27 March 2019
My task for today was to get some pavement chalk. Commando and Rob were hosting a time trial on the Common and needed something eco friendly to mark the start and finish line. Pavement chalk seemed the obvious choice but it proved harder to find than you’d think. CJ was sure they’d have some in Hobbycraft. My feeling was he was angling for a river walk and a coffee but I had to admit it was worth a try. At least we’d get a nice walk.
It wasn’t the best of days weatherwise, but it wasn’t raining so we wrapped up and headed for Cutbush Lane. There were bluebells and celandine in the woods beside the trail to remind us spring had sprung, even if the temperature didn’t feel very springlike.
Most of the trees were still bare but there was a softening to the tips suggesting leaves soon to come. The edges of colourless winter had been brightened by patches of green here and there. Spring seems to be starting on the ground with the wildflowers and grasses but soon enough it will work it’s way up into the highest branches.
Cutbush Lane runs in a gully down through what was farmland before Townhill Park and Chartwell green were built. Although there are houses almost in touching distance, it’s easy to forget them and feel like you’re walking along a country lane. The gnarled old tree, clinging precariously to the bank here has probably been there longer than the modern houses and flats and, with a void large enough to sit in beneath its roots, it always surprises me when I see it still standing.
“I’d forgotten how long this lane is,” CJ said. “It seems to go on forever.”
“Don’t start with the ‘are we nearly there yet,’ too soon,” I laughed. “We’ve a way to go yet.”
Then I pointed out the cow feeder, high up on the bank and reminded him of how lost we got the day we went wandering in Chartwell Copse. We’d wound our way along so many lanes and cutaways we lost all sense of direction and when we looked down onto Cutbush Lane we thought we’d discovered a new footpath.
It’s been a long while since we last walked this way. So long in fact, that CJ almost missed the turn at the end of the downward stretch of the lane and began to walk the trail leading to Cutbush Hidden Pond. He was soon back on track though and it wasn’t long before we reached hobbycraft. We located the pavement chalk without too much trouble. Getting out of the place without spending a fortune was a little more difficult.
Next door, in the Swan Garden Centre, we got some takeaway coffees. The place was crowded and noisy so we decided against sitting inside to enjoy our drinks. Instead we headed down Gaters Hill towards the river. Since we last came this way a huge new building has sprung up all squares of concrete and glass. It isn’t the most attractive of things and not really in keeping with the old mill buildings below it. Those mill buildings are a little more visible now though so I guess you win some, you lose some.
My original plan had been to drink our coffee on a bench by the old Mansbridge Bridge but, when we got to the bottom of the hill, I spotted a picnic bench close to the boundary stone. Maybe it’s been there all along but I’ve never noticed it before and it seemed like a good place to sit. It took us a while to get across the road and the cars whizzing past made it less peaceful than I’d have liked but the views across the river to the watermeadows made up for it.
The trees here had a definite hint of green about them and the grass was sprinkled with daisies. Usually there are cows in the meadows and fishermen on the bank but today there were none. Once our coffee was finished we made our way towards the White Swan. A sign on a lamppost explained the lack of fishermen. Apparently it’s closed season for fishing.
So we walked on, past the Swan, wondering why we hadn’t thought to have our coffee there and deciding, maybe next time? As we headed for the bridge I kept on the lookout for signs of nesting swans. In the past I’ve seen the remains of nests along the bank here but, today, there were none. Last year we didn’t see a single mute swan cygnet on this stretch of the river although the black swans seem to be multiplying. Whether these two things are connected isn’t clear but the lack of cygnets is a worry.
The old Mansbridge Bridge acts as the halfway point of this circular walk. It may not be exactly half way in distance but it’s the point where we begin to head back towards home. Even on a dull, overcast day like today, there is something about seeing the arch of that old stone bridge that makes me smile.
This is also the point most likely to be flooded and, over the last year or so, there’s been a pump here continually working to pump excess water from the marshy land behind the trees. How successful this was I can’t say but the pump has now gone and the land is still waterlogged. When I was much younger I used to walk this way to the pub sometimes. Back then I don’t remember it ever being flooded, now it’s a veritable pond. Still, the willows seem to like it, if the bright, acid green of their new leaves is anything to go by.
We saw our first swans of the day just after we passed the bridge. A cob and pen were swimming up river, close to our bank so we stopped briefly to say hello. This produced a hiss from the cob and we walked on smiling. Whenever I see swans on this part of the river I wonder if they are the cygnets orphaned at a young age back in 2014?
Although there was no flooding on the path, the river was very high today. We stopped for a moment or two to watch it tumbling off towards the fish ponds of the Woodmill Activity Centre. A little further on a very large tree had fallen, thankfully away from the river. Its huge rootball stuck up from the bank exposing river mud and a tangle of branches and roots. Last summer was so dry I’m not surprised trees are falling.
Some trees seem to have coped better with the stress than others. There was blossom on the trees beside River Walk and bright forsythia flowers by the car park on Woodmill Lane. Soon enough everything will be green and winter will seem like a cold dream.
The greylags on the riverbank here are another sign that spring is coming. They’ve left their winter homes in warmer climes and come to the river to breed. Something about the area around Woodmill seems to appeal to them as they gather here in large numbers and are quite unafraid of people. Today there were just a handful, sitting on the bank looking haughty as we passed. They may be only spring and summer visitors but there’s no doubt they feel they own the place and we are the interlopers.
Once we passed the mill we’d left the freshwater behind. The river from here is tidal, the water salty like the sea. The sluices here control the river’s flow, although they are old and in a poor state of repair. There has been talk of removing them altogether because the cost of replacing or repairing them is high. What this would mean for the river as a whole is hard to say.
As we carried on it was disappointing to see a mass of litter strewn around one of the bins not far from the mill. Sadly, this is becoming more and more common of late. Picking up the rubbish wasn’t an option as the bin was so full there would have been nowhere to put it and we had not come equipped with bin bags or gloves. I’m beginning to think we should carry both on all our walks. The litter seemed to be the remains of some kind of picnic party, all empty food wrappers and plastic cups. This kind of thing makes me extremely angry. If someone can carry bags full of food and drink to the river for a party, why can’t they pick up their rubbish and carry it home again? I’m sure they wouldn’t just drop their rubbish on the carpet at home. There really is no excuse for such filthy, lazy behaviour.
Rounding the bend by the reedbeds always feels like the final leg of our journey. The old oak on the bend with its beautifully contorted branches, is a particular favourite of mine. It’s quite possible the tree is actually older than the park. Back in the 1930’s this was marshland, known locally as Cobden Meadows. Cows grazed on the land but it often flooded and water sometimes came up to the backs of the houses on Manor Farm Road. The council had grand plans for the area though and, over the next decade or so, land was reclaimed and a retaining wall built along the riverbank.
By 1949 work had begun to create a new park alongside the River Itchen, where people could enjoy the fresh air and walk beside the water all the way to Mansbridge if they wished. This walk along the river is one I often take advantage of. For all the grumbles there are about the council, creating this lovely park seems to me to be one of their better decisions.
Now we’d almost reached the jetty where the swans gather. Earlier I’d been thinking about the lack of mute swan cygnets last year and worrying a little that the prolific breeding of the black swans was responsible. Just before we reached the jetty though, we spotted a swan still sporting brownish grey feathers. Obviously this was a cygnet from last year. Further on there were several more. So much for my worrying. We may not have seen any cygnets but these birds were proof there were some. Maybe they’d been hiding from us or perhaps we just weren’t looking hard enough?
The swans put on quite a show for us in the last few yards of our walk. A loud flapping and splashing alerted us to two mute swans taking flight. Seeing these gigantic birds take to the air is a rare treat and these two seemed to be heading up towards the reedbeds. A few moments later two of the black swans tried to show off their flying skills. Their flight was much shorter but it did give us a great view of their white flight feathers.