3 November 2016
Following in the footsteps of John Keats, we’d walked from the centre of Winchester with its Christmas decorations, across the water meadows to St Cross. At the kissing gate beside the old sluice we stopped. Back in Keats’ day these sluices would still have been used to drown the meadows and encourage new grass for the grazing cows. These days the sluice stands idle but the cows still graze and the grass is lush and green.
In his letters, Keats described Winchester as ‘a place tolerably well suited to me’ and says , ‘there is not one loom or any thing like manufacturing beyond bread & butter in the whole City.’ The rural setting with surrounding fields devoted to growing grain inspired the next verse of his autumnal ode.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Perhaps he saw the workers harvesting grain in those fields on another walk when he climbed St Giles Hill? Today, we had no time to climb the same hill and would have seen no fields even if we had. They and the granary are long gone, as is, no doubt, the cider press, but the Hospital of St Cross remains. Standing by the gate it was right in front of us but, before we went for a closer look, I had a short detour to make.
To the right of the hospital is a small stream and, on a previous visit, I’d seen a glimpse of an inviting looking garden. It seemed like a peaceful place to sit, with a little table and a stone urn filled with flowers and I wanted to show it to CJ. We tramped through the long grass to see it and our reward was a little robin sitting on the old brick wall between the garden and the allotments beyond. He stayed just long enough for me to snatch a photo, then flew off.
There were asters here beside the stream, fading fast but with a few bright flowers left to make us smile. Nearby the comfrey still thought it was summer while the bright red haws and the dried out burdock burs knew better.
Smiling, we retraced our steps and turned back towards St Cross, the oldest charitable institution in the country, it is still an almshouse. Even today travellers arriving on foot can ask for the Wayfarer’s Dole of bread and ale, at least in summer. How long Keats spent there and whether he ever went inside is lost in the mist of time but he described the place in glowing terms, ‘my worship arrives at the foundation of Saint Cross, which is a very interesting old place, both for its gothic tower and alms-square…’
On previous walks I’ve passed the hospital from both the front on St Cross Road and the back on this meadow walk. Strolling alongside the old stone walls at the back I’ve peered through the fence into the grounds but I’ve never had the time to go inside. As we reached the corner of the walls it was tempting to follow the footpath to the entrance. The same path is the beginning of the Clarendon Way, a walk leading all the way to Salisbury. This was equally appealing but we had no time for either today,
Instead we rounded the corner where the old wall curves, and walked along the beside it. Over the fence at the back of the hospital we could see a bonfire smouldering, surrounded by piles of tangled branches with still green leaves. The smoke added to the misty atmosphere as it blew across the fields. CJ, who is fond of a bonfire, was fairly critical of whoever built this one.
“All that wet wood will give more smoke than fire,” he said. “They should have dried it out first.”
“I suppose there’s no one much living nearby to complain here,” I said.
When we came to the corner, rather than carrying on along the tree lined trail, we turned and followed the fence along the side of the building. As Keats had been so fond of the place it seemed we should at least have a proper look even if we didn’t have time for a visit. Another little Robin, or perhaps it was the same one we’d seen earlier, sat on the fence and sang to us as we walked by.
Further along we had a different view of the gothic tower and the Norman church along with a few gravestones. Flanking a side door a bench looked like an inviting place to sit if we’d had the time. Of course, as always, time was something we were short of so we passed by.
Legend has it that Henry Blois, the Bishop of Winchester, came upon a starving peasant girl who begged for his assistance. Her plight, largely caused by the civil war, was the spark that ignited the idea of the almshouse. Whether this is true or not, Henry founded St Cross Hospital in around 1136 in the remains of an Anglo Saxon religious house. His aim was to house thirteen needy men and feed another hundred each day at the gates. The needy men became the brethren of St Cross and later, when Cardinal Beaufort created the Order of Noble Poverty, the buildings were extended to house more men.
The tradition continues to this day and now we were looking into the inner quadrangle at the lodgings of the twenty five men, known as The Brothers, who still live here. Some belong to the Foundation of the Hospital of St Cross and wear black robes with a silver cross while the others belong to the Order of Noble Poverty and wear red robes. All are over sixty, single, widowed or divorced and all must attend a church service every day. This seems a small price to pay to live in such beautifully peaceful surroundings.
Each man lives in one of the houses overlooking the lawn. He has two rooms and a pantry, along with a garden. From our vantage point beside the fence we could see their doors and the tall thin chimneys built to avoid sparks from the fire setting light to the thatch that originally clothed these roofs. Perhaps these were the thatched eves run with vines Keats saw?
Men were moving about in the little quadrangle. Although none were wearing robes, it felt a little rude to be gawping at them so we turned and began to walk back along the walls. Someone had obviously been stirring up the bonfire and smoke drifted across the fields, bringing an evocative autumnal scent.
It was time to say goodbye to St Cross and continue on the walk Keats took each day. The next instruction in his letter was to ‘pass across St Cross meadows till you come to the most beautifully clear river.’ Vague though this was, I had a good idea where he had been heading so we set off through the avenue of gold and green leaves with the smoke still swirling around us.
The Itchen divides into several small rivulets as it wanders across the water meadows. One little trickle meandered along beside our path pretending to be a stream but soon disappeared to our left. Ahead the misty field was filled with cows. Some were closer to the path than I’d have liked but they paid us no attention, even when CJ snuck up to take close up photos.
To our right were cricket pitches. To our left a large house standing right at the point where all the little bits of river converge. This was once the mill house of St Cross Mill, built to grind flour for the almshouse. The original building was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1845 but is now a private house. Today it was surrounded by green fencing and looks to be having some work done to it. This was a shame as it spoilt my photos.
All too soon we’d reached the far side of the water meadow and the gate to Five Bridges Road. This, I was sure, was where Keats had seen the ‘beautifully clear‘ River Itchen although the instructions in his letters were less than clear. From now on we would be guessing where he went next but the imagery from the final verse of his poem seemed like a clue.
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