10 July 2019
One of the great joys in my life is walking in the quiet places. I am a connoisseur of secluded little cut ways, hidden footpaths, trails and walkways. Finding a way to get from a to b that doesn’t involve walking along a road makes me smile, especially when it is beside a river. On my walks I’m always on the lookout for these hidden gems and the ones I know I use regularly, even if they add miles to my walks. Today I chose a route bursting at the seams with away from the road delights for my early morning walk. Unfortunately some of them are not as accessible as they should be though.
One of my favourite diversions is one my friend Gigi showed me years ago when we worked together for a cruise company. It adds a little distance to the walk from my house to Northam Bridge but takes me away from the main road for almost a mile. The trade off is worth the extra couple of hundred yards walking, especially when you consider the beautiful views of the river.
This walk uses a hidden cut way between the houses. It takes me over a little railway bridge and around Chessel Bay with views of all the little ships at Kemps Quay. Back when I was working with Gigi it was part of my walk to work and I loved watching the seasons change from bare branches to blackthorn blossom, berries to autumn leaves. There is a beautiful eucalyptus tree along the bay with peeling bark revealing smooth pale wood that makes me gasp whenever I pass.
Further along there is a wooden viewing platform where swans often gather. This used to be the place where it was most likely to see a black swan before they all moved up river and started breeding. The path takes me past houses and a school but, if I keep my eyes on the river, I can imagine I’m in the middle of nowhere.
After a short walk along a quiet road past the Quay there is another quiet path. This one runs behind the flats on the riverside and takes me all the way to the bridge. Looking over the low brick wall I can see all the ships and wrecks, the old jetty filled with sea birds and the skeleton ship slowly rotting away. The people in the flats have enviable views and the right of way allows walkers like me to enjoy them briefly.
The final part of this diversion takes me along the embankment beside the bridge. As far as I can tell this was once the beginning of the original bridge, built in 1799 for David Lance who owned the Chessel Estate. Part of the embankment is bordered by an old stone wall and then a chain fence. Walking along the grass between the trees, the roar of the traffic zooming along the road belies the serenity of the river view.
Eventually, of course, I have to leave all this peace and quiet and climb the steps onto the road. On the far side of the bridge though, there is another diversion. Today, before I went down the steps to the rowing club I stopped for a moment to look at the progress on the tall flats being built on the opposite side of the road. They seem to be shooting up into the air very fast and I can’t help wondering how high they will get?
Through the gate and down the steep steps are the rowing club slipways. Often I’ve seen rowers here preparing their boats or climbing exhausted from the water. This is close to the spot where Northam Wharf marked the beginning of the Itchen Navigation, although you’d never know it. There are no triangular markers or signs and the council seem disinterested in this part of the city’s heritage.
From here it is possible to walk under the bridge rather than cross the busy road above. Northam Bridge was the first major prestressed concrete road bridge to be built in the UK and, recently, it seems to have become a bit of an unofficial graffiti tunnel. Not that I’m complaining because it brightens my walk.
On the other side of the bridge a public footpath runs all along the riverbank. Until quite recently, there was a high chain link fence separating the path from the old television studios. The fence had been colonised by trees and climbing plants but these were all cut down when building work began on the new flats and a high blue fence erected instead. Although I miss the trees and the wooden fence makes the path feel slightly more hemmed in, I quite like the blue colour. It makes a beautiful backdrop for all the wildflowers growing along the path.
In truth it isn’t the best kept of paths. It’s narrow, filled with potholes and tends to get very muddy in winter. My hope is, that when all the building work is finished, the path will be improved and maybe some access provided directly into the new streets. If I was buying one of the flats I’d want to be able to get onto the path without going through the industrial estate. Despite all its faults and the risk of breaking an ankle if you don’t take care, the views across the river are stunning.
This path is also on my list of past walks to and from work. When I worked at the bus mines I used it regularly. Beyond the building site the path curves gently, passing a small industrial estate. Once upon a time I used to work there in an office facing the water. The job was horrible but the views were lovely. In those days there were a young hippy looking couple and their dog living on a boat here. The MD of the company would often take them food parcels. We’d watch them rowing their little boat back and forth to their floating home with the dog swimming beside them. They have long gone but the remains of their boat, sunken now, is slowly rotting on the corner. Sometimes I wonder what became of them.
In those days there was no boardwalk, just a shingle shore that was only accessible at low tide. Sustrans built the walkway in 2010 and it is the most wonderful improvement. Because of it, cyclists and walkers have an off road route from St Denys to Northam, away from traffic and with stunning waterside views. Swans often gather here, mostly on the corner near the hippy ship but, today, they were further along. There were two groups one with two small fluffy cygnets, the other with no less than nine older babies. This seems to have been a good year for cygnets on the Itchen.
Commando Senior’s last ever outing was to visit the boardwalk. He’d read about it on my blog and wanted to see it for himself. When ever I walk this way I can almost see him standing here looking out over the water. Right now the tarmac path leading from the boardwalk onto Horseshoe Bridge is in a bit of a state. Someone has dropped a tin of pale blue emulsion and walkers and cyclists have passed through the wet paint creating an inadvertent work of art.
The next part of my diversion is a little more controversial. There is another walkway along the river on the other side of Horseshoe Bridge, leading to a slipway on Priory Road. This was a path I once used regularly too. It was a peaceful interlude in my walks to and from work with river views, boats and birds. The path runs behind a gated community known to me as the Millennium Flats. Unlike the people in the flats on the other side of Northam Bridge, the residents here do not like sharing their views though.
Some time ago the gates leading to the path were locked and a sign erected. This caused much consternation locally because part of the planning application for the building was to keep this pathway open to the public. The residents excused their actions by complaining of antisocial behaviour on the path, citing prostitutes and drug addicts. As the area on the other side of Horseshoe Bridge has been a red light district for as long as I can remember these things can hardly be a surprise. If you buy a property in such an area, no matter how nice it is, you have to expect to see a few unsavoury things. Some residents said they were in fear of their lives. This seems a little dramatic. The path is separated from the flats by a steep grassy bank a fence and a thick hedge. It would be very hard to get from one to the other and I doubt prostitutes or drug addicts are so inclined.
For almost two years I walked through here, often in the dark due to my early or late shifts, and I can’t say I ever felt especially in danger. Although I did occasionally see some peculiar people, including drunks and prostitutes on the industrial estate or the boardwalk, I never saw them here. The owners of the flats have now applied to the council to have the gates locked permanently. The matter is being decided in a few days time and I, for one, hope the council see sense and make them remove the locks, at least during daylight hours.
Taking the road route around the other side of the flats I couldn’t help noticing a mass of signs warning all and sundry that this was private land with no access. The flats are completely surrounded by high fences and locked gates, giving it the feel of a fortress, or maybe a prison. Despite the lovely views, I would not want to be besieged inside those gates looking out in paranoia at the outside world. It seems to me the real problem is not the social issues in the area but the attitudes of those within the gates.
Although I couldn’t access the walkway, I did take a short detour into the park with the slipway where I’d have come out if I had. From there I had a marvellous view of all the flats on the other side of the river with their walkways, all of which are open to the public. This was somewhere I often used to pause on my walks. Sometimes there would be swans on the slipway or people preparing to launch boats. I always loved the view of the hotchpotch of jetties in the back gardens of the Priory Road houses with their various sheds and boats. This road, with its little Victorian houses may not be in the most salubrious of areas but it has a real community feel about it. It’s a shame the people in the modern flats feel the need to cut themselves off from it. Their lives would be far richer if they didn’t.
Leaving the slipway behind I walked along Priory Road, admiring a garden or two and remembering all those walks to and from work. On either side of the railway bridge it’s possible to get to the river bank behind the houses but, because the rails bisect the two riverside paths, they lead nowhere. Today they were a detour too far so I stuck to the road and carried on to Cobden Bridge where I could see the river again as I crossed.
On the other side of the bridge more new flats have been built, complete with steps and a path along the river. This is also supposed to be a right of way and should join up with the path further along behind some slightly older flats. At the moment the gate here is locked and there is a wooden fence between the two paths. The council have told the builders this has to change but, until it does, there is no way through.
Peeking through the bars of the fence I admired the poppies growing on the bank beside the steps. One day I may be able to walk beside them on another quiet detour beside the river.
Until then I will have to climb the hill past the clock tower and take the side roads back home. This route may not give me river views but at least there are flowers to admire in the gardens I pass.