by Katie Isham.
On the eastern bank of the River Itchen, nestled in a bend of the waterway that cuts a beating heart through the city, is a nature reserve. It truly is a reserve for nature at its simplest. Hidden away from the road and any through traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, Chessel Bay is one of the last undeveloped shorelines of our mighty river.
There may be no facilities, no toilets and (stay with me here) no tearoom, but a ramble along the path here is definitely worth the excursion; it’s one of the most suburban of all the Southampton safaris.
For starters, it’s cloaked by the surrounding residential roads. Reach the reserve only from a pedestrian cut way over the railway from Athelstan Road or at the end of the cul-de-sac of Quayside Road. The one semblance of a facility is the large information board giving you a potted history, wildlife spotting tips and visitor guidance to maintain the nature of the reserve. The key point to note is to keep to the path. This is a delicate ecosystem and if you choose to visit, please respect the environment we’re fortunate to have in our community.
Step onto the path and into the woodland. This path doesn’t stretch a particularly strenuous or lengthy route, but it will take you far away from the world you’re used to. The way is narrow and flanked by branches, brambles, ferns, rogue roots, spiderwebs and assorted types and colours of foliage as you leave behind the tarmac. A few metres down the path and you’ll feel miles away from the ordinary street you just departed.
Trek single file through the trees with the lapping waves never far away to the right. There’s even a small, but always exciting, section of boardwalk. At many points, the path swerves to the shoreline for you to step closer to the water. Hidden by reeds, there’s a chance to spot any of the many winged visitors to the mudflats. Keep your eyes peeled amongst the greenery too for bugs, butterflies and other small beasties.
This safari is full of natural treats, but you’re soon reminded how intertwined with the suburbs this place is. The ground rumbles and you face a thundering train just through the fence to your left. Chessel Bay is strip of land that literally straddles the void between modern infrastructure and the marine landscape.
Stand on the shore, shrouded by grasses and overhanging branches, and it’s easy to feel separate from the scene across the river. Yet the businesses and marina across the waves, along with the constant hum of Northam Bridge and the creaking of the cranes, are a constant reminder of the march of industrialisation. Though there’s a certain beauty to the concrete skeletons languishing in the shallows at low tide.
Sadly, there’s also evidence of that manufacture at your feet. Due to its position, Chessel Bay collects much of the plastic that finds its way into the river. Volunteers help the council team clean up throughout the year but it’s still an ongoing battle to conserve the environment.
Once you run out of path, it’s time to turn and hike back to civilisation. A reverse view of the route along the river gives a different perspective. And sometimes that’s all we need to clear our mind and to feel like we’ve been on an adventure. No matter how mild.
Cost: Free access and free parking in surrounding residential areas.
Accessibility: Chessel Bay can be accessed from Athelstan Road via a footpath over the train line or on foot at the end of Quayside Road houses. Steps or a ramp from the footpath or pavement access from the road. The actual route through the reserve is a very narrow woodland walk through trees and with uneven, undulating ground.
Facilities: Lots of nature at the nature reserve.
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