Winchester

In which I discover the ancient Saxon capital city…

Mrs. P and I had a hugely enjoyable stay in Chawton last summer. We couldn’t visit Hampshire without seeing Winchester. It is, after all, where Jane Austen ended her days. Suffering from a mystery illness, she moved into a handsome house in College street to be closer to her doctor. Winchester is a tiny city: we were through the suburbs and into the centre before we knew it. We had taken a room at The Westgate Hotel. It was a nice looking little pub with good selection of ale, friendly staff and a respectable stack of bottles behind the bar… but it was LOUD! There was no possibility of reading this evening. I checked in and found our, very pleasant, quite spacious, first-floor room and the first thing we noticed was the quiet. Couldn’t hear a thing. We were right above the bar and it was virtually silent, nothing but the faint sound of music in the background. The view was incredible: we could see the west gate and the grandiose medieval council buildings. We got ourselves together and went down to eat. There was some sort of 1970’s prog rock playing in the bar when we came down. Pleasant enough and the volume had dropped since we checked in. I ordered up a pint of the local brew (Red Cat it was called and it was very tasty). We went out into Winchester to explore and find something to eat.

The Westgate, from my hotel room window

The town was absolutely buzzing. Full of young people enjoying themselves, good naturedly drinking and enjoying the evening. It’s an interesting place to walk around, with a few ancient buildings standing among the shops and restaurants. It reminded me a little of Lincoln. Every restaurant was full, until we drifted away from the town centre and found an Indian restaurant – The Rimjihm – that looked nice and had a few free tables. A quick look at the menu and we let ourselves in. We had a very good meal: fresh, spicy and delicious. Having finished our meal we walked back to our hotel. The town was still lively, with people enjoying the pleasant summer evening. We wandered to the westgate: the fortified gateway to the Anglo-Saxon city, and had a look around. It stands next to Castle Hill, a collection of lovely old buildings, now used as offices by the county council, silent and deserted at this time of night, very nice to explore on a quiet evening with no people around around. Also silent and desterted was the the bar at our hotel. I had a nightcap and turned in.

The following morning we breakfasted. Our orders were taken by an efficient waitress; too busy to waste time on pleasantries with the guests! I opted for pancakes and bacon. When I first saw this on a menu a few years ago, I was horrified. Maple syrup! for breakfast! with bacon! no no no no no! A friend told me how delicious it was: “haven’t you ever had maple cured bacon?” she asked. To prove her point, she took me to the Dutch pancake house in Holborn. We ordered up pancakes with maple syrup, bacon and apples and I was immediately converted. It is now my favourite breakfast and will choose it over a plate of sausages any time. These pancakes were superb, came with perfectly cooked crispy bacon and some good coffee.

Having left Mrs. P to her own, personal research task, trying out as many of the local shops as she could, I set out into the city. My first stop was the Library. Some libraries, particularly city ones, have lots going on: with book readings, exhibitions and so forth, so I like to have a look in and see what’s on offer. This one, in addition to a very large and well-used collection of books, had a cafĂ©, hosting regular readings and events, and an exhibition space, which, today, was showing renaissance art. I didn’t really want to see the exhibition – I had quite a lot to see today – but I could at least ask a member of staff about the events and exhibitions the library offered. I always try to chat to the staff as I go around museums and they’re always chatty and enthusiastic. Staff at libraries, generally, always seem reluctant to share any information. I tried to strike up a conversation with two members of staff at different places in the building. They both told me I’d need to buy a ticket to go into the exhibition. I explained I was just interested in the work of the library, and could they tell me a little about it. They told me I’d need to buy a ticket to go into the exhibition. Strangely, the more I was told I’d need a ticket, the less I wanted to buy one. I’m not sure why it should be but library teams don’t seem to have the pride or enthusiasm that you find in museums, where staff always seem so pleased that you share an interest with them.

For example. In the City museum, a charming little museum next to the cathedral, the staff couldn’t have been more helpful, enthusiastic and friendly. The museum is only a small building, but it is absolutely packed with exhibits. There are prehistoric artefacts, Roman, Saxon and Medieval displays, there are interactive maps and models, the story of King Alfred’s Wessex capital and Jane Austen’s last stay in Winchester. It was a really nicely put together museum with enough activities to stop the kids whining for 5 minutes. The display about Jane Austen has some of her belongings: a sewing case, a purse and a page from her diary, on which she had written a poem. I asked for permission to take a photograph and the volunteer I spoke to was so enthusiastic. He asked about my project and what I hoped to do, chatted with me about Jane Austen and adjusted the light on the display to cut down reflections. He was genuinely interested in what I was doing and was similarly enthusiastic about the museum and its work. I strongly recommend visiting: the centrepiece is a Victorian model of Winchester and it is worth the journey just to see this. A good museum always gets the balance of information and entertainment right and this one had hit that target perfectly.

Jane Austen’s stuff. Winchester City Museum

The cathedral is, of course, a magnificent building: large and stately. I approached just as a light drizzle was beginning to fall, so it would be good to get inside for an hour. There was no mistaking Jane Austen’s grave: there was a large group of people gathered around as I approached. Three of them were standing on the stone itself. They were having an intense conversation so I hung back: they were probably discussing Austen and having a ‘moment’ at her graveside, so I waited, camera at the ready, to capture this important literary site. I looked around the displays they have to tell you the story of her life, at the memorial plaque, installed by her Nephew, Edward, who didn’t consider the stone a fitting tribute to a great writer, and at the window, installed by public subscription, for those who didn’t consider the plaque a fitting enough tribute to great writer. I returned to the grave and was slightly surprised to discover the three young people still standing there. Other people were coming and going and looking at the grave before moving on. These three were standing on the gravestone itself, involved in an intense conversation. I waited, camera at the ready, to make it clear that I would like some time at the grave myself. But still they did not move. I was now close enough to hear their convesation and they were talking about… what was it? it didn’t seem to be any story I recognised. It was about a small community in London, based in a square in the East End. Definitely not one I know, one of her unfinished novels perhaps? No, they were discussing Eastenders! Eventually, after some tutting, coughing and shuffling, they noticed my dissatisfaction with their utter selfishness and drifted away to conduct their discussion elsewhere. Now I was able to have my own moment at Austen’s grave.

Jane Austen’s grave, Winchester Cathedral

There was an Exhibition being held in Cathedral – King’s and Scribes – incredibly fortuitous as it gave me access to the, normally inaccessible, Morley library: a fine collection of books and manuscripts, donated by Archbishop Morley on his death in 1684. Row upon row of lovely old books with a delightful old leathery smell. I had a chat with a very enthusiastic librarian: so pleased to spend her days surrounded by beautiful books. So it’s not all librarians then! There was a large display about illuminated manuscripts, with several rare ones on display, along with a very good exhibition about the techniques used to create them, explaining how inks, quills and paper where manufactured in the cathedral’s earliest days, and how the brothers of the cathedral would painstakingly labour by candlelight to create the most beautiful objects.

Izaak Walton memorial window, Winchester Cathedral

Returning to the body of the cathedral, I asked a volunteer to direct me to the grave of Izaak Walton. “I can do better than tell you” she said “I can show you.” She led me to a side chapel in the south transept, with a beautiful carved altar. “This is the fisherman’s chapel” said Margaret, an enthusiastic woman, who was conducting a customer satisfaction survey. She showed me the gravestone of Izaak Walton, and the window, which features two images of him fishing. “He loved to fish the Itchen” Margaret told me. He did love the rivers in Hampshire, they’re very good for fly fishing, apparantly and are abundant in brown trout. Mrs. P and I had visited East Meon on our travels, where there is pub named after Walton. Like so many of the pubs in the countryside here, it was closed when we visited. We visited the The river Meon further downstream, where it is deep and fast. It was late in the afternoon when we arrived and anglers were returning home, their catches in plastic bags, looking forward to enjoying the rewards of their exertions.

Izaak Walton, born in Stafford in 1593, lived a fairly unremarkable life. He moved to London and set up in trade there, as a linen draper. During the civil war, he retired from his business and retreated back to Staffordshire. He spent the last years of his life fishing with various friends and acquaintances. The Compleat Angler was published in 1653. It does not claim to be a guide, and Walton did not profess to be an expert. it is, rather, a celebration and contains poems songs and anecdotes. It does also contain technical sections contributed by people whose knowledge of the pastime was greater than Walton’s.

I left the cathedral and took the short walk to College Street, just south of the cathedral close. There is a nice little yellow-painted house here, with an attractive first-floor oriel. It was to this house that Jane and Cassandra came to seek medical advice, as Jane had been unwell for some time and none of the local doctors was able to diagnose her condition. In July 1817, Jane Austen died. The cause of her death is unknown, widely supposed to be Addison’s Disease, an endocrine disorder, though Hodgkin’s Lymphoma has also been suggested. Neither disease was fully understood at the time.

The last home of Jane Austen, Winchester

The streets here lead down to the castle and the river and, if you follow the path around the perimeter of the college, it is possible to find the track that Keats took from the city, where he lodged, to the St. Cross Hospital. There is a map available from the Tourist Information office that will show you the way and give you some additional information. The drizzle that had been falling for most of the day had began to redouble its efforts but I soldiered on , the promise of tea helping me to battle the elements. The meadows are lovely; I imagine they’re beautiful in the sunshine. I did enjoy my walk past crystal clear streams and meadows deserted, save for a solitary heron; always a welcome sight on a waterside walk. Keats stayed in Winchester for a short time in 1819 and made this walk daily. This was the countryside that inspired him to write Ode to Autumn.

Among the river sallows, borne aloft 
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies; 
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn; 
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft 
   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft; 
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

Keats, To Autumn
The Hospital of St. Cross, Winchester

I arrived at last at the hospital of St. Cross. A medieval almshouse, parts of it date from the 12th Century. You are able to join a tour which shows you around the buildings and they also have a bookshop and a tea room. I stopped for tea, of course. They did some lovely homemade cakes; I had a slice of homemade bara brith which came with more butter than it could possibly support unaided. The purpose of the almshouse is to help the poor and to offer assistance to travellers: you can still claim the ‘wayfarers dole’ of bread and ale if you ask for it. There are still 25 brothers living here today: elderly men who live in the care of the institution. One of them stopped by the teashop for a chat while I was there. I didn’t ask for the wayfarers dole but I did take one of the very nice looking free apples that were on offer, and rejoined Mrs. P, who had collected the car and come to pick me up.

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