5 August 2018
Commando is pacing the Winchester Half Marathon again this year and this morning was the first of the pacers training runs. Although it meant getting up earlier than I’d have liked, it’s hard to resist a couple of hours wandering around Winchester on my own so I decided to go along. We arrived at the Colebrook Street Car Park just after eight and, after synchronising our watches and a little chat with the other pacers, I set off onto the empty Winchester streets.
The moon was still high in the cerulean blue sky as I walked past the Guildhall towards Costas. Obviously, any Sunday morning walk around Winchester had to start with a coffee and a breakfast croissant. Traders were setting up their stalls for the Sunday market as I made my way up the High Street. Unlike most Street markets, they were not selling cheap tat. The goods they were setting out, antique furniture, fancy mirrors and vases, were all well out of my price range. When I reached Costas, I was greeted with a closed door and a sign telling me the shop was shut due to ‘technical problems.’ Across the road Starbucks wasn’t open either. It was all very disappointing.
Feeling deprived, I walked back down the High Street past the expensive market stalls and the Guildhall. There was a typically vague plan to check out an intriguing place I’d seen a while back off Water Lane. As this trip had been sprung on me out of the blue there’d been no time for research but I was fairly sure there’d be interesting things to see.
The bottom end of Winchester High Street is called The Broadway, perhaps because the road here is wider than the narrow, pedestrianised Main Street. Here, half hidden behind a bus stop and the rows of parked cars surrounding King Alfred’s statue, is a small stone chapel. Although I’ve passed it many times I’ve never really paid it any attention before. Anywhere else it would stand out but Winchester is filled with interestingly ancient buildings and other distractions.
Today, as I walked grumpily past, minus my breakfast and coffee, the arched doorway with its curious black wooden doors caught my eye. They looked like saloon doors but this was obviously not a pub. Above them, etched into the stone were the words Chapel of St John’s Hospital. Later research told me the current building dates from 1428, but parts of it are much older.
The chapel was built on the site of St John’s Hospital, a Saxon almshouse, founded by St Brinstan, Bishop of Winchester, in AD 935. In those days, when Winchester was the capital city of England, almshouses, used to support the poor, old and infirm and assist travellers, were a necessity. Today, three remain in Winchester in one form or another but St John’s Hospital is, by all accounts, one of the oldest charitable institutes in the country. The early history of this almshouse is hazy but, in 1289, John Le Devenish refounded it and his descendant John Devenish endowed the pretty little stone and flint chapel. Upon the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII desecrated the chapel and confiscated some of the charity’s funds but, as hospitals and almshouses were protected the charity survived.
Just past the bus bus stop, the flint clad walls and stained glass windows is an imposing metal gate. Through it I caught an intriguing glimpse of a grassy courtyard surrounded by red brick houses with tall chimneys reminiscent of the courtyard at St Cross Hospital. These are the almshouses, built in 1558 after Ralph Lamb, a merchant who owned a farm in Amesbury and several properties in the High Street, left an endowment to the hospital. In 1587 Elizabeth I gave the Mayor of Winchester and the City Corporation control of the charity.
The City Corporation did maintain the almshouses but often used the charity’s funds for other purposes. In 1811, a group of almshouse residents and Parish Wardens became disenchanted with this maladministration and petitioned the Chancery. The court found in their favour and an independent charitable trust was formed in 1829 to take over the administration.
Through the gates I also got a view of the stained glass windows on the eastern end of the chapel. Sadly, there was no chance to go inside and see them in all their glory. In the eighteenth century this chapel building was used as a school and money was given to fund local apprenticeships and help start small businesses. The chapel wasn’t reconsecrated until 1836.
The modern charity focuses on assisting older people of limited means and is financed by bequests and investment properties. It seems a shame such an interesting and beautiful building is overshadowed by its surroundings. The bus stop, a row of trees and all the cars parked around the central island containing King Alfred’s Statue effectively hide the chapel and the gates. In Winchester, beautiful ancient buildings are ten a penny but you often have to look hard to see them.
Once I’d passed the almshouse gates I stopped to wait for a passing car to go by so I could take a picture of King Alfred standing proudly on his stone plinth. As I got ready to snap the shutter the car stopped right in front of me. It was Nicky Rees, owner of Rees Leasure organisers of the Winchester Half Marathon. She was trying to catch up with the runners to take a publicity shot and thought I might know where they were likely to stop. We chatted for a moment or two and I told her they were running the whole course but I had no idea where they’d be stopping. None the wiser, she set off in pursuit and I snapped my photo.
On my way to Water Lane I couldn’t resist crossing the road and looking longingly along The Weirs. On a different day I might have walked this way but today I was determined to find out more about the curiously named Blue Ball Hill. On my walks along Water Lane I’d often seen the sign and the name intrigued me. Besides, the steep looking Hill would be a good chance to see how well my sessions at the Running School were working.
Water Lane runs behind City Mill and is, basically, a continuation of The Weirs with the river running along one side of it all the way to Durngate Bridge. Once you get past the houses and the back of the mill, it’s a pretty walk dotted with weeping willows and wild flowers. About three quarters of the way along, Blue Ball Hill rises steeply to the right. Today I was going to find out where it led.
As it was still well before nine o’clock the streets were empty and the sun hadn’t quite managed to heat the air to unbearable levels. If I was going to climb the hill, now was the time to do it.
The little half tiled red brick house on the corner made a pretty picture at the very bottom of the hill. Rising from it was an old stone wall with an arched wooden gate and letterbox. The door on the front of the house has been bricked up for some reason so this seems to be the only entrance. Why this has been done is a mystery but it would certainly give would be burglars a few problems.
The narrow road curving up the hill was bordered by high walls and overhanging greenery so most of the houses were hidden from view. One had a low stone wall with a white gate bearing the slightly confusing name Magdalen Cottage 1 Rosemary Close. The terraced gardens above the wall were pretty but the house was hidden behind trees and I couldn’t work out whether this was the entrance to a cottage or if there was another small street behind the gate.
It was a steep climb and the rising sun shining in my eyes made seeing anything at all fairly difficult. When I reached what I thought was the top I was met with more confusion. On the corner a large white house with a very Tudor looking overhanging gallery and oak beams seemed like it might be a pub. Above the door was a sign saying The Old Blue Boar but it had no other signs suggesting it was open for business and it had the look of a private house.
Later I discovered the Old Blue Boar is, purportedly, the oldest house in Winchester, having been built in 1340 and, although it is now a private house, it was originally a pub. When it was built it was called the White Boar, referring to the emblem of King Richard III. In 1485, when Richard was killed at the battle of Bosworth Field by Henry VII, the pub, like many others named White Boar across the country, changed its name. Most simply painted the boars on their signs blue and changed their names to Blue Boar, which was, coincidentally, the emblem of the Earl of Oxford, a staunch supporter and friend of the new King. All this suggests the hill might have originally been called Blue Boar Hill, or even White Boar Hill. It would certainly have been a more fitting name.
Looking at the building, it’s hard to believe this house was built eight years before the Black Death ravaged Hampshire, in the same year English King Edward III also became the king of France and began the Hundred Years War. If walls could talk, this building would have many tales to tell, not least of which, is the story of Thomas Thetcher, a young grenadier in the North Hants Militia who drank here in 1764. In those days poor sanitation meant water was not usually safe to drink. Most people drank a beverage called small beer, a fermented drink with a very low alcohol content, instead. After Thomas drank a small beer in the Blue Boar, he caught a fever and died. He is buried in the grounds of Winchester Catherdeal and his gravestone reads, “Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier, Who caught his death by drinking cold small Beer, Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall And when ye’re hot drink Strong or none at all.”
Now I’d reached it, I realised the Blue Boar was not actually at the top of Blue Ball Hill. This presented a bit of a dilemma. Did I continue climbing into the unknown or did I explore the interesting houses I could see on St John’s Street?
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