21 April 2015
Last week, walking to Lakeside, I was thinking about the Itchen Navigation. The urge to change my plans and go there instead was very strong, but I didn’t. If I had I wouldn’t have seen the swan’s nest so I’m glad I went with my original plan but this week the Navigation was top of my list. It was early when I left and chilly, despite the sun, so I wore my thin parka. There were snacks and water in my rucksack. How far I’d go was anyone’s guess, weather, time and breached banks would tell.
So, yet again I walked along the river towards Mansbridge. How many times have I walked that path I wonder? The two and a half miles that had once seemed like a long, long way flew by and I was soon at the bridge. There has been a bridge at Mansbridge since at least 932, but the bridge I crossed on Tuesday is not that old. It was built in 1816 and it’s hard to believe the Itchen Navigation barges were able to get under this low bridge. When the river is high and the flow fast I’ve seen canoeists struggle, but it’s thought they may have had to be winched through.
I crossed, walked under the new road bridge and, with a quick look along the Itchen towards the White Swan, set off across the open fields. This was where the Navigation canal departed from the river proper. These days this stretch is, sadly, dry, or dryish. On the other side of the field the narrow trail disappears into the trees. One tree was bursting with pink blossom. It looked like an apple tree to me, which could come in handy for a weary walker in the autumn.
Before I crossed the bridge over the tail of Mansbridge Lock, I took a quick detour to the pond just off the trail. This is Mansbridge Resevoir, part of a pumping station, used to supply water to the reservoirs on the Common between 1851 and 1892. It’s not part of the Navigation but, with its covering of lily pads and the new leaves on the trees reflected in the water, it was worth a visit. In honesty, it was not much of a detour because it’s just a few steps from the lock tail.
The lowest lock on the Navigation is actually Woodmill, at the point where tidal and non tidal river meets. This was a sea lock with two pairs of gates upstream to hold back the non tidal water and a third pair downstream to stop high tides flooding the Navigation with sea water. There was a brick built chamber with a wooden swing bridge for road traffic. Nothing is left of the lock these days, although its remains may be under the road, so Mansbridge Lock is the first visible Navigation lock.
As with all the locks on the Navigation, the gates are long gone and the bricks of the lock tail, half hidden by the modern wooden bridge and a mass of tangled vegetation, are hard to spot. When the bargemen walked up and down this towpath there was a wooden bridge just below the lock tail taking them and their horses across the canal. The remains of the lock head are remarkably well preserved, standing right next to the first triangular marker stone. In case there is any doubt there is a small round plaque proclaiming this Mansbridge Lock.
Just above the lock head the canal has been dammed so the water that’s gathered in the old lock chamber is stagnant. Above the dam much of this stretch of the canal is dry or boggy depending on the weather and time of year. Near the dam are a mass of water iris. They’ll make a pretty sight when they’re in flower. Beyond the towpath, to the east, the water meadows run behind the White Swan pub. One of these days I might explore them.
Soon the path turns sharply south east diverting from the original towpath alongside the motorway. This part of the walk could never be called pleasant with cars roaring past behind the thin cover of trees. The motorway was built in the mid 1980’s effectively cutting off the canal. Land has been set aside to reroute the canal, should it ever be reopened. It seems a shame they couldn’t have just built a bridge to carry the motorway over the Navigation, disused or not. After several hundred yards the path turns back in the opposite direction at the bridge over the North Stoneham Carrier, a stream draining the water meadows into the Itchen.
Finally, after about half a mile of rather unpleasant diversion up and down each side of the motorway, it’s back to the real towpath. Now the remnants of the canal are mostly hidden by a cover of trees and shrubs and the towpath runs between these and a low barbed wire fence with water meadows beyond. Behind the screen of trees is the airport although you’d never know it. As I strolled along through the dappled shade and blacktorn blossom there were flowering sedges and white ladies smocks to look at. There were nettles too so I had to watch where I put my sandalled feet.
Close to Sandy Lock patches of bluebells were growing beside the fence, some pale pink like a few in my garden. Quite why this happens is a mystery. To the uninitiated it’s hard to spot the lock through the thick tangle of trees and plants obscuring the brickwork. the tell tale sign of the trail rising steeply upwards gives the clue to its presence and there is a plaque if your eyes are keen.
Because we’ve had so little rain recently the canal is dry at this point so I took the opportunity to climb down when the undergrowth thinned out. With trees leaning this way and that and the ground littered with wild flowers and fallen branches it’s hard to imagine it filled with water and barges.
The meadows on the other side of the fence belong to the Itchen Valley Country Park and there are gates at intervals to go from one to the other. There is another lock here somewhere, Decoypond Lock. It’s hidden somewhere in the tunnel of brambles, trees and blackthorn but tree roots have grown through the brickwork and I have never managed to find it.
A little further on there’s a trail that crosses the Navigation. There are a few side trails like this and I’ve often wondered where they lead but have always been too intent on the destination to stop and explore. This one was, as far as I can tell, once a bridge called New Barn Bridge and led to North Stoneham Farm, now part of the airport. On a whim, I decided to check it out. It led to a wide meadow and, in the distance, a fantastic view of the runway. As I’d been walking for about an hour and a half at this point and it was beginning to get hot, I took my parka off, sat on it and stopped for a drink of chocolate milk and a quick snack. I was hoping a plane would take off or land while I was there but I wasn’t in luck. There was walking to do so, reluctantly, I tied my parka around my waist and left. I will be back though.
It wasn’t long before I came to Lock House Lock, sometimes known as Chicken Hall Lock. Until the end of the Second World War there was a lock cottage here but there’s nothing left of it today. The masonry is in good condition and, some time ago, mature trees growing in the chamber have been cut down, making it easy to see. A little way beyond the lock the path dips down where there were once hatches to let the water into the meadows.
The trees along here are thick and I walked through dappled light to the next side trail. The map tells me this leads to the houses behind the old carriage works. Whether or not you can get out onto the road remains to be seen. Not wanting to leave the Navigation or double back on myself, I left it for another day and carried on to the most difficult part of the trail. The trees open up on the south east and the land dips down steeply into a marshy area filled with reeds. The trail is narrow, wobbly and, in places, slopes alarmingly towards to bog. It takes a lot of concentration to cross, especially when it’s muddy, and I’m always fearful of tumbling down the bank.
It was a relief to make it to the other side in once piece and come out in the woodland by the railway bridge. The railway ultimately caused the demise of the Navigation and, when it was built, there were two arches, one crossing the canal and the other allowing landowners to pass through. By 1979 the bridge over the canal was in poor condition and, to cut costs, a rather makeshift corrugated iron and cement construction was built to replace it. Even so, British Rail made sure it was wide enough to carry the Navigation, if it was ever restored.
On Tuesday the tunnel was filled with old tree stumps, the remains of a fire, an abandoned coat and a few empty beer cans. It looked as if someone had been having a party. What a pity they didn’t tidy up afterwards. Still, on the other side I had views of water meadows again, at least for a while. There were a few cows munching away in the distance and some ramshackle sheds. Occasionally the cows have been a little too close to the fence for comfort when I’ve passed.
It wasn’t long before I was back in a tunnel of trees and, for the next quarter of a mile, I was joined by the tiny flies that always seem to hang out there. They’re about the size of midges but, thankfully, don’t seem to bite and I think they are attracted by the water treatment plant behind the trees. In summer they can be a real irritation. The bend in the trail leading onto a farm track is always a welcome sight. This gap in the real towpath is short lived but it takes concentration not to miss the track beside a private fishery. In the past I’ve ansentmindedly wandered up Chicken Hall Lane. On Tuesday I was vigilant and was soon passing the locked fishery gate and crossing the bridge.
From here to Winchester there is water in the canal and, as a result, the towpath is quite eroded in places. It felt good to be walking beside water again and soon I passed the ford where I saw people swimming some years ago. After that the water meadows opened out on both sides of me and behind the towpath fence there were cows looking at me suspiciously. The first time I came this way the meadow was filled with buttercups, on Tuesday it was dandelions but I always think of these as the buttercup fields,
The final lock on this part of the Navigation is Coneger Lock. The brickwork of the tail gate can be seen as a step leading up to the bridge crossing it and the brickwork of the chamber is very well preserved, if overgrown. Further up there are hatches and culverts once used to drown the water meadows. There are also rapids caused by erosion following the collapse of the top cill of the lock.
Soon I’d reached the gate at the end of the Mansbridge to Bishopstoke section of the Navigation. I had half a mind to turn towards Eastleigh and coffee then make my way back home through Monks Brook Meadow. Then again, I couldn’t help wondering if the breached banks of Allbrook would be passable given the dry weather.