10 March 2015
On Tuesday morning with no idea where to go I sat staring at the map looking for inspiration. This would be the first walk of my week off and, as far as the weather forecast was concerned, the best day to be outside. Lots of places looked interesting and I was toying with the idea of taking the Red Jet to the Isle of Wight until I realised I didn’t have a clue what to do once I got there. In the end the best I could come up with was a return to Winchester to take care of some unfinished business.
For a long time people have been telling me about the Hockley viaduct walk but, as it’s a very short distance kind of thing and I’m a long distance kind of girl, I’ve never actually walked it. Of course I’d seen the viaduct back in the early Moonwalk training days when I took Five Bridges Road to get to Winchester but I didn’t know exactly how to get onto it. Lots of mad Googling over breakfast left me slightly wiser and I had a plan of action even if I still wasn’t convinced it would work.
Counterintuitively I decided to leave home later to avoid the rush hour. This meant I actually got to Winchester slightly earlier than I did last week because I didn’t spend half an hour sitting in traffic trying to cross the Big Bridge and the train wasn’t delayed. Sometimes I have good ideas. This time when I left Winchester station I knew where I was going without resorting to guesswork. The first part of my walk was exactly the same as my Twyford adventure last weekend including the blue sky.
When I came to the river this time I knew for sure it was the Itchen. There were swans on the bank, which I always think is a bonus. When I stopped to take a picture one of the swans began to get a little agitated and flapped her wings with a loud whomping sound. For a second I thought she was going to take off. Maybe Winchester swans aren’t as friendly as Southampton ones and she thought I was too close.
Now I had my bearings I realised the place where the river path ended was actually the back of City Mill and I stopped to watch the water burbling under the mill. The bright sun turned the tumbling river into a rainbow of colours. Not being lost also meant I noticed things I’d missed before like The Chesil Rectory, the oldest house in Winchester. Built in 1459, it was originally owned by a merchant but became a rectory at the time of the Reformation. Later, in the late eighteenth century, it was divided into tenements and one tenant, a shoemaker, started one of Britian’s first Sunday schools in the upstairs room. By the late nineteenth century it was in a poor state of repair and under threat of demolition but was, thankfully, saved. These days it’s a restaurant and, of course, it has a ghost, a man who climbs the stairs at night.
Something else I’d missed before, possibly because I hadn’t been looking for them, were all the signs for the Viaduct Way. There was one on the wall of the City Bridge and another on a lamppost along The Weirs close to the weir and sluice gate. As I stood looking up at it a little Robin landed in the tree beside it and watched me taking photos. In Winchester swans are more belligerent than Southampton ones but the robins are far more accommodating.
The path to the Viaduct Way took the opposite fork to the Navigation route so I got a new perspective on the pretty garden by the weir. There are tree ferns on this side of the garden, one of them taller than me. This fork to the west led me past Wolvesey Castle and Cottages. Built by the Bishop of Winchester, it was completed in 1140. One year later, Queen Matilda assaulted the Bishop leading to The Anarchy where besieged defenders of Wolvesey burned the city to hold off Matilda’s forces until reinforcements came from London. The castle is now a ruin, destroyed by Roundheads during the Civil War in 1646. It was closed on Tuesday but, in time honoured tradition, I took a photo of the cottages through the gate. Then I saw the notice saying this was the residence of the current bishop. Hopefully he won’t mind.
Not really knowing what to expect, I followed the road to its conclusion. There was a small stream running beside the pavement, or maybe it was the castle moat. Through the trees, I spotted St Catherine’s Hill in the distance. A few moments later I knew exactly where I was when I saw a funny little house sitting in the water beside a bridge. The Bridge was Blackbridge, the head of the Navigation, and I was in the exact same place I’d have been if I’d taken the other fork in the path, albeit a little wiser and with a castle to add to my list of things to come back to see another day.
When I saw yet another Viaduct Way sign underneath the Itchen Navigation sign I began to wonder if someone had been putting them up during the week because I swear it wasn’t there before. From my early morning Googling I knew I should be walking along Domum Road but, as I walked that way last week, I decided I’d cross Wharf Bridge and risk the Navigation path as far as Tun Bridge. Built in the 1760’s, this is the oldest bridge on the Itchen Navigation. There were more swans to greet me as I looked over the bridge and they sneaked into my shot of the bridge looking back from the bank.
Luckily the path wasn’t as muddy as expected and I made good progress to the Seven Hatches sluices that control the water on this stretch of the canal. Two fishermen setting up on the bank smiled and said “good morning,” as I passed. Just after the next set of hatches things got very muddy and I had to walk precariously close to the edge of the bank but I survived and was soon at the Navigation marker I saw from the steps last week. From there it was a simple climb up to Tun Bridge where I looked downstream and briefly considered taking the narrow Navigation trail beside the river to St Catherine’s Lock. Sense won out though and I followed the high path just as I did last week.
This meant a rather noisy time passing St Catherine’s Lock. Some farmers had just put their cows out to pasture on St Catherine’s Hill and the cows didn’t sound to happy about it, they were all mooing loudly. Then I was at the railway bench and the bridge that must once have been part of the viaduct. Due to the vagueness of the information I’d found, I still didn’t really know how to get onto the viaduct so I was looking around to make sure I didn’t miss it. When I saw a rather steep, slightly stepped trail leading up beside some ivy covered brickwork that looked like part of an arch I thought I’d best explore even though I was pretty sure this wasn’t it. After all, it could have been a short cut.
With some difficulty I cimbed, grasping roots and branches to stop me slipping back. At the top it was obvious this really was part of the viaduct even though it was badly overgrown. There were two long sections of heavy duty riveted iron about as wide as rails would be and corrugated metal barriers. I walked along, thinking I’d end up on the viaduct but met with a fenced off area I couldn’t pass and had to turn back. Of course this meant climbing back down the slope. This was much harder than climbing up. Back on the ground and round the corner I realised I was at the end of Five Bridges Road and there was a wooden Viaduct Way marker at the bottom of a paved slope. This was obviously where I was supposed to have gone.
What I’d climbed was the pillar of a viaduct arch, the other was on the other side of Five Bridges Road. The top of the arch was missing, hence the fencing off, but it must once have spanned the road. Wooden steps led up to the top on this side and I imagine the slope I’d climbed must once have had similar steps. This time I didn’t bother to climb, instead I took the easy route up the slope. The bank was filled with teasels and I looked down through them at Five Bridges Road below.
At the start of the path there was a telegraph pole, a relic of the days when telegraph messages to signal boxes controlled the trains. These days there are underground cables to do the job and this one was restored and re-erected by the Friends of Hockley Viaduct. At the top of the slope I found a long straight path bordered by old brick walls. Part of me had hoped for it to be overgrown and filled with wild flowers, which it was apparently before it was restored, just like the segment I’d climbed. There are stylised dandelions painted on the concrete path as a reminder of this. Personally I’d have preferred the real thing.
Small wooden seats with pictures and words burnt into them fill some of the recesses once used by track workers and, at intervals, the wall is broken by metal railings. The amazing views from these gaps more than made up for the lack of flowers. Below the blue ribbon of the Itchen meandered across the water meadows, there were farm buildings looking like toys from a child’s railway set and tiny white dots of sheep grazing in the fields. Spread out before me was a vista of bridges, hedgerows and trees and I couldn’t help thinking of all the people who had once looked at this out of train windows.
Some of the recesses had wooden carvings with pictures in lovely muted colours and information about the area. These were carved from oak by local artist Nicola Henshaw, drawing on the memories of local people. The walk was worthwhile for those alone. Then, close to the end, there was the restored signal provided by The Friends of Hockley Viaduct. Nearby I spotted a brick with the makers stamp still visible, from this I learned that the bricks were made in Bishops Waltham.
The Viaduct was built in the 1880’s by the London and South Western Railway, as the Shawford Viaduct linking Didcot, Newbury and Southampton to the main line. The thirty three spans are, surprisingly, not made of brick. The majority of the viaduct is actually concrete and the bricks are more decorative than functional. The concrete core makes this one of the earliest modern structures to be built this way.
The last passenger train ran across the viaduct in 1960 and the final freight train in 1966. There would be no more steam trains chugging across, no families off on holiday, business men going to work or soldiers off to the First World War trenches or the D-Day landings. Slowly the grasses and wildflowers took over and parts began to crumble. The odd walker crossed and train buffs came to look but it wasn’t until 2007, when The Friends of Hockley Viaduct Trust was established that things really began to happen. After a great deal of lobbying, fundraising and restoration work it officially reopened as part of National Cycle Route Network Route 23 on 26 February 2013.
The walk across is one quarter of a mile, it seemed less. All too soon I was at the other end standing looking over a fence at fields full of sheep. Behind me on the Hockley Link Road the traffic passed. This was the end of the line so there was nothing for it but to turn back and retrace my steps. On the return journey St Catherine’s Hill seemed to be right at the end of the viaduct and, to the east I could see the cutting for the road that had once caused so much fuss in Twyford. In no time at all I was walking back down the slope to Five Bridges Road. My viaduct adventure might have been over but there was still walking to do and I had a plan…