3 September 2017
Sitting on a bench by the river in the rain is not the best of ideas. When I noticed mosquitoes buzzing round my legs I thought it was probably time to move, even though I hadn’t really thought of anywhere else to go. The nettle stings were enough to contend with without mosquito bites adding to the itching. Besides, sitting still was making me cold as well as damp so I began to march towards the entrance to the park. As I passed the last of the trees and came to the area of cut grass that had tempted me right at the start I found myself face to face with a deer.
Earlier, when I saw the deer footprints carved on one of the benches, I’d been certain a deer was one thing I wasn’t going to see today. How wrong I was. Cautiously, with my phone raised, I took a step towards it, then another. It watched me a touch nervously but didn’t move and I managed to take several pictures before it finally decided I was too close. Even then it didn’t run off, just moved a little further from me. It was a magical few minutes. When I finally turned to leave it in peace I had a great big grin on my face.
A few more minutes were eaten up leaning over Durngate bridge and looking at the water passing beneath me. There was once a mill here, Durngate Mill, it ground corn for the city for seven centuries and was the most profitable mill in the area but, sadly, it was demolished in 1966. From the old photographs I found it looks very much like the remains of Segrim’s Mill on the Weirs and would have formed a line of three mills, one after the other, on this little stretch of water. Now all that remains is the bridge I stood on and some sluices.
Still undecided where to go to while away the next hour or so, I stood looking down into the water rushing through the sluices for a while, trying to imagine what it must have looked like when the mill was still standing. In the end, all the rushing water made the descion for me. It highlighted an increasingly pressing need to find a loo and I knew just where there was one.
The walk back to the centre of Winchester was a slightly hurried affair ending in Abbey Gardens. In my wide experience of public conveniences, the Abbey Gardens toilets are some of my favourites. They are clean, which is always a good thing. The building they’re in is prettily flint clad, blends into its surroundings beautifully and always seems to be open. There is rarely a queue and, even if there is, there is gentle piped music to entertain you while you wait. Feeling much relieved I stood outside the door and took a photograph looking towards Abbey House, right next door. This building began life as a private house, built by William Pescod, the Recorder of Winchester, in around 1700. In 1889, Winchester Council bought it and it’s now the home and offices of the Mayor of Winchester.
Luckily the mayor seems happy to share the beautiful gardens with the public and I spent the next half hour slowly wandering around enjoying them despite the rain and grey skies. The little courtyard garden behind the house is wonderful, although, if I was the mayor, I’m not sure I’d want odd people like me wandering around right outside my windows.
Today a pigeon was taking full advantage of the old stone birdbath as I passed by. He didn’t seem worried in the slightest by my presence and carried on enjoying his bath as I strolled around looking at the sodden flowers. When it comes to taking photographs of flowers, rain is actually a bonus because the shining drops of water on the petals look so beautiful. Unfortunately, this little corner of the garden was also quite windy so I didn’t get as many pictures as I’d have liked.
In an effort to escape the wind I walked around the corner and strolled along the narrow path at the edge of the garden. Here I found some late roses bowing their heads against the rain and a drift of jolly Japanese anemones dancing in the downpour.
At the end of the path was River Cottage Canteen. The grand looking building was once Abbey Mill, built in around 1750. Winchester once had an abundance of mills, in 1208 there were twenty two between Hyde Abbey and St Cross, nine of them inside the Winchester City Walls. Most of the mills were used to grind corn but, in 1554, this one was being used as a grindstone factory then, by the late 1700’s, as a silk mill. Later it would become Winchester’s Environmental Health Office. During World War II the old mill building was used as a restaurant to feed troops and, in 2014, celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall revisited that use when he opened River Cottage Canteen, despite a fair bit of local protest.
It was tempting to go inside, have a look around and get a coffee. It would have been nice to get out of the rain for a while. The place looked fairly crowded though and I had an idea it would be expensive so I gave it a miss. Maybe another day?
Instead I wandered along the edge of the stream that once fed the mill looking at the last of the summer flowers. Some were nothing but pretty seedheads, bursting to reveal the bright seeds within. Others were sad and sorry looking, on their last legs, which is how I felt by now, having been tramping about in the rain all morning.
Across the green grass and bright flowerbeds I could see the copper clad tower of the Guildhall. The clock told me it was ten past ten, almost an hour before Commando would be back. I thought fondly of the inside of the Guildhall and the coffee and sandwiches we’d had in the VIP pacer’s changing room there before the last Winchester Half Marathon. Of course there would be none of that today. Now I was just an ordinary member of the public.
Most of the flowers I saw I recognised, even if my brain couldn’t quite grasp their names right away. The older I get the more of them seem to escape me. Some though were so strange and exotic I had no idea what they were. One in particular captured my attention. It had tall spikes of shiny clustered berries that looked as if they’d been dip dyed, those at the bottom were deep purple, almost black, fading through rich burgundy to green at the top. Later Googling told me they were phytolacca acinosa, or pokeweed, a native of America, Asia and New Zealand. No wonder I didn’t recognise them.
Those berries looked good enough to eat but all parts of the plant are poisonous. The young leaves and shoots can be eaten if boiled in several changes of water and they do have medicinal properties but I don’t think I’d risk them. Those beautiful berries are used to make a red ink and the plant is sometimes called red ink plant.
When I came to the end of the path I turned and crossed the bridge over the mill stream. Then I strolled slowly down the other side through the small children’s play area. There were a few other people wandering listlessly about the gardens but the play area was deserted because of the rain.
With time to kill I walked slowly down the other side of the stream towards the old mill, stopping now and then to photograph flowers. Hosta leaves so filled with holes they looked like they were made from coloured lace, skeletonised alder leaves, Japanese anemonies, red bistort and reudbeckia made me smile. Others made me frown because I couldn’t name them.
Eventually I’d come full circle, back to the mill. By now the rain was beginning to get tiresome. It had soaked through my mac in places and I’d almost run out of dry clothing to wipe my gasses on. My legs still itched from the nettles and it was still a long time before I could expect Commando back. The sensible thing to do would be to walk up the High Street to Costa and sit with a warm cup of coffee. No one has ever accused me of being sensible though…
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