21 April 2015
Even before I crossed the road I could see the green sign was still there and my heart sank a little. Even so, I crossed and peered uncertainly up the towpath. It loooked dry and firm but still I dithered. Last year there was a bad breach where the path looked to be in danger of being washed away altogether. If I went ahead I could come seriously unstuck and have to turn back. The cracked wall was testement to just how bad the flooding had been. The wier was flowing fast, but it wasn’t as high as I’ve seen it. In the end I decided to give it a try.
The weir was built to replace the head gates of Albrook lock and control the flow of water on the Naviagtion. The curious stepped look it has is actually a fish ladder, presumably to help fish climb upstream. This is actually a replacement for the original Allbrook lock, which was buried under the railway embankment when the railway was built and the course of the canal changed. Unlike all the other turf sided locks on the Navigation, this one was built entirely of brick and much of it remains today, although the tail is under the bridge over Highbridge Road. At the top of the weir is a little hut with a blue roof, whether this belongs to the railway or is something to do with the weir I’m not sure but it always makes me smile.
There were cows behind the fence in Farmer Russel’s field but I had my eyes too firmly fixed on the path to pay them much attention. It looked far better than expected, it was dry and firm and I began to relax and feel better about the walk ahead. Further on the banks were crumbling a little, the towpath pitted and uneven but, as there was no longer water flowing across it, it caused me no problems. From Allbrook to Brambridge the Itchen and the Navigation run more or less side by side with this embankment between the two. For the most part you can see both waterways at once with the canal a little higher than the river. The spot where I remembered torrents of water running off into the Itchen seemed to have been filled in a little although I could still see the gravel running off to each side.
Further on sedges were flowering on the canal bank and red campion amongst the trees lining the river. These waterside plants help stabilise the bank and it’s only in the places where they’re missing that the banks crumble. Near Twyford they’re actively encouraging the waterside vegetation, perhaps they should consider it here, where it seems to flood most regularly.
Where the worst of the breaches were the path seemed to have been repaired with new, firmly packed gravel. The wooden bridge over the hatches looked new too, although it could have been there before, when I was too worried about my wet feet to notice. Not long after I’d passed the sluice gates there was a terrible kerfuffle on the river behind the trees, loud honking and a terrific flapping of wings that could only belong to a swan. Turning I riased my phone as three ducks flew past quacking at the tops of their voices, hotly perused by a swan. The last of the ducks was disappearing into the trees in my photo and the swan just coming into shot. The ducks circled round, still protesting loudly and the swan settled down on the river. I can only think this was a territorial battle.
By this time I was level with the alpaca farm. The first time I came this way I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw them. Sometimes there are ostriches in the field too. It’s not really what you expect to see on a sleepy Hampshire farm. Despite his unusual animals the farmer doesn’t seem all that friendly. Once when I passed he stood on the wooden bridge with a shotgun in his hand glaring across the water. Perhaps he doesn’t like people taking photos of his farm.
Not long after this I saw the bridge over the Itchen at Kiln Lane and knew I was almost at Brambridge. It was decision time again. Having satisfied myself that the path was perfectly walkable with no breaches or missing bits, did I carry on towards Winchester, maybe catch a train at Shawford, go along Kiln Lane and back via Otterborne, walk back to Allbrook and up the hill to the pond and woods there or turn back for Eastleigh? At the beginning I’d truly believed the path between Allbrook and Brambridge would be impassable so I never thought I’d make it this far.
At the road I sat on a rock by a patch of butterbur and dithered. Time was a factor, as was sustainance. While I thought, I ate the last of my snacks. My water was running out. I’d been out far longer than I’d planned. At this point Winchester was closer than home but, with trains only once an hour, I discounted it and Shawford almost at once. Kiln Lane was busier with traffic than I’d expected. As it has no footpath and I’d never walked that way before, I crossed that off the list too. It was obvious that, one way or another, I would have to turn back towards the weir at Allbrook. Once again I packed my rubbish in my rucksack and set off, still trying to decide what to do when I reached Highbridge Road.
By this time the heat and the fact that three small snacks and two small bottles of chocolate milk do not constitute lunch was beginning to take a toll. Tiredness was setting in. By the time I got back to Farmer Russell’s farm I’d been walking for four hours, not counting stops. When I looked in the field and saw goats rather than the cows I’d seen there earlier I thought I might be slightly delirious. As I was too busy looking at the path to take a picture of the cows they could have been a figment of my imagination I suppose, or maybe the goats were imporsonating cows all along.
Allbrook Hill seemed like a step too far so I carried on along the river as far as the bridge over Ham Farm and trudged up towards Eastleigh. As I was crossing Twyford Road near railway bridge a car stopped beside me.
“Didn’t I see you a little while ago at Kiln Lane?” the driver asked.
“You did,” I said.
“Have you walked all the way here?”
“I have,” I agreed. “In fact I started out this morning from Southampton and I’m on my way back there now.”
“That’s amazing,” he smiled. “Well done.”
At that point I can’t say I felt all that amazing. My skin was stiff with salt where I’d got so hot, my feet were filty and there were bits of vegetation in my hair when I ran my fingers through it.
By now it was after two, I was hungry and I needed to be back by three thirty at the latest to cook the dinner I’d planned for Commando. One of the reasons I took the week off work was to make sure his nutrition was spot on in the week before the London Marathon after all. It was time to concede defeat and get a train or a bus. This was when it all began to go wrong. A quick look at my watch told me I’d just missed a train and there wouldn’t be another for an hour. There were roadworks outside the station which meant a detour to cross to the bus stop. As I stood at the temporary crossing the bus went past. It would only have taken me to Portswood or Southampton anyway and I’d have to either walk or catch another bus. By the time the next one arrived I could probably have walked home quicker.
With a sigh, I crossed the road again and walked towards the Swan Centre. If I was going to walk home I’d need an energy boost. Obviously that came in the form of a take away latte. Clutching it, I marched off towards Lakeside. The short cut across Monks Brook Meadow I’d learned about at the weekend was a gamble but it would save me some time, not to mention road walking. I literally dashed across Lakeside at top speed. Around me people were strolling by the lakes or relaxing on the grass, anyone who noticed me must have wondered where the fire was.
Crossing Monks Brook I made my way along Stoneham Lane, stopping just long enough for a snap of St Nicolas’ Church and the famous One Hand Clock. This is somewhere I will have to explore further when I have more time and energy. There are no footpaths which is not ideal but, thankfully, there wasn’t much traffic and I made good progress. There was a tiny worry in the back of my mind that I wouldn’t be able to find the entrance to the playing fields and I’d have to turn back but, as it happened, I spotted it straight away.
Perhaps if I hadn’t been in such a hurry I’d have watched where I was putting my feet a little more carefully. The clock ticking away the minutes meant I didn’t and, about half way across the field, I stepped in some nettles. If I hadn’t been wearing my walking sandals it wouldn’t have been a problem.
The rest of the way home I limped along with my poor foot on fire. Still, the short cut worked out, it saved me about half a mile and Commando got his healthy dinner, even if I did get badly stung in the process. My little jaunt out to Allbrook had turned into an eighteen mile extravaganza but I’d learned a lot, not least of all to carry more food and be more careful about where I put my feet when there are nettles about. Another thing I learned is not to trust those big green signs on the Itchen Naviagtion.