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August, 2016

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A wonderful summer demands an afternoon in the open. Even in the city centre there is open air enough in Winchester. The problem is selection: where to begin? where go next? how to finish?

We opted to begin at the beginning, with the nature reserve, and were rewarded by the sight of a water vole. As a volunteer warden said, it was good news they were back after the floods of 2013. No photograph, unfortunately.

The path out of the reserve soon arrives near the Alfred statue and one of the early church buildings that is easy to overlook. Across the road is the Mayor’s garden which leads to College Walk, the route to St Cross. First though we had to look at the former bishop’s palace, managed with admirable care by Historic England (formerly English Heritage) in differentiating the remains of rooms and chambers from the open areas by gravel and grass. Salutary, in view of where we were going, to read the medieval bishop’s income was equivalent to £2 million a year in today’s money. Shocking to think that most of this inflation – actually devaluation – of 400% has occurred in the last hundred years.

College Walk, as the name suggests, goes past the back of Winchester College and its playing fields, not to mention private land presumably college property, and along the banks of tributaries of the Itchen. Within a short time it crosses a road then goes across fields in sight of Catherine’s Hill, where the earliest settlement was developed before the Roman invasion. St Cross is a fitting link between ancient and modern (in Winchester of course modern remains mainly medieval, plus Jane Austen).

How St Cross survived the Reformation is a mystery. It was founded in the early 12th century and may have been the model for Oxford colleges some years later. There are 25 brothers, required to be unmarried or widowed, though there has been talk of admitting married couples. It remains a religious settlement, with obligatory services, and is supervised by a master. One of the orders of brothers is characterised by “noble poverty,” distinguished by red as opposed to black habits. The wayfarers’ dole, established in the early middle ages, provides a piece of bread and a beaker of beer to anyone arriving on foot and asking at the gatehouse. We have in the past enjoyed this: the beer is provided gratis by a London brewery. This day however we opted for the excellent cream tea, served by female volunteers who directed us to a “black” brother taking the money.

A tour of St Cross includes the kitchen, the cellar, the hall and of course the church, a wonderful Romanesque structure with medieval developments. There had been a wedding so the floral decorations were a bonus. It seemed almost an anti-climax to find the master’s garden, not for itself because it is beautiful but to be told be a local (female) “Friend” that the brothers almost never went into it.

Sometime retracing steps can be tedious: not here though because the different views on approaching Winchester are, as it were, new. There were also ancient white cattle, a reminder of the first settlement, in meadows below Catherine’s Hill.

Out of College Walk there is a splendid view of the National Trust watermill before a walk past the College and the house where Jane Austen died to the Cathedral Close.
The City Museum at the entrance to Cathedral Close puts the history and prehistory in memorable context. Opposite is the Old Vine, where we were glad to have been able to direct a Spanish tourist to a good pub lunch some days before. We’re sure he found better value there than at one of the celebrity chef franchises that have sprung up all over Winchester as a sign of new inflated/devalued money.


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