Winter seems to have finally arrived. This morning dawned bright and sunny but when Commando and I went out for a shopping trip up the Big Hill we discovered thick frost on the car windows. It was quite a shock because the decking and the grass was frost free. More of a shock was the cold air. It burned my lungs as we puffed up the hill and made breathing hard. Then again that may have been trying to keep up with Commando. It’s all right for him with his long legs, I have to take two steps for every one of his. The cold kept me indoors for the rest of the day. Well, that and the need to get down to some serious job hunting and house cleaning. So today’s exercise, apart from some Pump it Up first thing, was just the Big Hill, shops loop of about a mile. Good job I got a surprise extra walk in yesterday really then.
When Commando got back from his ten mile run yesterday he said he needed to go into town to get some new trainers. I could see his point, the ones he’s been wearing are on their last legs and he is training for a marathon after all. Footwear is important.
“Do you fancy coming along for the ride?” He asked, “I was thinking about going out for a little drive afterwards.”
“Why not?” I said. After all I didn’t have anything better to do except maybe some more baking. Those cakes have almost disappeared already.
Sweat Shop near the Bargate has a discount for Park Runners and Commando’s company pays half in an attempt to encourage the workforce to get fit, they also paid for his marathon entry fee which is quite handy now we’re a single income family again. Actually it was quite interesting watching them fit him out for the trainers. They have a fancy machine to stand on that shows an imprint of your foot and can tell if you have high arches or flat feet. Obviously this can make a big difference when choosing trainers. Commando has perfectly normal feet, unlike me with my stupidly high arches. Then he had a little run on the treadmill and a camera filmed his feet just to see if they landed right. They did. He has perfect running form.
We popped into Burger King for lunch. “I’m not really helping you with your diet am I?” Commando said. Probably not but still it made a change from cooking. After that we went to Costa for coffee, mainly because I refuse to drink the rubbish they serve in Burger King. Then it was back to the car and off on our magical mystery tour.
“I wonder how long it’ll take you to work out where we’re going?” Commando asked.
The funny thing is I thought I already had an idea but I kept it to myself and just let him drive. Before long I was pretty sure I was right. We were heading towards Winchester. When we left the motorway he said, “do you know yet?”
“St Catherine’s Hill?” I guessed and it was. To be fair he has been saying he’ll take me there one day for ages so it wasn’t really a guess.
The car park by Tun Bridge was full so we ended up turning round and parking on the road a little further along. At least it gave me a chance to look over the bridge along the Navigation, all clouds reflected in the water and very pretty. It was odd to have arrived there without miles and miles of walking. It makes me see how handy being able to drive would be.
Before we left the bridge I took Commando over the other side of the road to have a look along the Navigation towards Winchester, just to give him an idea of the walk. For once I was glad I wasn’t setting off along the river, the banks have burst and the whole of Winchester College playing fields are flooded, the Navigation would be nothing more than a quagmire. So, I pointed out the mile stone and explained where Black Bridge and the wharf were and we set off towards the hill.
As we went through the gate at the Tun Bridge end of St Catherine’s Hill the ground ahead looked muddy and I noted the sign telling us to beware of cattle. Some time ago I’d seen sheep grazing at the other end of the path but I didn’t remember any cows. There were two paths before us, one very steep, the other seeming to go around the hill climbing gently. We chose the gentle slope thinking it might be easier with the muddy conditions. Before long it was clear this path was anything but easy.
We made it about a hundred yards or so, mostly off the path clambering around on the slippery grass clutching on to bushes to stop us falling. In the end we decided to turn back.
“Shall we try the steep path?” Commando asked, “or just go back to the car? You’re not known for your mountain goat capabilities after all.”
“Let’s try but if we don’t make it we can always walk along Domum Road to Black Bridge Wharf, it’ll be dry there and it’s paved,” I said, ignoring the reference to my propensity for falling over, mostly because it’s true.
Thankfully the first steep, muddy bit turned out to be less muddy than the longer path. There was some slipping but I didn’t actually fall. Commando grabbed my hand a few times when it got really bad and we had to shield our eyes against the low sun. The higher we climbed the less slippery it got, in places we could see the chalk under the mud. Soon it levelled out a bit and began to twist around the base of the hill. I stopped to take a few shots of the views. Towards St Cross Hospital, which is shrouded in scaffolding at the moment, the fields seemed very wet, bright patches of water glistening everywhere. Looking towards Winchester and the cathedral the view was blocked a little by trees but I could make out the Navigation shining in the afternoon sun.
As the path twisted around on itself the views got better. The fields between the hill and Five Bridges Road were nothing more than a series of small lakes and snaking streams. If it rains much more St Catherine’s Hill is going to become St Catherine’s island. Now we could see the stand of trees at the crest of the hill and Commando suggested leaving the path and climbing over the grass. As the path was still quite muddy in places the grass did look like a better option plus it would be a shorter route, if steeper. Commando strode on ahead while I took things slightly more carefully, not wanting to slip down the hill.
The sun was sinking as we reached the cover of the trees. The golden light highlighted the contorted bare branches of the trees and cast an eerie glow on the ground beneath our feet. We’d made it to the summit, three hundred and eighteen feet high, not like climbing a mountain but high enough. As the hill is the site of an Iron Age hill fort and the 12th century chapel of St Catherine I wondered if we’d see any ruins. Maybe they’re there but I certainly didn’t see them in the gloom. Later I discovered that the circular paths we’d walked on are actually the remains of the ramparts of the hill fort though. Maybe I’d have appreciated them more if I’d known.
Another thing I didn’t know about was the mizmaze, one of only eight surviving historic turf mazes in England, this one cut somewhere between 1647 and 1710.To be honest I didn’t even know what a mizmaze was until I Googled it but it’s a turf maze. Unlike ordinary mazes mismazes are labaratnthine, paths with no junctions or crossings so probably not somewhere even I could get lost. Looking at the satellite map I could see it clearly close to the trees but, sadly, I didn’t look at the map until we were back at home. Oh well, another reason to go back I suppose, preferably when there is more light.
By chance we exited the trees on the side opposite the mizmaze and the golden light, so wonderful for taking pictures, told us the sun would soon be setting. Much as I’d have loved to sit on the hill and watch the sunset it didn’t seem a great plan with a muddy, slippery walk ahead. We did stop long enough for me to take some photos looking over landmarks I knew well from below. In the distance I could just make out Church Hill in Twyford, the place I gratefully rested on many a long walk. On the ground it seems quite steep but from high on the hill it looked like a gentle slope. Further round I could see the green line of the Navigation although I couldn’t see the water. There was no time for more landmark spotting though, to the West the sun was sinking fast and we needed to get moving.
As we made our way back towards the path I could see cows grazing not far off. Commando didn’t like the idea of getting too close.
“As long as you can’t see any horns I’m pretty sure we’re fairly safe,” I said but we made for the path anyway just in case. Commando was about to set off in the direction we’d come but I was pretty sure I knew where we were and how to get to an easier route down. It meant turning back in what seemed like the wrong direction but Commando agreed to give it a go although he looked sceptical. After all I’m hardly well known for my sense of direction and it did take us closer to the cows. Maybe he suspected my motives.
With one final look back to the top of the hill, just as a jet flew over, we turned and began to watch our feet on the muddy chalk path instead. The cows continued grazing with barely a glance our way as we got closer and before too long the path wound around below them, still at a safe distance. Now at least we were walking eastwards so the sun was no longer in our eyes making us squint.
Before we rounded the corner I stopped for one more look across the flooded fields. I’ve never seen it so wet, there was more water then grass and I should think the Navigation towards Shawford is pretty tough going right now. Once we did get round the corner I was vindicated for my plan to walk the wrong way. We could see a nice wooden trail winding down the hill, no more slipping and sliding for us. How did I know? All those walks along the navigation at the bottom of the hill of course. Every time I reached St Catherine’s lock I’d seen the path and felt slightly tempted to explore it. Of course at over twelve miles into a walk it had always seemed a touch ambitious so I never had. I’m pretty sure Commando was impressed. We stopped one more time before decending so he could take a picture of his clever wife grinning like a loon and squinting into the sun with the cows behind her.
The zig zagging wooden steps were the wrong size for my little legs, making me choose between taking two dolly steps for each step or marching like a Greek soldier who has watched too much Monty Python. Commando, of course, had no trouble at all. A family were making their way up as we descended. It didn’t seem like a very good idea with the sun getting ever lower but what do I know?
At the bottom the wooden gate was completely ensconced in mud. We had to pick our way through the driest bits in a tortuous dance with the sun, balanced now on the horizon, in our eyes again. We made it without mishap. The hill behind us was bathed in gold, the long shadows of the trees striping the grass. A short slip slide across the muddy grass to the trees and we were on the nice Tarmac path that was once the main road from Twyford to Winchester. Now all we had to do was walk back to the car and we had the advantage that I knew the way very well indeed.
It had taken us a while to get across the mud and, by now all but the top of the hill was in shadow. I might know the route very well from this point but I’d never walked it in the dusk before. As we walked I looked across the Navigation through the trees and watched as the sun sank lower. The golden ball went from sitting on the horizon to sinking below it, the dying rays slanting through the bare branches and the sky turning ever pinker.
We passed the barge bench but the light wasn’t good enough for a photo and some runners were coming past the other way so we stopped to let them pass. It may once have been a road but it isn’t exactly wide and there is quite a drop down the bank to the water behind the trees. When I could see the water of the navigation clearly between the trees I knew we were close to the end of the path. The bank is much lower there and the trees thinner. We stopped to look back along the water the way we’d come.
As we stood I heard a tell tale womp, womp, womp coming from behind us, the unmistakeable sound of flying swans. We saw them, a pair, flying down stream but I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo, all I captured was the setting sun reflected in the water as they disappeared behind the trees. I wonder where they were off to in such a hurry?
Soon we were back at Tun Bridge. A man with a camera was leaning over looking very pleased with himself.
“Did you catch the swans?” I asked.
“I saw them but I got a great shot of a kingfisher, look,” he said, proudly showing me. The photo of the kingfisher was nice but I’d rather have captured the swans myself. A flying swan is a rare sight and two, so close in such a beautiful setting trumps a slightly blurry kingfisher any day in my book. Still, each to their own and I was in the wrong place at the right time, the story of my life.
I may have missed the flying swans but it was a lovely surprise walk, even if it wasn’t quite as much a surprise as Commando had hoped. With the Hum Hole walk in the morning it brought my total miles to about two and three quarter, not exactly long distance walking but as more than half was up hill I’m sure I burnt a few calories.