19 April 2015
Some time ago I had a comment on my blog, followed up by an email, about an organised walk. It was from a man I’d never met, a local councillor, occasional contributer to the Southampton Heritage Page and, it turns out, reader of my blog. As you know, I mostly walk alone and I’m not a great fan of organised walks. This one was in an area I knew very well, or thought I did, but the words history and nature jumped off the page. It sounded like an invitation I couldn’t refuse and when I spotted a poster for the very same walk on my way back from Lakeside last week it seemed like an omen.
So, Sunday morning found me taking a leisurely stroll through Riverside Park towards Swaythling Station to meet up with Bob and whoever else turned up. The sun was shining brightly and the sky turned the green river blue. I peered into the reedbeds as I passed looking for signs of nesting swans. I’m sure they must be in there because the only swans I saw along the river on my way were sporting tell tale grey flecks, telling me they were last year’s cygnets. There was one completely white swan at Woodmill, possibly a pen, but, as swans don’t mate until they’re about four, she could have been a juvenile.
As I approached Swaythling station I still had plenty of time but, I began to worry about funding the group. As it turned out I spotted Bob straight away, sitting outside all alone. Typically, I was the first to arrive. Although I recognised Bob from his Facebook profile he didn’t know who I was until I introduced myself. “I thought you were taller,” he said. Obviously the few published photos of me give a false impression of height. We sat for a while waiting for more people to arrive, chatting about the area. Being the local councillor and a resident, Bob has a wealth of knowledge and I began to wish I’d brought a tape recorder like a professional journalist. I will try to do him justice as best as my memory allows.
The name Swaythling comes from an old English word meaning misty stream. Monks Brook is that stream and the station right next to it opened in 1883. It is a listed building these days. It was used as a Remount Depot For the Legion of Frontiersmen and their horses, during World War I, and Bob talked about a bronze statue of a horse that is planned to commemorate them. Unfortunately, I was so busy talking I completely forgot to take any photos of the lovely old building so I shall have to return and put that right another day. It seems there are a lot of tales to tell.
Slowly, other people sauntered up and joined us, among them, Barbara, an old friend from my days of waiting in the playground for my boys. Then we were off, our first port of call St Mary’s Church South Stoneham, one of the two remaining medieval churches in the city, the other being St Michael’s in the city centre. A tree bursting with blossom arching over the gravestones made a pretty picture and Barbara and I got a little behind the group but we soon caught them up.
A little while ago I stood at the open door of the church and sneaked some photos, too nervous to go inside. This time, I’d get the full tour, although we did have to wait for the Sunday morning service to finish. While we did, Bob pointed out a few interesting graves. Most notable amongst these were the graves of the Gater family, of Gater’s Mill. Their plot right next to the church, surrounded by wrought iron fences shows their importance in the area and their wealth. Personally I liked the little grave of Emma Kyte, especially as her surname is a derivative of my own. Maybe we are related? We also loooked up at the sundial on the sixteenth century tower above the belfry window. Apparently the motto reads So Flies Life Away 1738, but my eyes are not good enough to confirm this.
Once the parishioners had filed out, dressed in their Sunday best, we went inside. It’s been a long time since I was inside a church. Thankfully there were no lightning bolts. The oldest part of the building is the twelfth century chancel although it’s said this was built on the site of a Saxon church. It has a beautiful stained glass window whose glory I couldn’t quite manage to capture.
High on the wall of the chancel, mounted under the oak beam is a medieval helmet. This, Bob told me, was dug up in the churchyard. It captured my imagination and I couldn’t help thinking of the story that lay behind it. Whoever it belonged to, it looked like it would have been hot and heavy to wear. I should think the poor knight or soldier was glad to be rid of it.
The nave of the church was built in around 1200 and includes a rather beautiful purbeck stone font dating from 1180. In around 1500, the bell tower was added and the north transcept, behind the font, was built in 1730. It houses an elaborate monument to Edmund Dummer, former owner of The Grange, the house that once stood beside Monks Brook on Mansbridge Road. The final addition was the south transcept, added in 1860. While I was standing there reading some of the information on the boards along the wall a man approached me.
The man, possibly the verger, held a silver chalice in his hands. As he handed it to me he told me it dated from 1630 and was used for communion. It’s still used today for special occasions, like the best wine glasses I keep for visitors. It felt strange to be holding something so old and valuable in my hand.
“Have you been to the church before?” he asked kindly as I looked at it, hands trembling.
“Not inside,” I admitted. “I’m not religious but I often come past and I love looking around the graveyard but the door is usually shut. It was open the other week when I was here but I didn’t like to come inside. Especially in my scruffy walking clothes.”
“Oh, you should have, it’s often open on a Tuesday because I’m here working on the garden. You should see me then, all covered in mud. If you come by again and see me working you can always ask me for the key, or you can join in with the gardening,” he said with a twinkle in his eye.
“I might just take you up on that,” I told him.
I might too. The inside of the church is filled with interesting memorials and plaques and I’d like to have spent more time just looking around.
So, we’d had our first taste of history and now it was time to experience nature. The route was familiar, across Monks Brook on the green bridge, a path I’ve walked many times. In fact, just last week I’d come this way back from Lakeside but, when we got there, I was surprised to see the stream bursting it’s banks. The trail I took a few weeks ago to look at the west bank of the Itchen was underwater and the path to Wide Lane was flooded too. It made no sense as we’ve had very little rain.
Bob explained the sluices upstream on the Itchen, probably at Otterborne, had been opened, meaning the water was forced into Monks Brook. The source of the brook is seven streams rising in the South Downs and, despite being called a brook, it’s actually designated as a river. It may not actually be quite as natural as it looks, it’s thought it was created in saxon times to prevent flooding in South Stoneham and evidence of a salmon fishery dates back to this time. It acted as a boundary between South and North Stoneham, the latter owned in the fourteenth century by the monks of Hyde Abbey near Winchester, hence the name. Before then this stretch was known as Swaythling Well.
South Stoneham House used the brook as a feature in the grounds, which were landscaped by Capability Brown. These days they belong to the University but I’d love to have a crafty peek at them. From there the brook runs into the Itchen near Woodmill where there was a salmon pool predating the Magna Carta. In fact, like the church, it dates back to saxon times. When the sluices up river were opened salmon were often flushed into the brook, giving the locals a nice little treat. Sadly there are very few salmon these days and, despite the open sluices, we saw none.
We all splashed along the path. My Skechers sandals filled with water but I wasn’t too worried, it was warm, they’d soon dry out and we weren’t walking fast. In fact there were lots of stops to look at flowers. Of course there were the patches of toothwort I’d seen last week and while others stopped to look at them I took pictures of marsh marigold. Probably one of the most ancient native plants, marsh marigold or kingcup survived the ice age and flourished in the meltwater as it came to an end. All parts of the plant are poisonous and can cause skin rashes so this is not a flower for picking.
There were bright patches of celandine everywhere and, beside the river bank, spring snowflake, or leucojum, bowed their frilly heads towards the water. They’re easy to bypass but when you look closely the White bell like flowers with their splashes of green are lovely. They are actually part of the amaryllis family.
It wasn’t all flowers. Barbara and I spotted a speckled wood butterfly sunning itself amongst the greenery. For once it stayed still long enough for me to get a photo. Although it did reinforce my hankering for a telephoto lens, it didn’t come out too bad. This is a common butterfly so there were no prizes for spotting it especially in its normal woodland habitat.
This area is part of the ancient woodland that once covered most of Southampton and its surroundings and one real ancient woodland plant seemed to be everywhere. Allium ursinum also known as ramsoms or wild garlic were beginning to flower all along the brook. Some of the group had never seen them before and were surprised by their garlicky scent and taste.
My wish for a telephoto lens intensified when Bob spotted a deer in the trees on the other side of the brook. Apparently there are often deer here, although I’ve never seen them before. Having said that, without Bob, I’d probably never have spotted this one. I did snap lots of photos but I can’t see the deer in them now when I look even though I know where it is.
Shortly we were crossing the blue bridge and entering what had once been the grounds of a manor house, The Grange. The oldest part of the house dated back to the fifteenth century and originally belonged to St Denys Priory. For many years the Dummer family, who are buried at St Mary’s, South Stoneham, lived there but, in 1905, Sir Smuel Montague, Lord Swaythling bought it. Between 1908 and 1912 it was used as the first Hampshire Home of Recovery and, after a break, it took on the same role after World War I. In 1914 the Montagues sold the house to RR Jenkyns and the Jenkyns family continued to live there until 1964 when a fire made it uninhabitable. Sadly, it was demolished in 1974 and the path we walked on runs right through where it once stood.
These days the land has been allowed to flood and the area beside the path is marshy and filled with bullrushes. Personally I like it that way but I’d have liked to see the house. We were fast approaching the gate to Mansbridge Road and Wide Lane and coming to the end of the area I was familiar with. The next part of the walk was the bit I was really looking forward to. Unchartered territory, at least for me and I had an Idea it might change my future walks to Eastleigh forever.