13 June 2018
A while ago John asked me if I’d lead a walking group, during the summer run along the Itchen Navigation. Last year we all had a tough, but amazing day. On Sunday, Commando and the fast boys went on a reconnaissance mission. Today, CJ and I did the same.
We took a train to Winchester armed with a backpack filled with food, drinks and a small first aid kit. The latter was mostly about nettle stings. Commando said the whole route was more overgrown than he’d ever seen and his arms and legs were burning with stings when he got home. Sensibly, CJ and I wore long trousers and long sleeves. Of course this doesn’t always stop the nettles but it does help.
We followed the North Walls to Durngate street and then onto Water Lane rather than heading into the centre of the city. Here we got our first sight of the Itchen. It’s banks were a mass of wildflowers, pretty as a picture. Soon enough we were on City Bridge passing City Mill. The river bubbling through the sluice seemed higher than usual. We both hoped this wouldn’t mean bank breaches and floods ahead.
The water on The Weirs was high too but I was more interested in the scaffolding and screens around the building with the strange doors opening onto the river. Until now the building has always looked a touch on the dilapidated side and the odd doors have always intrigued me. Now it looks as if someone is giving it some well needed tender loving care.
We walked on to Wharf Mill, which was once Winchester’s principal grain mill but has now been converted into luxury apartments. The mill and Blackbridge Wharf on the other side of College Walk is where the Navigation begins. Soon we were passing the first official signpost and heading along Domum Road.
As we carried on along Domum Road, past the grounds of Winchester College towards St Catherine’s Hill we talked about the signpost and the miles ahead.
“I’m pretty sure the people that made that sign never walked the trail,” CJ said, “and, if they did, they never measured it.”
To be fair, on this trail, the tough terrain often makes every mile feel like two, but I had to agree with him. The distances on the signs along the route seem wildly inaccurate. At Mansbridge there are two signs side by side, pointing in the same direction, one says ten miles the other says twelve. By my reckoning neither is correct. The trail from Wharf Mill to Mansbridge bridge is around ten and a half miles and, at that point, you are still technically in Eastleigh. When you factor in the walk from the train station to Wharf Bridge and then add on the distance to Northam where the Navigation begins, it’s closer to fifteen. Whatever the mileage we were now committed to walking it so there was no use quibbling.
Commando and the fast boys had added on some miles and some difficulty when they reached Garner Road and Tun Bridge. Rather than taking the nice flat path along the Navigation to St Catherine’s Mill, they’d gone through the gate and climbed St Catherine’s Hill. CJ and I decided this would be nothing short of foolhardy, especially as the day was already muggy and hot.
The summit of the hill is three hundred and eighteen feet above the watermeadows, and, while the views are breathtaking, it’s a challenge all on its own. The ramparts of an Iron Age Hill fort ring the hill and the paths follow them to some extent, making the route steep and circuitous, with a zig zag of log steps on the far side leading down to Plague Pits Valley. Sensibly, we followed the old A33 Winchester Bypass road, now a footpath that also echoes the line of the disused Didcot, Newbury and Southampton railway.
It’s hard to believe this was once the main road from Southampton to Winchester but it was until the 1990’s when the M3 Motorway was cut through Twyford Down. At the time there was a protracted protest with people, both local and otherwise, camping on the land, climbing onto diggers and generally trying to disrupt things. Good or bad, the motorway has made the village of Twyford a far quieter place and walking the Itchen Navigation a far easier and somewhat drier affair, at least on this stretch.
Sticking to the main trail also had the advantage of taking us past the barge bench, which commemorates all the bargemen who travelled up and down the canal while it was open. We sat for a brief moment while I fished our water bottles out of my rucksack. We were certainly going to need them. The temperature was rising.
When we reached St Catherine’s lock, the summit lock of the Itchen Navigation, we got our first proper view of the hill in all its glory. A runner had gone through the gate as we approached and was just about to tackle to meandering steps to the top.
“Rather him than me,” I said, imagining burning quads and screaming calves.
The smell of roses drifted across the old road towards us. The canal bank beside the lock was bursting with them. Behind, the still water above the lock looked more field than river or canal. Above the sluice over the old lock head, all the flotsam from upstream collects. Below, the water gushes and tumbles onwards towards Hockley. Today, there was more flotsam above the sluice than I’ve ever seen and I swear some of it was growing.
In the nineteenth century, when the Navigation was in use, there was a sawmill on the far bank of the lock here. A waterwheel drew water from above the lock gates to power the mill and it flowed out again into the lock chamber. If it wasn’t for the abundant growth around the lock chamber, we might have seem some of the brickwork of the wheelpit. As it was we could barely see the river for all the greenery.
A short while later we came to the old railway bridge that once carried the Didcot, Newbury and Southampton railway across the A33. When both road and railway were in use, this would have been a noisy and unpleasant place to stand. Today, the bridge is joined to nothing and spans an empty road, surrounded by peaceful greenery. A semi circular bench, etched with a picture of a train crossing the Hockley Viaduct is the the only reminder that there was once a railway here.
Just before we reached the Hockley traffic lights, we passed Five Bridges Road and the path to the Viaduct Walk. Both are worth exploring, we have walked them before, but not today when we had so many miles still in front of us.
Before the M3 was built, the Navigation ran diagonally under the Hockley Crossroads. Now it has been diverted and rejoins the river near the railway viaduct. This means it’s no longer possible to avoid the road. After all the green serenity, the Hockley Link Road and the roar of the M3 above it were a rude awakening to the modern world. We crossed as quickly as we could and scuttled down the road to the modern footpath where we gratefully plunged back into the world of greenery again.
So far, although nature seemed to be bursting out everywhere, we hadn’t encountered any of the wildly overgrown paths overhung with nettles Commando had told me about. Now we were leaving the paved paths and old roads behind things were going to get a lot wilder.
We crossed the modern wooden footbridge, marking the point where the old towpath veers off towards Twyford. One day I will get round to exploring the original path. It can be followed up to Twyford Road close to the Hockley Golf Club and the remains of Twyford Lane End Lock, the second lock on the Navigation, can just about be seen. Today was not that day.
Once the bridge was behind us it was clear Commando hadn’t been exaggerating. The Winchester end of the Navigation is usually the most well kept and, therefore, the easiest walking but, according to Commando, it was where all his nettle stings came from. Despite our protective clothing, we we’re soon dodging nettles ourselves. The trail, usually easy walking here, was bordered on both sides by such an abundance of grasses, wildflowers and nettles, we had to more or less push our way through.
This unprecedented growth was tall enough to hide the watermeadows and river from view. We might not have been able to see the river but we knew it was there by the burbling of the water and a steady stream of blue dragonflies fluttering across our path. Very occasionally, we got a brief glimpse of the water and this was where we saw our first swan of the day, but only just.
We only knew we had crossed the hatches at Tumbling Bay because we could see the water bursting through where the section of river called Twyford Drain, branches off from the main river. The hatches themselves were hidden behind a screen of greenery.
The further we went the more overgrown things seemed to get. Now our footsteps were punctuated by regular calls of ‘nettles,’ and we spent a great deal of time walking with our arms raised above our heads to avoid being stung. The tall grasses were now at head height, at least for me, and wildflowers crowded in on us from either side. On past walks I’ve often been grateful for the shade of the odd clump of trees that has sprung up here and there on the trail. Today I was doubly so. Each shady patch brought a respite from the unrelenting vegetation. With less sun, there was less growth.
Usually, capturing a dragonfly in a photograph is a cause for celebration. Today, several of my photographs seemed to have them in completely by accident. The closer I looked the more of them I saw. More dragonflies than I’ve ever seen in one place darted in front of and around us dancing amongst the wildflowers on both sides of the path.
When we came to a section filled with huge, round butterbur leaves the path below them almost disappeared completely. If there were also nettles we couldn’t see or avoid them and had to trust that our trousers would keep them at bay. Amongst all the green I spotted the occasional splash of yellow irises.
Thankfully, once we’d passed the next clump of trees, things got a little easier. The vegetation here was less overgrown and we could even see the watermeadows and the river for a while. A few cows were grazing a little way from the unfenced trail but they weren’t close enough to be of any concern.
We made the most of the easier walking. Without the need to constantly watch for nettles and raise our arms we could enjoy the scenery around us. A few more dragonflies crept into my photos, along with cows and sheep grazing in the shadow of Church Hill, where I have often sat looking down over the watermeadows and the river.
Before long we could see the weir at the head of Compton Lock, our third lock of the day. Through the wooden kissing gate and stand of trees was the lock itself. Like most of the locks on the Navigation this was a turf sided lock and, over the years, the once straight sides have eroded away turning the lock chamber from a rectangle into a circle. A footbridge crosses the canal, replacing the gates across the tail of the lock. This is probably the most eroded lock on the canal. This could be due to the swirling water created by the weir or the popularity of swimming here in summer. Either way, the banks have been reinforced to halt the process and stop the tow path washing away completely. Since my last visit it looks as thought the steps where bathers often sit have been replaced too.
Although we were only about three and a half miles from our starting point at the train station, this was where we made our first stop. Due to the overgrown conditions, it had taken us nearly an hour and a half to get this far and it was time for a quick snack to boost our energy levels.
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