Itchen Valley Country Park

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HCC Site ID: 1950 Parish: West End
Designations: SSSI and SAC – River Itchen; SINC Area: 178 ha
Access: Public Access Ownership: Eastleigh Borough Council (EBC)

Location and site

Itchen Valley Country Park is to be found between Eastleigh and Southampton and is bounded by the Eastleigh to Fareham railway in the north, Southampton Airport and the Itchen Navigation in the west, the M27 in the south, and arable and pasture land and low density housing on the outskirts of West End in the east. The 440 acres contain a variety of habitats, including a 250 acre water meadow nature reserve in the floodplain, 90 acres of ancient woodland, conifer plantations, 60 acres of grazing land and a 40-acre recreation field. The river meanders through the centre of the park with a network of small streams diffusing out, though the banks are owned by the Lower Itchen Fisheries and are not publicly accessible. The Itchen Navigation runs through the area to the west of the river. The floodplain is so wide that there is virtually no sense of being in a valley, except at the area’s eastern edge. A more dominant characteristic is the great visual interest provided in foreground views by wetland vegetation, the river itself and the earthworks of the former flood meadows.
The entrance to the country park is in Allington Lane linking West End and Fair Oak.

Historical Development

Historically, much of the area would have been flood meadows that flooded naturally, and water meadows containing ‘drains and drowners’ that allowed water to flow over fields depositing silt and minerals to fertilise the soil. Established between the 17-19th century, they fell into disuse due to the high labour costs and the introduction of artificial fertilisers and herbicides.
The Itchen Navigation was constructed in the late 17th Century to allow the transport of cargo on barges between Winchester and Southampton. The remains of four locks lie within the park boundary. Its commercial role finally ended in the 1850s with the arrival of the railways and some areas have been dry for many years. In 2009 Mansbridge Lock was partially restored and the canal south of the motorway was cleared. The towpath still provides a pedestrian link between Southampton and Winchester.
The OS 4th ed. 6″ 1938-39 map shows the country park much as it is today, with the floodplain in the west, High Wood in the east, and mainly fields interspersed with copses covering the rest of the area.
In the early 1960s, before EBC owned the land, much of the ancient woodland on the Itchen Valley Country Park site was clear-felled. Two-thirds were replanted with Scots Pine, Corsican Pine and Western Red Cedar to produce commercial timber.
The park was established as a nature reserve when over 142 ha. (350 acres) of the site were acquired by Eastleigh Borough Council in 1979. The visitor centre was built in 1990, and facilities for visitors gradually improved over the years.
In 2010 work started on a Go Ape adventure course in the park, which opened in Spring 2011.

Current Description

B – Children’s Play area

A – High Wood Barn Visitors’ Centre

Itchen Valley Country Park is a popular destination for a range of visitors: dog-walkers, families with children, walkers and cyclists, and nature-lovers. Despite this, there remains a sense of peacefulness and even isolation, especially in the nature reserves.
The park can be roughly divided into four main areas: the central visitor area; High Hill Field with the high point in the northeast; the Woodland Nature Reserve beyond this; and the Itchen Valley Nature Reserve: the wetlands between the River Itchen and the Itchen Navigation. Each of these areas is distinctly different in character.
The central visitor area (photos A and B)

D – High Hill Field, looking northeast towards the high point

C – High Hill Field, looking towards the east

This area includes the car parks, High Wood Barn Visitors’ Centre with cafe which is built in the style of a 17th century Hampshire aisle barn, a children’s play trail, play areas and equipment, and play and picnic field. This is by far the most-visited part of the park.
High Hill Field – Grassland and meadows (photos C and D)
A large proportion of Itchen Valley Country Park is grassland or meadow. Some of these areas are managed by grazing in the spring and summer and others are managed as wildflower meadows with a late summer hay cut. Many of these areas are enclosed by hedgerows that are managed to maintain and enhance their biodiversity.
It is used mainly by dog walkers, cyclists, and families with energetic children.
Woodland nature reserve (photo E)
Amongst the conifers, there are areas of broad-leaved trees where the ancient woodland still survives. Wildlife thrives in ancient broad-leaved woodland so the conifers are being thinned to let the light in and encourage the broad-leaves to spread.
After the clear-felling in the 1960s, one third of the woodland was left to regrow and became what is now the Woodland Nature Reserve. This woodland has been coppiced for centuries to supply the local community with firewood, building and craft materials. This form of management also creates excellent conditions for wildlife and is continued today. Trees such as Ash, Hazel and Alder are cut to the ground in winter leaving a coppice stool from which new shoots sprout and grow into thin straight poles. Taller trees, known as standards, are left to grow to maturity providing larger timber. Today the wood is sold to make paper or charcoal.
Itchen Valley Nature Reserve -The water meadows (photos F,G,H)

E – View from entrance of Woodland Nature Reserve towards the east

The Council bought the 100 hectares of floodplain beyond the river in 1979 and declared the area a Nature Reserve. Over 100 species of bird have been recorded, and the area is particularly attractive to warblers including Sedge Warbler and Whitethroat.
The water meadows to the west of the river are accessible by the public and are managed as a Nature Reserve. They are nationally and internationally designated (SSSI – Site of Special Scientific Interest and SAC – Special Area of Conservation) in recognition of both habitat and species; otters and water voles are present, as well as significant numbers of over-wintering birds. The ditches support many invertebrates including the nationally rare Southern Damselfly.
The water meadows also have areas rich in plant life. Wild flowers such as the Southern Marsh Orchid and Water Avens can still be found in places that escaped agricultural improvement. A specific Management Plan has been developed for the water meadows.
In July 2019, the park received its eleventh Green Flag award.

Summary and Significance

A site of national importance ecologically, Itchen Valley Country Park offers a diversity of habitats and activities to appeal to the local population whilst at the same time protecting and enhancing the natural environment. It is a delicate balancing act which seems to be succeeding.
HGT Research: August 2019

F – River Itchen from bridge approaching Itchen Valley Nature Reserve, looking northeast

G – River Itchen from bridge approaching Itchen Valley Nature Reserve, looking southwest

H – View towards west over Itchen Valley Nature Reserve

Click here for a map showing where the photos were taken.

Sources

OS 4th ed 6″ 1938-39 map
OS 1:14000 2017 Vector map
https://www.eastleigh.gov.uk/planning-and-building/planning-policy-and-implementation/planning-policy-guidance/landscape-character-assessment accessed June 2019
https://www.eastleigh.gov.uk/sport-health-parks-and-open-spaces/itchen-valley-country-park/wildlife-habitat-and-heritage May 2019
https://www.eastleigh.gov.uk/planning-and-building/planning-policy-and-implementation/planning-policy-guidance/landscape-character-assessment accessed June 2019

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Our address

Address:
West End Public Access Click for Disclaimer & copyright
GPS:
50.94566420961228, -1.3407236337661743

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