5 August 2018
Of course I couldn’t stand in the park gasping at the wonderful views across Winchester forever. Eventually I dragged myself away, walked back down Blue Ball Hill, which was certainly the easiest direction to tackle it from, and headed somewhere far more familiar. It was now around twenty past nine and Commando wouldn’t be back at the car park until just before eleven, so I had more than enough time for a stroll around Winnal Moors.
The sun was getting warmer so I was glad to be heading towards the shady trails of the magical moor. It was a short walk from the bottom of the hill to Durngate Bridge where the Itchen gushed through the sluices. There was once a Mill here, dating from the early thirteenth century, but it was demolished in 1966, despite a public outcry. This sluice is the only real reminder. Although the heat was rising, I couldn’t resist a quick peek over the other side of the bridge at the river, all calm and clear reflecting blue sky and abundant greenery. Then I went through the gate towards the winding trails.
Last time I came this way I spotted a young deer on the grassy area near the strange ring of logs. Unsurprisingly he wasn’t there today, although at Winnal Moors anything seems possible and I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see him. This lovely nature reserve, just outside the northern edge of the city was once grazing land, floated water meadows on the Itchen flood plain.
The trails were fairly overgrown, just as I’d expected, but the shade was more than welcome. Today, for no particular reason, I decided to walk the circular route in an anti clockwise direction. There was no one else about, which was a bonus. On past walks I’ve had to share the trails with numerous runners. Of course I’m not complaining, but it was nice to be alone with my thoughts.
In medieval times the moors belonged to Hyde Abbey and there was a chapel, St Gertrude’s, here. Apparently there are some remains but quite where they are is a mystery. Perhaps they are in the north of the site, which is not open to the public. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a network of ditches and streams were excavated to flood the watermeadows providing lush green grass for sheep to graze. The water meadows are no longer purposely flooded but there is plenty of water still to be seen.
The first part of my walk took me past boggy pools, maybe the remains of the ditches used to flood the meadows, through tunnels of shady green. Soon the packed dirt of the path gave way to a wooden boardwalk. Then the shade came to an end. I’d reached the reedbeds.
The swaying reeds were splashed with pink patches of loosestrife and the occasional clump of comfrey flowers clung to the edges of the trail. To my right there were tantalising glimpses of the river and branches drooping with elderberries. The Itchen divides and meanders as it flows across the Hampshire downs from Easton towards Winchester. Two branches encircle Winnal Moors before joining again at Durngate Bridge. Aided by silt from the river and many years of water meadow flooding, the soil here, untouched by the plough and free of artificial fertilisers, is rich and fertile. There may be a lesson in that. By all accounts there are water voles here but I have never seen any.
To the left of the boardwalk is a small side trail going off into a clump of trees. It doesn’t actually lead anywhere but there is a wooden bench to rest on and the remains of some of the carrier ditches once used to flood the meadows. Just beyond this is a gate leading to the top part of the reserve.
On the other side of the gate the moor is more open, with views over the meadows that are still used for grazing today. A lone photographer was on the trail ahead, taking pictures with a long lens. Trying not to get in his way I passed him by with a ‘good morning,’ then I was all alone again.
In the middle of the bend at the very top of the trail I found the first of the decorated benches that enchanted me so on my first visit. This was the giant’s bench, a reminder of the story of the Danish giant, Colbrand. The giant was the champion of the Danish kings, Anelaph (also called Olaf) and Gonelaph. At Danemark Mead, just outside the north walls of the city of Winchester, King Athelstan watched Guy of Warwick slay Colbrand. The giant’s death saved Winchester from the invading northern kings, or so they say. Whether this was the meadow is unclear but it seems likely.
Once I’d passed the bench I was heading south, back towards the city. There were cows in the meadow, rather than the sheep who’d once have been grazing here. Thankfully, the Itchen was between us, as I’m not too fond of cows, at least not when they’re up close. They may look slow and sluggish but I know they have evil in their hearts and they love to trample walkers given half a chance.
Ahead I could see the second gate, leading back to the southern part of the nature reserve. This gate is guarded by the giant Colebrand, or at least a wooden model of him. This wooden Colebrand and all the decorated benches are part of a story trail for children who visit the moors to follow. Parents can even buy a beautifully illustrated book all about it.
At least now the path was shady again and I felt a little cooler with the river burbling beside me. Soon I passed another decorated bench, all butterflies and deer footprints, then I came to the bridge. Across it are the fields of the North Walls Recreation Ground, where the Winchester parkrun takes place. Part of me wanted to cross and check them out but I knew they wouldn’t be as interesting as the nature reserve and I wasn’t sure I had the time. After a certain amount of dithering, I decided to keep going forwards instead.
Not long after I got moving again I spotted two swans on the river so I was glad I’d decided to stay on the Winnal Moors trail. Swans always seem like a good omen to me. Moments later I passed the next decorated bench, the watching trees seat. The lovely carvings always make me smile, especially the word ‘magic,’ because this really does feel like a magical place where anything is possible.
A little way ahead the magic of Winnall Moors included a little robin sitting on the path. Very slowly I raised my phone to take a photo, half expecting him to fly away before I could. He seemed intent on something on the path though and didn’t notice me. I took a slow step forward and then another and the robin stayed put. At any moment I knew I’d take a step too far and my robin friend would fly off but, in slow motion, I kept moving towards him.
When the robin finally saw me and hopped into the bushes at the side of the trail I was almost within touching distance. Another step and I looked down onto the path to see what had captivated him so. It was a snail, a little battered from being pecked, but still in its shell. As I walked on I was sure the robin was still hiding in the bushes waiting for me to leave so he could carry on with his lunch.
The next section of the trail was filled with red berries on guelder roses and thorny blackberries half dried out by the summer heat. These reminded me that this long, hot summer is almost at an end. Soon the mornings will be getting cooler and I shall have to think about coats and hats and gloves again.
When I reached the bridge across the carrier stream I knew I’d shortly be back where I started. The trail was now heading east and I was completing the circle. The bridge marks the spot where the carrier stream and the western branch of the river rejoin. The clear, weed filled water, was surprisingly calm.
The river may look calm but, under the surface it is teeming with fish and, along with water voles, there are also otters hiding on the nature reserve. Sadly, the only otter I’ve seen here is a wooden sculpture sitting on a log a little way after the bridge. Close by is the last of the decorated benches, or the first, depending on which way you’re walking. This one is the water vole bench.
All too soon I reached the signpost where the circular trails begin. My wandering at Winnal Moors were almost at an end. Feeling slightly sad to be leaving this magical place, I passed the stagnant pool, filled with strangely contorted trees and one final rustic bench before heading towards the gate.
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