18 March 2018
Of course we couldn’t stay in the warm pub forever. We lingered as long as we could, sipping our coffee slowly and letting the warmth seep back into our cold bones. When we could put it off no longer we bundled ourselves up in our warm coats and hats and stepped back into the frozen world outside. After the warmth of the fire it seemed colder than ever.
While we’d been drinking our coffee we’d talked about the walk home. Gaters Hill was dismissed for much the same reason Woodmill Lane had been earlier. It may be far shorter but it is extremely steep and, unlike Woodmill Lane, the path was unlikely to have been cleared. When we left the pub we turned our backs on it and headed back towards the old stone Mansbridge bridge.
There has been a bridge here since at least the tenth century, possibly longer. It was mentioned in King Athelstan’s charter of 932 to the prior of St Swithuns Priory in Winchester and in the Doomsday book of 1086. Originally it seems to have been called Mannysbridge but, over the years, the name has evolved and it is now called Mansbridge, as is the area surrounding it. The original bridge was probably made of wood and was the southernmost crossing of the River Itchen.
The bridge that spans the Itchen here today was built in 1816 by the county council. It was designed to carry carts drawn by horses. For this purpose it was perfectly adequate but, as motorised traffic got more popular, it became less and less practical. Like the bridge at Woodmill, it was not really wide enough for two cars to pass at the same time and, by the early 1970’s, it was obvious something needed to be done. There were regular crashes and the bridge was often damaged by speeding cars. The answer was the new road bridge, built in 1975, along with a new road layout. Thankfully the old bridge was allowed to remain and is now used by pedestrians and cyclists.
Like me, CJ prefers a circular route rather than covering the same ground twice so, rather than heading back along the river, we crossed the little stone bridge. It was a slippery crossing, especially for CJ who didn’t have any yak trax but it was far better than another tussle with the flooded path. Of course we didn’t know what lay ahead and we could well have been swapping one lot of icy water for another.
The path beyond the bridge was wet and snow covered but nothing we couldn’t jump over. Whether it would continue that way was anyone’s guess but we kept going forward anyway, around the edges of the suburb of Mansbridge towards Monks Brook. Under their blanket of snow the modern houses of Mansbridge took on a quaint beauty they don’t normally possess. We passed the empty fields and playground, surprised the residents were not out making use of them.
The trail leading to the brook was part ice part mud. Negotiating the worst parts was time consuming and slippery. The gloopy mud and the crackling ice were not a good combination for walkers. Finally we reached more solid ground and could look around at the crystallised world of frozen trees and plants. Everything glittered and sparkled.
Once we’d made it to the green bridge we knew the worst was behind us. To our right the path towards the blue bridge looked clear but we both knew it would be impassable further along. The sedges and brambles dipped icy fingers into the trickling water of the brook making it seem far narrower than it is.
We crossed the frozen bridge and started out along the narrow lane towards the church. The iron railings, painted green like the bridge, and the overhanging laurels made the path seem dark and slightly forbidding. Miniature snowdrifts collected in clumps on the large, flat laurel leaves, dropped snow on us as we passed through the tunnel of green.
When we reached the church the sky seemed dark and heavy with more snow. It was just past midday but it felt like twighlight, even with all the whiteness around us. We strolled slowly around the churchyard. It was breathtakingly beautiful with the old, lichen and moss covered grave stones topped by snowy hats and the old church standing stark against the grey sky.
The church is one of the oldest in the city, built, it’s said, on the site of a Saxon church. There was a sign on the door telling us to go inside but we passed it by. We have both been in this church before and, lovely as it is, the snow laden sky told us to head for home sooner rather than later.
Even so, it was hard to tear ourselves away from the place. On any other day we’d probably have wandered around the graves looking for interesting stories. Today we stuck to those we could see from the path. Most were either too old or too snow covered to yield any secrets. We did stumble upon the grave of Colonel A G Webster, who once lived in The Grange, the big mansion that used to stand beyond the blue bridge. We also found some poor, half frozen daffodils
It really was time to turn for home. We’d been out far longer than we’d planned, we were cold and the weather looked to be closing in. We left the church and made our way along Wessex Lane towards the back of Woodmill. This took us past the gates of South Stoneham House, a place that has always piqued my curiosity.
The house was once a Manor House, seat of the Barons of Swaythling. Originally known as Bishop’s Stoneham, the manor dates from the eleventh century but the current incarnation of the Manor House is far more modern. It was built by architect Nicholas Hawksmoor as a family home for Edmund Dummer, a former Surveyor of the Navy in around 1708. Just three years later Dummer was declared bankrupt and the house went through many hands. It was once owned by the Willis Fleming family of north Stoneham and was also the home of Samuel Montagu, the first Barron Swaythling. The second Barron preferred to live in Townhill Park House and, in 1920, South Stoneham House was sold to Southampton University as student accommodation. At the moment it is empty and for sale. It would be a terrible shame if it was demolished.
More interesting than the house, at least to me, are the gardens. These were landscaped by Capability Brown and run behind the church to the brook. I’ve often been tempted to go inside and take a peek. If I thought I could get away with it without being arrested for trespassing, I would.
A beautiful red brick wall runs all around the perimeter of the property. Today it was topped by a deep covering of snow. Overhanging the wall, the pink cherry blossom made a welcome splash of colour in what felt like a monochrome world. When I stopped to admire it and take a photograph or two, I got quite a surprise. Not all the colour was cherry blossom. A tiny snowman made of red and white wool was hanging from the branches by a red and white striped cord. What it meant and how it got there is a mystery but it made me smile.
Soon we were passing over the Woodmill bridge. The swan we’d seen earlier was still on the water there. It hardly seemed to have moved but it now had some gull companions. The sky looked so threatening we didn’t stay around for long, just marched back through the park as quickly as we could.
Back by the Triangle, where the snow covered grass had been teeming with people earlier, all that remained were the snowmen they’d built.
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