Above Mans Bridge, the main River Itchen was navigable for about 600 yards to Gaters Mill which was also variously known in the past as South Stoneham Mill, Up Mill, Mansbridge Mill and Westend Mill. There have been mills on this site dating at least since the 13th or 14th century or even earlier. This was a paper mill from 1685 until 1865 when it was rebuilt as a corn mill. The mill suffered a major fire during in 1916/17 and parts were again rebuilt. Gaters Mill closed as a mill after damage caused whilst being used as a munitions store during World War II. Today the buildings are occupied by a number of small businesses.
When the new Mans Bridge was built a new length of road bypassed a section of the former A27 which ran alongside the river. The old road is now used as a footpath and for casual parking. Along this length can be found the popular White Swan public house. This riverside pub opened in the early 1800s and, as much of the land around was owned by the Middleton family, it was called the Middleton Arms. In around 1830 the name was changed to the Swan Inn and then, in 1870, to the White Swan Hotel. Whilst the waterside location is very attractive in summer, winter floods present a less pleasant prospect.
It seems some people don’t know quite where the White Swan is - lying as it does between Swaythling and West End, somewhere near Mans Bridge.
The new Mans Bridge is a concrete structure opened in 1975 to carry the traffic of the A27 spanning the whole width of the main river. A path passes under the bridge on each bank.
The old Mans Bridge is one of two bridges remaining from the days of commercial use (the other is Wharf Bridge in Winchester). It is an attractive stone structure built by the county in 1816 with a segmental (part of a circle) arch and short causeways on either side.
There has been a bridge on this site since at least Saxon times (a charter of 932AD referred to it as Mannysbrigge) and was, for many centuries, the lowest fixed crossing point of the River Itchen.
Today, the stretch of river between Wood Mill and Gaters Mill is the only part of the Navigation where exercising the right to boat (at least in small craft) is not seriously disputed. Sometimes, canoeists from the Wood Mill Centre may be seen using this length.
For boats, the bridge has less than 6 feet headroom at the centre of the arch even at present normal water levels. Since there are no significant side streams to the River Itchen at this point, all the water coming down the river is channelled under the bridge. It is said that this stretch of river is today maintained at a higher level than in times past making passage quite difficult even in a small boat. When bringing barges upstream, it is quite probable that these had to be winched through against the current.
Until 1975 the bridge carried all the traffic of the A27 and, as it was only just wide enough for two cars to pass, was a serious bottleneck. The upstream parapet suffered badly from collisions with heavy lorries owing to a 90° bend in the road on the south side. During the Second World War a Bailey Bridge was assembled across the river next to the old bridge. It’s not known when this was removed but it was before 1961 as is evidenced by the picture of swimming below.
The old bridge is now closed to vehicular traffic and the parapet has been restored. A Grade II listed structure, the bridge is in good condition. Being a county bridge, maintenance was not a responsibility of the Navigation’s proprietors.
Mans Bridge to Wood Mill
The towing path crosses the river by means of the old Mans Bridge to continue south-westwards along the east bank. Riverside Park lies on the east side of the river from Mans Bridge, downstream past Wood Mill as far as Cobden Bridge. The path beside the Navigation has been tarmaced and is good condition as it and the river/Navigation passes along the north west side of Riverside Park to Wood Mill.
Woodmill Lock was constructed near the tidal limit of the river. Before the reclamation of Riverside Park, a tidal creek used to extend eastwards beside Woodmill Lane almost as far as Manor Park Road. The site of the lock is now under the road which was widened after the First World War.
It was a sea lock with a masonry chamber running east-west. It was last reconstructed in 1829 with bricks. It had the usual two pairs of lock gates pointing upstream to retain water in the non-tidal river, plus a third pair, pointing downstream, to prevent very high tides from flooding the Navigation with sea water. A wooden bridge across the lock was also built at around this time, but by the middle of the century was in poor repair. It was described in an 1862 report as being made of oak, with 23-foot-long timbers spanning the 15-foot wide lock at an angle of 40 degrees. Mr T P Clarke wrote that “the bridge is quite dilapidated and very unsafe for the traffic which is drawn over it.”
It seems that the lock remained in use for barges going upstream to Gaters (or Westend) Mill for some years after traffic ceased in 1869 on the rest of the Navigation. This was, presumably, until the lock became unusable through lack of maintenance. An Ordnance Survey map of 1896 shows that the lock had been infilled. Nothing of this lock is to be seen now but, according to hearsay, the chamber has not been destroyed but just infilled. In 2008, during road works, Southampton City Council’s Archaeology Unit found two brick features the width of the lock apart, closely corresponding to the lock position shown in the 1865-6 Ordnance Survey map.
There is a large car park beside the non-tidal section of the river.
Several 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.