Monday, 4 May 2009

Winchester (Three Castles Path 9)

Chesil Rectory

Hard on the heels of our late spurt to the edge of Winchester, we are back to finish the Three Castles Path. Initially you cross the road and follow the Itchen through a housing development, but suddenly you emerge in the centre of old Winchester with the National Trust Town Mill on one side and the startling Chesil Rectory on the other. A moment's reflection suggests that the street level must have risen appreciably since it was built in 1450. It is now a restaurant, but claims to be the oldest house in Winchester.

You cross the road and continue, still following the Itchen, beside the medieval town walls to reach the ruins of Wolvesey Castle.

This was the fortified bishop's palace, built in 1138 by Henri de Blois. It was reduced to ruins during the civil war. The present-day bishop has his palace and offices in a graceful Baroque 18th century building nearby, also called Wolvesey.

Soon afterwards we took the recommended detour for a further mile through the water meadows beside the Itchen to reach the Hospital of St. Cross. There were lovely clumps of white and also purple comfrey beside the river.

St. Cross was also founded by Henri de Blois in 1136 as an alms house for elderly men and was expanded in the 15th century by a second charitable foundation. Its church dates from soon after the original foundation, but the other buildings, set round a large court, are 15th century, with a fine gatehouse.

The church is unusual in having contemporary elements of both Norman (romanesque) architecture and Gothic in a way which clearly shows the transition between the two. St. Cross still serves its original purpose - and is said to be the oldest almshouse still in use. The impressive church now doubles as the parish church.

The tall chimneys are apparently because the roof was originally thatched.

We retraced our steps from St Cross, passed Winchester College and entered the oldest part of the town through Kingsgate. This is very unusual in having a small church, first mentioned in the 13th century, built over the arches.

You then enter the cathedral close and pass a beautiful group of half-timbered buildings.

You pass under modern flying buttresses to reach the west front of the Cathedral. Inside the tall, fan vaulted gothic nave contrasts with the plain, monumental Norman transept. The transept has wonderful stained glass which Pevsner laconically credits to Morris and Co, but can surely only be the work of Burne-Jones.

Then up the High Street, turn left at the Westgate ....

.... and arrive at the official end point, the splendid medieval Great Hall, which is pretty much all that remains of Winchester Castle.

The dart board-like thing is something to do with King Arthur and the knights of the round table, but we did not find out quite what the link was supposed to be.

We had an official seal (i.e. a self-adhesive sticker peeled from a long roll) attached to our walk book in the Great Hall bookshop. The staff were keen to understand how the walk was accomplished in stages and we explained the tiresome mechanics of using two cars. "What was the best bit?" they asked. At the time we thought that the long diagonal route across the Hampshire farmland, but Winchester certainly made a wonderful ending. We had a nice fish lunch to mark the occasion.

From: The Three Castles Path by David Bounds for the East Berkshire Ramblers’ Association Group. Stage 15.

Map: 132 (Winchester, New Alresford and East Meon).

Rating: four stars.

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