10 January 2018
After a string of dull grey days when all my walks were about getting somewhere as quickly as possible before it rained, the sun came out to play. This obviously called for a proper walk and I knew just the place for bright blue skies. The Bursledon Windmill was calling and, for the first time this year, CJ was joining me. Usually I’d head along Shoreburs Greenway to get to the windmill but, with all the recent rain, this didn’t seem like a good idea. The trail is muddy at the best of times and I didn’t fancy getting half way and finding it flooded, or losing a boot somewhere along the way. The alternative was a long, boring walk along the main road but this didn’t appeal much either so I plotted a more scenic but much longer route meandering through Sholing.
Hills and windmills go hand in hand and there really was no getting away from them on this walk. We started with the down and up again of Spring Road, half blinded by sun shining on wet pavements, then turned off to pick up the cutway we discovered the summer before last when we were exploring Botany Bay. This runs behind the Muddy Bottom allotments and involves another steep up and down but at least there are steps to help with the climb.
Morning mist was still clinging to the grass at the bottom of the dip but the ring of totems seemed to be in a spotlight of bright sun. The horse CJ stopped to talk to last time was nowhere in sight and his field was more like a muddy pond. Anticipating the climb, we stopped for a moment to admire the totems and look at the unnamed stream trickling through the gully. Then it was onwards and definitely upwards, with a quick stop to catch our breath and look back at the steps we’d just conquered.
Our next stop was Sholing Doorstep Green. The winding path of bricks with names etched into them looked like a golden ribbon and made me think of the yellow brick road. This road didn’t lead to Oz though, just to the Sholing sign with its horse and cart filled with flowers. Back in the 1970’s, when I used to pass this way regularly on the way to visit Alex, there was always a horse or two tethered here. No doubt they belonged to the gypsies of Botany Bay.
Now we were at the top of Bunny Hill and the flaw in the route I’d planned was glaringly obvious. Of all the hills in the city, this is the one I have nightmares about. On childhood bus journeys to Sholing and Weston the sight of the horses on the Common would have me gripping my seat in readiness for the stomach churning roller coaster ride down and up, and just the thought of Bunny Hill would bring me out in a cold sweat. Those who like fairground rides probably thought it was fun to leave your stomach behind at the top of one hill and wait for it to catch you up at the top of the second. It just made me feel sick and I’d always shut my eyes, clench everything and wait for it to be over. Even now I’ll drive miles out of my way to avoid it. To be honest, walking it was easier than driving. The climb up to Butts Road was tough on my calves and left me a little out of breath but at least my insides stayed put.
Once upon a time this was a rural area, a small hamlet with a few brick cottages built in the late 1700’s around Botany Bay, Romanies with painted caravans in their gardens, gravel pits, brickyards and market gardens. Sholing escaped the worst of the Southampton Blitz, although the first flying bomb fell on North East Road in July 1944. After the war though the need for new housing changed the area beyond recognition. Two new council estates were built, one between North East Road and Kathleen Road and another between Butts Road and Botley Road. With Bunny Hill behind us we strolled through the latter, past rows of terraced houses like the little boxes made of tricky tacky in the song.
When we emerged on Botley Road it seemed like a different world. Now we were on the edge of the city with large houses on one side of the road and green fields and horses on the other. The little boxes and cramped streets filled with parked cars seemed a million miles away although we were barely more than three miles from home and yards from the council estate. A foothpath sign was sorely tempting but I didn’t know where it led and, as it ran along the edge of a field, it was sure to be muddy. Perhaps another day?
With so many horses galloping about in the fields it was hard to keep CJ moving forward. Left to his own devices I’m sure he’d have crossed the road and would still be there now. Without the green fields to look at this might have felt like a slog, Botley Road is long, straight and gently sloping. Finally we reached the end and emerged on Bursledon Road, about half a mile closer to the windmill than we’d have been if we’d taken Shoreburs Greenway.
The final part of our walk took us past the empty field that used to house one of the UK’s largest car boot sales every Sunday. It’s been many years since I visited the boot sale but I remember it being a busy place packed with cars and tables laid out with goods of every kind. Last spring, after thirty two years of trading, the boot sale closed for good. Now the land is earmarked for housing although the old sign is still there leaning up against the fence. There is another mystery footpath here I’ve been meaning to check out. With no idea where it leads or how dry it would be we passed it by today. Hopefully it will still be there once the houses have been built.
Pretty soon we were rounding the corner into Hamble Lane. The road here is busy as it approaches the Windhover Roundabout so we had quite a wait before we could cross. While we waited I asked CJ if he noticed anything different about the grassy island we were heading for. For a while he looked around with a puzzled look on his face.
”The totem pole is gone,” he said finally.
The pole, carved from a pine tree that was struck by lightning, had a kestrel, known locally as a wind hover, at the top. It always made me smile when I passed. Sadly the wood at the base had rotted and it had become a danger so it was cut down in September. This is the first time I’ve come this way since I read about its demise so, when we finally got to the island, we spent some time looking at the large stump that was left.
We carried on across the second part of the road and through the giant Tesco car park wondering if anyone had had the foresight to save the kestrel carving from the top of the pole and, if so, what they’d done with it? Before we knew it we were on Windmill Lane.
As we passed I noticed the big wooden gates of the mill house were open, which is fairly unusual. Of course, I took the opportunity to take a photo of the house. Dating from the 1780’s this would be the same house mill owners William and Phoebe Langtry lived in. It was Phoebe who rebuilt the crumbling wooden mill in brick, despite her husband’s protests. He actually had legal papers drawn up to say the project was “independent of any husband.” As this was 1813, when women didn’t even have the right to vote, Phoebe must have been an unusually strong willed woman. Without her the windmill would probably have been lost forever.
From the outset I’d known the windmill wouldn’t be open today, our walk was all about seeing it from the outside. Back in 2013 I did get to go inside though, and even climbed right to the very top. These days there’s a narrow staircase but, back in William Langtry’s day there was only a ladder. Poor William fell off it and was badly injured. He lived the rest of his life in pain and, it’s said, his ghost still haunts the mill. Maybe his reluctance to rebuild the mill came from some kind of premonition?
It was the perfect day for windmill photos, brilliant blue sky and sunshine to set off the white sails. CJ and I walked slowly around trying to find the best angle. We didn’t forget the outbuildings, the Chineham Barn and the Hiltingbury Granay either. Although neither building originated here I love the way they combine with the windmill to create an impression of a gentler time when wind turned the sails every day and ground grain into flour for the local people.
Now we’d seen the mill and taken our photos, all there was left to do was turn and walk up and down all the hills towards home. Maybe we’d stop off on the way for a well earned coffee.
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