A little more history than we bargained for

20 August 2017

Garnier Road was always going to be the tipping point of my plan. As we stood looking over the wall beside Meadow View Cottage, I was frantically trying to decide which way to go. The water of Lockburn Stream tumbled through a sluice below us. The pretty little house perched precariously close, looking as if it might once have been a mill. 

In the end the meadows won. The views might have been stunning from St Catherine’s Hill and the macabre story of the plague pits interesting, but I had the feeling my leg wouldn’t thank me for the climb and there are no actual plague pits to see.  Almost as soon as we’d set off along the path we got our first view of the hill across the jewel green meadows. From this distance the climb doesn’t look daunting at all and it’s easy to see the ridges of the ancient hill fort.

With summer fast coming to a close it seemed as if every plant, every blade of grass, was on a quest for maximum growth, doing its very best to out compete its neighbour. As we approached St Cross, the little stream and the houses beyond were almost hidden by a riot of greenery. At the kissing gate the Lockburn Stream finally parted company with our path and turned sharply right towards the hospital. It flows around the rear of the buildings where garderobes were strategically positioned so the stream come drain could carry the waste away.

Once we’d passed through the overgrown kissing gate we caught our first glimpse of the walls of the Hospital of St Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty. As we walked towards it I began to tell Mitch how, back in the 1100’s, Henry Blois, the Bishop of Winchester and grandson of William the Conqueror, had been walking these very meadows when he met a peasant girl. She and her family were starving because of the civil war. The bishop was moved by her plight and, when he came upon the ruins of a church a little later, had the idea of creating an almshouse.

Before I’d got very far with my tale, we emerged from the trees and saw cows grazing beside the hospital walls. They were a little close to the path for comfort. There are often cows grazing on the water meadows and, although they’ve never given me any trouble, I’m wary of them. According to the Health and Safety Executive, they are the most dangerous animal in Britain. Walkers have been killed by them. Admittedly, these looked docile enough but you never can tell with cows so I warned Mitch to be wary and, if they did suddenly charge, not to run.

“If you aren’t supposed to run, what should you do?” he asked, looking at the beasts nervously.
“I’m not really sure,” I admitted. “I suppose you should just stand still and hope, like Kylie and I did when the ponies charged us at the CC6.”
“What happened then?” his eyes grew wide.
“To be honest, I shut my eyes and hoped for the best so I didn’t really see. I kept taking photos though and, in the them, they were galloping past really close. If you stand still I suppose they try to avoid you.”

We kept walking, getting nearer and nearer to the cows. They seemed to be watching us and I half wished I’d decided to climb St Catherine’s Hill. There was a heart stopping moment when one looked to be walking towards us. Mitch, who is a runner, had a look in his eye that said “I don’t care what you say, if they charge I’m running.” Briefly wondered if it would be worse to be trampled by cows or killed by Teresa if Mitch was and I escaped?

In the end we got past unscathed. As we rounded the corner and put the high stone wall between us and the cows, I was glad we didn’t have CJ with us. If we had he’d probably have been trying to pet the beasts. With half an ear listening for the sound of pounding hooves behind us, we carried on.

Once we were far enough from the cows to feel completely safe, I explained that this was the largest medieval almshouse in Britain and possibly the oldest. We walked around the side of the building to look at the lodgings of the Brothers who still live there. Today there are around twenty five of them. They belong to one of two charitable foundations. Those belonging to the Order of the Hospital of St Cross wear black trencher hats and black robes with a silver badge in the shape of a cross. If they wear red hats and robes with a cardinal’s badge, they belong to the Order of Noble Poverty. All must be over sixty, single, widowed or divorced and must wear their robes and attend morning prayers in the church every day.

We stood for a while admiring the buildings with their tall chimneys, trying to imagine what they must have looked like when the roofs were thatched. Mitch was interested to learn he would be given a horn cup of ale and a piece of bread if he went to the Porter’s Lodge and asked for the Wayfarer’s Dole. This tradition was started in medieval times by a monk from Cluny in France, whose holy order always gave bread and wine to travellers. It continues to this day. Perhaps, with more time on our hands, we might have tried it.

Instead, mindful of our time constraints, we walked back to the path and carried on through the tunnel of trees towards Five Bridges Road. In John Keats’ letter to his brother and sister in law he wrote of his daily walks across the water meadows but never told them where he went after he reached St Cross. No one is certain of his route back to the city but I have a feeling he’d have taken this path. This wonderful corridor of greenery would probably not have been there back then, at least not these particular trees, but I doubt he’d have been able to resist carrying on along the trail.

On Five Bridge Road we stopped to peek through the hedge at the sheep in the field. On the other side of the road, St Cross Mill was almost hidden by the overgrown greenery. Even so, with blue sky and trees reflected in the river and the mill just peeking from behind, this must rate as one of my favourite views.

A little further along we could see the arches of the Hockley Viaduct. This was something else we didn’t have time to explore. As we walked I told Mitch about the time I discovered this road, back when I was training for my first Moonwalk. We passed the Winchester milestone and I explained how I’d taken the same route each week, out and back, getting a little nearer to Winchester every time. The joy I felt when I saw this sign and knew I was in Winchester at last stays with me to the day.

Under the old railway arch and past the railway bench we went. Now we were on the Itchen Navigation and our walk was coming to an end. At the foot of St Catherine’s Hill I looked at the people puffing up the winding path to the top and felt glad I’d chosen the route I had.

All the way back to the centre of Winchester I kept expecting to hear runners coming up behind us. It didn’t happen but, right at the end of our walk, there was an unexpected surprise. We took a shortcut down along Abbey Passage and stumbled upon some ancient graves. These were the graves of Nunnaminster, uncovered during archeological excavations in the early 1980s.

Nunnaminster was an abbey, founded by Alfred the Great’s wife, Ealswith in 903. Later it became the Abbey of St Mary and St Edburga. This I knew from my walks in Abbey Gardens but I had no idea the graves were hidden here. One is thought to be the grave of St Edburga, Alfred the Great’s granddaughter. What a brilliant end to a lovely walk.


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Writer, walker, coffee drinker, chocolate eater, lover of nature, history and the little things that make me smile

12 thoughts on “A little more history than we bargained for”

    1. Apparently walkers have been killed by cows, usually when they have calves though. Theyalways look slightly sinister to me, as if they’re plotting something.

  1. The Wayfarers Dole is just a plastic cup with local ale in these days and a small square of bread.
    You really must get over this of cows.They are timid creatures.I have never heard of any one killed by a cow.Bulls yes.The trouble is Cows like all animals smell fear.They pick it up from you and that makes them nervous .They will turn and look at you when you pass but they are no danger at all.

      1. As the report from the Independent points out,the problem is when there are calves with the cows.Responsible Farmers do not let Cows with their calves go where there are are fields with a footpath going through it.I have been walking in the Country for many years and on a daily basis now I am walking with a dog through fields with cows.I do respect cows,and always keep the dog I am walking on a close lead.But I do not fear them.As I said before,Cows smell fear and that can make them skittish.

        1. I don’t want to make anyone too paranoid, but it’s not just about calves. The most recent HSE analysis I could find gives 18 walker’s deaths in 15 years, with only 10 of these involving calves. Most of the deaths were in lone or couple walkers, and most deaths were in people aged over 50. 17 deaths involved a dog. Of course, for every death there are multiple cases of injuries.

          There is anecdotal evidence that the continental breeds, which may make up most of our beef breeding stock in the U.K. now, are more aggressive than our traditional British breeds.

          (Hope you don’t mind me posting a link, Marie to our new wwww.killercows.co.uk.
          site, where we are collecting stories.)

          1. I don’t mind at all Ruth. Thank you for posting the link. I’m sure the majority of cows are perfectly safe but the facts and figures don’t lie and I, for one, would rather be safe than sorry. Any large animal is unpredictable and has the potential to be dangerous in the right circumstances and it would be foolish to be complacent.

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