Once more into the breach

13 June 2018

Shortly after we got going again we passed the first houses of Shawford, with their huge green gardens sloping down towards the river. These were closely followed by a triangular Navigation marker telling us it was nine miles to Northam Wharf, and the bridge over Shawford Road. Those nine miles are a moot point. Mapping the walk, it’s nine and a quarter miles, give or take, to Cobden Bridge. Northam Wharf is ten and a half miles. Perhaps these measurements are by barge?

We crossed the road behind the Bridge Inn, where television’s most famous grumpy old man, Victor Meldew, met his end. For those who like to break their walks with a beer or two, this is the first pub on the Navigation after the Black Boy in Winchester. Although a quick coffee stop might have been nice, CJ and I were both eager to get on so we plunged straight back onto the Navigation trail.

The next few hundred yards are some of the prettiest of the whole walk, at least in my opinion. The Navigation trail is also an access path for a row of beautiful little cottages, nestled between the railway line and the river. There is a moat like ditch from their gardens to the path and each house has a small bridge instead of a garden gate. These may not be the largest or fanciest houses on the river but I think they have the loveliest gardens. One even has a gypsy caravan in it although, today, it was covered with a green tarpaulin so we couldn’t admire its marvellous paintwork.

At the end of this trail come street there are two alternatives. Through a metal gate is the authentic towpath. It’s narrow and overgrown, even on a good day. To the right is a gravel road past more cottages. Straight ahead is a railway tunnel leading to Shawford Down, to the left the road follows the railway line and, right next to another railway arch, rejoins the Navigation. Given the overgrown state of the route so far, we choose the latter. If we hadn’t we might still be hacking our way through the nettles now.

The decision to take the easy way gave us a little respite from the over abundance of nature and time to enjoy some comfrey flowers before we went through the next gate and back onto the official trail. This section of the trail runs behind Malms farm. In winter it’s terribly muddy, in summer it’s terribly rutted and pockmarked by large holes where winter boots have sunk into the mud. Today it was also filled with overhanging nettles. We walked with our arms above our heads and were pretty happy to pass the last farm building, cross the bridge over the canal and get onto more open land.

For a short while the trail crosses a field with the canal on one side and the river on the other. The canal and Malm Lock is hidden by a line of trees, mostly horse chestnuts, and a mass of brambles. The river is on the far side of the field, which is fenced off from the path so the feeling of openness is really an illusion. Although both river and canal are quite some distance from the path, this was where we found our first breach of the day.

Commando had told me he and the fast boys had found a couple of breaches on the trail, one of which was quite bad. He said it involved a choice between a daring jump, or wet feet. He’d jumped it but Big Dave had got wet feet. This breach was more of a puddle, although water was flowing quite fast from one side to the other, I was pretty sure this wasn’t the breach he was talking about. As far as I can tell, the water came from a small stream, or tributary, running between the river and the canal. We hopped over it without any difficulty.

Now the line of trees right ahead told us we’d almost reached College Mead Lock. This was where we planned to stop for lunch.  As we approached the bridge over the tail of the old lock I could see my plans to sit on the rustic benches to eat had been scuppered. Both benches had people sitting on them. This was quite a blow as College Mead is one of the few places on the trail where there is a dry, comfortable place to sit.

We dawdled for a while on the bridge, looking through the trees at the chamber and top cill of the lock and hoping the people on the seats would move on. They didn’t. Behind the benches is a patch of grass next to a small outbuilding belonging to the Otterbourne Waterworks. In the past I’ve seen people walking along a trail there so I thought it might be worth looking to see if we could find somewhere else to sit. It was either that or wait until we got to Bishopstoke to eat our lunch and we were both fairly hungry by now.

We set off along the trail, desperately looking around for a likely place to sit. We hadn’t gone very far when I noticed a small fenced off area to our left. It looked like a park of some kind and there were benches inside it. A sign on the gate told us this was The Hawksley Memorial Garden. Later Googling told me the garden was named after Major Joseph Hawksley, Water Works Engineer and Manager, who was in charge of the Otterbourne Pumping Station during World War II and kept Southampton’s Water flowing. For this he got an OBE. The garden is planted with trees commemorating late Southern Water employees.

We may not have had a river view but it was a pleasant enough place to sit and I was glad we’d discovered it. Of course, as soon as we’d got our sandwiches and drinks out of my rucksack and begun to eat, the people on the rustic benches got up and left. We stayed where we were and finished our food.

College Meads Lock is a beautiful place to sit for a while but, today, we had too many miles in front of us to sit staring into the crystal clear water. After a very short stop to snap a few photos of the hundreds of dragonflies dancing over the water, we got moving again.

The clarity of the water is actually quite reassuring as this is the same water that comes out of my tap at home. In 1888 Southampton Corporation Waterworks was built in Otterbourne and quickly became a major employer in the village. In fact, many of the older houses were built for its employees. The waterworks we were now passing pumps water from the river to supply most of Southampton. This water is supplemented by chalk aquifer boreholes and wells in the parish and we soon passed under a bridge like structure that actually carrys pipes to take this to the pumping station.

Once we’d passed under this ‘bridge’ we were shaded by trees for a while and things were a little less overgrown than they had been until now. There were even a few flowers to take photos of, pretty yellow mimulus and a sweet crop of forget me nots.

The easy walking didn’t last. Just before we came to the next sharp bend in the river a fallen tree blocked the trail. Commando had mentioned two fallen trees but had said both were easy enough to get past. Even with my short little legs this one was simple enough to climb over and we carried on through the shady trees, glad of the view of the river and a decided lack of nettles to battle.

Then the trees ran out. The nettles and overgrown vegetation were back and we couldn’t see the river any more, although we knew it was there because of all the dragonflies flittering about around us. This was when we came to the next bank breach. This one was wider and deeper than the last but someone had kindly piled a load of logs in it. We used them to get across. It was a touch slippery but our feet stayed mostly dry.

The next breach was wider still. We came upon it just before Kiln Lane. Some narrow planks had been laid across one side but they looked a little precarious to me so I just waded through. CJ used the planks and kept his feet dry but almost fell in for his trouble.

When I saw the remains of the hatches that were probably once used to drown the watermeadows, I knew we were at Brambridge lock and had almost reached Kiln Lane. Until recently, the last stretch of this section of the walk was one of the muddiest and most difficult to pass in winter. A wonderful new boardwalk has now been installed though, along with some rather odd crazy paving beside the fence of Kingfisher Lodge, making it a real pleasure. 

We were now approaching the Allbrook section of the trail. In my experience, this is the area most likely to have bank breaches and I couldn’t help wondering if we’d already passed the bad breach Commando had told me about of it it was still to come?

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Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

4 thoughts on “Once more into the breach”

    1. The worst is yet to come, as if you hadn’t guessed already. Surprisingly though, it wasn’t quite where I expected.

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