’t planning on walking the boardwalks of the Test Estuary.
On the far side of the bridge a swan flew across the road in front of us.
“It isn’t every day you see that,” CJ said.
“I wonder if they ever stop on the bridge and hold up all the traffic like they do at Northam?” I mused.
Soon we were passing under the power lines and the pylons that stretch across the Estuary and always look like metallic alien soldiers on the march to me.
With the causeway and the traffic behind us, we crossed the footbridge bridge at Totton Station. The sleepy little station, with just one train an hour began life in 1859 with a bit of an identity crisis. It was midway between the villages of Totton and Eling so no one could decide what to call it. As the Eling Tramway junction was right beside it, they began by calling it Eling Junction. Totton, dubbed the largest village in England, had aspirations of becoming a town though, so, later that year, the name was changed to Totton Station.
After a short walk along the bottom of the quiet High Street we turned onto Eling Lane. Just before we reached the bridge under the Totton Bypass we came to a little shop standing all on its own.
“Check out this shop,” I told CJ. “It’s an old fashioned sweet shop, just like the ones I remember as a little girl.”
When he saw the rows of sweet jars in the window he could hardly believe his eyes. Of course I wasn’t cruel enough to show him the shop without taking him inside and buying some sweets.
CJ was like…well, a kid in a sweet shop, when we got inside. He spent ages looking at all the jars.
“We used to get a huge bag of sweets for a penny or two, or, if we were lucky, a threepenny bit, when I was little,” I said.
“I’ve never seen so many sweets in one place,” he said.
Eventually we both chose some sweets and, feeling a little like naughty children, left with little bags in our hands.
Eating the spoils of our sweet shop adventure we walked under the Totton Bypass and along Eling Lane. On one side of the lane the huge containers of Eling Wharf are screened by trees and shrubs and the other side is lined with small, cottagey houses. Eling Wharf has existed since medieval times, when it was mainly used for shipbuilding. In the nineteenth century they stopped building ships but other industries sprang up, a chemical works, coal importers and a business selling railway sleepers owned by Burt Boulton Holdings, who still own the site today. These days the wharf is mostly used for warehousing and distribution space for the Port of Southampton but there are plans afoot to regenerate the area.
The Anchor Inn marks the end of the lane and here we got our first glimpse of the water. From the car park behind the pub we could see the edge of the Wharf with its stacks of huge containers like so many giant children’s blocks. Straight ahead we looked out at the containers and cranes of Southampton’s Western Docks.
Behind all the industry is a quiet little harbour, filled with sail boats. We strolled along the edge of the car park looking at all the little boats and the mill beyond. Through the trees in the opposite bank we had a glimpse of the tower of Eling Church.
If the sky had been blue we might have lingered here longer or got a drink in the pub and sat in the garden enjoying the views. As it was it was a little cold to be sitting around. Besides, we had a mill to see.
Between the pub and the mill is a large building that looks like it might once have been a warehouse. In fact there was once a warehouse here known as Mumford’s Mill. No one seems to know how old it was but it’s thought it once housed the Eling Steam Mill. Sadly, it burned down in 1966. The building we looked at was built in the 1990’s, using what was left of the old building and keeping a warehouse feel. It is now a heritage centre with modern apartments above.
Now we got our first glimpse of the tide mill and the little wooden toll house beside it. The mill was built on a dam over Bartley Water close to the point it joins the River Test and Southampton Water. It sits on the seaward side of the dam and, as the tide comes in, it forces through the gates in the dam wall, turning the river behind into a huge mill pond. When the tide turns, the water level on the seaward side falls, exposing the water wheel. The gates are then opened and the water flows through, turning the wheel. This generates five hours of water power and, as Southampton Water has two high tides a day, this means ten hours of grinding corn to flour. The road crossing the dam is a toll road. Luckily the toll only applies to motorised vehicles so we didn’t have to pay.
As mills go Eling Tide Mill is pretty special. It is one of only two tide mills still operating in the United Kingdom. No one knows for sure how long there has been a tide mill in Eling but it was mentioned in the Doomsday Book in 1086 and, in 1382, it was gifted to Winchester College, who leased it to various millers. Under the terms of their lease, the millers had to maintain the mill and the causeway, they could also collect tolls. Grain was brought on barges and the mill ground it into flour. The current mill was built in the 1770’s after the old mill and causeway were damaged by storms. In 1946, the mill closed although the last miller, Tom Mackrell, continued to collect tolls until the late 1960’s. In 1980 it was restored as a working tide mill and reopened.
We may have been able to cross the causeway for free but, before we did we walked a little way along the track beside Bartley Water to get a better view of the mill as a whole. In comtrast to the container filled wharf and the harbour with its colourful boats, the river was calm and quiet. A lone swan was swimming near the far bank, looking out over fields and marshes.
“If my knee holds up we might explore this trail later,” I told CJ, who seemed more keen on the river than the mill.
From a little way along the trail we could see the whole mill and the causeway it stands on. Until 1940, the causeway was regularly damaged by storms and often collapsed. In 1887 it was completely washed away. Modern engineers discovered the problem was the design of the sluices. This was corrected and the causeway is far more stable today.
With a nod to the toll collector, who may or may not be the Miller these days, we crossed the causeway. Briefly the sun came out and illuminated the brickwork of the wonderful old mill building. It didn’t stay out long though and the sky had a distinct look of rain about it. We might well be getting wet before the morning was out.
Much as I’d have preferred sunshine and blue sky, the dark clouds leant a brooding feeling to the photographs I took from the middle of the causeway. We stood for a while looking out over the sail boats, the containers and the docks beyond. It may not be the prettiest view in the world and, if the development plans go ahead, the containers of Eling Wharf may soon be gone, but I quite like the mixture of industry and nature.
With the ever present threat of rain we didn’t dare stand for too long. Totton may have fulfilled its ambitions to become a town, swallowing up the tiny village beside it in the process, but Eling has more than a Tide Mill to see and, while my knee held out, I wanted to explore at least some of it.
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