6 July 2017
Since we got back from Vancouver there has been zero real walking. Ok, so there was the Itchen navigation and there have been ups and downs of the Big Hill to the shops, along with some outings in the car, parkruns and races. What there hasn’t been is proper walking, me, my camera, a plan and CJ along for the ride. Today we finally put that right with a meander along the river.
It was hot, one of those real baking days where you can feel the heat of the pavement through your shoes. We decided starting with a slog up the Big Hill wasn’t the best of plans so set off towards Midanbury instead. It’s flatter, at least at first. Of course, when we got to the first hill, it was Witts Hill, a doozie of a climb, but at least we only had to go half way up. There’s a shady bench at the bottom to fortify you beforehand. It was tempting to stop there but we didn’t.
We turned off at the first bend, where the church used to be. It seems strange to see blue sky there where the distinctive bell tower used to be. All Hallows’ Church was built in 1951, the only church in Midanbury. In 1965 an extension, designed by Roger Pinckney and built by Louis Thompson, was built alongside it. Once upon a time there was a dairy and a farm opposite. The church held its final service in April 2014 and was demolished last December, leaving Midanbury churchless again.
We walked on through Midanbury and Townhill Park. Talking about all the changes going on in the area. The flats of Townhill Park are also in the process of being demolished, to be replaced by even more flats in the same space. It was a relief to get back into the shade when we reached Cutbush Lane. We hadn’t gone very far when CJ shouted, “Stop!”
Alarmed, I paused, one foot in mid air, wondering what on earth was going on. Then he pointed out the stag beetle sitting on the path, inches from where I’d been about to plant my foot. Apparently they’re quite rare but we seem to get a lot of them around these parts. This one escaped with her life and was gently moved to a safer place in the undergrowth by CJ.
Soon we’d passed the site of the boundary stone and the gates of the Gregg School. A notice told us they were holding a fete on Saturday. Maybe we’d go to have another look at the grounds if we had time and pay another visit to the stone we’d waited so long to see.
The shady green lane was an oasis of cool in what had, until now, been an unpleasantly hot walk. We dawdled along not looking forward to the end where the sun would be beating down on us again. We’d almost reached it when a hornet mimic hoverfly, volucella zonaria, resting on the blackberry flowers gave us an excuse to stop. These giants of the hoverfly world look scary but the they’re harmless and fairy rare. They’re also quite slow and ponderous for hoverflies, which means it’s fairly easy to take their photo.
Then it was back to the road for a while. We made a short pit stop in Haskins Garden Centre for coffee, then dashed for the shade of Gaters Hill. The tunnel of trees felt all to short. At the bottom the road seemed even hotter, despite the river on the far side.
We passed the next boundary stone with barely a glance, distracted by cows grazing on the water meadows of Mansbridge. The riverbank and the meadows were more overgrown than I’ve ever seen them, much like the Itchen Navigation had been on our last walk together. The rosebay willowherb were almost as tall as me, hiding any fishermen who may have been sitting on the bank beyond.
When we reached the little bridge at Mansbridge we did at least have the river to cool us a little. The cut tree with the identity crisis seems to have finally decided it’s a willow after all an not an oak. At least it is still growing which is more than we hoped for when we first saw it had been cut.
We paused for a moment to admire the explosion of ragwort, burdock and bindweed growing at the foot of the bridge. Then it was on along the river. A short way along the bank the willow that was savagely chopped earlier in the year seems to be doing a far better job of regrowing than the one by the bridge. This is one of the wettest spots on the path so it’s good to see the tree hasn’t been lost. The more roots sucking up water here the better.
Our next stop was for swans, near the spot where the orphan cygnets used to live. Whether these were the same swans or not I couldn’t tell but I’d like to think so. While I knelt to take a photo of them through a tangle of pink clover and grasses, CJ reached out his hand attempting to touch them. He didn’t succeed but he did get into the picture, at least his hand did. Nearby the great willowherb added another patch of pink to the green of the riverbank.
We followed the lazy Itchen along all the twists and turns of it’s bank towards Woodmill. There was barely a whisper of breeze to stir the waters or cool us and every tree had a mirror image in the river. Even the dead tree the gulls are so fond of perching on had a covering of green, thanks to the ivy that has now reached the very top branches.
On the final stretch before the mill we met up with the greylags. They all seemed to be swimming up river for some reason, despite a family throwing them bread further down the path. The noise of their quacking was almost deafening.
The bank by the sluices was filled with a profusion of ragwort and buddliea. Quite why everything is so overgrown this year is a mystery but it seems there isn’t an inch of riverbank without something sprouting from it at the moment.
Across the road by Woodmill something more sinister has appeared. The pink flowers of the Himalayan balsam are deceptively pretty but they are invasive interlopers that will crowd out the natural wildflowers and colonise the whole bank. They shoot out seeds far and wide and speedily take over rivers and streams. These are the first I’ve seen on this part of the river. Part of me wanted to pull them up but I knew it would be futile.
Swans were gathered at the reedbeds as we passed and my favourite oak tree was looking resplendent in the corner. I stopped for a photograph of its beautifully contorted branches clothed in green. I won’t lie, it was also a spot of shade on an otherwise overheated path.
We were now approaching the final bend of the river before home and, on the path ahead, was a swan. It is unusual to see a swan completely put of the water here, although they do occasionally fly up onto the road and cause havoc with the traffic. This one was a little way up from the jetty, bang smack in the centre of the path. As we pushed on people were passing it, leaving a wide berth. Not that I blamed them. I wouldn’t want to argue with a swan.
The path was so hot from the beating sun I felt sure the swan wouldn’t linger and would be long gone before we reached him. He didn’t move though, despite the fact his poor webbed feet must have been blistering. CJ, far braver than I, slowly walked towards him and got a severe hissing for his trouble and backed off quick smart.
What had driven this swan to climb the steep bank and stand on the path is a mystery. I’m sure he can’t have been comfortable there. The other swans, sensibly still in the cool water, all seemed to be looking at him as if he’d lost his mind. Perhaps he had?
Whatever it was that lured him to the bank he seemed determined to stay there no matter what. As we walked the last stretch of riverbank we stopped often to look back at him but he resolutely stayed put. I couldn’t help thinking about his poor hot feet and wishing he’d get back into the river. When we finally climbed the slope, past the snowgeese in the tree, he was still there in the same spot.
It may not have been the longest walk in the history of walks and it had been far hotter than either of us would have liked, but at least we got out today. As ever, there was certainly plenty to see along the riverbank, not all of it quite what we expected.
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