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.
Between Fish House Bay and Mans Bridge on the outskirts of Southampton, the Navigation was constructed along the edge of a river terrace which forms a flat area to the west generally about 10 - 15 feet above the flat valley floor. In general, the canal was constructed above the level of the meadows to help with one of the Navigation's main purposes - that was to provide water for the controlled flooding of the water meadows especially in winter and early spring.
Much of the bed and banks of the canal as far as Mans Bridge are now covered with trees and bushes but, as these have matured, the amount of undergrowth has been reducing slightly in recent years. Since Eastleigh Borough Council acquired the meadows forming part of the Itchen Valley Country Park, it seems that a strip of woodland between the Navigation and the meadows is being encouraged. A number of small springs along the edge of the river terrace feed water into the Navigation. Parts of the canal bed are waterlogged even in the driest weather despite attempts to drain it by breaching the towing path or inserting pipes through it.
Fish House Bay to Chicken Hall Railway Bridge
Within a few yards, the Itchen Way path crosses the dry course of the canal to the west side. Originally, the towing path continued along the east bank of the Navigation all the way to Mansbridge Lock but this seems have been closed off as far as Chicken Hall Railway Bridge when the hatches at Fish House Bay were destroyed. Until the 1980s an allotment or vegetable garden used to occupy the bed of the canal on the south side of the path crossing that waterway.
The present day public footpath now turns south again along a metalled track which is an extension of Chicken Hall Lane. This track runs between the Navigation and Chicken Hall Sewage Works to the west. As the track climbs up a rise, the course of the canal was tucked in below the hill. At one point, the main River Itchen comes so close to the Navigation that it has been threatening to erode the east bank of the canal. The track descends again to run alongside the course of the canal.
About four hundred yards from Fish House Bay, the track passes through a gate, crossing the site of the canal, which ran just on the east side of the fence. The footpath continues to the right of the gate.
Here is one of the few places were the canal has been actively destroyed, happening here in about 1977. The public footpath continues southwards between what was the west side of the Navigation and the sewage works. After about 150 yards, the remains of the canal can once again be seen on the east side of the footpath. At the south end of the sewage works the public footpath diverges from the Navigation as it passes the site of Chicken Hall Farm which stood to the west. Some 140 yards south of the sewage works, the Navigation has again been destroyed where the footpath crosses a field to Chicken Hall railway bridge. Near the north end of this field there used to be a wooden occupation bridge known as Chickenhall Bridge but no trace of it can be seen.
Chicken Hall Railway Bridge
The Eastleigh to Fareham railway line was opened in 1841 and crossed the Navigation by means of a two arched bridge, the second arch on the east side of the canal providing access for the occupiers of land on either side of the railway.
However, in 1979, the bridge had to be rebuilt and the present ‘Armco tube’ was considered the most economical. Mindful of their legal obligations towards the Navigation, British Rail took care in its installation to ensure that sufficient width at the correct level was provided to accommodate the Navigation should it ever be restored. In the meantime, the footpath passes through the arch provided for the canal. The actual demolition of the old bridge, craning in the Armco tube, making good the embankment and replacement of the track was all accomplished inside 48 hours over one weekend.
Chicken Hall Railway Bridge to Lock House Lock
After some 50 yards from the railway, the footpath returns from the bed of the canal to the alignment of the original towing path on the east bank where it remains until Mansbridge Lock. In places this first stretch is rather “up and down” as the towpath embankment has suffered considerable erosion.
About 250 yards south of the railway bridge, a little used track or path crosses the canal bed to reach a small water treatment works that serves part of Eastleigh railway works. About 15 yards north of this track are the overgrown remains of an embankment constructed by the London and South Western Railway in the first decade of the 20th century. This was intended to form part of a diversion of the Eastleigh to Fareham line to avoid the then new extensions to Eastleigh railway works but construction seems to have ceased before crossing the main river to the east.
Contemporary Ordnance Survey mapping (revised in 1908) shows a railway track crossing the Navigation on a bridge but this was probably only a temporary structure for construction purposes to bring in building materials for the embankment and the bridges required to cross the Itchen valley. The next revision of the OS map in 1931 shows a shortened siding and no railway bridge but does show a footbridge across the bed of the canal in the same position as the present track/path.
In 1979 Eastleigh Borough Council bought 250 acres of water meadows along the eastern side of the waterway extending from here as far as Mans Bridge, which are now part of the Itchen Valley Country Park and have been designated as a nature reserve. Over 100 species of bird have been recorded, and the area is particularly attractive to warblers including Sedge Warbler and Whitethroat. There are a number of footpaths within the country park south of Decoy Covert accessible from the towing path which allow exploration of the water meadows.
The towing path for the last 300 yards before Lock House Lock runs along a bank about 8 to 10 feet above the meadows. A substantial dip in the towing path just upstream of the lock is the site of a set of hatches that used to feed water to the water meadows. The remains of a pond fed by these hatches can be seen south of the path.
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 https://www.iwalkalone.co.uk. She has walked along all or parts of the Navigation often since then: all illustrated with some excellent photographs.