In Winchester, on the banks of the River Itchen, is a very flattering statue of King Alfred the Great. He’s been given a warrior’s build, with a big beard, shield and sword. He looks fearsome. According to history, however, brains were far more the King’s strong suit.
He foresaw the power of literacy, learned how to tactfully negotiate with invading Viking forces and devised ‘burghs’, fortified strongholds to keep them at bay. It was from Winchester – then Wintancaester – that Alfred, the King of Wessex plotted his dream to unite his kingdom with eastern Mercia and northern Northumberland into a single new country.
Alfred would have recognised the Itchen’s advantages. Its access to the sea via Southampton, and its fast-flowing stream would have made a good defence against ‘the Great Heathen Army’ of Vikings. However, it is unlikely that even he fully understood the value of the watercourse here – and how particular it is to the geography of England. ‘There are only 210 chalk streams in the world and 160 of them are in this country,’ says Rory Walsh, writer of this Discovering Britain trail. ‘Many people would say the Itchen is the best example. Its a rare habitat – and running through a place as important as Winchester means the river is steeped in history as well as wildlife.’
The trail starts behind Alfred’s statue on a narrow bridge crossing the Itchen. Parallel to the bridge, there are two stone arches straddling bank to bank, holding up a handsome redbrick building. From underneath, the water jets forward with a Jacuzzi-like gusto. This is the Winchester City Mill. ‘If Alfred were to walk around the streets of Winchester today, this mill would probably be the only building he could recognise still serving the same purpose,’ says Ric Weeks, who manages the site. ‘It was making flour then and it’s still making flour now. Even the cathedral has been moved since his day.’
Though the mill’s facade was rebuilt in the 1700s, its first official record began in the Saxon period in 932, making it the oldest working water mill in the country. It’s assumed the site is even older, dating back to the Roman era. This back story means Weeks can describe his job as being 1,000-years-old: ‘It’s weird to think that there will have been someone managing flour production here at every stage of history since the Romans.’
This part of the Itchen is an obvious place to put a water mill. A sharp gradient and natural bottleneck means the water runs through here at an extraordinary speed – ‘about 25 miles per hour,’ says Weeks. In the mill’s basement he has to shout over the rush of the noise. It flows under the building and down a slope to crush against the paddles of the wooden mill wheels, their diameter as large as a person. The force is more than enough to push the enormous millstones around, grinding grain into flour.
Sometimes the water gets too powerful. Two years ago, floodwater almost swept the mechanics away. Weeks, who had water up to his neck when he tried to preserve the machinery, thought he was going to lose it all. In the aftermath, a 30-hour, non-stop milling session raised money towards the building’s restoration and protection.
Downstream of the mill, the water moves fast but without the same ferocity. It slips below overlooking window panes like liquid glass. Quieter stretches such as these allow the clear colours of a chalk stream to be appreciated. ‘Locals call it gin-clear,’ says Walsh. Beneath the surface, underwater reeds become emerald in colour and even clumps of watercress appear to glitter in the riverbed. ‘The wildlife flourishes thanks to geology,’ says Walsh. ‘The South Downs are made of chalk that filters the rainwater on its way to the Itchen.’ Why doesn’t the porous chalk riverbed absorb the water? ‘The water is running too fast,’ explains Walsh. ‘Plus there is flint in the riverbed, which is impermeable.’ The flint filters impurities from rainwater, while the chalk’s weak alkali neutralises the water’s acidity. The chalk and flint are both left behind from sea creatures. Between 65 to 90 million years ago this region was under a shallow sea. The result today is the crystal clear river.
Today, water voles and otters live in the Itchen and the blue flash of kingfishers can often be seen dipping for food. Plenty of invertebrates bring in fish such as wild salmon and trout. Trying to see them sloping through the darker reed beds is a hypnotic game.
The trail enters one of the best places to watch for trout – Five Bridges Road. It is a quiet lane of tarmac that forms a belt across the width of the Itchen valley. On both sides, thick bracken and the river’s streams give off the heady, marshy smell of high summer. In fact, less than 30 years ago this too-good-to-be-true countryside was unrecognisable. ‘It was an access road for the A33, the main road from London to Southampton,’ says Walsh. Until the 1990s this road would have been backed up with cars. Today, even the dashed lines have faded and greenery pushes up through the tarmac.
On the east side of the river valley is the rounded mount of Saint Catherine’s Hill. Climbing up, it becomes obvious where the cars have gone. The sound of water fades into the rush of traffic as the M3 comes into full view. A white scar, wide enough for six lanes was carved cut straight through the chalk hills in 1992. During the construction, protesters camped on the site and chained themselves to bulldozers. ‘There are still people who refuse to drive on it,’ says Walsh. ‘It was controversial because of the damage it would do to the chalk hills and the environment around it.’
There have been a few gains from the destruction. From the vantage point of the hill it is possible to see where the old A33 road used to snake around Winchester. After the motorway was built, the tarmac was ripped up and some of the extracted chalk used to fill in the old road. The end of the A-road added to the graveyard of old transport schemes on this side of the valley. Beneath Saint Catherine’s Hill is the Itchen Navigation, a once-vital canal running from Southampton to Winchester. The canal was superseded by the railways which have left a crumbling viaduct through the valley, itself made redundant by the roads. Apart from a cycle way, the route under the hill has been completely returned to nature.
The pressures on the Itchen today are less obvious than transport and construction. ‘Over extraction is the new threat to the river,’ says Walsh. Initially attracted by the water’s pre-filtered quality, water companies have been pumping the Itchen for decades. However, abstraction has been increasing while the companies have been slow to adapt to the more drought-prone weather of climate change. Less water also allows harmful pesticides and fertilisers to accumulate, harming the river’s eco-system.
It is a taste of the pressures threatening almost all chalk streams in England – according to the WWF half of England’s 160 chalk streams are in danger of drying up. In a sense, the Itchen is lucky. It is high profile enough to provoke environmental action. However, fears are that unless water companies quickly change their ways, even the Itchen could dry up. After enduring Viking raids, the Dark Ages, Victorian industrialisation and turn-of-the-century motorways, Winchester’s Itchen could be in trouble again.
This was published in the August 2018 edition of Geographical magazine
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