3 March 2015
Safely across the road at the Hockley Traffic lights I set off along the road towards Twyford. It’s not the nicest of roads with cars whizzing past and nothing much to see at first, just half a mile of potholed pavement, traffic and fields hidden behind scrubby trees. I could have been on the Navigation trail if I’d just turned to the west but there was method in my madness. Back in the days of Moonwalk training walks, when my one foray onto the Navigation at Mansbridge had ended after half a mile of mud and fear before I’d even got started, this had been the route I’d taken when I came to the long miles. The ten mile mark was Twford, known as one of the most beautiful villages in Hampshire and, by trial and error, I’d found a little oasis of peace and calm amid the screaming muscles and blistered feet.
All that was years ago though and the Itchen Navigation has been my preferred walk to Winchester since I first walked its length. Many times I’ve passed by in the Itchen valley and gazed with fondness at my oasis on the hill. Tuesday’s walk would take me back there and the half mile of boring Turnpike Road was a price worth paying. It passed soon enough and I smiled to myself when I came to the small row of cottages that mark the point where the road and I would part company. The moss covered walls and pretty gardens were just as I remembered them and I smiled as I stepped into the quiet of Church Lane leaving the traffic behind me.
Bordered by hedgerows and ancient walls overgrown with moss, ivy and tumbling plants of every kind it is a lane from another time. If a medieval farmer had passed me by with a horse and cart stacked high with goods for market I wouldn’t have been too surprised. It’s that kind of place. There are a handful of properties on the lane and, outside the first is a low flint wall planted with bulbs and spring flowers. The daffodils were still in bud but, scattered between them, the primroses were a mass of pale lemon blooms. Almost opposite is Twyford Lodge, built in the eighteenth century, it has impressive gates with a beautiful brick and flint wall. Most of the buildings are hidden away behind a high red brick wall with curious arches at the bottom. By the way it leans and twists I think it must be a wall of some age.
There is, of course, a farm. Church Farm is a hotchpotch of buildings that seem to be of varied ages in various states of repair, the oldest dating back to the sixteenth century. When I walked there before there were a pair of donkeys who once came right up to the fence to be stroked. I will admit to a little disappointment at their absence but I guess they could have been hiding in one of the old barns or shelters. Before the advent of the boring Turnpike Road I’d taken to get to it, Church Lane was probably the main route through Twyford towards Winchester. In the eighteenth century, when the Turnpike Road was built, the church was effectively bypassed leaving this area beautifully suspended in a bygone age.
Passing the farm I came to Berry Lane where Mildmay House and barn and St Mary’s, the church the lane is named for, stand on either side of Old Rectory Lane. The name of Mildmay house always makes me smile, conjuring up visions of a prophecy for a pleasant month. In fact it is named for the Mildmay family who owned lands in Shawford and Twyford. The house was once a two storied timber frame vicarage built in the fourteenth century. Although some parts of the original remain the facade was rebuilt in the eighteenth century in red brick. Once, when I was passing, I heard beautiful music being played inside the old barn but this time there was nothing but silence.
The church was probably the first Saxon church in Twyford and was mentioned in the Doomsday Book. In the twelfth century the original church was replaced by a Norman design and rebuilt in 1402 using the basic Norman structure. As the village expanded the church needed enlarging and, in the 1870’s, a new church was built, designed by Alfred Waterhouse who also designed the Natural History Museum in London. Legend has it that, during the building work, twelve druid stones were found in the foundations of the Norman tower and were incorporated into the new building. Whether this is true remains to be seen but many of the features of the old building were kept and the gothic building still stands today.
Whenever I’ve come this way before I’ve either been ten miles into my journey towards Winchester or sixteen plus miles in and on my way home. Either way, I’ve not stopped too long to explore the churchyard so, as it was likely to be a long time before I visited again, I thought I’d have a better look around. As far as I can tell there are no famous graves but all the grave stones are very old, weathered and lichen covered so reading names is difficult. Regardless of this some of the stones are quite beautiful. I was especially taken with one simple cross decorated with climbing ivy leaves and a pair of exquisite Celtic style crosses belonging to a husband and wife standing side by side surrounded by clumps of snowdrops. The snowdrops seemed to be everywhere and I could have spent far longer looking at gravestones trying to decipher the names but I’d still be there now if I had.
After a while I turned my attention to the church itself. It’s an unusual building of flint with stripes of red brick and a checkered tower. The wonderful windows must be lovely from the inside with the sun streaming through them but, sadly, the door was closed so I had to content myself with the outside view and imagination. The amount of lichen on the stonework could have kept me there all day but I was mindful of the long walk ahead of me so I made do with one closeup of an especially ancient looking piece. On one of my previous visits a white dove had been sitting on the roof so still I’d thought it was made of stone until it flew off. This time a blackbird seemed to follow as I walked around the building. Hopping from grave to grave he stayed far closer to me than most birds would and even crept into one of my photos. The church clock struck twelve as I passed under it and I knew I should be on my way.
In the churchyard is an ancient yew-tree, which local tradition says has stood for one thousand years but, according to tree experts, is probably nearer four or five hundred years old. Either way, it must be one of the oldest yews in England. Around the base of its trunk is a wooden seat and several graves nestle in its shade. It’s always struck me as a lovely place to be laid to rest. Although I knew I really should be walking I couldn’t resist sitting for a while next to the rusty old lawn roller that’s been there since my first visit and looking at the views.
Eventually I had to tear myself away and, with a final look at the monument to the Reverend Charles Shipley who once lived in Twyford House and a peek into the garden of the cottage next to the church, I set off again. Behind the cottage there is a choice of path. Old Rectory Lane bears to the east towards the High Street, a winding trail leads west to the Itchen and, heading south, there are two trails both of which I’ve taken before. In fact, in the days when I was first exploring the area I didn’t realise there were two trails and became so confused by a bench that kept appearing and disappearing each time I passed I thought I was losing my mind. Now I know the eastern fork has horses but no benches and leads down a slope to the High Street while the western fork has benches and leads to Churchfields Road and the route to Shawford. This was the trail I planned to take.
In fact, this trail was what the walk was all about, the church and Winchester, pretty as they were, had just been incidental, a means to an end. On my long Moonwalk training walks the benches on this trail had been my stopping place, the spot I’d sat to drink my chocolate milk and eat a snack. Back then I’d look over the downs at the ribbon of river flowing below. Occasionally I’d see people walking along the bank and wonder how they got down there and where they were going. Of course, now I know they were walking the Navigation.
For old time’s sake I sat on the newer of the two benches, the one that commemorated the Queen’s 2012 Jubilee and wasn’t there when I first came this way, and fished a bottle of chocolate milk out of my rucksack, along with a snack. Despite the time passing I sat for a long time looking down over the glorious scene and taking far too many photographs. If there is a better way to spend a Tuesday afternoon I don’t know what it is. The rest of Twyford and the walk home could wait a little while.