It is impossible to walk directly beside the tidal river all the way from Cobden Bridge to Northam Bridge on either bank. No towing path was ever constructed south of Wood Mill. However, with the addition, a few years ago, of the new boardwalk alongside the river south of St Denys, it is possible to walk beside all but quarter of a mile along the west side of the river although in three separate sections.
St Denys Railway Bridge, a quarter of a mile downstream of Cobden Bridge, was opened in 1866 by the Southampton and Netley Railway to serve the new military hospital at Netley. This was just before the demise of traffic on the Itchen Navigation and evidence about the way the barges were worked on the tidal Itchen with no towing path was given when the railway company’s bill came before Parliament. The bridge consists of three spans supported by two pairs of iron cylindrical columns in the river. Although repairs have been made to the bridge, its appearance remains unchanged. The line was extended to Fareham in 1889.
East side of the river
To continue south along the east side of the Itchen (which is the direction taken by the Itchen Way), walk up from the river to the road and cross it at the traffic lights. Walk up the hill and turn right into Whitworth Crescent just below the Bitterne Park Hotel. The river can be seen at a number of places along this road. On the river south of Riverdene Place, the bank is taken up with moorings for small boats.
However, as the Southampton to Fareham railway line intervenes, it is necessary to make for Bitterne railway station to cross the line. At the southern end of Whitworth Crescent, the road turns sharp left becoming Whitworth Road. Ahead, at the T-junction turn right into MacNaghten Road which shortly turns left and comes to Bitterne station. There is a ramped path from the station car park (by the platform) up onto the main road (Bitterne Road West, A3024) and the bridge over the railway.
Having crossed the railway line, the official route of the Itchen Way turns right down some steps and/or a path, just before the petrol station, into Chafen Road. At its northern end, the road turns left to become Vespasian Road. Behind the buildings lining the north-west side of this road are moorings for many small boats but the river is inaccessible to the public and largely unseen behind housing and commercial buildings. Given this, it might be better (and a slightly shorter distance) for walkers to enter the Park from the main road where it bends left towards Northam Bridge.
At the far (south-western) end of Vespasian Road, the Itchen Way enters Bitterne Manor Park where there is also a small car park. Bitterne Manor Park is not large but it reaches down to the river from the main road. Views of the river up to the St Denys railway bridge and to below Priory Hard (on the west bank) can be had.
Much of the area on this side of the railway was a small Roman town thought to be Clausentum occupied from about AD 70-400. The sole visible structural remains at Clausentum comprise the restored foundations of the 2nd century bath house and a fragment of the 3rd century town wall on the north side, now reduced to an overgrown bank. The remains are located on private property, at Bitterne Manor House, and permission is needed to see them. More information about Clausentum and pictures of the area may be found on Marie Keates’ blog.
To make for Northam Quay, leave the park by heading away from the river up to the main road. Turn right along the road and over the bridge from this entrance. Before reaching the bridge, it also possible to walk upstream along the river on the south side of Centurion Park (an industrial park) for about 230 yards. Currently, the path, which used to go further, is now fenced off at this point.
West side of the river
To walk along the west side of the river, cross Cobden Bridge and turn left along Priory Road. Although this road runs up to about 100 yards away from the river it is possible to access the bank via side roads leading into small housing estates with paths leading between the houses. The first of these is Pettinger Gardens north of the railway bridge over Priory Road giving access to about 120 yards of river bank. South of the railway, Janaway Gardens and Collier Close similarly give access to the river and around 230 yards of bank. A path along the river bank also links these two roads.
The next access to the river comes at Priory Hard. This is the public hard furthest upstream on the tidal river where it is possible to launch a small boat. At the back of the houses between Collier Close and the hard are private moorings for many small boats. To the south-west of the hard lies the modern gated development known as Quay 2000. There is a path that used to be open to the public running round the development between it and the river but this was closed as a result of vandalism.
When the London and Southampton Railway was built in the late 1830s, a causeway was constructed across Bevois (pronounced Beavers) Valley, a large tidal bay which extended west to the back of the buildings in Bevois Valley Road. This bay was flooded at high tide but was rather marshy and much of it “dried out” at low water. The bay west of the railway was reclaimed during the latter part of the 19th century and Empress Road was laid out. In the first decade of the 20th century a large part at the southern end was covered in railway sidings. In the 1960s and 70s the area around Empress Road was developed as an industrial estate and during the 1990s most of the sidings were taken up.
In 2010, the Itchen Riverside Boardwalk was constructed along the east side of the railway line to provide a safer and more pleasant North-South route to Southampton's city centre, railway station and football ground for cyclists and walkers. This pathway is partially cantilevered out over the foreshore. It links the Horseshoe Bridge over the railway near Priory Road with Northam, joining with pre-existing footpaths which lead along the river’s edge to the south end of Northam Bridge.
From the late 19th century until the 1970s a number of timber merchants had businesses in the Northam Bridge area and there were extensive timber ponds upstream of the bridge. Those on the south side of the river are now reclaimed land and in 2019, having previously been the site of television studios, are being redeveloped as housing.
The first Northam Bridge was opened in 1799 as part of the new turnpike road from Southampton to Bursledon which is on the way to Portsmouth. The bridge was mainly wooden and was replaced by an iron bridge in 1889. The toll was removed from the bridge when it was bought by Southampton Corporation in 1929.
The present bridge is the third to cross the river and was opened in 1954. It was the first major pre-stressed concrete road bridge built in the UK. Whilst the causeway which led to the first and second bridges can be seen on the east bank (north side) of the river, nothing else survives of either of these two bridges.
The Navigation wharf at Northam Quay (sometimes called Northam Wharf) used to be situated just downstream of the bridge on the west bank, but the area has completely changed in the 150 years since barges ceased trading to Winchester. The site of the northern end of the quay is very close to the face of the current quay, but the high water mark of the early 1800’s is now around 25 yards inland.
Northam Quay was the furthest that laden sea-going vessels could reliably go up the River Itchen even before the road bridge was built as the river shallows upstream. It also had the advantage that it was outside the town of Southampton and therefore avoided the high port dues payable when using the port of Southampton.
At the end of the 18th century, the Northam branch of the Southampton and Salisbury Canal was under construction from the east end of the canal tunnel in Southampton to a tidal lock about 200 metres east of the Quay. However, it is believed that this section of waterway was not completed and that no boats traded along it. No trace of this canal can be discerned on the ground today. For more information see the story of this canal on this website.
Northam Quay had the benefit of the Northam Quay Tramway which opened in 1840 to supply coal landed at the quay to coke ovens south of Mount Pleasant level crossing. It was also connected with the new main line railway. Worked by horses until 1904, the tramway was soon extended to serve other adjacent wharves and shipyards and it survived in use until 1984. In fact, the tramway would not have been of much benefit to the Navigation. When the third Northam Bridge was built in 1953-4, a section of the tramway was moved nearer the river to pass under the smaller arch at the southern end of the bridge.
It was usual to transfer cargoes overside from ship to barge (or vice versa) rather than land them on the quay - it seems likely that this avoided double handling and paying wharfage charges. However, regulations were made that a certain number of vessels had to land cargoes at the quay.
One of the pictures on this page is 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 https://www.iwalkalone.co.uk. She has walked along all or parts of the Navigation often since then: all illustrated with some excellent photographs.