29 May 2016
When Commando said he was thinking of volunteering as a pacer for the Winchester Half Marathon I was pleased. It would give me a couple of hours to wander around the city while he ran. Early this morning there was a practice run for the would be pacers and, of course, it was too good an opportunity for me to miss so I tagged along. We arrived in Winchester before the sun had had a chance to chase away the last of the morning mist.
There was no real plan as such but there’s certainly no shortage of things to look at in and around Winchester so, while the runners gathered for their briefing, I set off towards the High Street. Leaving King Alfred for later I wandered up the High Street. Stall holders were setting out their wares for the Sunday market, flowers, plants, fresh eggs, cheeses, meat. If I’d been there to shop, the bright stalls would have been tempting but I passed them by and headed for Costa for a cheeky takeaway to wake me up.
It didn’t take long to get my coffee and soon I was walking back past the market stalls towards Abbey Gardens. CJ wanted to have a look round at the end of our Navigation walk a few days ago but we didn’t have time so it seemed a good place to start. Many times I’ve passed by at the beginning or the end of a walk but I’ve never visited.
Passing through the gates still sipping the last of my coffee, I was confronted by a rather grand looking house, all turrets, unusual windows and crenellations. Past research told me this was built in around 1700 by the Recorder of Winchester William Pescod as a private house. By 1889, the place was up for sale and Winchester Council bought it, opened the grounds to the public and turned it into a civic building and Mayor’s residence.
Past the house, lawns dotted with circular beds and trees made me wonder exactly what it took to become mayor of Winchester? Imagine looking out onto those gardens every morning! Across the lawn and I was kicking myself for not researching a little better. There was a stream running the length of the garden and a cafe, River Cottage Canteen, overlooking it. If I’d known I could have saved myself a walk and had my coffee on the porticoed terrace overlooking the willow shaded water.
As it happens I probably shouldn’t have been kicking myself too hard because I later discovered the place was actually a restaurant run by celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstal. They do serve coffee and cakes but I imagine the price would have been eye watering. In fact there was a fair bit of controversy surrounding this restaurant. The building was originally the grade II listed Abbey Mill and Winchester residents weren’t too keen on the idea of a celebrity chef turning it into a restaurant. Their main concerns seem to have been traffic congestion and the risk of fire. Mr FW’s original seventeenth century River Cottage Barn burned down in 2012 after all.
Abbey Mill Stream is enclosed by a beautiful wrought iron fence decorated with lilies. There’s a gate with a rather emphatic sign saying no fishing and behind it a play area for children. At this time of the morning the play area was empty and, as far as I could see, there were no fish in the stream. Finding a handy bench near a bin I sat to finish what was left of my coffee and contemplate Abbey House from across the lawn. I couldn’t help wondering if the mayor was at home or if the fireplaces connected to the tall chimneys were ever used?
It was pleasant to sit there by the burbling stream sipping the last of my coffee. Amongst all the greenery there were irises, blue and yellow, and purple cranesbill. The sun was slowly getting warmer and I could easily have sat there all morning but there were plenty of things I wanted to see before Commando finished his run.
Once the coffee was gone and the empty cup disposed of I made my way towards the house. There looked to be a small kitchen garden there, enclosed by box hedges and I thought it might be interesting. This, it turns out, is called the scented garden and it was filled with flowers. I wandered around taking pictures of aquilegias, scabious, irises and even chives.
In the centre of the little garden a sundial hewn from a monolithic block of stone held pride of place. It looked ancient, covered with lichen but there wasn’t quite enough sun to be able to tell the time. Nearby a sweet birdbath, shaped like a water lily I think. Apparently it was bought by the young people of Winchester and I imagine the birds are very grateful for it.
Overlooking it all was King Alfred, or at least his famous statue. Perhaps this is no coincidence? The Abbey gardens began life as the Nunnaminster, an abbey for nuns, founded in around 903 by the King and his wife Ealhswith. Originally the building was made of wood and excavations uncovered a tomb in the southern aspe, possibly Alfred’s granddaughter St Edburga. When Alfred died his queen lived in the Nunnaminster until her own death.
When the wooden abbey deteriorated Bishop Ethelwold had it rebuilt in stone. Then the Normans arrived and, to make their mark, rebuilt the whole thing, expanding and adding Romanesque columns. The new Beuilding became known as St Mary’s Abbey. Sadly, after the dissolution of the monasteries, this too was demolished. Mary Tudor gifted the site to the city on her marriage to Phillip of Spain. As I left the scented garden I couldn’t help wondering what Alfred, standing on his pedestal, would have made of it?
Pondering this I walked under the branches of the handkerchief tree, fallen petals beneath my feet, and made my way towards the gate. There was a stream running beside the wall. Whether it was connected to the mill stream or not I couldn’t tell but I stood on the bridge to the road, admired it and wondered where to go next?
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