29 May 2016
After a great deal of dithering, I’d somehow found myself in a passageway heading for Cathedral Close. There was a door in the side of the passage leading directly into the cathedral. It was closed but the walls were etched with ancient graffiti, along with some that looked more modern. The passageway came out beside a walled courtyard with a manicured lawn. Later I discovered this was part of the great medieval priory of St Swithun. Perhaps the monks used this door to get from the priory to the cathedral?
Beside the columns of the courtyard was an open doorway. I peeked through and found some stone steps and a sign, half obscured by honeysuckle, telling me this was Dean Garnier’s Garden, a place I’ve often meant to visit. The walled gardens were, I knew, created to commemorate Thomas Garnier, Dean of Winchester.
There was no one about so now seemed a good time to have a wander round. Climbing the steps overhung with flowers, the scent of honeysuckle was heavy in the air. At the top I turned for a better view and, above the tumbling pink and orange flowers, the cathedral wall loomed. There were blocked off arches that might once have been doors, marks where there must have been a pitched roof and a sundial at the top of a distinctly chimney shaped column. This was certainly a view of the cathedral’s south transept I’d never seen before.
Then I turned to look at the garden. What I saw was so beautiful it almost brought tears to my eyes. I was looking at the Dorter Garden. Before the dissolution of the monasteries this was the dormitory for the monks of the Priory of St Swithun. When the monastery was no more, a Dean was appointed and it became part of his garden. It had a suitably dreamy feel to it with a medlar tree set in an impossibly green lawn and gravel paths edged by herbs and white flowers.
To my right there were the ivy clad remains of red brick buildings, part of the old deanery, and some steps leading to a blocked off doorway. The old stone wall had a diamond shaped opening near the top, maybe once a window, and I wondered if Dean Garnier ever stood on tiptoe to look out into The Close? Red valerian sprang from every crevice. They looked as if they’d just wandered in. This really was my kind of garden.
Further along the old brickwork was hidden by a magnificent viburnum with huge balls of white flowers. Fallen petals dotted the leaves and the gravel of the path below. Hidden behind it were some ramshackle buildings with tiled roofs. This was a place I could have stayed all day, looking at the plants and drinking in the historic atmosphere.
Sadly, a look at the time told me I had about half an hour so, with a look back at the view of the cathedral walls, I carried on along the path. The little buildings of stone and red brick with roofs of cracked and wobbly tiles intrigued me. Later I discovered these were the remains of the Deanery Bakehouse. Imagine the smell of baking bread drifting over the gardens and mingling with the flowers. How I longed for a peek inside or a ruin like this in my garden.
The garden was divided here by an arched arbour of modern wrought iron. Beneath it a stone bench would have made a wonderful place to sit and rest but, of course, I didn’t have time. If only I’d discovered this lovely garden at the beginning of my walk, but then again, I’d never have got any further if I had. Instead I stopped to smell the buds of the roses and carried on my way.
Now I was in the Presbytery Garden. In a shady spot against the stone wall was another stone bench. It looked far older than the first and was richly decorated with vines and flowers. Underneath a stone fox was curled asleep. A Latin inscription ran along the edge of the bench. Later I looked at a translation and it seems to mean only she did not know perhaps it was referring to the hidden fox?
It was easy to imagine Dean Garnier sitting on this very bench looking out on the garden although it would have been a very different place in his day. Thomas Garnier was born in 1776 and appointed Rector of Bishopstoke in 1807. He was a passionate gardener and created a beautiful arboretum and garden at the rectory. During his time as Dean of the cathedral he planted many of the surrounding trees. He also founded the Hampshire Horticultural Society. This area was his rose garden so he probably did sit here, although I’m not sure this bench was his.
Much as I’d have liked to sit in the shade on the lovey bench, there was no time, so I carried on along the gravel path towards a clipped yew hedge and an interesting looking sculpture. From a rugged green slate rock a swirl of beautifully executed stainless steel fish errupt into the air like a fountain. They put me in mind of The Shoal in Northam but less stylised. It turns out the sculpture was commissioned by the Cathedral Fabric Committee and created by Charles Normandale who was inspired by the uncovering of a water source in the grounds.
This, I thought, must be the end of the garden but one more surprise awaited me. Through a gap in the yew hedge there was another hidden garden, the Lady Chapel Garden. A paved area with a wooden bench was surrounded by flower beds. Through the foliage there were glimpses of old stone walls and, in the far corner, something that looked like another medieval building topped with a tile roof. From what I can make out this area was the monks washroom. Their toilet was over the Lockburn Stream, a culvert that was the main drain in Winchester. Perhaps this was the water source that inspired the fish sculpture?
With more time I might have spent and hour or two just looking at all the different plants. As it was I passed through far quicker than I’d have liked. The paving led me around the back of the hedge to another bench almost hidden under a large tree. There were certainly no shortage of places to sit had I had the time.
The Lockburn Stream was also an inspiration of sorts to Dean Garnier. In the 1860’s the fact that this was the only real drain in Winchester concerned him so much he started a campaign for a proper sewerage system in the city. He was successful and a sewage pumping station was built. The road it still stands on is named Garnier Road after him. The people of Winchester certainly have a great deal to thank him for as, until then, cholera, caused by dirty water, was a scourge in the city. No wonder then that, in 1995, when this lovely hidden garden was created it was named in memory of Dean Garnier.
Much as I’d have liked to stay it was time to leave the garden and head back towards Colebrook Street and the car park. Rather than go back the way I’d come I decided to cross The Close and exit through the Priory Gate. This would give me a chance for a quick glimpse at some of my favourite Winchester buildings. The first of these was the priory stable block dating from 1479. Sadly it was clad by scaffolding so I couldn’t take a decent photograph but I did peek through the barred gate at the back at what must once have been stable doors and windows.
The building seems far too grand to be merely stables. The ancient wooden frames that would once have been open and had the odd horse’s head peering out, have been glazed and it is now part of the pilgrim school as far as I can tell. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to get a look inside?
Around the corner is the real star of the show, Cheyney Court. The first time I walked the Itchen Navigation to Winchester this was my first sight inside the close and it took my breath away. The beautiful Elizabethan building with its weathered and warped timber frames above flint walls, plaster the colour of old butter and leaded windows is so pretty it is hard to believe it’s real.
Right beside it is the Priory gate with wisteria clambering up the wall between. Sadly the wisteria was almost over but nothing could spoil my pleasure in seeing such a lovely sight. Breathing deeply to capture the last remnant of scent, I passed through the gate and out of The Close.
Of course, when I was on the other side I couldn’t resist turning back for a photograph to recreate that first view.
For once I was in Winchester and not hopelessly lost. I knew if I carried on through the arch of Kingsgate, I would come out onto College Street and, from there, I more or less knew my way back to Colebrook Street. It always seems a little odd to me that the gate to the city and the gate to Cathedral Close should be right next to each other, especially as there is a church above the former almost in sight of the cathedral. It does make a handy landmark for people like me with no sense of direction though.
Under the arch of the gate there’s a bookshop and I was surprised to see books lined up on the wall even though the shop was closed. Perhaps the people of Winchester are especially honest and wouldn’t dream of stealing an unattended book, or perhaps the books were free to whoever chose to take them. I couldn’t tell which so I passed them by.
Time was running out by now so, with a quick stop to photograph the gate from the other side, I set off along College Street. Usually this narrow street is very busy with traffic and pedestrians but it was still early on Sunday morning so it was empty today. I took advantage of this to take a snap of a very famous door and the house it belonged to. This was where Jane Austin lived when she was in Winchester. In fact she died there.
There was one more stop for a picture of the College gate, for once devoid of knots of students and then I hurried down the almost empty street. I knew Commando would be close to finishing his run and I didn’t want to keep him waiting if I could help it, especially as we were giving Gerry a lift home too.
I still had to walk to the end of the street, turn onto The Weirs and dash along to the new cutway I’d discovered at the top of the steps. Even so, the open gate to the Bishop of Winchester’s Office proved irresistible and I took a quick photo. Around the corner I took another through the open gate to his house, then, with a regretful look towards Wolvesey Castle next door, I all but ran along The Weirs.
Back on Colebrook Street I was held up by a man trying to back a very large van into a very small gateway in the narrow street. Tapping my feet I waited while he went backwards and forwards slowly inching his way in. How he didn’t hit the wall on either side of the road is a mystery but, when he finally backed through the gate, a small crowd of waiting pedestrians and car drivers actually clapped. After all that, the car park came into view just as Commando rang to say he was back and ask where I was. That is what I call good timing!
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