13 June 2018
We were approaching the final segment of the Itchen Navigation and had around six miles left to walk. Despite the trail being more overgrown than I’ve ever seen it, bank breaches where they have never been before and a far warmer day than the weather forecast had led us to believe, we had made fairly good time. We’d set off from Winchester Station at around ten o’clock and it was now ten to two. Ok, so four hours to walk around seven miles is positively tortoise like but, taking into account stops and the terrain, I thought we’d done pretty well.
From Withymead Bridge to Bishopstoke Road should have been easy walking. The river and the canal come together here and meander through what were once watermeadows. The trail ahead was still very overgrown but here it is wide enough that we didn’t have to push our way through and could easily avoid the nettles. Right when I was feeling slightly smug about having the worst behind us, at least according to Commando’s account of his run, my phone rang. It was Commando, ringing to find out how we were getting on and where we were.
“Bishopstoke,” I told him.
”You got across the bad breach then?”
”I guess so. There were three. The worst one was just before Kiln Lane. There were some planks across it. CJ used them but I just waded through.”
”What about the one just before the Hub? That was the one I had to jump.”
This was not what I wanted to hear. The Hub is a sports hall and recreation ground on Bishopstoke Road, right next to the Navigation trail. We had around half a mile yet before we got there and, it seemed, we still had the worst of the bank breaches to come. We walked on, trying not to let the idea of trouble ahead spoilt our enjoyment of the scenery around us. The green trees reflected in the ever widening river on this part of the trail always make me smile.
Right before the playing fields of the Hub there are some fields. These are the remains of the watermeadows and I’ve often seen animals grazing on them. Today there were horses. Of course there was no way we were getting past them without a stop, especially when they came up to the fence. CJ does love talking to horses and these were handsome beasts, especially the beautiful dappled mare.
Shortly after I’d dragged CJ away from the horses we crossed the sluices where the the Barton River leaves the River Itchen. The stream used to power Barton Peveril Mill, a corn mill once situated on Bishopstoke Road opposite the junction with Chickenhall Lane. The mill is long gone, replaced by the offices of a housing company but I did find an FGO Stuart postacard of it. At some point I will have to try to take a photograph from the same spot.
Shortly after we’d crossed the sluices we passed a fallen tree. Luckily, this one had already been sawn up, by the look of it, fairly recently. Perhaps it was the second tree Commando had told me about? Then again, the this stage I’d given up counting chickens.
Then, just before the triangular Navigation marker, we came to the big breach we’d been dreading. Commando hadn’t been joking, it was a bad one. From memory I think there was a small concrete hatch here between the Itchen and the Barton River, which, at this point, is running beside it. Was is the operative word. Right now what there is is a large hole with a little slab of concrete precariously balanced across part of it.
The water was flowing fast and the edges were wet and crumbly. CJ and I stopped and stared at it. Commando said he’d jumped it but I wasn’t confident I’d get across. My legs are far shorter than his. In the end, after a lot of prodding with my foot to test it, I used the wobbly, slightly slippery piece of concrete as a stepping stone. It tilted alarmingly but I got across. CJ did the same.
Once we were on the far side of the final breach it felt as if we should be high fiving each other and cheering. What we actually did was take a photograph of the Navigation marker and keep on walking. For once the mileage on the marker was relatively accurate.
The final stretch of the trail, between Bishopstoke and Mansbridge, is usually the worst. The trail is narrow, very uneven, strewn with roots and potholes and often badly overgrown. For obvious reasons, there was a little hesitation before we went through the gate and back onto the trail. If this part was as overgrown as everything that went before, it was going to be very heavy going. It was extremely tempting to turn towards Eastleigh and walk the road route until we got to the roundabout and Monks Brook. Commando had run it on Sunday though and swore the trail through Twyford was more overgrown.
In the end we decide to press on along the trail. This was a reconnaissance mission after all. At the beginning of July, when I’m leading the walking group I want to know what I’m leading them into. On the other side of the gate I very nearly changed my mind and turned back around. The grass on either side of the trails was head height and the trail itself was barely visible.
We kept going anyway, tramping through the grass very slowly, aware there could be potholes anywhere beneath our feet and nettles or brambles hidden amongst the grass. Luckily neither of us has hay fever. It took all our brain power to concentrate on our feet disappearing into the grass.
When we got to the bridge to Chickenhall Lane we hoped things would get a little better. The lane is wide enough for farm vehicles to get down after all and the next part of the trail, past the water treatment plant is fairly shady so might not be too overgrown. Of course, I’d forgotten about the flies. In summer this area is swarming with millions of tiny black flies, like Ontario in spring, except they don’t bite. The next quarter of a mile was hell. We walked with our hands over our mouths to avoid inhaling the horrible little things.
We got through them somehow and carried on to the railway bridge. It was very tempting to say that the worst was now definitely behind us but I’d already actually said that several times and been proved wrong so I kept my big mouth shut. This was just as well because getting along the high bank above the reedbeds just after the bridge required all my concentration.
This bank is the remains of an embankment built by the London and South Western Railway at the beginning of the twentieth century. They planned to lay tracks to act as a diversion around the Eastleigh Carriageworks but this was never completed. The trail is extremely narrow and uneven here, with the embankment rising up on the west side and the land falling away sharply to the east. One wrong step could lead to a tumble down into the reeds.
The canal on this stretch of the walk is usually dry and often barely recognisable as a waterway. The towpath is narrow, hemmed in by trees that have colonised the old canal and its bank and the barbed wire fences of the Itchen Valley Country Park. The River Itchen itself runs through the Country Park quite some distance from the canal. Our walk was now a mixture of light and shade, with the sunny sections being more overgrown than the shady ones.
There were four locks on this stretch of the canal, although it isn’t easy to spot all of them now. The main clue is the way the towpath dips and climbs. The first lock is Lock House or Chickenhall Lock. There used to be a lock cottage here, on the Itchen Valley bank of the canal, but it was demolished some time after World War II and nothing remains of it today. The remains of the lock are less illusive. Even today, with everything wildly overgrown, we spotted them.
We now had Southampton Airport to the west of us, hidden behind the trees. Not long after the lock, a side trail runs off towards the airport and it’s possible to sit on the grass and watch planes take off and land through the airport fence. This was once a wooden bridge called New Barn Bridge, used to access North Stoneham Farm, on which the airport was built.
Close by is one of the many gates that lead into the watermeadows of the Itchen Valley Country Park. With a little more knowledge, I think it would be possible to leave the Navigation here and get back to the lock at Mansbridge without having to take the noisy and rather unpleasant diversion up and down the side of the motorway. The last miles of a long walk are probably not the time to go exploring though, especially as I could be wrong.
We found the second fallen tree Commando had told us about along this stretch of the towpath. It had only half fallen, having become entangled in the shrubs and fence on the opposite side of the towpath. There was a choice here, over or under, CJ and I both chose over to avoid getting dirty knees.
The next two locks, Decoy Pond Lock and Sandy Lock, were hidden by all the vegetation. In fact, in places, so was the towpath. The path here goes up and down quite steeply in places. Some of the ups and downs correspond with the old locks, others with places where the towpath has eroded away. Tree roots, overhanging trees and brambles, odd bits of brickwork embedded in the dirt and many, many potholes, make this tough walking, requiring a huge amount of concentration.
Then comes the motorway diversion. This is always an unpleasant and noisy stretch but the powers that be have, for some bizarre reason, cut down a lot of the trees that did at least screen the trail from some of the noise. Now on the eastbound part of the diversion, you can actually see the cars and lorries whizzing past just yards away. Even more bizarre, someone has cut down the undergrowth on the motorway side of the wire fence where no one can walk and left the trail itself overgrown. Really you couldn’t make it up!
The one saving grace to this part of the walk came as we passed under the motorway. The unusually boring grey concrete walls under the bridge have become a sort of impromptu and probably unauthorised graffiti tunnel, at least on the side that isn’t bordered by river. Some of the work was rather good.
Of course, we still had to turn west and walk down the other side of the motorway but, at the end of this, was Mansbridge Lock. Even though there are still a good three miles to home at this point, seeing the lock and the final triangular marker always feels a little like a homecoming.
Our walk through Riverside Park was slow. Battling with the vegetation had taken its toll, as had the weather. For the first time all day, I took off my light jacket because I didn’t need it to protect my arms from nettles. After being so hemmed in on the last part of the walk, the wide open park was a joy. People were paddling on the river, walking dogs, riding bikes and generally enjoying the sunshine.
At Woodmill, something odd was going on. A red barrier had been erected across the path and several vans were parked up. Although I wondered what was happening and took a photo, I was too tired to do anything more at this stage.
Our last view of the river we’d been following more or less all day, was at Cobden Bridge. The tide was out and swans were gathered on the mud. Surprisingly, there wasn’t a single mute swan cygnet in sight. In fact, the only cygnet we saw all day was on the water here and it was black. After years of watching the lone black swan and then the mate that joined him, wondering if they’d ever breed, it seems they are doing nothing but. At this rate, the black swans will be outnumbering the natives here soon.
As a reconnaissance mission it had been interesting. A few lessons were learned, not least of which is that long sleeves and trousers are a must right now. Probably a good sting kit and more water than the two bottles we had each would be wise too. After such a difficult first half, it also might be worth leaving the trail at Bishopstoke and taking the road route to Mansbridge. Then again, by the beginning of July, who knows what it will be like? This walk is always a bit of an adventure.
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