Back when I did my first ever Moonwalk training I attempted to walk the Itchen Navigation Path from the Southampton end. It leads all the way from the White Swan at Mansbridge to Winchester. At the time I found it tough going, quite overgrown in places, a bit muddy but, more importantly, frightening because it was so lonely. These days lonely, off road paths don’t scare me. As I stood there wondering whether I should give it a try, a dog walker came out so I figured it must be passable.
At the end of a short track there was a gate. It was a bit stiff and my tussle with the Itchen Navigation Path almost came to an end right there. Eventually I managed to open it and crossed the bridge on the other side. The river really was flowing very fast, there were foaming white eddies and a turbulent looking current. Yellow iris grew on the bank and more of those bees that are in short supply this year but I seem to see everywhere.
The path ran right beside the river with fields on either side. When I came to a wooded area I found another bridge, the water beneath so clear I could see the stones but churned up by the speed with which it flowed. After a while the trees opened out a little and there was a buttercup filled field of grazing cows. The haze of yellow flowers and the sedate animals made me glad I’d chosen to give this path another chance.
The field was fenced off and the path was very narrow and overgrown making the river a little close for comfort. There were nettles amongst the grass and I had to step carefully to avoid brushing against them. I cursed my choice of cropped leggings and picked a dock leaf just in case. When I came to the end of the field there was a ford and I wondered if the farmer lived on the other side. More iris grew along the riverbank here and more bees.
Then I came to another bridge. Downstream the river seemed to divide. The bridge was in a small stand of trees and, on the other side, another field with yet more cows but no buttercups, well, not many. The path seemed to be moving away from the river and, once I’d passed the cows, I saw a strange rusty gate festooned with green barbed wire. Shortly after there was a sign, Lower Bishopstoke Fisheries, Private Keep Out!
The track I’d been walking on turned onto a wide rutted track lined with trees. Before long I could see the entrance to what I assumed was a farm. This had me worried. Maybe I’d gone the wrong way, perhaps I should have tried the gate, despite the fisheries sign. Just as I was about to turn back and check if the gate would open some dog walkers came the other way with a cheery “good morning,” so I carried on.
Not long after this I came to a tunnel made from corrugated iron and concret blocks that looked as if they’d been made inside sandbags. Looking at WalkJogRun I could see I’d just walked under the railway line and not long after this I heard a train. From then on the terrain changed and things got a little muddy. I was glad of the waterproof hiking shoes but I still picked my way through the driest parts. At one point a pile of thick branches had been laid on the path, maybe to make it easier to get across the mud.
There were more trees here too and I saw what I think may be jelly fungus on one. I’ve never seen it before but I’ve read about it on my New Hampshire friend’s blog and he knows lots about fungus. There was also what looked like the remains of a bridge, brick and stone pillars but nothing spanning them. There was no water to cross though so maybe it wasn’t a bridge or maybe it crossed a tributary that has now dried up.
Shortly after I’d stopped to take a photo of some purple comfrey more dog walkers passed. Why was everyone going in the opposite direction to me? Did they know something I didn’t? I checked WalkJogRun run and saw I was now walking behind the airport. Not long after this I heard traffic noises, the motorway. I must be nearing the motorway bridge, the place I’d turned back the first time I’d tried this path. I could just see traffic whizzing past between the trees.
The river, or a tributary of it, reappeared at the exact same time I reached the bridge under the motorway. There were bulrushes beside the path. On the other side of the motorway bridge the path turned away from the water again and ran alongside the noisy motorway, shattering my peace and quiet for a while. When the path divided I carried on straight, until I realised I was heading towards the car park of the Ford Factory thanks to a quick check on WalkJogRun. Thankfully I didn’t walk far and soon, I’d retraced my steps and was back where I should be. Note to self, keep to the left path coming back or the right going out.
There was a strange triangular stone beside the path with an inscription about barges. Of course this was the navigation path so I guess there were barges running along it at some time. The sign seemed to be about charges to travel from Northam, where the Big Bridge is to Mansbridge, one shilling and three pence. Then I came to yet another bridge with sign that explained about the stone and brick pillars I’d seen earlier, they were supports for a lock gate. Obvious really. The Bridge was built on one of two lock gates, three hundred years ago. Barges carried wool, timber and coal from Southampton to Winchester before the railways made them unnecessary.
In no time at all the little bridge by the White Swan came into view. I was almost home, well about two and a half miles which is close enough. The Mansbridge swans and their seven cygnets were struggling not to drift down towards Woodmill in the fast flowing current. They had seven cygnets last year too.
Further on, close to the mill the canoe school was holding a lesson. As I walked towards them one canoe turned turtle dumping its occupant into the freezing river. He was climbing out as I passed. “That looks cold,” I said. “It’s freezing,” he agreed. Rather him than me.
On the final stretch, between Woodmill and the Triangle the wind was gusting into my face buffeting me around and making walking an effort. The poor trees bent this way and that and I decided to move away from the river for fear of being blown in. I didn’t want to end up like the wet canoeist I’d just seen.
When I walked in the gym door and turned of the WalkJogRun I was a little short of the twelve miles I’d planned. The new hiking shoes held up well and my feet are fine, I burned over one thousand two hundred calories plus I feel pretty pleased with myself for conquering the Itchen Navigation path. Actually I only conquered one half, maybe next time I’ll go the other way and make it all the way to Winchester!