3 September 2017
The Winchester Half Marathon route is particularly hilly. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem for Commando but these are not normal times by any stretch of the imagination. He wasn’t satisfied with his performance at the last pacer’s training run. Worried he was going to let down the people who’d be running with him hoping for a PB he decided to give it one more try on his own. This meant another chance for me to wander around Winchester on a Sunday morning.
Unfortunately we weren’t blessed with blue skies and warmth this week. In fact the forecast was for rain and the grey clouds overhead seemed to agree. Before we left home I’d had a quick look at the map searching for inspiration but I was still largely planless when Commando sped off from the car park in Colebrook Street. There is so much to do and see in Winchester I was spoilt for choice.
In the end I began to walk, in a fairly aimless fashion, along The Broadway towards King Alfred’s Statue. This road, cutting through the centre of the city, is thought to follow the line of an Iron Age track across the River Itchen, although it’s hard to imagine it now. Fairly soon I’d reached City Mill, standing at the head of The Weirs on City Bridge. This mill has been grinding corn since Saxon times and is probably the oldest working watermill in the UK. Briefly, I thought about going inside to avoid getting wet but it didn’t look as if it was open yet. Besides, I didn’t have much in the way of money on me.
There were spots of rain in the air so I pulled my hood up and stood on the bridge looking down into the dark swirling river trying to come up with a plan. This was when a vague memory of a sign seen on a walk some years ago popped into my head. Back then I’d been heading from the train station along North Walls towards the Navigation. Although I knew I was going in the right direction the walk seemed to be taking longer than expected and I was beginning to think I might be lost when I came to a bridge. It wasn’t the bridge I’d expected but I was sure the river flowing under it was the Itchen. Looking around, trying to work out which way to go, I spotted a sign for Winnall Moors. It looked interesting and I made a mental note to explore it properly another day. Maybe today would be the day?
A quick look at Google Maps on my phone sent me along Water Lane following the river on the other side of City Mill. It’s a pleasant walk, not quite as picturesque as The Weirs but the chance to look at the water running towards the back of the mill and the willows overhanging the path made me smile all the same.
Despite the drizzle I dawdled along, stopping to take photos of the ranks of flowers on the riverbank. It was a veritable wildflower garden although I had the feeling these flowers were less wild than they seemed. In fact I was fairly sure someone from Winchester Council, or maybe one of the Water Lane residents, had been sprinkling wildflower seeds back in the spring. Not that I was complaining. Every little bit of wasteland could be vastly improved by the judicious sprinkling of wildflower seeds in my opinion.
On I went, past the first of two decorative wooden bridges leading to Eastgate street. At this point I was walking half by memory and half by Google Maps and, when I came to the second Bridge, Google Maps told me I should cross even though memory said keep going forwards. Sensibly, I told memory to shut up and crossed the bridge. To be honest, both ways would have got me to the same place but I do find it hard to resist a wooden bridge, especially such a pretty one.
The bridge took me to the junction of Eastgate and Union Street and a row of prettily painted bollards, beyond which was Durngate Terrace. Winchester is fond of painting bollards, there are similar ones near the cathedral. This seems a wonderful use of paint to my mind and I wish Southampton Council would take a leaf out of their book and splash the colour around a bit more.
At the far end of Durngate Terrace I came to the Willow Tree Pub, a building with two mismatched faces. From the side and the back it’s cream painted brick dotted with overflowing hanging baskets and looks fairly modern, at least by Winchester standards. From the front, on North Walls, it seems far older and more interesting, red brick clad with flint, like the walls that give the street it’s name. It was too early for it to be open or I might have peeked inside.
Across the road on Durngate place was the remembered sign that had led me this way. It’s rather a lovely sign, a timber frame made of rustic beams, the supports carved with flowers and creatures and the cross beam bearing the name that had first captured my attention. A gravel path led under it, passed a rustic bench and another sign, then disappeared into the greenery. The rain may have been falling but I felt a little thrill of excitement for a new place to explore.
Around the bend in the path I came to a wooden gate. On the other side a strip of roughly mown grass almost tempted me off the path. It wound through tall wildflowers and trees and had an interesting ring of sawn stumps that piqued my curiosity. The rain was increasing though and the wet grass and openness of the area persuaded me to stay on the path. Perhaps I’d explore it on the way back if the rain stopped?
So I carried on under the shelter of the trees, stopping now and then to snap Michaelmas daisies and red haws massed on lichen clad branches. The river ran beside the path to my left, glimpsed now and then between the trees. Another rustic bench with a riverside view persuaded me to stop for a moment or two and look at Google to see if I could find a map of the trails. As it happened I did and cleverly took a screenshot for future reference. It was one of those pretty maps you get on leaflets, hand drawn with no real idea of scale but it was better than nothing. From it I learned there was a pond off to my right somewhere, at least as far as I could tell.
As I quite like a nice pond I carried on along the trail keeping one eye open for a trail to my right. A short while later I came upon a large area of scummy brown, stagnant water to the right of the trail. There were trees growing in it along with a few grassy reeds. If this was the pond it had been seriously oversold.
A little further on I found some short, carved wooden poles. Nice as they were they didn’t give me much information but the signpost I came to a few minutes later was for more helpful. It told me where I’d been, Durngate, what was ahead, North Walls Rec, and, most importantly, that the pond was along the trail to my right. It even had little pictures, a kingfisher, an otter and, on the arm pointing towards the pond, a dragonfly. I set off full of hope.
This trail was narrower than the one I’d been walking so far and quite a bit muddier. There was less time for looking around because I had to watch my footing but I’d did stop to admire an arched tree so covered with ivy I couldn’t tell if it was alive or dead. Below it were logs, like little seats. It looked like a good place to shelter if the rain got harder.
A tangle of rose stems beside the trail were smothered in beautiful red orange hips, bursting with sweetness they’d be a delight for foragers wanting to make syrup or tea. Strewn amongst them was a huge spider web shimmering with raindrops. The spider was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he was hiding from the rain amongst the rose hips?
Before too long I was pleased to see a boardwalk ahead, along with a mass of tall reeds. The boards had frogs and tadpoles etched into them and I walked forward eagerly, anticipating a nice walk around the perimeter of the pond. The boardwalk turned out to be nothing but a viewing platform though and all there seemed to be to view were acres of reeds and a tiny bit of water at their feet.
It was a great disappointment. The map, the sign and the information sheet I’d found all said there was a pond, yet the trail ended at this tiny piece of boardwalk with nothing but reeds to see. Maybe at another time of year there would be dragonflies but I doubted very much there would ever be visible water from this spot. It seemed to me pond wasn’t quite the right description and the map, with its circle of clear blue water was a touch misleading.
Feeling slightly cheated, I turned and began to head back towards the sign. As I walked I wondered if I might have missed something along the way? Maybe there was a side trial I’d passed without noticing? The thought had barely popped into my head when I saw something that looked like a trail running off to my left. It was very overgrown and half hidden by the overhanging hawthorn branches but it was definitely a trail of some kind. Maybe it would lead me to a proper pond like the circle of blue water on the map?
Expectantly I stepped over the tangle of brambles and bent under the haw laden branches, so intent on looking ahead for signs of water I didn’t notice the stinging nettles. The first I knew of them was a prickling sensation around my ankles. Despite wearing leggings the blighters had got me. To add insult to injury, the trail, if it was a trail at all, ended abruptly after a half dozen nettle filled steps with nothing but more reeds and some boggy ground. There may be a lesson here somewhere, something about curiosity and cats if I’m not mistaken.
So, with itching ankles and a grumpy face, I plodded back the way I’d come. There may have been some muttering about ponds having to have water you could actually see to be called ponds. There may also have been some cursing of stinging nettles. There was certainly some searching in my bag for the little bottle of tea tree oil I usually keep there to treat stings and things. What there wasn’t was any actual tea tree oil. So far my Winnal Moors adventure wasn’t going quite to plan.
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