The Itchen Way along the Navigation between Bishopstoke and Mansbridge is currently the least well used section of the path and as a result is walkable but unkempt and less “cared for”. After wet weather, the path can be quite muddy. Also it should be pointed out that the walk between these two places is over three miles and that it is almost impossible to gain access to, or leave, the path en route. It is possible to access or leave the path at Fish House Bay or via the Itchen Valley Country Park visitor centre across the meadows but this latter may be wetter/muddier and no shorter than the Itchen Way.
Stoke Bridge to Coneger Lock
South of Bishopstoke, the Navigation passes across an area of fairly open water meadows. The channel on the length to Fish House Bay is narrower than it was in the days of navigation as water levels today are lower than they once were. Both banks consist of embankments up to about 4 feet high in which the remains of various hatches can be found. At least one of these was faced with finely dressed stonework. Some 100 yards from Stoke Bridge, a modern culvert was built under the path, together with a strange wire mesh contraption over its entrance, in about 2009. This feeds a modern ditch dug through the adjacent meadow. A noticeboard was erected which should explain about this.
About 200 yards south of the road, the towing path bank had become very overgrown some years ago, much of it with hawthorn. As a result, in places walkers had to resort to taking to the side of the bank of the canal. However, in recent years, a walkable path has been cleared past the bushes.
As one approaches the lock, the level of the water in the canal drops lower in relation to the path because part of the lock ahead has collapsed allowing the flow of water to erode the bed into a series of “rapids”.
About 350 yards from Bishopstoke Road, the remains of Conegar Lock can be found. The lock was sometimes also known as Coneger, Coneygear or Stoke Conygar Lock. The name derives from "coney garth": an artificial rabbit warren, often medieval in origin and used to supply meat for the lord of the manor. However, whilst there was such a warren on the north side of Bishopstoke belonging to the Bishop of Winchester, there does not appear to have been one near the lock.
This lock is probably the best preserved of the turf sided locks on the Itchen Navigation. Much of the area of the lock, particularly around the head, has become very overgrown by bushes and trees in the last twenty or so years. Indeed, there is a danger that within a few years this area could become impassable. Formerly, substantial amounts of masonry could be seen at the head of the lock but this is now very difficult to find or see. On the offside of the waterway, some fine stonework provides the setting for a hatch that was used for drowning the water meadows on the east side of the Navigation. There is also a fine brick arched culvert passing under the towing path just above the lock which served a similar purpose but it is now fenced off and hidden by vegetation.
The “upper apron” or top cill (the vertical step in the bed of the Navigation overcome by the lock) has collapsed and been almost completely washed away. Indeed, a report of 1863 said that it was then about to disintegrate. This has led to erosion of the bed of the canal above the lock into a series of “rapids” for some distance upstream. This has exaggerated the height of the banks considerably.
Until around 30 years ago, the "turf sided" chamber had well defined sloping, earthen banks on both sides of the lock. However, that on the east side was destroyed in the late 1980s. An unusual feature of this lock is the brick walling at the foot of these slopes which would have been installed to prevent erosion when the lock chamber was being filled. It was more usual for a wooden structure to be built for this purpose. It is possible that vertical baulks of timber would also have been positioned above the walling to prevent boats settling on the sloping sides as the lock was emptied although there is no evidence that these ever existed here.
A modern footbridge uses the well-preserved brickwork at the tail of the lock which once supported the bottom gates. The path crosses from the west to the east bank of the waterway. When the canal was commercially used, there used to be a wooden horse bridge below the lock to carry the towing path across the waterway.
Conegar Lock to Fish House Bay
Having crossed the waterway to the east bank by means of the footbridge at the tail of the lock, the towing path continues in a southerly direction towards Fish House Bay. In the late 1980s, alterations to the original path were made. It seems that the raised chalk bank on which the unfenced path ran was used to fill the counter drain that used to run along the east side of the path. In turn the path was confined by a fence to a course closer to the waterway. Now the path is at times rather narrow and can be rather muddy although some minor improvements have been made in recent years.
Fish House Bay
Nearly 300 yards south of Conegar Lock, at Fish House Bay, the Barton River (which left the Navigation upstream of Stoke Lock) rejoins the Navigation, only to cross and leave again almost immediately to join the main River Itchen to the south east. The footpath used to cross the Barton River as it left the Navigation by means of a plank bridge with a handrail. Some years ago this was replaced by a more substantial footbridge on a slightly different alignment. Although the position of the north end is unchanged, the southern end of the new bridge was moved west a few yards and is now within the dry course of the Navigation.
It is recorded that there were hatches and a horse bridge on this site. However, the hatches, which retained a higher water level, were destroyed towards the end of the 19th century in order to drain the Navigation to the south. The result is that the artificial waterway from here almost as far south as Mans Bridge became ‘dry’ although some parts can still get quite waterlogged. It also meant that part of the supply to drown the water meadows to the south was removed.
A number of the pictures on this page are shown by kind permission of Marie Keates. A keen walker, she has written about and illustrated several attempts to walk the full length of the Navigation during 2013 in her blog at http://www.iwalkalone.co.uk. She has walked along all or parts of the Navigation often since then: all illustrated with some excellent photographs.