24 September 2017
At the beginning of the month I stood in the rain in Abbey Gardens looking at Winchester Guildhall and wishing I was in the VIP pacer’s changing room with free coffee and biscuits. Today I was looking wistfully out of the window of said changing room at the sun coming up over Abbey Gardens, half wishing I was out there walking. It had the makings of a nice day and wandering around exploring seemed far more fun than tail walking the Winchester Half Marathon.
The VIP changing room looked a little like a Spitfire convention. The vast majority of the orange shirted pacer’s were club members with the odd non pacing Spitfire sneaked in too. Even the race directing team seemed Spitfire heavy, with Gill marching around organising things. As always with these events, there was a certain amount of soul searching amongst the pacers. It’s all very well agreeing to run the Half Marathon in such and such a time when the event itself is months away, quite another thing to actually stick to that time on the day. Most pacers would be running far slower than their own normal pace but this poses problems of its own, not least getting a touch carried away and going too fast, leaving everyone following you half dead and unable to keep up.
For the tail people, like me, there was the added worry of getting either a super fast or super slow person at the back. The former might mean not being able to keep up, the latter might mean walking frustratingly slowly and taking a stupid amount of time to finish. Originally I’d planned to walk the whole course but, due to continuing issues with my leg and back, I’d opted to walk from the half way point like last year.
After what felt like a lifetime of waiting around in the VIP changing room, it was finally time to go out onto the Guildhall steps and be introduced to the waiting runners. There were an awful of of them gathered on the High Street waiting to start the race. Then the pacers all went down into the crowd and took their places and I stood alone, watching the start of the race. At this point I was wishing I’d chosen to walk the whole thing, even if it did mean I suffered afterwards.
Once the last runner had gone the High Street looked strangely bare. The finish line marshals were all busy preparing the race packs and medals, the runners and pacers were all running and I had time on my hands. Someone was coming to drive me to Hursley to join the race in half an hour so I couldn’t wander off. For want of something better to do I decided to explore the deserted Guildhall.
My exploration began with an investigation of the toilet facilities, where I discovered even the windows in the smallest room were decorative affairs. The Gothic building is Victorian, designed by architects Skiller and Jeffrey and built in the 1870’s. The site it stands on is actually more interesting than the building itself. It was part of an estate given to Queen Ealswith by her husband Alfred the Great. The queen used the land to establish the Nunnaminster nunnery which later became St Mary’s Abbey. On a previous walk I found some of the graves of Nunnaminster, including one that may have belonged to St Edburga, Alfred’s granddaughter, along the side of the building.
With time so limited I didn’t get chance for much exploring but I did wander along the long corridors lined with old paintings and pass through arched doorways, waiting all the time to be stopped and asked what I was doing there. By chance I found the door to the Mayor’s Parlor and stood outside wondering what it was like inside. The Guildhall originally held civic offices, law courts, the fire brigade and a police station but the latter two were demolished in 1892. In their place a new wing was built to house a library and art school. These too have gone and the majority of the building is now used for civic government functions.
Pretty soon it was time to return to the VIP dressing room to wait for my lift. The room seemed bigger without all the Spitfires in it. There was just time to grab a last biscuit and have a look at the trophies all lined up for the runners, before someone was calling my name. My car had arrived.
The young chap from Rees Leisure told Nicky Rees he knew the way but it soon became clear he hadn’t counted for the road closures on the Half Marathon route. This caused a few issues last time too and we ended up joining the race at the wrong place. This time, with the aid of Google Maps on my phone, we managed to get to Hursley in good time. In fact we arrived moments before Commando came past with his 2:05 pacing buddy Paul.
While it was nice to see him, it did mean I had arrived far earlier than planned. It would be quite some time before the back marker and my tail runner colleagues came past so I had yet more waiting around. Frustratingly, although I had time on my hands again, there wasn’t enough to really explore Hursley.
Hursley seems to be a place I’m always passing through with no time to look around. This is a shame because it is an intersting Village. The Bishop of Winchester, Henry de Blois, built a Manor House called Merdon Castle in the parish in 1138 and the village belonged to the Bishops of Whinchester until 1552. The original house is now gone but the farmhouse built on the site remains along with extensive gardens designed by Gertude Jekyll. The road running through the village is lined with Victorian cottages built for the estate workers. They have unusually tall decorative brick chimneys and were once thatched. Apparently the chimneys were built by two local builders who were brothers and liked to compete with each other to produce the most interesting work. The Hursley Chimneys have become synonymous with the village and I did at least get to see some of them while I chatted to the marshals.
Although many of the Hursley residents had turned out to cheer the passing runners, not everyone was happy to have the race passing through their village. The marshals told me they’d had some issues with a very angry bell ringer who was upset at not being able to park in the pub car park, which was part of the race route. As the church was directly opposite the pub, I decided to have a quick wander in the churchyard while I had the chance. The theologian and poet John Keble was vicar of Hursley between 1835 and his death in 1866. He rebuilt the church in 1848. Keble was also Professor of Poetry at Oxford and Keble College, Oxford was founded in his memory. He was buried in Hursley church and I thought I might be able to find his grave.
Unfortunately, walking through the churchyard in my bright orange Motivator shirt it was obvious I was part of the race. Several parishioners on their way into the church gave me some very disapproving looks as they passed me and it was clear I wasn’t really welcome there. This is a shame because it meant I didn’t feel comfortable wandering around the graves.
Back in Winchester Guildhall I’d been a VIP with time on my hands and nothing much to explore. Now I had plenty to explore in Hursley but it seemed I was persona non grata. So far it felt like a day of being in the right place at the wrong time, or in the wrong circumstances. Hopefully it wasn’t an omen for the race ahead.
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