Sunday, September 14, 2008

Test Way #3 When a bog is actually quite an important place

As I drive home from Southampton to Hounsdown every evening after work, there is a very distinctive section of road between Redbridge and Totton. One reason for it's distinctiveness is that it has a speed camera, and it's that camera that makes the overall distinctiveness stand out, mainly because you have to slow down. And slowing down means you have time to notice the view that's flying past the window.

The bits that really grab your eye, as the road crosses the River Test between Redbridge and Totton, are the massive crate-loading cranes of the container terminal to your left and, on your right, what can only be described as grassy marshland (or perhaps a bog). At least, that's how I could only describe them but, then again, I'm only saying what I see and had never investigated any closer.

There are three parallel bridges over the Test at this point. Firstly, the road bridge that is the main artery from the city to the New Forest; another that carries passenger trains in and out of Totton along the Weymouth to London Waterloo line; and another, the use for which seems to mainly be as a jumping platform for teenagers on hot days, eager to dive into the cold water below. The really interesing thing, however, the thing that makes this part of the journey distinctive, is the distinct lack of buildings.

Basically, you've just driven out of Southampton. You can see it in the rear-view mirror. And you're driving into Totton, which stands unattractively before you. However either side there is nothing at all, apart from water on the left and grassing mashland bog on your right.

This is, essentially, a big natural barrier between Southampton and Totton. If it wasn't for this barrier, Totton would have lost it's status at the biggest village in England (that may well be an urban myth, actually; no-one's ever confirmed it officially to me) and become little more than a suberb of the city.

And now, on this sunny autumn afternoon, having walked a quarter of a mile down The Test Way from The Salmon Leap, we found ourselves stepping onto a rather ricketty looking boardwalk. I realised that it was those same grassy boggy marshlands I pass every day that we were now walking out onto.

The boardwalk itself isn't as ricketty as it looks, but slats are missing in places and, were you to trip at certain points, you'd easily fall into the sloppy mud either side. We made our way tentatively along through gates and barriers to keep grazing animals on the firmer ground.

Eventually we realised that we'd gone rather further than we should have with Ellie's bad hip - although she'd not complained once, so turned back upon reaching the Southampton-Romsey railway line at a foot-crossing.

On the way to this point, however, we'd discovered (thanks to some notice boards and reference to my dad's aforementioned book) that the grassy marshland I'd been driving past daily for years was, in fact, a protected nature reserve and an area of special scientific interest, on account of the fact that, because the freshwater Test meets the saltwater Solent here, there are several uncommon species of plants along with many different types of birds and other creatures.

Amazing what's right on your doorstep, isn't it?

Ellie (6)was fine afterwards, by the way, although her younger sister (4) was moaning a little about her tired legs. On our minds was whether we could quickly organise a weekend away for them with their grandparents, so we could complete the first leg of this walk from home to Romsey. And who knows what after that?

Could it be that, at some point in the future, we'd walk up to Inkpen Beacon having completed the Test Way?

Test Way #2: Skipping ahead

In my dad's book, "The Test Way", which was published in 1986 (22 years ago!!!), the start of the Test Way is listed as being at The Salmon Leap pub in Totton. Now I'd never even heard of this pub, even though I live on the outskirts of Totton and have done for years.

On checking Hampshire County Council's website, which has a large section on walks and cycle rides (including pub stops - not sure how this fits with the in-vogue healthy agenda!), I discovered that, since the book was published, the Test Way seems to have lengthened to cover a section between The Salmon Leap and Eling Tide Mill, which is around a mile from where we live. This instantly made the walk even more accessible for us, and it seemed like a nice plan to walk to Eling Tide Mill, then to The Salmon Leap and on to Romsey, where we could get on a train back to Totton and home.... no doubt following a meal stop in one of Romsey's pubs or restaurants.

However on Thursday, not much more than 36 hours before we were to hand the kids over to their grandparents for the weekend, Ellie complained at school of having a sore hip. Miche picked her up, took her to the doctor and then, on the GP's advice, on to A&E. An x-ray and three blood tests later and we were home. They couldn't find anything wrong with her although it took until 10.45 in the evening to tell us this. The kids were zonked and, although we didn't realise it at that point, our walk the following Saturday was already doomed.

The girls had been due go to Romsey Show, an local annual agricultural event, on the Saturday with their grandparents, but trolling around a showground all day did not fit with the doctor's instructions to rest Ellie's hip.

So the stay with the grandparents was off - they still wanted to go to Romsey Show - and so therefore was our walk. I have to say that we were gutted... we'd been really looking forward to it and, although in the end we had a great weekend with the kids, it's nice to take a break sometimes.

So in the spirit of keeping Ellie moving but not over-exercised, we decided to go and find The Salmon Leap pub and do the first 20 minutes of the walk, just to see what it was like. This felt rather like reading ahead in a book to see what might happen, and more so now that we knew that The Salmon Leap was no longer Chapter One, having been superceded by a new prologue.

Regardless, we did it anyway. To our amazement, we stumbled across a corner of our own local area that we'd never really been aware of before; part of the rich lanscape of unnoticed "things" in our peripheral vision, which our busy lives don't permit us to notice.

Test Way #1: Best laid plans

Talk about the best laid plans. The kids were going to nan and grandad's for the weekend and we were going to spend Saturday afternoon walking the 10 miles from our house in Hounsdown, Totton, via Eling Tide Mill all the way to Romsey.

Why?

I've always liked the idea of doing one of those cross-country long-distance walking routes. Not all at once, perhaps... But this seemed like a good opportunity to knock off the first ten miles of the Test Way, a 44-mile route from Eling (near Southampton) to Inkpen Becon, almost as far north as the M4.

A few years ago, we visited Hadrian's Wall and I was completely awe-inspired and fascinated by its history. On the same holiday, we spent an afternoon in Carlisle, which is more or less where the wall starts. In the tourist information office I picked up a leaflet about a coast to coast walk along the original path of the wall, which I thought would be great expedition to do with my wife or a friend. Alas, given that I live at the opposite end of the country, it's not as accessible as I'd like it to be.

Plus there's the fact that I'm not actually a massive walker. Sometimes I fancy it... sometimes I don't.

Anyway, I found a book at home which must have been my dad's before he moved up to Worcestershire. Called "The Test Way" it describes the entire route and, in thumbing through it, I realised I knew many of the places on the early part of the route.

There was Romsey, where I was born and went to school; Mottisfont, where we regularly visit Mottisfont Abbey, a fantastic National Trust properly with expansive lawns (where you're allowed to picnic) and a rose garden that the kids love running around in; there's Stockbridge, a small town which I've been to several times (but not often) and where a couple of years ago I met with my cousins for a Christmas meal. The pub where we gathered was right on the river with the Test Way path running right alongside. Go any further north than Stockbridge and, admittedly, my knowledge wanes considerably. But I liked the idea of using this route to discover not only my local area at closer quarters, but the world immediately beyond it.

We travel virtually everywhere by car these days so these ancient footpaths are used more for leisure than necessity. Consequently we happen upon them less readily.

Anyway, our best laid plans didn't quite turn out as we'd hoped, with a rather underwhelming visit to A&E being the start of our downfall...

(Picture shows River Test at Lee, near Romsey. Taken on 27 October - See #4)