28 March 2017
Right at the moment we were about to give up on finding the gate to the Boardwalk and head back to the Tide Mill, there it was. This at least proved that I really did know where I was going even if it had taken walking around for ten minutes or more to work it out. When I said as much CJ rolled his eyes and pointed to the sign saying ‘this Boardwalk is due to be replaced during summer/autum 2016 and will be closed.’ If the sign was still there did this mean the work was still going on? If it was would we be able to get through? There was no real way of telling so we went through the gate anyway.
Bartley Water is not the longest stream in the world. It meanders across the New Forest from Bartley to Eling a distance of just over four and a half miles as the crow flies and around seven and a half as the stream twists and turns. We would only be walking a tiny part of it but my memory told me it was one of the prettiest walks I’ve taken. For once, my memory served me very well. Almost as soon as we went through the gate we were treated to breathtaking views of golden reeds waving gently in the breeze. Between them we got glimpses of the little rills running through the marsh to feed the stream.
The chicken wire covered Boardwalk meandered ahead of us, much as the stream meandered beside us hidden behind the reeds. Whether the boards had been replaced or not I couldn’t tell. To me they looked much as they had the last time I came this way almost three years ago. Here and there were trees, their roots in the marshy mud, trunks contorted and moss covered, bare branches sporting catkins but nothing much in the way of leaves. Occasionally there was blossom too, mostly on the blackthorn bushes we passed. From time to time the sun peeped through the clouds but didn’t stay long, although the sky definitely seemed to be getting bluer, at least in patches.
Some trees had succumbed to old age or wet roots and their rotting trunks had become supports for ivy. As we walked the springy boards creaked beneath our feet. Each twist and turn seemed to bring another breathtaking view and I stopped many times to snap photographs.
“Dad runs along here sometimes,” I told CJ, ” although it doesn’t seem a very good surface for running to me.”
As if to prove me wrong, a runner came around the bend at that very moment. I’d been taking a picture of a rickety looking piece of fence that took my fancy and caught him on camera. We stood aside to let him pass.
“Thank you,” he said, “sorry if I ruined your photo.”
A few bends later CJ spotted pieces of broken wasps nest and stopped for a closer look. Each little paper cell was a perfect hexagon. We walked on talking about the time CJ and his brothers discovered a wasps nest in Grandma’s caravan and how clever wasps are to build something so delicate and precise.
“I saw an article about an experiment where wasps were given coloured paper to build with,” CJ said.
“I saw that too,” I said, “they made the most beautiful rainbow nests, like works of art.”
Not long after this the boards ran out and we were walking on earth paths for a while. Our walk now took on the feel of a stroll along the Itchen Navigation tow path but without all the ups and downs of old locks and a few more curves. There were more trees and blossom now and the reeds and water seemed further from the trail. The gnarled branches with their green coverings of algae, lichen and moss captivated me. They leaned at crazy angles, much as the gravestones had earlier, and had curious knobles and hollows.
One tree in particular made us both stop and stare. Its trunk was so wide it must have been very old but there was a light fuzz of new leaves just beginning to emerge. Five fat branches thrust into the air like fingers on an arthritic hand, the bark on them was deeply groved and whorled like finger prints. The trunk had a long crack so deep it seemed to go to the heart of the tree and the branches had numerous holes and hollows. It felt like something out of a fairy tale, a place where fairies or elves would live.
When we set out we had been walking with our backs to the Tide Mill but, without realising it, all the meandering had taken us in a wide loop. Through gaps in the trees we now had a view of the containers, the causeway and the mill across the waving reeds. We could even make out the little wooden toll house. It seemed much closer than we’d expected. There were houses too, just beyond the tree line and the hum of the Marchwood Bypass to our left. It came as a bit of a shock after the tranquility of our walk so far.
In a field to our left we spotted a concrete structure. It looked like a drain of some kind to me but CJ was convinced it was a barrage balloon tether.
“You could be right,” I said. “The tethers at Millers Pond look a lot like drains and I suppose there would have been barrage balloons in the area because it’s so close to the docks.”
Soon after this we were back to the Boardwalk and crossing a fairly wide rill or tributary. When we saw an arched wooden bridge ahead I knew we would soon be crossing Bartley Water itself. I remembered the bridge from my previous walk and knew we were now getting close to the end of this walk.
We could see the stream and the causeway clearly now. One more turn and the bridge was right in front of us. With its weathered wooden span and rails it was pretty as a picture but neither of us was keen to cross it. We didn’t want the walk to end.
Cross it we must through, or stay on the far bank forever. We stopped at the centre and looked out over the gently rippled water where the sky, the reeds and the trees were reflected like a hazy upside down watercolour of the world. Rumour has it there are brown and rainbow trout in the water here but, despite the benches along the banks, there were no fishermen in sight.
Once we’d crossed the bridge we had a descision to make. If we turned left we’d end up at Eling Recreation Ground close to the Rushington Roundabout. The right hand path would take us back to the Tide Mill. When I’d set out I’d planned on the former but it would give us a lot more walking along busy roads than the latter so, in the end, we turned right.
We were now on the trail we’d seen when we first reached the mill, right at the start of the morning. It was a gravely path and far shorter than we’d have liked. In no time at all the mill was right in front of us and, despite stopping to look at some grape hyacinth growing on the bank, we were back where we started in no time at all.
With regret we left the Tide Mill and Bartley Water behind, along with all the little boats in the creek. Soon enough we were in Totton, sitting in Costa enjoying a well earned coffee. All that was left now was the walk over Redbridge Causeway back to Millbrook. The whole walk was less than five miles but, as a test for the knee and a lifter of spirits, it was a resounding success.
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