The Summer Challenge, Winchester to Woolston

11 June 2017

So far there have been no proper walks this month. The most I’ve done is trot up and down to the village or walk around town. Today was going to be all about walking though. Some time ago John mentioned he was thinking about a Summer  Challenge, a run from Winchester to Woolston. The Itchen Navigation would make up the majority of the route and he knew I had walked it many times. He asked if I’d lead a walking group for those who were recovering from injury or felt fifteen miles or more was a run too far. When I agreed it seemed like an easy distance. Now, with my fitness compromised by laziness, I wasn’t so sure. 

The walking group, including Commando and CJ, set out from Woolston Station two hours before the runners. Let’s face it we needed a head start if we were going to reach the Cricketers Arms in Woolston before dark. Besides, with walkers and runners all on the narrow trail together, things were likely to get a little too crowded for comfort. The official running challenge was due to begin at King Alfred’s Statue but, of course, we began our walk at the train station.

My original plan had been to walk straight along the North Walls and turn down Union Street towards The Weirs. Commando thought he knew a quicker route though and we ended up caught up in a kind of mini Winchester Sky Ride on the High Street. This added both time and distance, neither of which seemed important at the time but might come back to haunt us later. Still, all eight of us made it to the statue in one piece and stopped for a quick team photo before the real walk started.

The weather forecast said it was going to be overcast and dry, perfect conditions for such a long walk. Almost at once it became clear it was actually going to be hot and sunny. Sunshine added to the beauty of the walk along The Weirs, the canal dug in AD70 to reduce flooding in the town and act as a defensive moat. Even so, I had the feeling it wasn’t going to be our friend in the long run.

Soon enough we’d passed Blackbridge Wharf, where the Itchen Navigation officially begins, and set off along Domum Road. As the weather has been mostly dry of late I might have led the group across Wharf Bridge, the oldest surviving bridge across The Navigation dating from the 1760’s,  but some building work was blocking off the gate so we carried on along Domum Road. This meant we didn’t get to drool over the beautiful houses lining the riverbank but we did get to  walk in the shade of the trees and see the barge bench, commemorating the bargemen who once walked this towpath.

On we went past Tunbridge and along the old road between Winchester and Twyford. Before the walk someone had suggested we might climb St Catherine’s Hill but no one seemed all that keen when we got there. Soon we’d passed St Catherine’s Lock, the Hockley Viaduct and crossed the link road. We were making good time, walking fairly fast. So far so good.

As we started off along the next part of the trail group of women of a certain age came past, heading for the road. They were dressed in bathing costumes and looked quite well to do.
“Maybe they’ve been swimming in Compton Lock,” I said once they were out of earshot. “It’s quite a way down the trail though.”
“They don’t look like they’ve been swimming,” detective Commando said, “their costumes and hair are bone dry.”
It all seemed slightly surreal. They didn’t look like the swimming in a lock type of ladies but swimming costumes and flip flops are not really walking gear. Puzzled we walked on.

There were cows grazing on the water meadows below Church Hill, gulls circling above them. I wondered if this was a sign of bad weather ahead but, if it was, there was little I could do about it. The sky above was blue, the sun beating down and the narrow trail more overgrown than I’ve ever seen it. Once we’d passed the sluices at Tumbling Bay we had river on one side of us and canal on the other but the vegetation was so high we could barely see either.

By now it was so hot every bit of shade felt precious. We were getting close to Compton Lock and the place CJ and I met a young bull on the path last year. There were cows grazing on the open fields beside us and, of course, CJ had to stop to talk to one.

A few minutes later we reached the lock. The chamber is wide and shallow below the weir where the gate once stood. It’s a popular place for local teens to swim and play and today was no exception. Somehow I couldn’t imagine the ladies we’d seen earlier paddling but perhaps they had been.

It was now midday. The runners would soon be gathering at King Alfred’s Statue. So far we’d been walking at a steady pace without stopping but the unrelenting sun was beginning to take its toll. The lock seemed a good place to pause for a snack and a drink. Commando found a bench, slightly overgrown with nettles,  but he managed to sit without getting stung.

While we rested I told the tale of the bull who’d somehow managed to get onto the tow path through the kissing gate from the field behind us and our struggle to get past him. There were cows and young bulls in the field today too and I wondered if one of them was the Houdini bull?

We rested for about ten minutes. Matt even went for a quick swim in the lock to cool off. Then, mindful of the runners and not wanting to be caught too soon, we carried on towards Shawford. The last part of the Twyford to Shawford trail was shady, which was a blessing. Soon enough we’d passed the second triangular Navigation marker and emerged onto the road behind the Bridge Inn.

Photo thanks to Sue Haig

There was quite a temptation to stop off at the pub for a coffee but, by now, we knew the runners were somewhere behind us. With a quick look at Victor’s Bridge, the scene of the sad, but fictional, demise of Victor Meldrew of One Foot in the Grave fame, we plunged back onto the Navigation.

The next part of the trail is one of my favourites. There are pretty little houses with a moat like ditch between them and the path and cottage gardens to admire. In autumn the smell of apples is almost overwhelming. One garden in particular always makes me smile. It has a beautifully painted gypsy caravan as a centrepiece. Sadly, today the caravan was completely covered with a tarpaulin so we didn’t get to see it properly.

Next came the gate with the confusing signs. There are two footpath signs pointing in opposite directions and one sign saying Private Land and Drive. The latter is actually the Navigation trail. I’m pretty sure the farmer put the sign up to stop people walking beside his farm even though it is a public right of way. As we went through the gate I spotted a tiger moth resting on a blade of grass, completely undisturbed by us marching past.

We followed the narrow trail past the back of the farm. Today the cockerel with the croaky voice was silent for once and soon we were passing through the gate to the next part of the trail. Here there were horses in the fields and CJ just had to stop to chat.

There were other stops, one to capture another tiger moth on another blade of grass and another to try to photograph the mass of dragonflies flitting above the river. The first was successful, the second not so much, although there are dragonflies to be seen in my photo if you look really closely.

Now we were getting close to Otterbourne and College Mead Lock. The lock with its tumbling weir is my normal stopping place on Navigation walks. There are rustic benches giving a pleasant view of the bridge and the lock. Today the benches were full, besides, we’d already stopped, so we marched past with barely a look.

The next landmark was Kiln Lane. There have been some changes since I last walked this way. Some trees have been cut down widening the normally muddy stretch of path. A new raised Boardwalk has been built and slices of the cut trees lay on the ground like stepping stones. This will certainly make for easier walking when the weather is wetter.

The easy part of the walk was now officially over. Ahead was Allbrook, usually the muddiest part of the trail. In the past the walk along the raised bank of the towpath has included a fair bit of wading where banks have breached. Even in summer there could be bank breaches or fallen trees. With the runners somewhere on the trail behind us there was no time for dawdling. It was only a matter of time before we saw the first of them and, for the sake of pride,  we wanted to have made as much progress as possible before that happened.

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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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