Thursday, 21 July 2016

The Itchen Navigation

     I decided to walk/run some of the Itchen Navigation. I got a train to Winchester and joined the trail from Winnall nature reserve near the leisure centre and followed the river Itchen towards Southampton. I'm not sure how long the Itchen Navigation is but I have previously gone from the start near Woolston train station to Winchester which is about 15 miles from what I can remember. Most people think the Itchen navigation ends in Winchester but it actually carries on towards Alresford and goes through Itchen Abbas, Tichborne and finish just past Cheriton.

        It was a very warm day and I didn't get to Winchester until about 2pm. I had brought a rucksack with me with some useful things and some very useless things... I had water, some flapjack bars, spare shorts, t-shirt, socks, deodorant and a book. The most useful thing I took was sun tan lotion and a cap to wear. It sure was hot but I knew that a lot of the Itchen was shaded by trees.

        After passing the pub in the photo I continued to follow the river until I saw an Itchen way sign telling me to take a left and then a right and then another left. Sometimes there are Itchen way signs in Green and sometimes it will be little Itchen Navigation plaques that you see. There are also various other routes like the Kingfisher trail and the Valley of fields trail etc..
Soon you are away from the crowds of Winchester but still following the river. You can walk peacefully along with very few people around. I decided I would run for a bit and did so in the heat with the sound of the river flowing while I darted around the dancing butterflies in front of me.

     I wasn't really sure if I was actually going to run or just walk the whole way. My running fitness is in a really bad way. I've been cycling for 18 days and covered over a 1000 miles. "Surely you must be very fit?" people often asked. It was true, I had lost a bit of weight and could cycle up hills effortlessly. Yet, I struggled to run a 5k. Being sat on a bike, I had lost my running fitness in a big way. The summer always makes me want to go running for the whole day but I knew this wasn't going to be possible. So, walking and running was the plan.

         It wasn't long before I took a slight diversion to get the wonderful view that you get from the top of St.Catherine's hill. I came around the back way up and lot of steps and there were scores of painted lady butterflies fluttering around me as I disturbed them from their peace. It sure is a great sight. There were cattle grazing at one end of the field. I stopped running and took a wide berth sticking to the edge of the hill and following it around to the other set of steps on the otherside. I was soon distracted by the sound of a Yellowhammer though. I could hear it's song but couldn't see it. I walked stealthily towards the birdsong and scanned the trees but still couldn't see the Yellowhammer. A few more steps forwards and he flew right in front of me and to another bush further down the hill. It was way to hot to be chasing Yellowhammers around! I was just happy that I got to see him.

     As I walked down the wooden steps, a runner was coming up. What a nutter! We exchanged "Hellos". He was panting hard and sweating profusely but he was still nice enough ti say Hello. I like these people. So often, runners just ignore you and look grumpy. Doesn't take much to acknowledge another human being does it? Even when i'm training hard, i'll at least stick a thumb up or force a smile. Anyways... Down the hill and then I followed a sign to the main road. I got a bit lost somehow and did a loop of the "Valley of fields" trail under Hockley viaduct and ended up by the St.Cross church before being back at the first sign I saw previously. That's the problem with the running.. You don't want to stop, so you second guess the route and often go the wrong way. It had been at least a year since I did this route but i've always done it starting at the Southampton end. It was a nice route though and I got to see a Kestrel showing off his flying skills and a Green veined white butterfly.

     I crossed the main road and went under a bridge, back on the main road and then off into woodland where I now decided to take my t-shirt off as there were hardly any people now and I wanted to get a bit of a tan. There was a nice breeze when I ran topless though and it was nice to feel the wind against my perspiring skin. It was quite narrow in places and at times the stinging nettles were unavoidable. Sometimes I would use it as an excuse to walk more and other times I ran skipping through them as if I was Indiana Dean Jones. Every now and then I would stop and wait for a dog walker to pass where the narrow paths would allow.

      I got to Shawford, I knew this as the track opened out and then I came to a road and then was the familiar sight of the railway bridge and a pub. It felt like I had been on the trail for quite a few miles already and I was only in Shawford!
Not long after this it got a bit surreal. It had been so quiet on the trail and then I kind of hit this teenage beach party, without the beach obviously! There were about 50 people in one little area. Some swimming or jumping in the river. Some just sunbathing. The majority were kids around 16 I reckon. They were all pretty friendly though and some said sorry as I tried to run through at a leisurely pace.

      Not long after this, I spot two cyclists coming the other way. I think this a bit odd as a lot of the trail doesn't seem very cycle friendly to me. They wait for me to pass as it's narrow and then it turns out that I know one of the cyclists. Sarah from my old running club. We stopped for a bit of a chat and exchanged our journey experiences. I tell her about the kid's party thing and she says the same thing is happening further down the river. We then fantasise about our final destinations.. the pub!
I wish her and her friend Alex a good day and head on my way. Straight away there is a big puddle and I try to tip toe around it but its impossible. I then come to my senses. "What are you doing?" I just run through the middle of it and welcome the cooling sensation that it gives my feet. Soon after I am running effortlessly and diligently skipping around trees roots and ducking under the low branches. I actually felt like a nimble runner for that little stretch.

      The part of Bishopstoke is very scenic. Okay, you're still just running/walking along the river Itchen but there are some lovely houses that back onto it. I bet those houses cost some money. My thoughts then wonder onto winning the lottery before I snap out of it and get running again. I see a chick. Maybe a blackbird, I always struggle with juveniles. Anyway, he must have fallen from tree as I can hear the mother's distressful call. What do I do? It looks like it's ready to fly soon-ish, so it isn't like a proper chick. I just wanted to get it off the path as I thought it'd be in danger of being killed in one way of another. I try to whistle to the mother to attract her attention. Sounds so stupid I know! Anyway, I don't want to pick the chcik up as the mum wouldn't like that and would probably abandon the chick. I get close enough to the chick to scare it off the gravel path and onto the woodland but then I pause as it's quite close to the river. Luckily it didn't go any further. What do I do? I try to attract the mother again but walking on and feeling completely useless.

     There are now more people along this stretch. Fisherman, dog walkers and families. I chat to a few people or exchange some friendly words. "A bit hot for running isn't it?" One man enquires. "I stop as his dog jumps on me and reply "Lots of shade on this trail, so it isn't too bad". I later meet another dog walker and she says a similar thing and adds that I may be better off running in the river. I must admit, I was tempted to get into too! I bump into another runner who has two dogs with him. Like I did with Sarah earlier, we exchange our knowledge of the route and the directions in which we came. He tells me about the kids party coming up and says that they pretty harmless though. Which is a relief. The kids had broken up for the summer holidays and were making the most of it already. I wish him a great adventure and run on in the shade of the woodland.

             Not far up I come to that crazy party that my friend Sarah and the other running dude was talking about. There were even more children here. This time there were sausages cooking on barbeques, Music playing from stereos and lots of sunbathing teenagers. Lots were quite friendly and said hello as I ran through. There were many groups of kids all the way along the Itchen Navigation for the next half a mile or so. It was very busy again until I got to Allbrook, cross the main road and then lots of stinging nettles. I had recently read something useful about them too, You are going to get stung and it will itch for about 30 seconds but if you scratch that itch/pain, what you are actually doing is spreading the nettle's poison. The best thing to do is just leave it until the poison wears off. It may cause discomfort for 30 seconds but then no more pain unless you touch it!



   I must admit that the nicest part of the Itchen Navigation I did that day was from Shawford to Fairoak. After that it can be quite hard going. It's overgrown in a lot of places and the paths are uneven and can be narrow or on a slope. I am getting very tired now too and am walking a lot more as my legs are really starting to ache. Maybe i'll just get the train from Eastleigh I tell myself. There are not really many landmarks on this part of the Itchen way but I know where I am because there are swarms of flies everywhere. Ah yes, I remember this bit. And then, the smell... It's the sewage works! I keep my head down and hold my nose as I weave through the overgrown woods.

           I hoping to get to Bitterne quite soon as I am almost out of water. I ration it accordingly as there are no tesco expresses or Costa's build yet. I then get to the Itchen valley Nature reserve. You don't run on it but you run next to it. I hear flapping from a tree and when I investigate it turns out to be a green woodpecker in flight. I can also hear the wheezing sound of a greenfinch. In fact, I have been hearing Greenfinches all day but hardly see them. Their wheeze always sounds quite angry, like they are upset about something. I still, love the call though.
Further up, I see a dog but no owner. I'm in the shade though and have my sunglasses on. Looks like a Corgi maybe? Where is the owner though. It just stands there as I walk nearer. Still no onwer. I take off my sunglasses and then realise that it's actually a fox cub. I stop walking and let him make his decision to run off into the hedge. Such a cutie!

      A bit later on I can hear the motorway. The woodland is too dense to see it though. I now know that i'm not too far away from Riverside park in Bitterne and all i'm thinking about is that Ice cream van that's usually in the car park. My legs are aching so much now so I decided my running for the day is done. I cross a road and then i'm familiar with my surroundings. Riverside park. People walk past me eating ice creams, some people are sat on benches drinking beer and others taking photos of the swans. This really stoned kid asked me if I have a lighter and I tell him that some other guy up the river was smoking. He just mumbles that it's too far to walk and I just laugh.
To my surprise there is no-one at the ice cream van. I had a flapjack earlier but I still don't feel hungry, so I just have a bottle of water and a can of diet coke for the walk into Portswood and town where I change my clothes and drink cold cider in the fading sun. What a wonderful day.

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