A man, a plan, a canal - all strictly for the birds

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The Independent Online
Early in the 17th century the medieval port of Titchfield, in Hampshire, fell victim to a passion for hunting. Now the birds that flourished after the death of the port have vanquished the hunters too.

Caroline Dilke took advantage of a

400-year-old disaster.

There is only one problem with this lovely walk, which follows the line of an ancient, overgrown canal running beside a nature reserve, then leads along the beach for a while and returns through rich agricultural land. When you reach the sea, at Hill Head, you come across Titchfield Haven, with its wooden hides looking out on to lakes, marsh and reedbeds. Anyone remotely interested in wildlife will decide to make a detour here, and as you walk on wooden duckboards above the marsh, constantly stopping in the deep, reedy silence to look at birds, what began as a modest walk of seven miles easily extends to a whole day.

The walk starts at the church of St Peter's in Titchfield, a village two miles from Fareham. Beyond the churchyard lie fields with expensive- looking horses in blanket coats. You cross a bridge over a narrow canal, then turn right and walk beside it all the way to the sea.

The canal is the key to the beauty of this peaceful, shallow valley. In 1611 the Earl of Southampton built a dam across the estuary of the river Meon, in order to enlarge his hunting-reserve. This, as he intended, altered the ecology of a wide area. Tidal saltmarsh became freshwater marsh, with lakes, reedbeds and mixed woods, a rich feeding-ground for snipe and ducks. Titchfield, which now lies a few miles inland, had been an important port, but it was sacrificed to hunting. The Earl may have thought that digging a canal would be enough to rejoin the town to the sea and preserve its value as a port, but the canal that was dug turned out to be too narrow and was never used. Too late - the port was starved of trade, and became a mere village.

Fortunately, later owners of the hunting reserve took care of its wildlife, and since the Second World War, shooting has been banned and Hampshire County Council has managed the 308 acres as a nature reserve.

Walking through these peaceful, flat meadows, beside the little disused canal that chirps and buzzes with life, it is easy to imagine men floundering about here, blasting off with fowling-pieces and sending their shaggy spaniels splashing off into the marsh. The place is so quiet, you can hear the soft splashes of dabchicks. On the left lies the nature reserve of Titchfield Haven. The lakes where thousands of ducks come to spend the winter are not visible from here, though you can hear the quacking; you can usually see a kestrel hovering over the long grass in search of voles.

After about two miles the canal joins the river, and you climb a stile and walk on to the sea. The nature reserve and the village of Hill Head lie to the east, towards Gosport. It costs pounds 2.50 to visit the reserve, where bird-watchers may wish to eat their picnic lunch in a hide (last time I was there, with my eight-year-old niece, a heron killed and ate a fully grown teal - a gruesome and unforgettable sight; we also heard, but did not see, the rare Cetti's warbler). For non-bird enthusiasts, there are pubs in Hill Head that serve food.

After lunch, it is time for a seaside stroll. Walk west along the beach, past Meonshore holiday cottages. This is a section of the Solent Way and in summer is a good place for a swim; it also offers a stupendous view of the Solent, the Isle of Wight, and oil refineries looking surprisingly majestic in the distance.

A large, white house with a brown roof stands a mile ahead on the cliff top. After this, you turn inland and cross a wooden footbridge, then follow the line of fields under overhanging trees. The path leads to farms at Brownwich (pronounced to rhyme with "Greenwich"); here a pretty old house with a brown-tiled roof lies at a dead end with no road to the sea. To the left is a pond, worth a detour in winter to see whether there are interesting ducks on it.

The path runs parallel to the farm lane for a while, then strikes diagonally across a large field, where ramblers have imposed their will on the local agriculture. It must be colossally inconvenient for the farmer to have people tramping through his cabbages, but the casual visitor should just enjoy the ramblers' victory. Make for Great Posbrooke, the red roofs in the distance. All this land was purchased by Hampshire County Council in the Sixties, and is managed sensitively to preserve a habitat for wildlife. As a result, there are more birds in the fields than you would see in an intensively managed farm.

After the path ends at a Tarmac track you turn right, then left into a lane, where a little farther on a stile leads right into a grassy field. Walk diagonally across this, and you find yourself in the outskirts of Titchfield. Making northwards through new housing estates soon brings you back to South Street in the centre of the town, where you walk beneath the overhanging upper storeys of medieval merchants' houses - the only trace of the rich port that died during the 17th century - and back to the church where the walk began.

Titchfield is 2 miles west of Fareham on A27. Ordnance Survey Landranger map 196.

Directions

l Start at the church of St Peter's, off the main square of Titchfield.

l Walk down the path to the right of the churchyard, cross a wooden bridge, and turn right.

l Follow the disused canal for two miles, until a river crosses it.

l Climb the stile on the left and walk across the meadow to the sea (the entrance to the wildlife sanctuary of Titchfield Haven lies 500 yards to the left). Also on the left is the village of Hill Head, with pubs for lunch.

l Cross the road to the sea and resume the walk along the beach to the right, one mile, past Meonshore Cottages.

l Turn inland after the large house on the cliff, and cross the wooden footbridge to the left. Follow the path along the line of the fields, crossing two more bridges.

l At the farm lane, turn right, then left, and follow a concrete track.

l After the farm buildings, take the path running along the field, parallel with the right hand side of the lane. Go straight on until you see a footpath sign on the right, and climb the stile into a field.

l Cross the field, then turn left through more farmland until you reach the track. Turn right, then left at the lane.

l After a sign to Great Posbrooke, climb a stile on the right and walk diagonally across the field.

l You're now in Titchfield. Go north, via South Street, until you arrive back at St Peter's church.

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