More than one way to cross the Itchen – a postcard from Crosshouse

28 March 2017

We’d had an adventure in Eling and I’d given my knee a good testing, but the walking wasn’t quite over for the day. This evening I had a meeting to attend close to the town end of the Itchen Bridge. Commando needed the car for work but he offered to drop me off in Woolston on his way.  The timings were a little out, meaning I’d be more than a little early, but at least I’d only have to walk across the bridge. Time to kill down by the water there is never time wasted so I didn’t much mind being early. 

The sun was beginning to go down as I walked over the bridge. Sadly not in a glorious sunset kind of way but the sky had a satisfying pink tinge to it. In fact it almost felt like an early morning walk to work from my Silver Helm days. The meeting was in the rowing club building close to Crosshouse and I walked down the slope from the bridge in good spirits fully intending to turn right. The feeling of the walk to work was so strong though that my treacherous feet ignored my head and took me left instead.  By the time I realised what had happened I was almost within sight of Chantry Bridge and my old office.

The big circle I walked to get back on track did at least eat up some of the time I had in hand. Even with the detour I had a lot of time still to kill when I reached Crosshouse. The first thing I did was reacquaint myself with the 1988 boundary stone. This was the second stone I found back in 2015. At the time I didn’t know the story of the modern day boundary stones, or even what they were. I’d seen the first along Weston Shore and not been able to find out what it was. This was the second piece of the puzzle and it began my long, often frustrating, search for all the others.

The stone was all present and correct, standing a little way from the odd little stone hut of Crosshouse which once marked the boundary cross. This curious building was constructed as a shelter for passengers waiting for the old Itchen Ferry Boat to take them across the Itchen to Woolston. Exactly when it was built is unclear but it’s thought to be at least six hundred years old. The building consists of a circular base bisected by stone walls in the shape of a cross and topped with a conical tiled roof. Inside there are lips, or sills of stone on which there were once wooden seats.

The shore here is bleak and can be cold. Before Crosshouse was built, it must have been an unpleasant place to wait for the ferryman, especially on a cold, wet or windy day. Anecdotal accounts tell of a lady who died after waiting for the ferry on such a day and left money in her will for the shelter to be built. Whether this is true or not is a mystery but I imagine it was very welcome whatever its real origins. The design means there is shelter from the wind whichever way its blowing and it’s easy to imagine people huddled on the seats awaiting the Itchen Ferry.

The little shelter looks very much as it must have when it was built but looks can be deceptive. In 1596 it was in such a poor state of repair it was discussed at the Court Leet and a note made ‘we thincke it verie requisite the same showld be repaired & maynteined.‘ Whether this happened or not is a mystery but major repairs were certainly made in 1634. A stone in the eastern quadrant commemorates the event. It bears the date, the town coat of arms, the same H and S seen on the modern boundary stones and the initials of the Mayor at the time, Peter Clungeon.

The advent of the Floating Bridge in 1836 saw the little shelter fall out of favour. For a while the ferries still crossed back and forth across the river the but the new chain ferry was more convenient, especially as it could carry vehicles as well as people. The Floating Bridge slipway was further along the river bank so Crosshouse was no longer much use. The building soon deteriorated and, in 1846, the Town Council decided to pull it down. Thankfully a mysterious citizen paid for it to be repaired and it survived. In the 1930’s the tiled roof was removed and in 1959 a car hit the building and knocked part of it down. By 1981 the Floating Bridge was gone too, replaced by the Itchen Bridge. Finally the council realised the importance of the historic little shelter and it was listed. They even replaced the roof using old illustrations and postcards as a guide.

Whether F.G.O Stuart’s postcard of Crosshouse played any part in the building of the new roof or not isn’t clear but his photograph shows what the building looked like when it was being used. Back then the shelter was surrounded by warehouses and buildings and Stuart shows plenty of people gathered around it. On the left side of the picture a man in uniform is making a transaction of some kind with another man dressed in plus fours and a cap. Perhaps this is one of the Itchen Ferrymen?

My recreation of Stuart’s photo tells a completely different story. Crosshouse is deserted, the buildings behind it all gone. The shelter itself looks much as it did back then though and the other thing that hasn’t changed is the glint of the water in the background.

Crosshouse was built on the site of the Itchenworth boundary cross, mentioned in medieval documents. Some people believe the base could actually be the cross itself but I’m not so sure. It seems to me the boundary cross is more likely to be a stone, like the Rosemary Stone and the Hode Stone, the other ancient boundary stones that remain today near the Common. You can see them for yourself if you check out the link above. If you look closely at Stuart’s postcard you will see a couple of children sitting on a large, oddly shaped stone right in front of Crosshouse. You can see it in my own photos, although it seems to have shrunk quite a bit over the years. A closer look at the remains of this stone show it is shaped like a cross, you can even see this in Stuart’s photo. Anyhow, my theory is that this stone is actually the boundary cross and Crosshouse was built right next to it.

Despite walking around Crosshouse and taking lots of photos I still had time on my hands so I decided to walk down to the old Itchen Ferry slipway.  As I walked away I turned back for one last look at the old shelter, now standing in the shadow of the new bridge that made it and its successor obsolete.

The slipway is still where it always was and, directly across the water, I could see the corresponding slipway on the Woolston bank of the Itchen. Behind it the few houses of Itchen Ferry Village not destroyed during the war still stand even if the last ferryman is now nothing but a memory. Between the two the water of the River Itchen looked calm and easy enough to cross. This isn’t always the case though and the Ferrymen certainly earned their fees when the weather was bad and the waves were crashing.

These days the crossing is far easier, although there’s still a fee to pay, at least if you drive. The Itchen Bridge, opened in 1977, dominates the skyline today. It gracefully spans the river and is generally packed with traffic and people going in both directions. The Itchen Spitfires Running Club even use it for Kenyan Hills training. When it was built the council levied a toll to pay for its construction. They said it would be free once the bridge was paid for. Forty years on there is still a toll.

A look at my watch told me I still had time to look at the last piece of the puzzle of the Itchen crossing before my meeting. Leaving the ferry slipway behind I walked along the shore towards the Itchen Bridge. The light was fading fast so I knew I didn’t have much time left for photos. Even so I couldn’t resist a few shots of the bridge from below. It isn’t a view many people see after all.

On the opposite side of the bridge is another slipway. This was once used by the Floating Bridge. Once upon a time this was a bustling place filled with people, cars and buses, in a seemingly never ending stream heading across the Itchen in both directions. The two bridges chugged back and forth on huge chains so there was never too long to wait and there would be shouts to stay back and mind your feet as each one reached the shore. The Floating Bridges killed off the ferry boats and they, in turn, were killed off by the road bridge. There may be more than one way to cross the Itchen, but it seems there is only really room for one at a time. What a shame all three couldn’t exist together.

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

8 thoughts on “More than one way to cross the Itchen – a postcard from Crosshouse”

    1. They did a wonderful job of restoring Crosshouse. I love the shape of the new bridge, although people here still complain at the demise of the Floating Bridge and don’t appreciate the new one at all.

  1. Lovely view of the underbelly of the bridge.

    I learned to sail at Crosshouse Hard when I was at school. All I can remember of it now is the smell of tarred rope when we were learning to tie knots.

    1. Not many people see the bridge from below but I think it’s a wonderful view. They still have a sailing club at Crosshouse Hard. In fact they were packing up when I arrived.

    1. I’m glad someone agrees with me about the stone. By the looks of it it will be worn away completely soon enough. I think Stuart liked to have people in his postcards and often recruited children. Whether he paid them or not I couldn’t say but being in a photograph in those days was probably payment enough and would likely be the only photograph ever taken of those children. He was even in a few postcards himself. Presumably an assistant pressed the shutter after he had set everything up,

  2. Oh, I love that postcard photo. Being an enthusiastic (obsessive) amateur photographer myself, I very much enjoy seeing old photos. Great pov on the bridge from below.

    1. The old postcards are such insights into the past. Today we take it for granted we can snap away all the time but it must have been such an effort back then. When it comes to taking photos I have zero technical ability (as my son often points out) but I think my background in art sometimes gives me an idea for composition.

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