Itchen Navigation: Introduction
This page sets the scene by giving some background information about the Navigation. Further pages give more detailed information about various aspects of the waterway.
The Itchen Navigation towpath allows rare public access to a chalk stream in a valley of outstanding natural heritage value. If you want to walk all or part of this path, an illustrated description of the route from Winchester to Northam can be found in the Portrait of the Navigation. The page about Access to the Navigation details how to get to the waterway by private or public transport. There are two maps covering the waterway and also a table of distances along the Navigation.
The Itchen Navigation has a long and complex history, having a claim to being one of the oldest waterways in the country. As a commercial enterprise, however, the Navigation has been defunct for 150 years, the last cargo carrying barge reached Blackbridge Wharf, Winchester in June 1869.
Despite the last 150 years being a period of neglect and dereliction, the waterway is remarkably intact with little positively destroyed; rather it has been allowed to moulder away half-forgotten. Given modern society’s ability to create rubbish and to deposit it in any half hidden corner, it is surprising there is almost no refuse in or by the Navigation. It suffers few intrusions from development.
From around the 17th century until the 1930s, large sections of the Itchen Valley were farmed as water meadows. Water was taken from the river and the Navigation and then channelled across the meadows by a series of carriers running along the top of ridges. The water flow and levels were carefully controlled by a system of hatches and sluices, the workers managing the meadow being called “drowners”. To flood parts of the meadow, they would place turf sods into the carrier channel to overflow that section of the ridge. This caused the water to trickle down the banks and at the bottom of each ridge a drainage channel took the water back to a main drain and eventually back to the river itself. This process was known as “floating” and would start each year in late winter. It encouraged the early and rapid spring growth of the grass (by raising the temperature of the soil insulating the grass from frost), whilst spreading useful silt and nutrients across the meadow. This very labour intensive form of land management made it possible to produce two hay crops a year in addition to periodic grazing by cattle and sheep.
For those interested in the way that the water meadows used to be drowned (or flooded) in late winter, there is a paper entitled “Bishopstoke Water Meadows” written by Mr R G Morris who was one of the last drowners in the Bishopstoke area. This may be found on the website of Eastleigh & District Local History Society. There is also a page on the Twyford Parish Council’s website about Twyford Meads and the partially restored water meadows there.
Most of the Navigation falls within the areas designated as the River Itchen SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). The River and much of the Navigation are also designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under the European Habitats Directive. Details of these designations and others can be examined on mapping at the Magic Map managed by Natural England. The MAGIC website provides geographic information about the natural environment from across government.
It is quite noticeable that since the 1980s trees and bushes have been allowed to grow almost unchecked along much of the Navigation. In places this growth has come to seriously threaten the fabric of the waterway: several breaches of the banks have occurred in the last few years. However, some of this neglect was tackled by the Itchen Navigation Heritage Trail Project between 2007 and 2012. But since the completion of this project, there is little evidence that serious efforts are continuing to actively maintain the work achieved and areas that were worked on are in danger of deteriorating again and disappearing from view.
The Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust published a pamphlet when the project reached its conclusion, summarising the work achieved during the project. This publication used to appear on the Trust’s website but no longer. However, a copy can be read here (opens in a new window/tab - size 3.88MB). The More Information page has links to a few other documents about the project that are no longer available on the Trust’s website.
In 2020, a Facebook group was established with a view to fostering interest in the Navigation. Currently (March 2023) the group has about 1,500 members. The group is concerned by the neglect of the Navigation since the completion of the Heritage Trail Project. This group’s site is dedicated to the Itchen Navigation and includes scenic photos, wildlife photos, experiences and its history. Details can be found on Facebook.
In addition, a charity, “The Itchen Navigation Preservation Trust”, is presently being set up (March 2023). One of the first things it aims to do is undertake a condition survey of the whole Navigation and then to set up a maintenance plan for clearing vegetation on the locks, etc. It is intended that the charity will have lots more aims other than the physical work and it is hoped to raise money soon for some larger projects.
During the remedial works carried out by the Itchen Navigation Heritage Trail Project, it was deemed necessary to erect a fence along much of the Navigation between the the path and the water. This would allow vegetation to grow untrampled and this would help bind and stabilise the bank. It would also prevent the erosion of the bank caused by dogs scrambling out of the waterway after a swim.
At various places along the Navigation, “Dog Dips” were built to help dogs enter and leave the water. However, these together with the fence between the path and the water have not entirely cured the erosion problem. In places where there is no fence, it seems that bank erosion has increased as dog swimming has become concentrated on shorter lengths of the waterway.
In addition, fences have increasingly been erected between the path and adjacent meadows for several reasons. Often, it has been deemed necessary to prevent disturbance of the wildlife and/or vegetation in a nature reserve that was set up to protect them. In other cases, it has been necessary to keep livestock from escaping through gates left open by walkers and also gates need maintenance - the traditional use of stiles is no longer considered permissible as they ‘inhibit’ access. Landowners are also concerned about people or their dogs worrying their animals. Fencing in livestock also allays walkers’ fears of farm animals such as cattle.
One downside to the fencing installed along the Navigation is the sense of being hemmed in. Unfortunately, it also means that trees and bushes can grow unhindered and it seems quite possible that eventually a screen of trees will mask lengths of the waterway and meadows from the walker. In the past and in the absence of fencing, grazing animals had access to the path and could eat the young trees and bushes whilst still small. Thirty or more years ago considerable lengths of the waterway were unfenced and this was a distinctive feature of the Itchen Navigation.
It seems that, since the 1980s, changes to water management within the Itchen Valley have occurred and sections of the Navigation that used to have significant flows have had these much diminished and to the south of St Catherine Lock to have ceased altogether for much of the year. On other sections, water levels have often been allowed to rise and overflow the banks potentially risking breaches and floods.
A further and considerable concern, not confined to the River Itchen, are the discharges of sewerage into river by water companies - Southern Water in the case of the Itchen. Figures released by the Environment Agency revealed Southern Water pumped 486 hours’ worth of raw sewage into the River Itchen in 2021-2022. In the same period the water company made a profit of £138 million. In addition to sewerage, various chemicals (agricultural, industrial and domestic) can end up in river water. It‘s said there are just 210 chalk streams in the whole world and 85% of these are in this country (the remainder in France). The Itchen has always been considered one of the best of these but these discharges have accompanied a lowering of water quality in the system. These are having an effect upon the flora and fauna on the river. Are the environmental designations meaningless?
The Itchen Navigation and River Itchen hold a thriving population of fish, particularly brown trout, grayling, pike, eels and minnows. The waterways are of international importance for several species of aquatic Ranunculus (water crowfoot), Southern Damselfly and Bullhead populations. They are also important as a home to White-clawed (or Atlantic stream) Crayfish, Brook Lamprey, Atlantic Salmon and Otters.
Fishing on the River Itchen and the Navigation, where it is in water, is an important pastime. Indeed, the Itchen is considered one of the best streams in the world for trout fishing and rights are carefully protected. The River Itchen and the adjoining River Test are famous chalk streams which were the birthplace of dry fly fishing.
The South Downs National Park came into operation on 1 April 2011. The northern part of the Itchen Navigation between Blackbridge, Winchester and Kiln Lane, Brambridge lies within the National Park, at times forming the boundary of the designated area. Further information here.
The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust (HIWWT) maintains two Nature Reserves adjacent to the northern part of the Navigation: at St Catherine’s Hill near Winchester and Hockley Meadows Nature Reserve between Hockley and Shawford. Further details can be found on the HIWWT website. The Itchen Valley Country Park from a point about 250 metres south of the Chicken Hall Railway Bridge to Mansbridge includes the Navigation. Much of the Country Park is treated as a nature reserve. Further information here.
The Itchen Navigation Heritage Trail (which is part of the Itchen Way and was formerly called the Itchen Navigation Footpath) follows the towing path for much of the waterway from Winchester to Southampton. Parts of it are probably as heavily used as any public footpath in Hampshire.
Public rights of navigation between Winchester and Wood Mill were conferred by Act of Parliament in 1802. These rights have not been extinguished legally although, in practice, they are not easy to exercise. Parts of the Navigation have no water supply but where water does flow, fishing interests and riparian landowners actively discourage the use of any boats. Today, the River Itchen is managed the Environment Agency but it is not the Navigation Authority and has no responsibilities with regard to boating. The proprietors of the Navigation were established by Act of Parliament but who they might be today is unknown. So in practical terms there is no Itchen Navigation Authority. The tidal river comes within the jurisdiction of Associated British Ports (ABP) which is the Statutory and Competent Harbour Authority for the Port of Southampton.
This river is an important part of our national heritage. It deserves and needs to be cherished for our own and future generations’ enjoyment.