13 June 2018
We’d made it to Kiln Lane without getting stung, which felt a little like a miracle. We’d got across three bank breaches, one that had left me with wet feet, and had climbed over one fallen tree. According to Commando, there was at least one more fallen tree and, possibly, one more bad bank breach somewhere along the eight and a half miles between Kiln Lane and home. If I was a betting woman, I’d have put my money on it being on the next stretch of towpath.
There are the remains of a half lock a little way along the trail here, probably to retain water levels for an eighteenth century mill, Brambridge Mill. The mill has disappeared without trace and, today, things were too overgrown to see what little brickwork remains of Brambridge half Lock.
Once we’d crossed the wooden bridge we were on a trail with the river on one side and the canal on the other. The canal runs on an embankment so it’s higher than the river and, despite modern hatches under the bridge, this can cause problems. There have been several quite bad breaches in the past when the canal overflowed and washed away parts of the path. Usually this happens in winter or after especially heavy rains but I wasn’t convinced we’d get through with dry feet.
Not long after we crossed the bridge we saw a man standing in the canal fishing. He said hello to us as we passed by. It was such an odd sight I took a sneaky photo looking back just to prove I wasn’t imagining it. As I’m fairly sure the general public are not allowed to fish this stretch of the Itchen, or the Navigation, I think the fisherman had come from the farm opposite. The farm breeds alpacas and we could see them in the fields. Both the animals and their wool are available for sale. If only my garden was big enough for an alpaca or two!
The alpacas were sharing their field with a swan. It looked as if it might have a nest on the riverbank but things were too overgrown to see for sure. The wildflowers interspersed with nettles slowed our progress a little but I was glad to see them on this part of the trail. The roots of plants growing along the bank hold the soil together and help stop the banks eroding. Hopefully, more plants will mean more roots, which in turn will mean less wet feet in the winter.
Most of the bank breaches I’ve seen in the past have been south of the sluices so, once we’d passed them, I was on red alert. As it was, the path ahead looked firm enough and was certainly nowhere near as overgrown as most we’d walked today. At the point where the worst of the breaches used to be, a small wooden bridge has been built. Presumably it’s easier to let the water flow under it than to keep repairing the banks when the sluices become overwhelmed.
Not long after this the river turns away from the canal and the fields of the alpaca farm give way to the railway embankment. We saw another swan here, perhaps the mate of the one who looked to be nesting in the alpaca field. Now there is another farm, Highbridge, on the opposite side of the trail. There are often horses and goats in the fields here.
Today the fields near the trail seemed to be empty but, as we got closer to the road, I was sure I could hear peacocks. They have a very distinctive call, almost like a crying baby. We stopped and squinted into the farm and, sure enough, there were two peacocks strutting about. We walked on, wondering what the farmer planned to do with them?
Just ahead I could see Highbridge Road and knew we were officially in Eastleigh now. The huge bank breach Commando had told me about hadn’t been on this stretch of the trail after all.
“Maybe we’ve already got over it,” CJ said. “That last one with the planks of wood was really wide.”
I thought perhaps he was right and relaxed a little.
We stopped for a moment to look over the wall at Allbrook Lock and the little, green roofed house that I think has something to do with measuring the water flow. Allbrook is the newest lock on the Navigation, built in the late 1830’s when the railways came and the course of the canal had to be changed to accommodate the line. Unlike the other locks, this lock chamber is built of bricks rather than turf. The weir that replaces the top gates is a strange affair, it looks like watery stairs. This is actually a fish ladder, installed to help salmon swim upstream.
While I was looking at the lock CJ had spotted something very unusual on the other side of the trail. There were ostriches on Highbridge Farm. Of course, once we got to the road, we had to go for a closer look. When they saw us peering over the fence the two birds came over to have a closer look at us. Sensibly, CJ didn’t try to pet them but we did get some up close photographs of them eating nettles, of all things. CJ was a little worried their mouths would be stung but I guessed they knew what they were doing.
Across the road we started off on the penultimate stretch of the trail. Before we carried on we had a brief stop to look back under the road bridge that hides the lock tail. The trail passes under a railway bridge shortly after it leaves the road, then curves around behind the houses of Allbrook Hill and Twyford Road bfore passing back under the railway again. Between the railway bridges is a side trail leading to Ham Farm, the next pub on the trail.
Of course we didn’t stop off at the pub but pressed on towards Withymead Bridge. This is the stretch of the trail I’ve walked the least. For more than a year the bridge over the lock at Withymead was missing after being vandalised. Seeing the new bridge, supplied by Farmer Russel of Highbridge Farm, always makes me smile because it saves a long and boring diversion through Eastleigh to Twyford Road.
We crossed the bridge, feeling fairly pleased with ourselves. We’d got past what is usually the leakiest part of the Navigation with dry feet. It felt as if we were on the homeward stretch and I was fairly sure the bank breaches were all behind us.
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