Of course, the twelve mile marker wasn’t the final piece of my September 2013 walk at all. We still had to walk to the wharf and from there to the centre of Winchester to catch the train home. Finding the train station has always been an issue for me in the past. In fact, finding anything in Winchester is a problem. This time I had a guide with me.
11 September 2013
A little way after the Navigation marker we came upon another weir, one I’d not been able to see properly from the other side of the river. It was so clothed in wildflowers it was almost hidden. Just beyond the tennis courts the concrete reamins of an old wooden bridge mark the end of the college fields. Then there was Seven Hatches, the last of the hatches that once irrigated the water meadows we walked on. There were exquisite curved brick walls, stones to retain the bank and a plethora of grasses and wild flowers so pretty you could paint them.The channel they lead to is known as Old Barge and was probably used by medieval boats, long before the Navigation was built.
Now it was time for a little more house envy. We both agreed our favourites were the old barge cottages, just because of their age and history. We also agreed we wouldn’t turn down one of the new properties built on the site of Domum Wharf, if someone offered us one for free. They may not have the advantage of age and history but most of them do have balconies which would be a real plus.
“I’ve always wanted a house with a balcony,” I said.
“Me too,” Sirona agreed. “Imagine sitting there looking out over the river.”
Now we were at Black Bridge Wharf, the end of the Navigation, where all the goods would have been unloaded when this was a working waterway. The lovely little stone bridge, over shadowed by trees, is Wharf Bridge, built in the 1760’s and is the oldest surviving bridge over the Navigation. As we approached to cross to Domum Road we noticed it has a shiny new sign. On the ancient cobbles of the bridge Sirona peered over one side thinking about Pooh Sticks while I leaned over the other, looking down river. Of course I took a photograph to show the buildings on the left which are the old stables and the original wharf manager’s house.
This was the point I realised what a great idea it was to bring Sirona along. She knows Winchester very well, she used to work there, and my lack of knowledge was my undoing last time I came this way.
“So which way did you go last time?” she asked.
“Over the bridge,” I told her, “and then I went through a big gate into the Cathedral.”
She led me in the opposite direction and up a little footpath past some very interesting looking old buildings that are apparently part of a pub called Black Boy. I’ve logged that for future reference because I think they warrant further exploration.
Turns out the Navigation may have ended but not the river. Well actually it isn’t the river but another canal called the weirs, a continuation of the Navigation. This part was dug in about 70AD to reduce the chance of flooding in the city centre and to provide a defensive moat. The footpath took us past some four story buildings with an 1885 date plaque and over a most unusual zig zag bridge with four arches. When I studied the map later I discovered the water actually runs beneath the buildings, which were once a mill. The canal stretched ahead, lined with weeping willow leaning down to kiss the water and, at the end, a rustic looking wooden bridge.
A short way up the path is one of the weirs that give the path its name. Rushing water, more weeping willows , a huge gunneria and, above this some, interesting looking cogs and wheels. From above there was the prettiest little garden, even if all the daisies were over. This is somewhere I really have to visit again. In fact I could have just sat there looking for hours, it was so beautiful.
There was no time to stand and stare though, we were off along the canal towards the wooden bridge. Past a pair of paddling swans and a group of ducks intent on dive bombing them, but not so close the swans were actually all that bothered. There was a little more house envy as we strolled past a tall white building with a garden stretching to the water’s edge.
Above the wooden bridge we joined an elderly couple leaning over the wall to gaze at a pair of cygnets on a tangle of weeds that may once have been a nest. Behind them plants trailed from a heavenly garden with a bench and chair placed just right for contemplating the water. A lone gladioli bent its head towards the canal providing a splash of bright colour.
Further on houses we would probably have envied were hidden behind high brick walls. A series of curious doors leading to nothing but a watery drop told us they were there. Here, just as we came to a bend in the canal, an odd wrought iron gate caught my eye. Too small for even the shortest of people, including Sirona and I, it was hard to imagine what it was for. Could it be a house specially made for the king’s personal dwarf back when Winchester was the capital city? As I pondered on this I spotted a sign on the wall above the gate so went a little closer, with eyes like mine closer is always good. Apparently the pile of flinty stones are the only remains of the city’s Roman walls. Fancy hiding them behind a gate.
Rounding the bend we came to another bridge, stone this time, with an ornamental balustrade. We were now face to face with Winchester City Mill, yet another reason to return and spend some time. This is a working corn mill, rebuilt on a medieval site back in 1743 and open to visitors whose legs aren’t slightly tired from a long walk. The mill was in commercial use until the early twentieth century and has recently been restored to grind flour for the pleasure of tourists.
Now it really was time to leave the river behind but our journey wasn’t quite over. Sirona had a few things she wanted to show me, the first of which was a building. Set right on the corner of what turned out to be a busy road, right next to some traffic lights the Old Chesil Rectory is medieval, built in 1459. Double fronted with an ancient timber frame and plaster upper floor plus the most stunning arched wooden doorframe, it is now a rather expensive looking restaurant. The narrow traffic filled road made getting a photo a difficult affair and I snapped and snapped, getting lots of shots of cars speeding by before I managed to get one half decent one.
Walking back towards the High Street I was a little distracted by the display of pastries in the window of a shop. Our snacks before Shawford seemed a long, long time ago. Sirona had to drag me away to see the famous statue of King Alfred. This was something I’d missed on my previous Winchester adventures because I didn’t have a clue where he was. Hamo Thornycroft’s iconic statue was erected in 1899, to mark the passing of one thousand years since Alfred’s death and has become almost as much a symbol of Winchester as the cathedral. Apparently if a young virgin girl walks clockwise around the statue three times Alfred will lower his sword. As there weren’t any suitably chaste young women around we couldn’t test this out.
This time it was Sirona who pulled me over to the cake shop window filled with the most intricately decorated little pastries I have ever seen. It would almost be a shame to eat them. This was chef Raymond Blanc’s patisserie, Maison Blanc, winner of seven gold stars in the Great Taste Awards. We drooled for so long there were probably little puddles below the window when we peeled ourselves away, but we didn’t indulge.
With grumbling stomachs, we came at the cathedral from the back and, with little more than a passing glance, passed it by coming out by the museum and a pub called The Eclipse that I have a great fondness for. This was the place where a stranger took my photo the very first time I made it all the way to the cathedral, making my day by seeming impressed at how far I’d walked. I wanted to stop at the pub then and have an ice cool drink but I didn’t because my legs would have probably seized up if I had. The legs were feeling fine this time but we still didn’t stop, Sirona had other plans.
On down the High Street we trotted, past the Buttercross, where a busker had set up shop. This monument, featuring twelve statues of the Virgin Mary, saints and historical figures dates from the fifteenth century. Back in 1770 it was the cause of a ‘small riot.’ Thomas Dummer purchased it from Winchester Corporation, meaning to move it to Cranbury Park in Otterbourne. Workmen arriving to dismantle it, were met by a hoard of angry citizens. There was, I imagine, a bit of traditional hands on hips head shaking from the workmen before they decided to go off for a nice cup of tea and abandon the whole idea. So the Buttercross remained as a resting place for buskers and teenaged boys.
The other plans Sirona had revolved around the Costa I had not quite managed to get to on my last visit in the muggy heat of July when an iced coffee would have seemed like heaven. She is a girl after my own heart. Soon we had drinks to sip while we walked, Sirona wanted to show me something down one of the numerous narrow alleys that seem to be everywhere in Winchester. If you didn’t know it was there, like so much else in Winchester, you’d be hard pushed to find it but a huge oak door in the alley leads to the Royal Oak. It’s said to be the oldest pub in Britian with records dating from 1002. This is, of course, disputed by many other public houses also claiming to be the oldest. Given its hidden away location I’m surprised anyone ever found it.
Now it was time for the bit I’d found so tricky before, finding the railway station. This was when having a Winchester expert with me really came into its own. Confidently, Sirona strode up the same road I had when I got lost. We passed the Hampshire Hog sculpture by David Kemp. People of Hampshire are often called Hampshire Hogs so this made me smile last time and again this time. So far we were following the exact route I had, so where did I go wrong?
Turns out I turned right one road too soon. Both roads lead to the railway station but, although the first turning goes past the front entrance, you really need to know it’s there to spot it because it’s down an alleyway and not well signposted. The second road leads to the railway bridge and the wall running beside the track, from there it’s a simple matter to follow the wall to the station entrance. So what would be so wrong with a couple of little signposts?
The blue sky hiding behind those mackerel clouds at the start of the day never did materialise but then again, neither did the rain that threatened on and off. Photographs may look nicer with some sun and colourful skies but walking is a lot easier when it’s cooler and I certainly enjoyed my walk, especially the last part, far more than the previous attempt. Maybe that was the company though.
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