16 November 2017
This year, with little in the way of wind to ruffle them, the trees seem to be holding onto their autum leaves. Today, as the weather was bright, if cold, I thought a nice long walk was in order to enjoy them while they were still there. CJ and I set off fairly early for the river. We had a plan to walk to Eastleigh and back with a quick stop off for coffee in the Swan Centre.
The tide was high when we reached Cobden Bridge. A couple of canoeists were rowing under the arch as we walked down the slope and a quartet of cygnets came swimming towards us. Near the far bank two ladies were slowly rowing upstream in a small blue boat. It looked like hard work and I was glad to be walking rather than rowing.
There were more cygnets by the jetty, five in all, more or less fully grown. They eyed us when we stopped to take photographs, probably expecting to be fed. We’d left the duck and swan food at home though so they were out of luck. There was no sign of the black swans but a line of gulls sat on the jetty rail and several pigeons were wandering about.
It was too cold to stand for long so we were soon moving again, heading towards the reedbeds and the river bend. We’d set out looking for autumn colour but so far had found nothing but bare trees on this stretch of the river. The rowing ladies had beat us to the bend and were now heading around the reedbeds. Their journey would be over when they reached the mill and it’s sluice gates.
“I wonder if they’ll just turn around and row back?” CJ said as we rounded the bend and lost sight of them.
“If they do it’ll certainly be easier rowing downstream,” I said.
Behind the reedbeds we found the seasonal colour we’d been looking for. Perhaps because it’s more sheltered, the trees here still had most of their leaves. The sunlight made them look as if they’d been dipped in molten copper and gold and the fallen leaves made golden puddles at their feet.
There was no sign of the rowing ladies when we reached Woodmill. Maybe they’d already turned around to row back or perhaps they’d come from one of the little houses on the far bank? A new gate has appeared on the path here since I last came this way. For some reason it’s been painted bright red, adding a pleasant pop of colour. We paused for a moment to look at the line of gulls, like ornaments on the mill roof, and wonder about the choice of colour for the gate.
On the other side of the mill swans were swimming and the wonderful autumn colours painted the water in rippled rainbow colours. As we turned the final bend before Mansbridge I expected to see a riot of red and purple but was disappointed to see the liquidamber leaves had almost all fallen.
We crossed the bridge and continued through Monks Brook. At the beginning of the trail we found a burnt out motorbike dumped amongst the fallen leaves, stolen no doubt. It seemed such a shame that people choose to dump their rubbish in such lovely places but it’s all too common these days.
The first part of the trail here has recently been paved and is easy walking but, for some strange reason, whoever did it stopped short of paving the whole length. When we got past the mushroom sculpture we found so much mud I thought for a moment we might have to turn back. While I was dithering though, CJ picked his way across so with a great deal of slipping and sliding, I followed.
Originally I’d planned to carry on through Monks Brook Meadows but the volume of mud so far made me think this might not be a good plan. In the end we took the easy, if boring, route along Wide Lane. This did at least let us see the controversial new traffic lights near the old Ford Factory. Locals weren’t happy to see the lights go up. They thought they’d cause long tailbacks. So far this doesn’t seem to be the case though and, with the new industrial park being built, I think they’re probably a necessary evil.
Although Wide Lane was almost empty of traffic, things got a lot busier as we passed the airport and headed for the centre of Eastleigh. In fact things got so noisy we decided to veer off into the back streets as soon as we could to get a little peace. Eastleigh’s streets are laid out in a grid so, for once, I was fairly confident we wouldn’t get lost.
This turned out to be a good plan. As we walked along the quiet High Street I spotted a green plaque on the front of one of the humble terraced houses. Obviously this meant someone famous was born in the house in question but, even when I’d had a closer look I was really none the wiser. The plaque told us the house was the birthplace of Noel Croucher, Founding Chairman of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Neither of us had heard of him but I knew there must be an interesting story behind it.
Over coffee in the Swan Centre I got busy on my phone, Googling to find out more about Noel. It turns out he was born on Christmas Eve 1891, the son of railway man Rowland Croucher and his wife Flossie. Rowland died young, when Noel was just a baby, and Flossie married an army captain then moved to Hong Kong. Poor Flossie didn’t have much luck. Her second husband disappeared during a pig hunting expedition when Noel was just sixteen. Noel became head of the household and got a job as a croupier in a casino in Macau.
Despite his lack of education he later got a lowly job in a firm of stockbrokers and was soon working his way to the top. Perhaps because of his humble beginnings, Noel became a philanthropist and used the fortune he made to found the Croucher Foundation, to help talented students of modest means to gain a university education. His son, Richard, continued the tradition, setting up a scholarship fund to help students of Eastleigh’s Barton Peveril College attend Southampton University.
With my curiosity satisfied and our coffee finished, CJ and I set off on another wander through the streets of Eastleigh. This time we were heading for the entrance to Lakeside Country Park, just off Passfield Avenue. Perhaps we should spend more time roaming the back streets because we found two more interesting things on our way.
The first was a ghost sign in Grantham Road. Once upon a time advertising was painted on the walls of buildings and some of these old signs remain to this day, although the businesses have long gone. This one looked as if it had been painted over several times and little was indistinguishable although it looked as if this might once have been a baker’s shop.
A little later we found a wonderful old caravan outside a house. I loved the shape of it and the shining silver so much I had to stop and take a photo.
It didn’t take us long to get to the back entrance to Lakeside, just off Passfield Avenue. Looking down the shallow steps at the beautiful lakes it’s hard to believe this was once a gravel works. Rumour has it the gravel used to build the M27 was extracted here. Now the old gravel pits have been transformed into three beautiful lakes and the place is a haven for wildlife.
As we walked along the trail towards the boating lake I was shocked to see the bank beside the miniature steam railway track had been stripped of trees. The land looked raw and bare and the railway tunnel, usually hidden by the trees stood out.
“Maybe they were diseased?” CJ suggested, “or they could be building something.”
”Hmm, maybe they are but I think I preferred the trees,” I said.
Whatever the reason for the decimation of the trees there wasn’t much I could do about it.
Turning away from the ugly scar on the land I looked at the tranquil beauty of the lakes. Often there are swans and geese here but today the water was empty. Perhaps the waterbirds disapproved of the tree felling as much as I did?
We didn’t have far to go to find out where at least some of the birds were. Two mute swans were gliding gracefully up and down the puddle sized pond by the marshy reeds near the junction of the two largest lakes. They looked happy enough there but I couldn’t help wondering why they’d chosen this spot rather than the open water of the lakes?
“Maybe they’re staking a claim,” CJ said, “in case the humans decide to cut down more trees.”
Rather than walk around the outside of the lakes, we decided to take the grassy trail between them. Usually there are fishermen here but, today, it was empty. We soon discovered why. The deceptively solid grass was waterlogged and muddy. We slipped and slid our way through. Along the way I pointed out the small bank of reeds where the swans nested last year. A few white feathers floating across the grass made me wonder if this was a regular nesting site?
Some canoesists were having a lesson on the lake to our left. We watched them through the trees as we passed by. This lake is often used for canoeing or sailing model boats. Sometimes triathletes use it to practice open water swimming too. Today the water looked cold and uninviting, at least for swimming. Hopefully all the canoesists stayed afloat.
At the end of the trail it was time to say goodbye to the lakes and head towards Doncaster Drove. We passed the Lakeside Steam Railway Station. A train was sitting in the sidings but the place was deserted. It seemed the trains weren’t running today.
There was autumn colour as we headed back towards Wide Lane and a hint of frost still clinging to the shady areas. Walking back towards the airport we stopped to peek through the foliage at the University Sports Ground playing fields and the flaming trees we’d just walked past. From a distance they looked even brighter.
Then it was back to the river at Mansbridge. Clouds had begun to gather and the low winter sun gave the impression of sunset, although it was only quarter to three. We retraced our morning steps, past the liquidamber trees where a few red leaves still clung.
Near the mill CJ stopped to take photos of a swan family and the one white duck that is often found here. With the sun going down it was beginning to feel chilly though, so we didn’t stop for long.
By the time we reached the Cobden Bridge end of the park it was quarter past three and the sun was beginning to set for real. The tide, that had been so high when we set out, was now out and the river was a narrow band of silver between two strips of mud. The water birds were huddled in the middle, including the group of black swans who’d been missing this morning.
A walk that had begun with a search for colour on the trees ended with colour in the sky. Short winter days mean sunlight is at a premium but we made the most of what there was today and even found some new stories about familiar places. The walk along the river never disappoints.
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