25 February 2016
Usually, I visit Winchester on foot, at least in one direction. This time, of course, I’d driven there so there was no train to catch or long walk home. There would be a walk though. With narrow, congested streets, a confusing one way system and very limited car parking I’d decided to park in Twyford. That meant a nice three mile walk each way.
When we set out this morning it had been a perfect day for walking, cold but bright with blue sky. On any other day I’d have taken lots of photos as we strolled through Twyford to Hockley and past St Catherine’s Hill to The Weirs. Due to an oversight on my part the battery packs for my phone weren’t charged though so I kept it in my pocket, saving the power I had for the main attraction. Typically, when we came back out of the cathedral, the sun had done a disappearing act.
“At least it’s not raining,” CJ said when I grumbled.
“Don’t even mention the R word,” I put my finger to my lips, “we’ve just visited St Swithun’s grave!”
Rather than walk back through the High Street, which had been filled with market stalls and people earlier, I led CJ towards the arches of Curle’s Passage, or the Slype, on the south side. This was the route I took the first time I walked the whole Navigation, before I knew about The Weirs. Back then I’d been lost and slightly bewildered at the end of a long walk. Being lost in Winchester is nothing new for me but I seem to be getting the hang of it now.
Bishop Curle was fed up with people traipsing through the cathedral to get from King’s Gate to East Gate. He felt their behaviour left a lot to be desired. In 1632, he cut a row or arches through the flying buttresses that were erected when the cloister was demiloshed. This became known as Curle’s Passage. On one wall there’s a Latin inscription which, for those who can read Latin, is actually a bit of a puzzle with the words going up and down like a strange crossword puzzle. Sadly I didn’t take a photo of it but it basically points the way for ‘those who would walk and those who would pray.’
There was method in my choice of route. For one, the row of arches is a wonderful photo opportunity and the view of the cathedral is one not too many tourists see. Mostly it was to show CJ the wonderful old buildings by the fifteenth century Priory Gate. In truth, the close warrants a whole post to itself but we’d spent far more time inside the cathedral than we’d originally intended and we still had to walk back to Twyford. As it was we just strolled through towards the gate. Of course, we did stop to take pictures of the old stable block, dating from 1479 and Cheyney Court with its wonderful butter coloured plaster between the wooden beams.
“It’s a pretty nice building for a stable block,” CJ said, when I told him what it was.
“Cheyney Court is pretty elaborate for a priory guest house and the Bishop’s court house too,” I said. “I think it’s one of the prettiest buildings in Winchester, not that I’ve seen them all yet.”
We passed through the arch of Priory Gate, which still has its original fifteenth century wooden doors and then left through Kings Gate. There’s a bookshop under the arch and above it is the tiny church of St Swithun, which is often open to the public. To me the church seems to be slightly surpurflous, being so close to the cathedral. With more time I might have taken advantage of both. Instead we turned left again into College Street.
We stopped briefly to take a photo of the creamy yellow coloured house where Jane Austen lived and died.
“It’s quite a small house for someone who was so famous,” CJ said.
“Like many writers and artists, she wasn’t particularly famous while she was alive,” I explained. “You never know, one day there might be a plaque over our front door saying Marie Keates lived here. Besides, she didn’t live in Winchester for very long. She came here because she was ill and wanted to be close to her doctor and she died a few weeks later. To be honest, I’m not a great fan. We had to read Persuasion, for our English Literature O Level and I found it hard work. Perhaps I’m just a philistine.”
“Almost certainly,” CJ laughed, “I bet you don’t like Asimov either.”
“Hmmm, science fiction really isn’t my thing.”
The disadvantage of this route was that it cut out the path through The Weirs which wouldn’t have mattered if I’d taken photos when we were on our way to the cathedral. Still, you can’t have everything and I’ve taken lots of photos there already. There was a quick stop to snap a shot of each of the channels as they rush towards the mill and to remark that the river looked quite high.
Emerging onto Wharf Hill we were greeted by a bright show of daffodils on the circle of grass. In any other spring these might have been the first of the year but we are getting quite blasé about daffodils around these parts seeing as they’ve been flowering since early January. Any day now I expect to see the first sunflower the way things are going,
Soon we were on Domum Road, then walking in the shadow of St Catherine’s Hill, or we would have been if we could have seen it through the trees. We passed a mile post that originally stood beside the Didcot, Newbury and Southampton railway and was relocated by the friends of Hockley Viaduct. This path serves as both part of the Itchen Navigation and the Viaduct Walk and a little further on we passed the barge bench.
Looking across the Navigation canal, the Itchen and the water meadows we could see St Cross Hospital in the distance.
“There’s a lovely walk across the meadows past the hospital. Maybe I’ll come back in the summer and do it again,” I said, knowing full well CJ would never let me get away with walking it on my own. I think I’m turning him into a walker.
When Plague Pits Valley came into view the sun was trying hard to come out. There were cows grazing in the valley, reminding me of the walk when I’d seen the farmer herding them out of a truck and through the gate.
“I’m glad we’re not walking that way today,” CJ said. I may have infected him with my morbid fear of cows.
“It’s the mud I’d be more worried about. I wouldn’t fancy trying to climb the path up the hill.”
“There’s someone at the top,” CJ pointed out, “so it can’t be too bad.”
The water was rushing through St Catherine’s Lock faster than I’ve ever seen it, bubbling and splashing in a regular torrent. It made me wonder what it must be like at the weir at Allbrook and how the Navigation path was holding up. I can’t wait until things dry up a bit and I can walk it again.
“There was a sawmill here on the other side of the water back in the ninteenth century,” I told CJ. “It had a waterwheel above the lock gates and the water went back into the lock chamber.”
“What a shame it’s not still here,” he said, “I’d like to have seen that.”
“I’ll see if I can find a photo or an old postcard of it. I should think there’d be one somewhere.”
We carried on towards Hockley and Five Bridges Road. The sun had decided not to come out after all. At the train bench just before the railway arch two child’s scooters and two water bottles seemed to have been abandoned. There were no children anywhere in sight and we both wondered what had become of them.
The fickle sun came out again as we reached Church Lane, which was handy because it’s such a pretty walk. On the far side of the field beside us horses were grazing on a huge bale of hay and I wondered if we’d see the donkeys in the farm field further on?
Primroses were flowering on the low stone wall of a garden, just as they had been the first time I came this way but the donkeys were nowhere to be seen. They’d been absent when we passed on our way to Winchester too and I wondered if they were still at the farm at all.
“Perhaps they’re in one of the barns,” CJ suggested, “it is quite cold today.”
The farm is near the top of the lane and soon Mildmay house and St Mary’s Church were in front of us. A clump of snowdrops caught my eye as we rounded the corner and there were more scattered throughout the graveyard. Today the church door was firmly closed.
The final stretch of our walk gave us some of the best views of the day, looking over the water meadows with the ribbon of river running through them. A few cows were grazing and we could see cars on the road to Shawford.
On the drive home we talked about all the things we didn’t manage to see in Winchester. Things like the cathedral tower tour, Jane Austin’s gravestone and Dean Garnier’s garden and that was just in the cathedral and grounds. Winchester really does deserve a lot more exploration and, as our cathedral tickets last for a whole year this will most certainly not be our last visit.
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