Strolling, rushing and history bubbles

30 March 2019

Most Saturday mornings I can be found at Southampton parkrun. Usually I’m clutching a takeaway coffee and wandering around the Old Cemetery while everyone runs. Right now though Commando is at the long run stage of his training for the Southampton Marathon and today he decided he’d incorporate parkrun into his twenty mile run. This meant setting off at silly o’clock, parking near the Common, running seventeen miles then running parkrun.

Obviously I didn’t much fancy getting up before dawn then hanging about for several hours on the Common. Much as I love a wander, even I would find it hard to stay interested in old graves for quite that long. The temptation was to have a lie in and stay at home but, in the end, I descided to have a leisurely walk to parkrun and meet Commando after the run. Sadly, it didn’t turn out to be quite as leisurely as I’d have liked.

It started well. By my reckoning, if I left home at eight thirty, a good half hour after we normally set off, I could dawdle my way to the Common, stopping on the way to grab a coffee from the London Road Starbucks and still arrive before everyone headed off to the Bellemoor for the post run cool down. The last runners don’t usually finish until around ten o’clock and Commando usually mans the finish funnel after his run. There didn’t seem to be any hurry.

It was a beautiful, blue sky morning and the main road was surprisingly quiet. Before I crossed I stood for a moment admiring the outline of the remaining big tree between Juniper and Maple Road. On the other side of the road I strolled on, thinking about the way tree branches look like the bronchi and bronchioles of human lungs. As trees are the lungs of the world, this is hardly a coincidence.

On I dawdled, enjoying the weak spring sunshine. Normally I’d walk across Cobden Bridge and up through Highfield but today I’d decided on a different route, one that would take me past Starbucks. When I reached Northam Bridge I stopped and admired all the little boats in various states of decay on the gently rippled water. Where they come from is a mystery but I love the ever changing view.

As I reached the centre of the bridge a group of rowers from the rowing club passed beneath me and I stopped to watch them for a while, confident there was no rush. Saturday morning seems to be the time for exercise, whether it be rowing, running or just walking like me.

There was another stop to look over the bridge at the progress on the latest phase of development on the old television studios. A tall block of flats is currently going up. For some time I stood trying to imagine how it would look and wondering what I thought about it. We all live wrapped in our own little bubble of history, centred around the decades when we grew up. Change can sometimes be difficult to watch but our little bubble was once someone else’s change and this new change will be someone else’s bubble. Nothing stays the same forever.

On I went, past the new flats and houses, remembering walks to work when this was all overgrown wire fencing and rubble. There were berries and poppies to look at back then and a random gooseberry bush. Then someone shouted out ‘good morning ‘ and I turned just in time to see Luis zooming past on his bike. He must have been heading to parkrun too. He had around ten minutes to get there before the start but I was pretty sure he’d make it, more or less. Southampton parkrun rarely starts bang on nine o’clock anyway.

On foot it would take much longer but I had no need to be there for the start. At the level crossing I climbed the steps to the bridge, even though the gates were up. The views from the top are nice and I was in no hurry. A little clump of dandelions had taken root somehow near the top step. The bright flowers made me stop and smile.

There were no trains coming but I couldn’t resist a photograph looking along the tracks. The old gasometers and the struts of St Mary’s Stadium were just visible in the distance. At the top of the steps on the other side there was a view across Mount Pleasant towards Beovis Valley. The Old Farmhouse pub and the school tower stood out, landmarks in a sea of little terraced houses.

As I passed the school I looked at my watch. It was five to nine. I wouldn’t make the parkrun start but I’d never intended to. I had plenty of time to get a coffee and dawdle my way to the Common before the finish.

As I was walking up Rockstone Lane though, I suddenly remembered I had Commando’s barcode in the tiny pocket at the front of my bag. A quick check confirmed this. Usually I grab his token when he finishes and go off to get it and his barcode scanned while he helps with the finish funnel. His barcode stays in my bag so it never gets forgotten. Last night I meant to give it to him but I forgot and it was still in my bag. Without it he wouldn’t get a finish time.

All thoughts of getting a coffee and wandering on Asylum Green to look at the two monuments there dissolved. There was no more strolling. Now I puffed up the lane to the Avenue at top speed. Even the curious little house in the Rockstone Community Garden barely made me pause. Finding out about it would have to wait for another day.

The rest of the walk was a frantic march, racing against time. By the time I reached Cemetery Road I was hot and rather red in the face. It was quarter past nine. The first finisher would probably be passing Bellemoor corner about now. By the time I made the bag tree people were already on the finish straight. Finding a gap between runners, I dashed across the gravel and headed for the funnel.

Somehow I made it just in time to see Commando cross the line. Mission complete. Barcode and token collected and scanned. Now for a relaxing coffee in the Bellemoor. What a way to start the weekend.

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Pavement chalk, a chalk stream and reclaimed land

27 March 2019

My task for today was to get some pavement chalk. Commando and Rob were hosting a time trial on the Common and needed something eco friendly to mark the start and finish line. Pavement chalk seemed the obvious choice but it proved harder to find than you’d think. CJ was sure they’d have some in Hobbycraft. My feeling was he was angling for a river walk and a coffee but I had to admit it was worth a try. At least we’d get a nice walk.

It wasn’t the best of days weatherwise, but it wasn’t raining so we wrapped up and headed for Cutbush Lane. There were bluebells and celandine in the woods beside the trail to remind us spring had sprung, even if the temperature didn’t feel very springlike.

Most of the trees were still bare but there was a softening to the tips suggesting leaves soon to come. The edges of colourless winter had been brightened by patches of green here and there. Spring seems to be starting on the ground with the wildflowers and grasses but soon enough it will work it’s way up into the highest branches.

Cutbush Lane runs in a gully down through what was farmland before Townhill Park and Chartwell green were built. Although there are houses almost in touching distance, it’s easy to forget them and feel like you’re walking along a country lane. The gnarled old tree, clinging precariously to the bank here has probably been there longer than the modern houses and flats and, with a void large enough to sit in beneath its roots, it always surprises me when I see it still standing.

“I’d forgotten how long this lane is,” CJ said. “It seems to go on forever.”

“Don’t start with the ‘are we nearly there yet,’ too soon,” I laughed. “We’ve a way to go yet.”

Then I pointed out the cow feeder, high up on the bank and reminded him of how lost we got the day we went wandering in Chartwell Copse. We’d wound our way along so many lanes and cutaways we lost all sense of direction and when we looked down onto Cutbush Lane we thought we’d discovered a new footpath.

It’s been a long while since we last walked this way. So long in fact, that CJ almost missed the turn at the end of the downward stretch of the lane and began to walk the trail leading to Cutbush Hidden Pond. He was soon back on track though and it wasn’t long before we reached hobbycraft. We located the pavement chalk without too much trouble. Getting out of the place without spending a fortune was a little more difficult.

Next door, in the Swan Garden Centre, we got some takeaway coffees. The place was crowded and noisy so we decided against sitting inside to enjoy our drinks. Instead we headed down Gaters Hill towards the river. Since we last came this way a huge new building has sprung up all squares of concrete and glass. It isn’t the most attractive of things and not really in keeping with the old mill buildings below it. Those mill buildings are a little more visible now though so I guess you win some, you lose some.

My original plan had been to drink our coffee on a bench by the old Mansbridge Bridge but, when we got to the bottom of the hill, I spotted a picnic bench close to the boundary stone. Maybe it’s been there all along but I’ve never noticed it before and it seemed like a good place to sit. It took us a while to get across the road and the cars whizzing past made it less peaceful than I’d have liked but the views across the river to the watermeadows made up for it.

The trees here had a definite hint of green about them and the grass was sprinkled with daisies. Usually there are cows in the meadows and fishermen on the bank but today there were none. Once our coffee was finished we made our way towards the White Swan. A sign on a lamppost explained the lack of fishermen. Apparently it’s closed season for fishing.

So we walked on, past the Swan, wondering why we hadn’t thought to have our coffee there and deciding, maybe next time? As we headed for the bridge I kept on the lookout for signs of nesting swans. In the past I’ve seen the remains of nests along the bank here but, today, there were none. Last year we didn’t see a single mute swan cygnet on this stretch of the river although the black swans seem to be multiplying. Whether these two things are connected isn’t clear but the lack of cygnets is a worry.

The old Mansbridge Bridge acts as the halfway point of this circular walk. It may not be exactly half way in distance but it’s the point where we begin to head back towards home. Even on a dull, overcast day like today, there is something about seeing the arch of that old stone bridge that makes me smile.


This is also the point most likely to be flooded and, over the last year or so, there’s been a pump here continually working to pump excess water from the marshy land behind the trees. How successful this was I can’t say but the pump has now gone and the land is still waterlogged. When I was much younger I used to walk this way to the pub sometimes. Back then I don’t remember it ever being flooded, now it’s a veritable pond. Still, the willows seem to like it, if the bright, acid green of their new leaves is anything to go by.

We saw our first swans of the day just after we passed the bridge. A cob and pen were swimming up river, close to our bank so we stopped briefly to say hello. This produced a hiss from the cob and we walked on smiling. Whenever I see swans on this part of the river I wonder if they are the cygnets orphaned at a young age back in 2014?

Although there was no flooding on the path, the river was very high today. We stopped for a moment or two to watch it tumbling off towards the fish ponds of the Woodmill Activity Centre. A little further on a very large tree had fallen, thankfully away from the river. Its huge rootball stuck up from the bank exposing river mud and a tangle of branches and roots. Last summer was so dry I’m not surprised trees are falling.

Some trees seem to have coped better with the stress than others. There was blossom on the trees beside River Walk and bright forsythia flowers by the car park on Woodmill Lane. Soon enough everything will be green and winter will seem like a cold dream.

The greylags on the riverbank here are another sign that spring is coming. They’ve left their winter homes in warmer climes and come to the river to breed. Something about the area around Woodmill seems to appeal to them as they gather here in large numbers and are quite unafraid of people. Today there were just a handful, sitting on the bank looking haughty as we passed. They may be only spring and summer visitors but there’s no doubt they feel they own the place and we are the interlopers.

Once we passed the mill we’d left the freshwater behind. The river from here is tidal, the water salty like the sea. The sluices here control the river’s flow, although they are old and in a poor state of repair. There has been talk of removing them altogether because the cost of replacing or repairing them is high. What this would mean for the river as a whole is hard to say.

As we carried on it was disappointing to see a mass of litter strewn around one of the bins not far from the mill. Sadly, this is becoming more and more common of late. Picking up the rubbish wasn’t an option as the bin was so full there would have been nowhere to put it and we had not come equipped with bin bags or gloves. I’m beginning to think we should carry both on all our walks. The litter seemed to be the remains of some kind of picnic party, all empty food wrappers and plastic cups. This kind of thing makes me extremely angry. If someone can carry bags full of food and drink to the river for a party, why can’t they pick up their rubbish and carry it home again? I’m sure they wouldn’t just drop their rubbish on the carpet at home. There really is no excuse for such filthy, lazy behaviour.

Rounding the bend by the reedbeds always feels like the final leg of our journey. The old oak on the bend with its beautifully contorted branches, is a particular favourite of mine. It’s quite possible the tree is actually older than the park. Back in the 1930’s this was marshland, known locally as Cobden Meadows. Cows grazed on the land but it often flooded and water sometimes came up to the backs of the houses on Manor Farm Road. The council had grand plans for the area though and, over the next decade or so, land was reclaimed and a retaining wall built along the riverbank.

By 1949 work had begun to create a new park alongside the River Itchen, where people could enjoy the fresh air and walk beside the water all the way to Mansbridge if they wished. This walk along the river is one I often take advantage of. For all the grumbles there are about the council, creating this lovely park seems to me to be one of their better decisions.

Now we’d almost reached the jetty where the swans gather. Earlier I’d been thinking about the lack of mute swan cygnets last year and worrying a little that the prolific breeding of the black swans was responsible. Just before we reached the jetty though, we spotted a swan still sporting brownish grey feathers. Obviously this was a cygnet from last year. Further on there were several more. So much for my worrying. We may not have seen any cygnets but these birds were proof there were some. Maybe they’d been hiding from us or perhaps we just weren’t looking hard enough?

The swans put on quite a show for us in the last few yards of our walk. A loud flapping and splashing alerted us to two mute swans taking flight. Seeing these gigantic birds take to the air is a rare treat and these two seemed to be heading up towards the reedbeds. A few moments later two of the black swans tried to show off their flying skills. Their flight was much shorter but it did give us a great view of their white flight feathers.

We were now just yards from Cobden Bridge and, with just over a mile to walk home, our little adventure was almost over. Six or more miles might seem like a long way to walk to buy some chalk but there really is nothing quite as nice as a spring walk along the river.

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Changes afoot

27 September 2018

When everyone around you is going down with colds and flu it feels like it’s only a matter of time before your turn comes. When I got up this morning there was a definite feeling of lurgie going on but I told myself I was probably imagining it. Besides, I had a package to deliver to a friend who lives close to the Millennium Flats so, ignoring a slight soreness of throat and muzzy head, my feet retraced footsteps from many previous walks. The route may have been all too familiar but the scenery has changed somewhat since I last came this way.

When I reached Northam Bridge I stopped for a while, leaned on the railings and looked at the calm clear water and the proliferation of boats in various stages of decomposition. In part this was because I quite like looking at the boats but also because my legs were feeling a little wobbly and my head more than a touch on the fuzzy side.   

Eventually I got moving again, albeit rather slowly. On the far side of the bridge it was clear a lot of building work has gone on while I’ve been walking elsewhere. There are new, rather swanky looking, flats on the old TV studio site and the ground is being cleared for even more. 

The flats look quite nice, especially the ones with balconies looking out over the water, although I can’t help wondering if the views will be obstructed by the next phase of the building work. Something else I wonder about is the blue painted fence along the river path. It seems a terrible shame to offer river views but not provide any access to the path. Hopefully, when the work is finished the fence will be removed.

Work is going on to build a play area and a small garden area. Trees are in the process of being planted and it looks as if it will be a nice place for the flat owners to sit. Hopefully the desolate park will also get a bit of a makeover once all the building work is complete. It could certainly do with it.

Summers Street has changed beyond all recognition. Once it was a street with just one house and now there are rows of new front doors and parking spaces. As I walked past the new buildings it was hard to remember the chain fence I used to pass each day with its overgrown shrubs laden with flowers or berries depending on the season and the little gooseberry bush that had always seemed so incongruous.

Around the corner the rubble and poppies have been replaced by yet more front doors and something that looks like shops to let. Hopefully they won’t end up being painted shops like the ones across the road.

Once I’d turned the next corner things began to look much more familiar. The industrial estate hasn’t changed a bit and the swans were still by the big rocks, just where they always used to be. They gave me an accusing look as I passed by. Whether this was because I didn’t have any food for them or because they wondered where I’d been I couldn’t tell. There were just two swans today and no cygnets at all. This has been a year sadly lacking in both swans and cygnets.

Beside the boardwalk the hippie ship was almost submerged. The shore around it seemed far more littered than I remember it. Someone had even dumped an old shopping trolley. It reminded me of the tin can sculpture I used to see every day when I worked on the industrial estate. The sculpture, a life sized woman made from hundreds of tin cans pushing a shopping trolley, was in the water close to the bridge. It was obviously not an official piece of artwork and, even though it was made of junk, it always made me smile. Sadly, in those days, I never had a mobile phone or a camera so I never managed to take a photo of her. This shopping trolley was definitely not a sculpture and I rather wished it wasn’t there at all.

Feeling sad that the poor swans have to live beside so much discarded human rubbish, I started off along the boardwalk. This, at least, was relatively litter free. Surprisingly, it was also empty of people. Usually there are cyclists and walkers going back and forth taking advantage of the short cut and the serene views across the river. It was quite nice to have the place all to myself for once.

About half way along my pleasure was interrupted by another sorry sight. A section of the boardwalk railing has been broken. This was obviously the work of vandals, as it must have taken quite some effort to break the railings and the missing poles were nowhere in sight. Why someone would do such a thing is beyond me but it made me sad to see it.

A little further on I found something to return the smile to my face. A large grasshopper was sitting on the railing looking for all the world as if he was sunbathing. He was even kind enough to let me take a few photos.

By now I was approaching the end of the boardwalk. Ahead the Millenium Flats were perfectly reflected in the still water and a small boat was heading downstream towards me. Idly, I wondered where it was going. Then I spotted a flash of bright orange in the trees beside the railway line. It was too big to be a plastic carrier bag caught in the branches. Curious, I walked on.

When I got close enough to see clearly I was none the wiser. The orange object looked like a sleeping bag made of plastic. It had a zip at the front and was hanging by two strings that looked as if they were toggles for a hood. As the breeze caught it, it danced. Whether this was just more litter, blown in from somewhere and caught in the trees or had been purposely placed there I couldn’t tell. Perhaps someone is sleeping rough nearby and using the tree as a wardrobe, or maybe it’s acting as a scarecrow or a warning of some kind? Puzzled I walked on.

At the end of the boardwalk I was pleased to see the sculptures and bench undamaged and litter free. I was also pleased to reach a patch of shade. So far almost all my walk had been in hot sunshine and my head, which had started out feeling filled with cotton wool, was now aching. In fact it was becoming clear my lurgie was certainly not paranoia. The bench provided a convenient resting place but I hadn’t brought any water or snacks with me and, despite the rest, my head didn’t feel any better for the shade.

If anything I felt worse for stopping and it’s took a great deal of effort to peel myself off the bench and carry on up the slope to Horseshoe Bridge. The climb took all the strength my legs had left and I was glad to reach the top. By now I’d walked two miles, more or less, not far on an ordinary day, but my legs felt more like they’d walked twenty two. How I was going to walk the two miles home was beyond me.

One foot slowly in front of the other took me off the bridge towards the Millenium Flats, past the scrubby area that was unaccountably cleared a few years back. At the time I thought the shrubs and trees would soon grow back but they haven’t. Today I noticed a small white gate I’m sure was never there before. Where it came from and why is a mystery as there is no path here, at least not one that leads anywhere. It all seemed very strange but, by now, my brain was feeling too addled to really think about it.

So I took my usual route thinking to go through the blue gate and walk down the steps past the moorings as I had so many times before. When I got to the gate though, there was a large and rather emphatic yellow sign. ‘Due to the antisocial behaviour in the past few months this private walkway is no longer open for public access.’ Sure enough, there was a lock on the gate and no way through. This was more than a little disappointing. The path runs at the bottom of a steep, grassy slope with an impenetrable fence at the top. It provides no access to the flats but does make a lovely walkway along the riverbank. At least it did. The owners of the flats, secure behind their high fences and locked gates, have made sure no one else can enjoy it any more.

Feeling rather cross and more than a little uncharitable towards the people living in the flats, I walked the long way round to the slipway. The extra steps didn’t make me feel any better but at least I’d almost reached my goal. My friend lives in one of the sweet little houses on the riverbank. She has enviable views and even a little jetty to sit on to watch the sun setting. She is a nurse with a generous spirit and more than deserves her riverside views.

Today, as I’d expected, she was at work so there was no chance to rest or sit and chat. The parcel, a little hat I’d made for her, fit easily through her letterbox. My mission was completed but I still had a couple of miles to walk to get home. They were not easy miles. My head and my legs protested all the way. Twice I had to stop and sit down. Once on a bench and once on some steps. The lurgie I’d been trying to ignore was getting worse with every step and, by the time I reached the main road again I was barely able to stay on my feet. With the world swimming in front of my eyes I managed to cross the road and walk the last steps to my own front door. It seems, no matter how hard you try, you can’t out run the germs or the changes.

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Messing about on the river

16 September 2018

Usually on a Sunday morning the fast boys are up early and out running somewhere. Normally somewhere off road and muddy, as my washing machine can attest. This Sunday was a little different. Actually it was a lot different. Someone, possibly Rob, had the bright idea to go kayaking instead of running. Obviously this was something I couldn’t possibly miss, even if I had no plans to actually get into a kayak, being seriously deficient when it comes to balance and agility and not inclined to swin in the Itchen. As it turned out, watching the kayakers was the most fun I’ve had for ages and I got a nice walk into the bargain. Continue reading Messing about on the river

Winchester, the last of the parkrun tourism

1 September 2018

We ended our month of parkrun tourism with a trip to Winchester. The original plan had been to run every August parkrun somewhere different but we squeezed an extra one in to help a young lad called Leo celebrate his hundredth run. As usual, getting to Winchester involved an earlier start than normal but we parked up close to Winnal Moors with enough time for me to dash past the Willow Tree pub, along Durngate Terrace to the High Street and grab a coffee and croissant to make up for missing breakfast.  Continue reading Winchester, the last of the parkrun tourism

Slip sliding to the final running school 28 August

28 August 2018

Today was my final Running School session and I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or sad. The previous sessions had all been extremely tough, pushing me to my limits but there was something almost enjoyable, in a masochistic way, about being tested and getting through it. Maybe enjoyable isn’t the right word and maybe the joy part when they were over was more about having survived. Either way, I set off this morning with mixed feelings. For once there was a good chance of getting wet along the way and I was actually wearing a thin raincoat. Continue reading Slip sliding to the final running school 28 August

The Running School part five and a bit of a dilemma

21 August 2018

Today was my penultimate Running School session and it was yet another very hot, humid day. Luckily, as it was a later appointment, Commando was picking me up so I’d only have to walk one way. Due to Paul being on holiday it had been two weeks since my last session but I’d been practicing like mad trying to keep my fitness up. So far, it seemed to be working. The pain in my leg has been much diminished and walking feels much less of a chore and more of a pleasure. This didn’t mean I was looking forward to a work out with Paul though. Continue reading The Running School part five and a bit of a dilemma

Four of six at the Running School

7 August 2018

Every session at the Running School seems to be harder than the last and my fourth session was no exception. It wasn’t helped by the extremely hot and longer than planned walk to get there. It seems that, no matter how much I practise the exercises at home, Paul always comes up with something new to torture me. Continue reading Four of six at the Running School

The hottest walk and a bad descision

7 August 2018

My fourth Running School appointment fell on what felt like the hottest day yet. The temperature was in the thirties when I left home and the humidity level was off the scale. In my rucksack a big camelback water bottle was slowly defrosting. When I got up this morning I filled it and put it in the freezer. Somehow I didn’t think it was going to last the whole walk so I was desperately trying to ration my sips.  Unlike my previous two sessions, which were both early afternoon, this one was at midday so I was going to have to walk home too.  Continue reading The hottest walk and a bad descision

The magic of Winnal Moors

5 August 2018

Of course I couldn’t stand in the park gasping at the wonderful views across Winchester forever. Eventually I dragged myself away, walked back down Blue Ball Hill, which was certainly the easiest direction to tackle it from, and headed somewhere far more familiar. It was now around twenty past nine and Commando wouldn’t be back at the car park until just before eleven, so I had more than enough time for a stroll around Winnal Moors. Continue reading The magic of Winnal Moors