8 September 2019
With a mixture of excitement and fear I set off along the path beside the church. Looking at the map I’d discovered it had a name, Berry Lane, so I figured it must be well used. Hopefully this would mean I didn’t get hopelessly lost or find the way blocked somewhere ahead and have to turn back. The map suggested the path split in two somewhere, with one end coming out in Shawford Road, not far from the Bridge Pub, and the other leading to Compton Lock. Of course, maps can be deceptive but I was hoping I’d be able to use this path as part of my twenty mile walk with Kim.
In the graveyard behind the fence I could see coloured ribbons fluttering from the trees. Wondering what they were for distracted me from worrying about what lay ahead. My main fear, as ever, was cows. The fields beside Compton Lock are almost always filled with cows and I know these unpredictable beasts can cause major problems for walkers. My recent encounter with the angry brown cow at Bishopstoke was very much in the front of my mind.
A small group of people, two men and a woman, followed me down the lane. Part of me was glad to see them because it suggested the path really did lead somewhere, even if it wasn’t where I thought. Another part was annoyed not be be exploring this place alone. As I’d rather have them in front of me than behind, I slowed right down hoping they would pass.
The other walkers weren’t the only reason for my slow pace. When I was trying to find out more about the path I’d found some information about sarsen stones in the area. These stones are dense hard rocks made of a kind of silicified sandstone left behind after the last ice age. They were used in the building of Stonehenge, Avebury and other megalithic monuments. Legend has it that there is a Bronze Age circle of twelve stones beneath the church here, the remains of a Druid temple. There are also two stones on Berry Lane and I was very much hoping to find them. It was actually easier than I’d expected. Without really looking I spotted a large oblong stone at the side of the lane. This, I was sure, was one of the sarsen stones.
Much to my relief, while I was examining the stone and taking a photograph, the other walkers went past. Still walking very slowly, half looking for the other stone, half hoping to put some distance between us, I followed. Sadly, I didn’t see any more stones but I did find a bridge just ahead. The men had obviously already crossed while I was staring at the undergrowth but the woman’s was still just ahead. Right before the bridge was a sign saying ‘private bridge please use footpath.’ As the bridge looked like the only way of getting across the river this was confusing but the woman simply walked over the bridge and, still hanging back, I followed her.
The bridge seemed to be made of railway sleepers, or something very similar. To my right there were railings but to the left there was nothing to stop me stepping into the water. The river looked so clear and cool I might have been tempted to sit and dangle my feet if I’d had more time and hadn’t been slightly worried about the sign I’d just passed.
When I reached the other side of the bridge and stopped to look back I realised there really was a footpath running behind the railings at the side of the bridge. There was even a little gate. This path had been hidden by vegetation from the other side though, suggesting very few people ever take notice of the sign and use the path.
Right after the bridge was a wooden gate plastered with various signs I probably should have stopped to read. The woman, and presumably the men, had already gone though and, while I wanted to keep some distance between us, I didn’t want to lose sight of them altogether in case the trail ahead was hard to follow.
By the time I got through the gate the woman was some way ahead and I could just about see the men between a line of trees to my left. This must be the point where the two trails I’d seen on the map divide. The men must be heading towards Shawford and the woman towards Compton Lock, where I was going. The trail, two very clear lines in the long grass, looked easy enough to follow but I wasn’t quite ready to let the woman out of my sight yet.
There was quite a lot of cow dung on the trail, which was a bit of a worry. If there were cows ahead I hoped the woman would distract them, or at least call help if they attacked me. Despite all the dung, there were no actual cows as far as I could see though but there was another gate on the far side of the field.
While the woman went through the gate I stopped to look around me. This was when I made a surprising discovery. Behind me, roughly north east of the trail, was the hill I’d often seen from the Navigation trail. This was where I’d always thought the church and the bench where I’d sat were. It was now clear I’d been wrong. The church, the footpath and the bench were much further south and, although I felt I’d been on quite high ground looking down over the river, there was no discernible hill that way at all.
With a gate ahead and a woman to keep in sight there was no time to ponder this revelation. Instead I kept moving forwards, went through the gate and discovered yet another bridge. By the time I crossed the bridge the woman was already quite some way in the distance but now the landscape looked so familiar I was confident I could find my way alone.
There was a dead tree in the field, bleached grey by years of sun and rain. I was sure I’d seen it from the Navigation trail. On the other side of the field I could see more gates. They looked like the kissing gates over the hatches at Compton Lock. Something else I could see was a white cow over by the trees to my left. It had its back to me and seemed to be the only cow in the field but I didn’t plan to hang around looking for more. Keeping one eye firmly fixed on the cow, I hurried across the field.
Once the hatches were in sight I felt a little safer. The woman was still ahead, a little closer now thanks to my cow fuelled dash, but she hadn’t gone though the gate. Instead she seemed to be following another trail along the edge of the field going in roughly the same direction as the Navigation trail. Briefly, I thought about following her, curious where this new trail would lead.
In the end I stuck to the path I knew. There was another unexplored trail ahead I was keen to explore so this new one would have to wait for another day. As I went though the kissing gate over the hatches I thought about the day CJ and I had come across a young bull on the tow path here. The field I’d just crossed had been filled with white cows that day, the young bull must have escaped from there but how remains a mystery to this day. The only way onto the tow path seems to be through the kissing gate and, walking through it now, I couldn’t see how the bull could possibly have got through.
Now, feeling fairly confident Kim and I would be able to use this trail, notwithstanding cows, I could relax a little. There were quite a few people gathered around Compton Lock but no one walking the trail. For the first time since I’d left the church at Twyford, I was on my own.
On I went, following the tow path through the various gates towards the Twyford hatches. There were cows in a field to my right but they were far in the distance and behind a stout fence. The canal running beside me was a picture of serenity and there were wildflowers to admire.
When I came to the hatches, used long ago to drown the water meadows, I knew the next unexplored trail was close by. Usually I would keep going forwards until I reached the Hockley Link Road but today I was hoping to get back to Winchester without having to walk along this horrible road at all. If I was right about the trail it could make future walks along the Navigation much more pleasant.
Just after the hatches there is a trail that runs off sharply to the right of the tow path. Many times I’ve passed it and been tempted to see where it goes, today was the first time I’d ever walked it. There was a cow watching me as I set off. Thankfully there was also a fence, although it looked quite rickety.
The trail was narrow and overhung with trees in places but quite pleasant to walk. There were fields to my right behind the fence and water running to my left. This, I was almost certain, was actually part of the old Navigation canal before all the new roads were built and parts were culverted. A little further along I saw another cow and a glimpse of some buildings, almost certainly part of the farm opposite the Hockley Golf Club.
Now I knew I must be nearly back at the road through Twyford. Through another tunnel of trees and over a small bridge that might once have been a lock, and the footpath sign I’d been so tempted to follow earlier was in front of me. The trail had led me right where I expected it to with no obstacles to negotiate. Next time I walk the Itchen Navigation I think this is the route I’ll chose.
Once I’d crossed the Hockley Link Road it was plain sailing back to Winchester. Near the viaduct I met two women looking for St Catherine’s Hill and gave them directions. On Domum Road a group of pacers came past and shouted hello. Commando was not amongst them but at least I knew my timing wasn’t too far off.