29 May 2016
When I left Abbey Gardens I had half a mind to wander up to the cathedral to see some of the things CJ and I missed last time. The trouble was I hadn’t bought my ticket with me. Besides, it seemed too nice a day to be inside. In the end I wandered off in the opposite direction, towards City Bridge and The Weirs. For a spilt second I considered visiting City Mill. It’s been on my list for ages but it didn’t look open and I wanted to get some sun while I could. You never know with English weather.
On the parapet of the bridge I noticed a sign I’d not spotted before, possibly because it was almost worn away and half covered with lichen. Squinting I eventually made out the words Arms of the Eastgate, Duke of Albemarle and a shield, worn completely flat. Instead of heading down the slope to The Weirs I crossed the bridge. A plan was forming…
On the other side of the bridge someone had left a bike with a strange child seat contraption. It seems I’m always stumbling over bikes on my walks. Now I was on the corner of Chesil Street, often called Cheesehill Street locally for some strange reason. The street does run up hill but, as far as I can tell, there is not, and never has been, any cheese. In fact the name comes from the same root as my own Chessel Bay. It was once the gravel bank, or chesil, where the barges from the Itchen Navigation were grounded.
Chesil Street was once part of the eastern city wall and is filled with interesting old buildings, many of which back onto the river along The Weirs. These are the same houses with gates and doors opening onto the water that have intrigued me since I first walked this way. It seemed about time I found out what they looked like from the front. The first of these historic buildings is the Old Chesil Rectory a timber framed building built in around 1450 by a wealthy merchant. Sirona pointed it out to me at the end of our Navigation walk so it was not my first sight of the arched timbers over the door, or the butter coloured plaster. The symmetry of two gables, two upper windows and a central door always make me smile. It seems too perfect to be real.
These days the Old Chesil Rectory is now a very fancy restaurant, making it the oldest commercial property in the city. Maybe one day I will go inside. At the time of the dissolution of the monasteries the building was owned by Henry VIII. He gifted it to his daughter, Mary Tudor. In 1554, when she married King Philip of Spain in Winchester Cathedral she gave the rectory to the city as part payment for the lavish ceremony.
After the reformation the house became the rectory of St Peter’s Church, Cheeshill. By the late eighteenth century though, it had been divided into two tenements with a shoemaker and his family living on one side and another family on the other. The shoemaker went on to start Winchester’s first Sunday school in one of the upstairs rooms. Slowly the house began to deteriorate and, towards the end of the ninteenth century, it was on the verge of being demolished. Luckily Thomas and Co Stores bought and restored it.
Leaving the Old Rectory behind I set off along Chesil Street glancing at the houses I passed, trying to work out which house belonged to which back gate. Before long the road twisted and narrowed. The building in front of me jutted out and a sign on the side told me this was Chesil Theatre. With its arched door and trefoil windows it looked more like a church to me.
Later I discovered it really was once a church. In fact it was St Peter’s Church, built in the twelfth century and, in 1142, was claimed by the Priory of St Denis. Sadly, the church closed in 1950 and, by the 1960’s was deteriorating badly and under threat of demolition as the council wanted to widen the street. The Winchester Preservation Trust stepped in though and made saving it their first project. It passed into the hands of the Winchester Dramatic Society who used the building rent free in exchange for preserving and repairing it. These days the front door of the church has the words Stage Door emblazoned on it, Sadly it was closed because I’d have liked a look inside. Maybe another day.
The house next to the church looked derelict, the windows boarded and the paintwork peeling. I stopped to look at the delapidated door and wonder if it was for sale. Sadly, house prices in Winchester are out of my league, even for derelict houses but I could dream of having a door opening onto the river, just for a moment.
All of the houses on this street seem to be historic. On the opposite side of the road a terrace of bowed and twisted cottages made me smile. All had doors opening onto the street and the two furthest from me were painted in pastel colours. They looked like something out of a fairytale.
Just after this I came to what was once a car park. Recently it has been closed, much to the disgust of the locals. In fact someone had pasted an angry, but rather witty, sign to the hoardings around it. I was still smiling about the sign when I passed Swan Cottage. Was this the house where I’d seen the swans nest at the bottom of the garden, I wondered?
Some of the houses were grander than others and I stopped for a moment to admire the imposing frontage of Kingsland House with columns either side of the door and rather swish railings to the front. Little did I know that this was the house with the bridge crossing the river into The Weirs.
A passageway next to the Black Rat restaurant caught my eye and distracted me. For a moment I considered walking down it, if only to see where it led. In the end I passed by because the buildings ahead were even more interesting. Basically I was standing at a crossroads. The Black Rat restaurant and Black hole B&B flanked the road to my right. To my left was East Hill, an interesting looking old building and some intriguing steps leading up to goodness knows where. Ahead I could see rolling hills and greenery. Of course, I dithered. I knew the road to my right was Wharf Hill and I knew where it led, the other roads were a mystery.
After a while I crossed the road to peer up East Hill and look more closely at the steps. East Hill, I could see from the map, would take me out of the city towards a Itchen Abbess. Sadly I didn’t have time for a walk of that distance. The steps, overhung with pink blossom, looked like they belonged to the surrounding houses and I was fearful of being caught trespassing if I went up them. The road ahead was Bar End Road and would take me to the Bull Drove and, ultimately, Plague Pits Valley. CJ and I explored it a while ago and found the bits we most wanted to see inaccessible. That left Wharf Hill.
Beside the Black Hole I peeked through an open door into an alleyway with ancient looking walls of stone, tile and brick. This was once the Old Forge and there was quite an outcry when entrepreneur David Nicholson, who also owns the Black Boy pub, the Black Rat restaurant and the Black Bottle wine bar, announced he was going to turn it into a ten room, gaol themed, B&B. It seems every change here provokes an outcry, which could explain why there are so many old buildings left in the city and why it still has a faintly medieval air to it.
The Black Boy pub next door is, I’m told, a wonderful place to go for a drink. One day I may get to try it out but today I just looked at it. Anywhere else it would probably be celebrated for its ancientness but in Winchester it’s just another old building amongst many. There were more hotch potch bricks, stones and even flints making up the wall of one of the outbuildings and the pub itself, with its piles of logs for the fire and carriage lights beside the door looked welcoming. It seemed eons since my takeaway coffee from Costa, so I’d probably have gone inside if it had been open.
Below the pub a flint wall looked as if it might have once been stables and was lined by beer barrels. Slowly I made my way down Wharf Hill, back to more familiar territory. Yet again it was decision time and I was pulled in so many directions I didn’t know which way to turn.
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