Immediately south of the road bridge at Allbrook, the waterway runs in a channel constructed by the railway company in about 1838 when the London and Southampton Railway was built. According to an old map, the original Allbrook Lock lies under the railway embankment south of the present road but no sign of it remains. The canal curves round to the west and passes under the first of two bridges carrying the railway over the Navigation.
The small area of land south of the road and between the canal and the railway was at one time the site of some saw mills and timber yard. They appear on Ordnance Survey large scale mapping that was first surveyed in 1866-68. They were bought by Southampton Corporation in 1931 as the expansion of the waterworks upstream at Otterbourne reduced the water supplies coming down the Itchen. The wheel pit was filled in and the mill and mill cottages were demolished just before the Second World War.
Allbrook Railway Bridge to Ham Bridge
West of the railway and on the north side of the canal, the BAM Nuttall plant hire depot dominates. Early maps show that this depot was once a timber yard. The original line of the Navigation rejoins the present line between the railway bridge and the depot where a small stream now joins the canal.
Near the railway bridge, a very small overflow weir has been constructed to help prevent water in the Navigation from overtopping the path and possibly breaching the bank. However, it’s size makes it likely that at times of high water levels it would be inadequate.
The waterway now follows the bottom of the hill upon which the small settlement of Allbrook sits and a number of gardens run down to the waterway. The path runs on top of the canal bank a few feet above the river meadows on the left. The Navigation now describes a large arc, starting westwards but then slowly turning to the south and eventually to the south-east.
From a point just south of the crossing by an electricity pylon line, the towing path bank was improved in the 1990s as part of the repairs to a large breach in the bank. In 2008-9, as part of the Itchen Navigation Heritage Trail Project, some more major work was done to rebuild the crumbling bank on the towing path side of the canal particularly on the Allbrook side of the electricity line. Here the ‘perched’ channel on the edge of a river terrace is raised a few feet above the adjoining floodplain and had experienced bank collapses in the past. Diggers and dumpers transported, laid, and compacted over 2000 tonnes of chalk to rebuild and widen the embankment to at least one metre wide at the top. Also, the surface of the path on top of the bank was made up as far as the next railway bridge.
For much of this length, the waterway itself has a rather neglected air with many trees overhanging, or even fallen, and nearly blocking the channel. This contrasts with the re-built path - it’s almost as though the canal didn’t feature in the plans.
The Ham Farm public house, restaurant and Travelodge hotel complex lies on the offside of the canal just before Ham Bridge. Part of the restaurant overlooks the Navigation and the meadows beyond. It is a little surprising that willow trees have been allowed to grow and block much of the view.
Ham Bridge to Withymead Lock
The next feature of note is Ham Bridge, which is an accommodation bridge that also carries a public footpath along the track up to Twyford Road (A335) and to the Ham Farm public house. The concrete bridge was built in about 1950 and it reputably replaced the last original wooden bridge along the waterway.
The Navigation continues south past the gardens of houses on the outskirts of Eastleigh. As usual with canalside properties, some make a feature of the water whilst others seem do their best to ignore it. The next bridge encountered is the second main line railway crossing, the waterway now flowing south-eastwards. The original brick railway bridge dating from 1838 has been extended three times, the last in 1943 when preparations were in hand for the invasion of Europe.
South of the railway bridge, on the offside of the Navigation, lie the extensive sidings in the Eastleigh railway infrastructure maintenance and long welded rail depots.
Several hundred yards beyond the railway bridge, Withymead Lock is encountered. Brickwork remains at both the head and tail of the Lock but much of this (particularly at the latter) is quite overgrown. A weir has been constructed at the head of the lock and the present day path crosses the Navigation at this point by means of a modern footbridge. When the waterway was in use, the towing path crossed via a bridge at the tail of the lock.
When the waterway carried commercial traffic, it was usual after use that the top gates would be kept closed and the bottom gates open. Any excess water in the Navigation could pass through special holes in the top gates. At Withymead, a bypass channel may have been provided on the west side of the lock for such water and the remains of this stream are still in evidence as you leave the lock. It is seems that this arrangement had its origin in the now derelict system for drowning the water meadows below Withymead as the Ordnance Survey map of 1869 shows no stream returning water to the Navigation.
In early June 2013 the wooden footbridge was vandalised closing the footpath. According to Hampshire County Council it was going to cost £70,000 to replace it. So, the path remained closed and the signs kept changing with later and later dates for the bridge to be repaired. But then Henry Russell, the farmer who owns High Bridge Farm at Allbrook, stepped in. “It’s such a well used and important footway that I felt the delay was embarrassing,” he said. He used the farm facilities to build a vandal proof bridge from steel and donated it to the county. A most generous man! The new bridge opened in December 2013.
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.