Distance: 5 1/2 miles
Start from: Bishopstoke Recreation Ground
Charges: None for first 3 hours. £4.70 thereafter for the whole day
Maps: OS Explorers 132 and OL22
Car Park Grid Ref: SU463192
This walk is based on The Water Vole Way and Waterside Walks in Hampshire plus modifications of my own.
The day alternated between sunny-blue skies and layers of indeterminate cloud. There is already some heat in the sun when the air is still. However, standing in the car park, changing boots, a stiff breeze turned the milder air cold again. Once in the shelter of the trees lining the path the wind was cut off and it was pleasant walking. The first half of this circular walk follows the Itchen Way that follows the old Itchen Navigation, once a busy canal that fell into disuse when the trains arrived.
The countryside was the pastel shades and arboreal skeletons of winter but for all that a welcome rest from the city.
The path crosses the Navigation over a tumble of rushing, frothing water full of bubbles and wanders alongside the water past fields and houses until the trees close in. Further on the Way passes through a brick tunnel (above) over which runs the rail track from Southampton to London, and beyond the tunnel the gardens of houses come down to the water in increasing levels of steepness. Some of the gardens are well-tended and have decking and rails, benches and pot plants alongside the water; other gardens are left to run wild down to the water, or given over to small woodlands with benches at the waterside. One garden in particular stands out. Its fence panels are studded with advertising plates and place name-plates. There is a modern bus-stop towards the end of the garden, and a red telephone box nestles up against the house. A metal stand near the bus-stop advertises The Black Cat Café. I would guess that someone enjoys collecting odd things from reclamation yards.
As the path winds on the houses become grander and the gardens finer. One particular house that stands out for me is a three-storey building, presumably Victorian or Edwardian as the rooms all appear to have immensely high ceilings. There are two or three like this, but this one catches my imagination as it is half-screened by trees and the windows look particularly dark; it appears for all the world like a haunted house, or a house with secrets out of a novel.
The trees being to thin out to the right and the water meadows come into view. The path crosses a stream over a wooden bridge and the path rises to Brambridge Road. There is a blind corner by the railway bridge to the left, so best to be quick getting across to the continuing Itchen Way straight ahead. At the start of this section of the Way is a tiered weir where the water again tumbles in a frothy mass of bubbles. Once this noisy water feature is left behind the surrounding area becomes more rural and the water and the path become more serene, making pleasant walking in the sunshine, up to the next road.
Across the road rises the imposing grey Brambridge House which was home to Mrs Fitzherbert, the unacknowledged wife of King George IV. The route leaves the Itchen Way and turns right along the road and over the bridge past Brambridge Garden Centre. There is a restaurant here and picnic tables in the grounds. I only stopped to buy a Mars Bar; next time I'll take a snack with me! 85p for a Mars Bar???
According to my guide "Waterside Walks in Hampshire" by Peter Carne, the route goes past the Garden Centre and goes right at the next footpath fingerpost. There were two horses on chains in the field (I was very glad to see they had big water buckets) but in the one after was a large black horse running free. You may call me a wuss, but I prefer where possible to avoid large animals in open fields. In my experience, they can be unpredictable and petted horses can be a nuisance.
So, I consulted my hand-made map - when I say hand-made, I've taken two OS Explorer maps, placed the parts of the two maps that overlap together and photocopied them to make one easy to follow map.
I was about to retrace my steps along the Itchen Way but there is a new footpath being laid alongside the road that runs past the Garden Centre and being a curious walker ("where does this path go?") I decided to follow it to Brambridge Road, cross over and go along the undesignated road past the Dog and Stick, a hairdressers' and a row of cottages. There is a choice of footpaths beyond the cottages and I chose the one through a broken metal fence, over a stile and uphill across a green field with a large tree in it. This comes out through a kissing gate at the top on to Bishopstoke Road. I turned right along here. The traffic was light but I had to take note of blind corners and walk on the side of the road I was most likely to be seen by all.
As the road slopes down a white house comes into view further along the road, and modern homes atop a rise to the right. The hedge stops and a footpath goes to right and left of the road across open fields. I turned right towards the modern houses, over a step-stile on to a tarmac path which is easy to follow down and around until it runs parallel to a woodland where a track goes off into the trees. I wasn't sure whether this was what I required or whether I should keep to the footpath. My choice was decided for me by three large guard dogs which came hurtling across a drive way to run up and down the (inadequately high, in my opinion) fence, all doing their duty with unwarranted enthusiasm. I like dogs, I don't like big barking dogs with evidently fine white teeth!
I went back and took the woodland track where I met a nice lady with a large black friendly dog. We commented on the day and the barking dogs, as you do, and went our separate ways.
The track heads down clearly through the trees to a metal access gate which opens in to a conservation area. Straight ahead are the river and wooden gate and fencing. To the far right a path emerges from behind houses; to the immediate right another path comes out through a metal farm gate. There appears to be a path going off to the immediate left but this is an illusion. The path required to complete this walk goes off half-left across the meadow heading towards some pylons. There is another metal access gate and a wooden bridge over a stream into another field across which the path runs clearly to a wooden gate into a woodland.
The woodland rises steeply and the path, which heads diagonally right, is inset with steps where the way is steepest. Excellent stretching for the legs. As a thought, it might be interesting to do the walk in reverse next time …
Eventually the path levels out and runs between fence and trees to another gate which comes out on to Bishopstoke Road once again. The route is right out of the gate. There is a pavement on the east side of the road but I chose to walk along the narrow verge on the west side. Little blue and white water vole stickers on lamp-posts mark the way along the road, past the church and an old white walled and black-timbered thatched cottage on the left, round a corner and turns right on a path between a retirement home and an open green. There were some old tombstones lined up against a wall on the far side of the green when I walked along here; a bit insensitive so close to a retirement home …
The path continues on beside a concrete wall decorated with graffiti, for which someone has apologised in white spray paint, with the message: "Sorry about your wall." There is something amusing and rather disarming about that, I thought.
And from here the way re-crosses the Navigation back on to the path where it runs long beside the Recreation Ground and comes back to the car park.