3 November 2016
When Keats wrote to his brother and sister in law of his daily Winchester walks he ended at ‘the most beautifully clear river,’ the Itchen, probably where it crosses Five Bridges Road. In his letter he said, ‘now this is only one mile of my walk I will spare you the other two till after supper when they would do you more good,‘ but he never mentioned it again. Even so, it stood to reason he hadn’t just turned around and walked back the way he came and I had a good idea of the route he would have taken. The clues were all there in the final verse of his ode To Autumn.
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
Following in the poet’s footsteps, at least as I imagined them, we headed off along Five Bridges Road towards St Catherine’s Hill. It seemed to me he would have been unable to resist the lure of the hill he’d been walking beside for so long, with its intriguing top knot of trees. On the first bridge we stopped to look along that clear river towards St Cross Mill. This has always been one of my favourite places to stop and stare. The disparate pieces of the river join together just beyond the mill house, leaving it looking as if it stands on an island.
In the field opposite sheep were grazing, not quite ‘on hilly bourne‘ but full grown lambs nonetheless. Further along the road we had a better view of the sheep over a gate. The hill, where local farms often take their animals to graze, overshadowed their field.
Slowly we strolled along the road, stopping every now and then to look at seedheads, colourful leaves, the swelling berries on the ivy and even new flowers on the blackberries. Did Keats see these things on his walk and did some, like the ‘flowers for the bees,’ creep into his poem?
Across the field on the other side of the road the viaduct we walked across last July would not have been built when Keats came this way. What would he have made of the trains chugging across this landscape? We were glad of the view of it and even happier when the fancy camera managed to capture it.
Further still and we passed the milestone that made me smile on all those long Moonwalk training walks. Winchester had been a beacon to me on those epic walks, the place I’d been heading for for months, edging closer every week before turning and walking home, and the half way point in my final twenty six mile walk. This was another thing the poet would not have seen.
Under the disused railway bridge at the beginning of the viaduct walk we turned to stroll beside the Itchen Navigation. If Keats did indeed come this way he might have seen the bargemen and their horses passing by with their cargoes of wool and coal.
There are no bargemen any more and these days the path is overgrown with trees. We were surprised to find apples ripening on one. They reminded me of the ‘oozings from the cyder press.’ Sadly, they were too high for even CJ to pick. A juicy apple would have been quite welcome about then.
Soon we were at the base of the hill, our silent companion for most of this walk. For once, there were no sheep or cattle grazing in Plague Pits Valley and the path winding its way up the steep hill was empty of walkers. Opposite, the still water above St Catherine’s Mill was filled with autumn leaves like an armada of rusty boats.
We walked on with the hill to one side and the navigation to the other. Every now and then, we had glimpses of the water and the meadows we’d crossed through gaps in the trees. Through one we saw a cygnet swimming in lazy circles. His brown feathers were liberally sprinkled with white and he was almost full grown. Further still we caught sight of St Cross Hospital. The smoke from the badly built bonfire was streaming high into the sky.
Someone was sitting on the barge bench when we reached it so there was no chance to stop and look at the names of the bargemen engraved there. We carried on along the lane, with plentiful stops to look at yet more berries, seedheads and flowers along with another glimpse across the water meadows towards the city.
The trees overshadowing the path were glorious in their autumnal clothes with colourful and somewhat crunchy puddles beneath them. It felt as if, with the loss of summer and most of the flowers, the leaves were doing their best to add a touch of brightness to the world.
Just before our road met Garnier Road we came to the last of the railway tunnels. We walked beneath it and then across where we were greeted by drifts of copper coloured leaves. We were still gasping at the spectacle when a pheasant burst out of the undergrowth and ran along the road before us then disappeared into the bushes again. When we reached his vanishing point we stopped and looked into the weeds and brambles for him but he was nowhere to be seen. If I hadn’t captured his slightly blurry image with my camera we might have thought we’d imagined him.
On the other side of the road our views looked over the Winchester College playing fields. The trees lining the river bank were the brightest we’d seen. The tangerine of the fallen leaves beneath them was a clashing contrast to the carefully manicured green of the lawns.
After a touch of house envy along Domum Road we reached the final leg of our journey. At Seagrams Mill we crossed the river once more and headed along The Weirs. Whether this was part of Keats’ walk is a mystery but his lodgings were, as far as can be told, nearby on the north of the High Street. It’s hard to believe he didn’t walk along this stunning pathway where the Itchen burbles along behind the houses of Chesil Street. With its willows dipping their green leaves into the clear water and gateways to nowhere opening from the old stone walls, this is a path made for poets.
When we came to City Mill we knew our walk was almost over and, if Keats truly came this way, his would have been too. The next landmark on our journey was one of the most recognisable symbols of the city but it would not have been there in Keats day. Hamo Thorneycroft’s huge bronze statue of King Alfred the Great was unveiled in 1899, one thousand years after Alfred’s death and seventy eight years after Keats’.
Now all that was left to do was make our way along the High Street to the place our journey started and close the circle.
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