diamond geezer

 Monday, March 23, 2009

Day out: Winchester
To the south of the town, along the Itchen valley, stretches a glorious chain of braided river channels and leafy water meadows. Here the poet Keats took his daily constitutional, and I made a similar pilgrimage to enjoy the peaceful riverside stroll. A short detour then led me across chalky heights to the top of St Catherine's Hill [photo], from which the entire valley was visible [photo]. Apart from the motorway, that is. Try not to mention the motorway...

Twyford Down
Twyford Down is, or rather was, a glorious expanse of unspoilt downland to the southeast of Winchester town centre. A geographical accident then resulted in it becoming the venue for the fiercest environmental protest of recent years. The result of the ensuing battle was Lorries 1 Landscape 0, which is why a six lane motorway now scythes through the heart of this ancient chalkland [photo].

M3 Twyford Down

The A33 Winchester bypass used to crawl along the Itchen Valley between St Catherine's Hill and Winchester's water meadows. It was a notorious bottleneck, adding up to an hour to millions of journeys annually, and by the 1990s had become the only remaining hiatus in the M3 to Southampton. Transport chiefs decreed that the gap had to be filled, and looked around for an alternative route. The valley was wholly unsuitable for a wider road, and there was insufficient cash for a tunnel, so the least worst option appeared to be to drive a deep cutting right through Twyford Down. Local people and environmental protestors disagreed. They didn't want to see an ancient hilltop destroyed for the benefit of through traffic, and a road protest camp was established on the ridge to try to hinder construction. Many pitched battles were fought between protestors and contractors, but the road lobby eventually won through and the new chunk of motorway opened to traffic in 1994. Ironically, once the exorbitant cost of the policing effort was added in, it turned out that a tunnel would have been cheaper to build after all.

Twyford DownVisit the northwestern flank of Twyford Down today and the new road is barely visible. From the footpath along the narrow chalky valley below, for example, the land still appears to rise up to the same windswept ridge as before. But it's all an illusion, as the relentless background noise of not-so-distant traffic bears witness. Clamber up the slope and the land suddenly drops away behind a wire fence to reveal a stark white gash, through which thunder cars and lorries and holiday-bound coaches. They pass through this unseen upland in under a minute, a tedious traffic jam avoided but an ancient landscape destroyed.

Around nearby St Catherine's Hill, however, the view is much improved. The A33 at the bottom of the hill has been covered over and landscaped to create a long thin grassy meadow, returning to public use a far greater area of chalky downland than the two hectares which were lost. As environmental mitigation goes it's unexpectedly impressive, and has helped to recreate a continuous green heartland along the Itchen valley. Meanwhile wildlife continues to make the best use of what remains up on the Down. Sheep graze the bracken slopes a few feet from the hard shoulder [photo], butterflies flit undisturbed across the heath and green woodpeckers swoop undisturbed from tree to tree. This remains an absolutely glorious spot for a walk... but only if you're deaf.

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