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In 1665 Parliament authorised the building of one of England’s first canals, the Itchen Navigation, so connecting the port of Southampton to Winchester, the nearest important inland city. The plan was to use the navigable stretches of the River Itchen with appropriate deepening and widening, and where this was not feasible a new channel parallel to the river was to be created. With fifteen locks and two half locks, it would provide a waterway allowing larger traffic to bypass the many mills along the route. When it finally opened in the early 1700s it could handle shallow barges 72 feet long and 13 feet wide for moving chalk, coal, aggregates, timber and agricultural goods in bulk. It flourished until the opening of the London and Southampton Railway in 1839, which heralded the start of its decline. Return cargo also fell away, and the last commercial vessel arrived in Winchester in 1869. From then on for nearly the next 140 years the neglected waterway gradually fell into disrepair.
It has been exactly that neglect, however, that has allowed wildlife in and around the Navigation to flourish. Eventually in 2005 a successful application to the Heritage Lottery Fund saw the start of a partial restoration, together with recognition of the area’s status as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and designation as a European Special Area of Conservation. By 2012 a Heritage Trail will have been established and habitats for many species consolidated, all coordinated by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. Already the sharp-eyed and patient could spot otters, water voles, southern damselfly, kingfishers and butterflies, while the rarer brook lamprey, bullhead, white-clawed crayfish and Atlantic salmon are all set to increase. Other fish in the clear waters of this internationally important chalk river system include brown trout, grayling, pike, eels and minnows. There is also a significant assemblage of breeding birds.
This shot, taken in late September, shows the northern end of the Navigation just before it reaches Wharf Bridge in Winchester. Nowadays these two nineteenth century cottages are part of a larger group of homes built in the succeeding years to take advantage of this wonderful location.
When John Keats visited at the same time of year in 1819, the Navigation would have been at the height of its prosperity. Tantalisingly, his famous description of his daily walks broke off once past the Hospital of St Cross. Elsewhere, however, he recorded that “… there is on one side of the city a dry chalky down where the air is worth sixpence a pint.” He may well have been describing St Catherine’s Hill, south-east of the town. From here one can still look back towards St Cross in the middle distance. The speculation is that he would then have climbed the hill and so returned to the city along this bank of the Itchen Navigation.
(Nikon Coolpix 8400)