I can't remember what, exactly, inspired a walk along the Itchen from Eastleigh to Winchester but as soon as we started along the Itchen Way many of us wondered why on Earth we'd never done this walk before.
I'd not been overly concerned about missing either the royal wedding or the cup final (it's not like either Crystal Palace or Reading were in it) though in an ideal world I'd quite liked to have been able to attend the Nunhead Cemetery Open Day. But, truth be told, none of these events could, in my eyes, top a TADS walk. Last month's schlep from Wendover to Berkhamsted had been hilly, long, and, quite frankly, testing for some of us so I was pleased that this walk was an almost completely flat (one optional hill, details to come) and comparatively short ten miles.
I met Pam at Clapham Junction and when we boarded the train Kathy and Rachael were already on it. At Basingstoke we were joined by Shep, Adam, Teresa, Eamon, Neil, Bee, and new TAD (TAD #13) Tina. It's always good to have a newbie along. Even if you've actually known that 'newbie' nearly thirty years!
With the trains, remarkably, on time and the sun shining we were able to leave Eastleigh pretty much dead on noon. We crossed a bridge over the railway lines, passed the fantastically named Chicken Hall Lane, and, just after Bishopstoke Road Playing Field we joined the Itchen Way.
As the clear water flowed gracefully through the dappled sunlit holes in the canopy I soon found a podium, a felled tree in fact, to perch atop like a garden gnome and lay a bit of history, a few facts, down on my fellow walkers.
Eastleigh was originally developed as a railway town on an old Roman road between Winchester and Bitterne. Leah, or Leigh, being an Anglo-Saxon word for 'clearing in the forest'. Benny Hill was born in Southampton but he used to live in Eastleigh where he worked both at Woolworths and later for Hanns Dairies as a milkman inspiring, obviously, his biggest hit single. There's a plaque to him at the now demolished dairy and a road in Eastleigh was renamed Benny Hill Close which, apparently, was not welcomed at all by some of its residents. The notable denizens of Eastleigh listed on Wikipedia include only one other person I'd heard of. Radio DJ Scott Mills.
Bishopstoke, which we were now skirting, has a far richer history. It's in the Domesday Book and Alfred the Great's grandson Eadred (king from 964-955, you can escape the wedding but you can't escape the royals), most famous for defeating the Norse ruler Eric Bloodaxe, granted land in Bishopstoke to one Thegn Aelfric.
The Itchen (the river FKA as the Aire) runs twenty-eight miles from New Cheriton to Southampton Water. It's one of the world's premier chalk streams for fly fishing and watercress thrives in its pristine waters. Fauna includes otters, white clawed crayfish, brook lamprey, the endangered water vole, brown trout (or brahn traht according to our more cockneyfied walkers), and something called 'water crowfoot'.
We saw plenty of fish, big and large, but, alas no otters or voles. We did, however, see plenty of colourful dragonflies, cows cooling off in the wash, llamas, and even rheas. The rheas were in a field marked by a large sign reading 'EXOTIC MEAT'. Can't help thinking it won't end well for them.
The Itchen Way (the path that, for the most part, we were following) bests the river Itchen by three miles and I'd purchased a new OS Explorer map specially for this walk. It was a pure unadulterated pleasure to peruse the contour lines, little blue pints representing country pubs, and green dotted lines marking out paths, byways, and permissive trails. I'll be buying more OS Explorer maps I think.
The path led us by trees growing out of the water, lawns both manicured and ramshackle facing out on to the river, swans, mallards, and coots luxuriating in the warm May sun, a dog lapping up the water at a small cascade, and youngsters frolicking in the water. It looked good to be young but it felt good to be alive young or old, man or dog, swan or dragonfly, TADS or car lot.
A garden near the village of Shawford offered cheap ice creams (50p, 80p if you add a Flake). Shep got a round in and as I polished off my chocolate cone I headed down to The Bridge Inn in Shawford to meet that aforesaid car lot. This month consisting of Darren, Cheryl, Tommy (sporting a Meet Me At McDonalds haircut just like his dad used to in his paisley shirted pomp), Tony, Alex, Grace, and Izzie. Grace and Izzie contented themselves, as ever, with cartwheels, piggy-backs, and the new primary school dance craze of flossing. It freed the adults up for smutty jokes.
Those 'adults' (and some of us barely deserve the name) divided up in to two tables. Sun lovers and shade lovers and I supped a couple of pints of ale on the sunny side. We'd arrived at the pub later than expected anyway (just too many photo opportunities) and the almost inevitable 'two pint mistake' meant we were gonna be even later reaching Winchester. It wasn't going to ruin anybody's day.
Eventually we managed to get out of our chairs and head out of Shawford. A place possibly most famous for being the site of the death of a fictional character. You won't believe it but Victor Meldrew from One Foot In The Grave was ploughed down by a car here in that show's final episode in November 2000. Shawford also crops up in Robyn Hitchcock's song Winchester (from his 1986 Element of Light LP) and was where Sophia Loren filmed a critically unacclaimed remake of Brief Encounter in 1974. I like to think Loren would've enjoyed a couple of jars in The Bridge Inn's lovely beer garden.
The downside of a 'two pint mistake' is that men over the age of forty have weak bladders so there were a few impromptu visits to the hedges on the next stretch. But what a beautiful stretch it was. The sun was lower in the sky and the reflections of the trees in the water took an almost unbelievably vivid dimension. This truly was a walk that kept on giving. Tina had chosen a good day to make her debut.
A fisherman stood waist high in the river, a cow drank from a babbling brook that ran alongside it, even more youngsters were jumping in and sploshing down a small waterfall. At one point someone passed us sat in a rubber ring. They're probably arriving in Southampton about now. All they had missing was a glass of wine to accompany them on their journey.
Not long after Tumbling Bay the once distant roar of traffic on the M3 started to get louder, and closer. We crossed under the motorway near Twyford Down (near the start of the South Downs National Park), a settlement since Roman times that has variously been used as a fort and a chapel but is perhaps most famous these days for the site of 1991's protest against the M3 extension that made, briefly, a minor celebrity of one Daniel Hopper. Better known as Swampy!
Just after the M3 we took a minor diversion to look at Hampshire's biggest viaduct. Built in the late 1880s it fell as a result of Beeching's Axe (cue a singalong of the Oh! Dr Beeching theme tune). Its thirty-three spans appear to be made of brick but that's for purely aesthetic reasons as it's actually made of solid concrete. An early example of Brutalism perhaps? Or perhaps not. Either way I stood atop a bench on the viaduct, now used to carry cyclists and pedestrians over the Itchen, to impart some more knowledge. Giving my people some old time religion. Just the way they like it.
Soon we reached the foot of St Catherine's Hill. This was an optional extra but everyone, except Kathy and Teresa, went for it. Shep and Tina sped up the hill like mountain goats while the rest of us followed in their wake. The views were pretty spectacular. The southern aspect revealed the tower blocks of Southampton and to the north a much clearer view of Winchester and its grand gothic cathedral.
Ramparts of an Iron Age hill fort and plague pits ring the hill but the majestic and verdant valleys are what catch your eye. That and the mizmaze. A turf maze that is said to have been 'cut' between 1647 and 1710. A few of us followed the lines of the maze before we descended down to link up again with Kathy and Teresa (seemingly occupied with some wedding in Windsor) and heading on in to Winchester proper.
Despite growing up in the county of Hampshire I was surprisingly unfamiliar with Winchester. I'd last visited eight years ago with an ex-girlfriend and her son and, before that, something like twenty years ago. My interests were a little different then.
I certainly didn't know the Black Boy pub but a bit of Googling suggested it was a must visit and Tina's husband Neil had recommended it too. He was waiting there with Bugsy, Carole, Dylan, and, again Tony, Alex, Grace, and Izzie. Those Martins can't get enough. It was good to see them and when eleven thirsty TADS turned up that meant there were nineteen of us in total (twenty-two over the course of the day). My arms, in trademark fashion, went to my sides. I took a deep breath and announced, as ever, "good turnout".
Good pub too. Bloody amazing pub in fact. Ale upon ale on tap (I had a Summer Lightning), packed to the rafters with assorted, and bizarre, bric a brac. Fake stuffed giraffes, old pianos, fire buckets, pipes, imitation noses, and table football. It even had a big patio and that was just the place for enjoying said pint. I could've stayed all night but a curry had been booked (initially for twelve, I bumped it up to sixteen at lunchtime, and then nineteen a few hours later) and we had to make haste.
We headed off along the Weirs, a beautiful riverside path that saw both a heron fishing and a chance meeting with Kevin from the TV quiz show Eggheads. Alex and I had been contestants back in January so as we ummed and ahhed about saying hello Kathy took the bull by the horns and re-introduced us. As he was when we met him on the show, Kevin was charm itself, asking us about our walk, how long it'd been, where we'd stopped etc; etc; It's that level of curiosity that's helped him become world quiz champion six times. That and the fact he spends his Saturday afternoons sat on a bench near a beautiful river in Winchester reading hefty tomes about Piero della Francesca.
We passed several more tempting pubs and, on The Broadway, the statue of King Alfred. Wantage's most famous son moved to, and died in, Winchester and there's still some argument between the city and the town about who he 'belongs' to. Alfred was King of Wessex from 871-899. The youngest son of Aethelwulf of Wessex he succeeded his brother Aethelred (not the Unready, he came later, this Aethelred was ready alright, ready to die before his twenty-fifth birthday that is) and spent many years 'dealing' with Vikings.
In 878, fresh from victory at the Battle of Erdington, he struck the deal that created the Danelaw and converted Guthrum to Christianity (Teresa helped me out with some history here). What with making concessions to mainland Europe and shifting education from Latin to English it can only be assumed that King Alfred still hasn't been forgiven by Jacob Rees-Mogg who clearly wishes to return to the 9th century (or maybe the Stone Age).
By the time of Alf's death he was England's dominant leader and the first to style himself the King of the Anglo-Saxons. And from that it was a mere 1,119 years before a member of the royal family could marry a mixed race divorcee without creating a constitutional crisis.
Alas, time did not permit us a visit to Wolvesey Castle, Winchester Cathedral, the Butter Cross, or Winchester Castle. Which was a pity as I'd written loads of really interesting facts about them and, after three pints, what more do people want?
Well, a curry of course. The nineteen of us took up half the Gurkha's Inn but we were pretty well behaved. I had a paneer makhani, a chapatti, and shared some saffron rice with Dylan. The only downside of such a large group is you can't talk to everyone. I drowned my 'sorrows' with a couple of bottles of nice cold Gurkha beer. We managed to run up a bill of £407.30!
Some of us headed off to the Railway Tavern for another drink. Not the most characterful of Winchester boozers, more like a student union, but plenty of room for shooting the shit about music, comparing tans, and making plans. There were more beers on the train home for me (the Basingstoke lot were going for another drink in Basingstoke, I was sad to miss out) and they can only have added to feeling so 'emotional' at the end of the day.
They weren't the only reason though. It was the feeling of satisfaction of having spent a wonderful sunny day in beautiful surroundings with so many amazing friends that made my heart swell. I'm glad everyone seemed to enjoy it. Now you've had your fun you can get back in training because in June we're back on the hills. Fulking Hill to be precise. The TADS will be walking from Hassocks to Brighton and, as ever, I can hardly wait.