13 July 2015
On a bit of a whim I decided to get a train to Winchester on Monday morning. It wasn’t the best of weather but CJ said he’d like to come along too, especially when I said I’d be heading for Plague Pits Valley near St Catherine’s Hill. Maybe if he’d known how much walking was involved he’d have been less eager but I kept that little detail to myself. We were lucky and caught the fast train. Apart from a teeny bit of getting lost when we first left the station, we were soon walking down the High Street in search of a coffee to keep us going for the walk.
Suitably sustained with coffee and a muffin we set off towards the famous statue of King Alfred. The Hamo Thornycroft Statue, erected in 1899 to mark the thousandth anniversary of Alfred’s death, commemorates the fact that he made Winchester the capital of his kingdom of Wessex. Most English school children remember the story of how Alfred, when hiding from the Vikings in the house of a peasant woman, was put in charge of watching her cakes and let them burn. Most don’t know that he was the king who encouraged people to write down stories in English rather than Latin and, by doing this, was responsible for the widespread use of written English.
We weren’t really thinking about this as we strolled past his statue towards The Weirs, we were more concerned with whether it would rain or not. The chances looked fairly high as we strolled down the little path beside City Bridge. CJ has never been this way before so I pointed out the City Mill, “We could come back and visit it another day,” I said, “maybe have lunch in Pizza Express.”
The water was so clear we could see the stones on the bottom and the weeds wriggling with the current. “The river looks lower than usual,” I told CJ, “last spring it was almost spilling over the path and they had to put sandbags in the river further up to stop it flooding all the houses.”
CJ thought he saw a fish but decided it was actually a piece of weed.
“There are salmon in the Itchen,” I told him, “but I doubt there are many here with the sluices and the mills.”
He threw in a leaf and watched it float downstream.
“If we could get there fast enough we’d be able to follow it all the way to Northam,” he said, “like the biggest game of Pooh Sticks in the world.”
Further on we stopped to look at the sluice and the pretty little garden. CJ found the working of the sluice more interesting than the plants, just as I knew he would.
“We can go either way from here,” I told CJ, “to the left is Blackbridge Wharf, where we need to go, to the right there’s a castle but I think it’s closed.”
He chose the castle so we turned right, with a quick look back at the weir where there was far less water tumbling than usual. The castle is Wolvesey Castle, known as Old Bishop’s Palace, it was once home to the Bishops of Winchester. The ruins are beside the current bishop’s residence and set a long way back from the road behind a screen of trees.
“I’m sorry there’s not much to see from here,” I said, “last time I came it was winter and there were less leaves on the trees. If you like we can walk up to the gate but I’m pretty sure it’ll be closed.”
Surprisingly, the gate was open and, even better, admittance was free. It wasn’t part of the plan but it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. Better still we almost had the place to ourselves. We walked through the arches of the outer wall into a courtyard of sorts and stood for a moment looking at the ruins spread out before us. There were far more of them than I’d expected. Of course we were both snapping away with our phones in a mother son competition as to who could take the best picture.
Little remains of the West Hall built by William Giffard, the second Norman Bishop of Winchester and the majority of the ruins we saw were built by Bishop Henry of Blois in the mid twelfth century when the nearby cathedral was still relatively new. Unlike the medieval stone walls of Southampton, these walls are faced with flint over a core of chalk and flint. Sadly, with no guide books and no preparation it was hard to know what, exactly, we were looking at. Even so, we had a good look.
Things have not always been peaceful within the walls of Wolvesey. It was the scene of the Rout of Winchester on 14 September, 1141, during the civil war between King Stepehen and Henry I’s daughter the Empress Matilda over the throne of England. Despite being Stephen’s cousin, Henry, the Bishop of Winchester, had originally taken sides with Empress Matilda but fell out with her and took refuge in Wolvesey Castle. Matilda’s army laid siege to the castle and occupied the town of Winchester. In turn, Stephen’s Army surrounded the town, effectively putting the besieging army under seige. It was a strange state of affairs. Eventually Matilda’s army fought their way out of the town. In the process much of Winchester was burned.
The castle was destroyed during another civil war, that between the Royalists and Parlementarians. In 1645 Winchester was occupied by Royalists, loyal to King Charles, and Bishop Curle, a fierce Royalist, organised the defence of the castle against the Parlimentary forces. Even so, when Oliver Cromwell attacked, the garrison surrendered, the bishop was removed from office and the castle laid to waste. It seems a terrible shame that a building of such age and importance was ruined on a point of principal but I guess they were strange times.
Two years later bishop’s and bishoprics were abolished and all church land confiscated, including the castle. When the monarchy was restored in 1660 the bishops were also reinstated and the new bishop, Bishop Duppa, began work on repairing the castle to use as his residence. When he was succeeded by Bishop George Morley two years later it was decided to abandon the work already undertaken and rebuild around the medieval chapel next door using stone salvaged from the castle. Christopher Wren undertook the work. .
The new palace wasn’t finished until 1684, by which time Bishop Morley had died. As succeeding bishops preferred to live in Farnham the building was neglected and much of it was demolished in 1785. Today the surviving West Wing remains the official residence of the Bishop of Winchester. It seems a house more fitting for a king than a bishop but what do I know? The bishops of Winchester have historically been the most powerful in the land after all. Medieval and Tudor monarchs were frequent visitors to this ‘modern’ palace, in fact Queen Mary and Philip of Spain held their wedding breakfast there. We could see a little of it beyond the ancient walls but I’m pretty sure the bishop wasn’t home to see us gawping
We spent a pleasant hour wandering around looking at the ruined walls and, for me at least, the most interesting things were the windows and doorways. There were arches of many different styles, doors with wooden beams cracked and whitened with age, windows with seats that I could imagine a bishop sitting in to catch the last rays of the setting sun.
Many of the doors and windows were lined with terracotta bricks and the arches with thin, tile like slivers of terracotta. This was something I’d never seen before in an ancient building and I wasn’t sure if it was an original feature or part of the abandoned restoration. Either way it seemed to add character to the building and contrast to all the flint. The best doorway of all still had a heavy wooden door. Chinks of light came through where the timbers had shrunk and the lock and bolts were rusty with age. There is something mysterious about a locked door that gets my imagination working overtime.
Of course, the castle was not the object of our visit and we’d spent far too long wandering around it. It was time to head off and look for the Plague Pits…