21 April 2015
The first time I walked the stretch of the Itchen Navigation between Bishopstoke and Allbrook it ended in disappointment. A bridge had been stolen, or vandalised and I had to turn back. It would be a long time before I could walk the whole way but it was well worth the wait. Where the Southampton Eastleigh section is unkempt and overgrown this is well maintained and, as a bonus there are some lovely houses to look at. All in all it was far too tempting to bypass for the sake of a coffee so I crossed the road and set off beside the river.
The first part of the towpath is beautifully tarmaced and a joy to walk on after the miles of uneven, root crazed earth trails. For a while I lost myself in a haze of house envy looking at the houses and gardens on the opposite bank. Perhaps I should start to call it garden envy because in reality it’s the gardens I lust after. Soon I was at Stoke Lock where a footbridge crosses the tail. This leads into Bishopstoke and, one of these days, I’m going to explore it further.
The head of the lock has modern sluices and a weird fish pass which have obscured the original masonry from view. A little further on the River Itchen and the canal join. A large weeping willow hangs over the water giving one of the prettiest views on the whole Itchen Navigation in my opinion. On sunny days the reflection of the leaves and contorted branches could be a painting.
Not too far above this a side stream of the Itchen, the Barton River, breaks off through a set of sluices. The stream once powered Barton Peveril Mill but that, like so many interesting places, is now just a memory. The towpath, now packed dirt and gravel, winds around and crosses the sluices and, not long after I’d crossed, a pair of comma butterflies fluttered around me. One landed on the path and stayed there long enough for me to take a photo. The poor thing had half a wing missing.
There are open meadows beside the path here and the river meanders through them but, hidden behind the distant trees thick ribbons of train rails stretch off towards Eastleigh. This was once the main carriage works for the railway but these closed some years ago and the site is now mainly used to store rolling stock. As the railway tracks come ever closer to the river, Withymead comes into view. The bridge has now been replaced, thanks to the generosity of farmer Henry Russell of Highbridge.
Withymead lock was unusual. Most locks keep the top gates closed and the bottom gates open with any excess water passing through holes in the top gates. At Withymead Lock there is a small stream to carry the excess water instead. The water runs back through hatches to the main river leaving a small peninsular of land with the bridge at the top. A large tree now grows close to the bridge and I noticed it had a hollow in it that looked almost seat like. It seemed like a good place to stop for my next chocolate milk and snack. In fact it was surprisingly comfortable and I lingered for a while enjoying the view of the new bridge across the lock head.
There is a weir now where the gates would once have been and, while I ate, water burbled through into what was once the lock chamber. With my lunch break finished I wandered down to the tip of the peninsular where the bricks of the lock tail can just be seen through the mass of ivy and shrubs. The original towpath crossed at this point but the bridge now crosses the head of the lock. Much as I’d have liked to sit in my tree seat all day listening to the river I knew I couldn’t so I packed my rubbish into my rucksack and crossed.
The railway lines are very close to the next stretch of towpath, with huge bright yellow and red metal structures just visible behind the trees. The water here is clear and bright green with what could be watercress. Before long there is a railway arch where the main line to London crosses the canal. The bridge was built in 1838 but extended in 1943 in preparation for the invasion of Europe. A large tree has fallen across the path, making a bridge before the bridge. It fell during the terrible floods last winter but, unless you’re tall, doesn’t cause too many problems.
Now it really is garden envy territory. The opposite bank is lined by gardens that run down to the river. Many have small decks or patios and seats where owners can sit and watch the river flow past. If they were mine you’d never drag me away from the garden. There’s a rustic bench along the path and I sat for a moment to remove a stone from my shoe and take a much needed drink from my water bottle. It was hard to leave.
Before long I passed Ham Bridge, leading to Ham Farm, a lovely thatched pub on Twyford Road. From here the Navigation gently bends around the bottom of the steep hill to Allbrook. There’s a wood and a lake at the top that I keep meaning to check out but the steepness of the hill always puts me off. This stretch of canal is a diversion to the original, built by the railway company in 1838 when the track for the Southampton to London line was laid. Huge pylons march across the water meadows to my right, they make me wonder why people are so unhappy to see wind turbines in the countryside but don’t mind these massive metal monsters.
The gardens sloping down to the water are larger here and I smelled fresh cut grass as I passed. After some pleasant dreaming about what it would be like to live in the riverside houses, tempered by the knowledge that grass cutting would be a full time job, I came to the next railway bridge. A pretty bunch of ladies smocks were growing beside the bridge and, on the other side, is a plant hire depot. Within moments I reached Higbridge Road.
There have been warning signs saying the path is closed all the way along the Navigation since last winter’s floods. It seems the council is very good about putting them up but not quite so good at taking them down again when the problem is over. Consequently, most people ignore them. The larger, more emphatic green signs at Allbrook are a relatively new feature and one I’ve taken heed of so far. The last time I walked this stretch the majority of the towpath was breached, in some places badly, with water rushing in a torrent from the canal to the lower level of the Itchen beside it. The question was, were the signs still meaningful or was the path passable? Did I dare try to find out?