Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Return to Winchester

Read an introduction to my drawing journey around England, which started 30 years ago.

[Bracketed sections like this have been added in 2020.] 

So I reach Winchester, which the guide books will tell you is a beautiful city stocked up with no end of history, how it used to be the capital city and one of the most important cities in Europe. But I haven't looked forward to it. I lived in Winchester for three years when I was at art school so I am well used to a dreary respectability that lurks beneath the surface. It is a city that spends the evening watching Terry and June repeats or is tucked up in bed by nine in the evening with the Daily Telegraph crossword.

[In retrospect, I seem a bit tough on Winchester here. It’s probably moved on a bit since then.]

But I arrive on different terms today, to stay a couple of nights and see it from what I hope to be a better perspective. There is no denying it is a beautiful place once you escape the one-way system that loops around the centre with its share shops and wine bars. I leave the van by the park and walk in.

It is a gentle and restrained city but rather like someone who has outgrown their clothes; it is more like a town with the historical trappings of a city. The cathedral sits like a ship run aground, left high and dry as the city's importance as one time capital of England has ebbed about it.

Winchester is probably still recovering. Although there are Iron Age settlements nearby, it was developed by the Romans who laid out a grid system of streets and built its defensive wall. By the seventh century the Saxons had founded its first cathedral and St Swithun became its most famous bishop. King Alfred came here to live and made it his capital. And from then until the 12th century Winchester swung. Edward the Confessor was crowned here, William the Conqueror rebuilt the royal palace and the Domesday Book was written here. Thanks to records written at the time more is known about Winchester than any other city in the Middle Ages. It was stuffed full of traders from all over Europe, densely populated for its time, the second largest town in England.

You can get a sense that it hasn't all been downhill since from a walk down its High Street (top image). The shops are smart and expensive. Where there are gaps, shoppers can see through windows in the hoardings to where teams of archaeologists are sifting through remains before builders and concrete take over.

Winchester survived its loss of power and wealth to London, the Black Death (that left it with fields and orchards within the city walls), and the Civil War. Later the coming of the railway helped revitalise it: what had once been the nation's centre had become little more than a market town until the trains arrived. And it saves it still, in a sense. An hour from Waterloo on the train, it is the perfect retreat for people working in the City and wanting to escape to a home in peace and tranquility. Winchester is not a playground; the only cinema has been demolished to make way for more housing for the elderly.

A bearded man with a rucksack accosts me for money so he can get a bus to his family in Southampton. It becomes a familiar story. He greets me cheerfully later when I bump into him in a cafe. He seems wonderfully out of place here and tells me which bench by the cathedral an old lady goes to sit to offer her services as a self-appointed sexologist. At times it seems like nobody more than stockbrokers and retired wing-commanders live here so it is a relief to see this hint of a more quirky side of life.

James Hobbs, Cheyney Court, Winchester, 1990

The cathedral's spireless tower gives it an incomplete look and yet it still manages to dominate the skyline. Its first tower fell down in 1107. Having one of the longest naves in the country, it effectively cuts the city in two, keeping Winchester College and the water meadows apart from the rest of the town. In the summer the Cathedral Close livens up as people strip off to eat their sandwiches around the gravestones. Today they are taking cover by the west door, waiting for a shower to end on their way back from communion.

A walk down the south transept can be a disorientating experience as arches lean and the tiled floor undulates. Suddenly it is an uphill walk. The trouble is caused by the flood plain on which it was built, the River Itchen having rotted the wooden foundations to such an extent that in places nothing is either horizontal or vertical. By the lady chapel is a statue of William Walker, the man who worked underwater to secure the foundations at the beginning of the [20th] century, showing him in full diving gear, his hands outstretched, palms up.

What have also survived in a less than perfect state are the bones of an array of Saxon kings perched in boxes along the top of the side screens. Each contains a haphazard cocktail of regal remains now, their contents having been scattered around by Cromwell's troops on one of his visits. We can only assume that one king's bones look pretty much like another's and they were swept back into these boxes as they were found. Further along the aisle is a memorial to Jane Austen who came to live in Winchester to be close to her doctor. Sadly it wasn't close enough and she died soon after in a house nearby.

The streets in the afternoon become busier with the boys from the college going with their parents for tea, couples ambling down the pedestrianised High Street window shopping, walking off the Sunday lunch. Even the few punks Winchester has to offer seem as respectable as the city expects. Some sit with their dog around the Butter Cross, which stands awkwardly close to a bakery with a traffic cone perched high on one of its spires.

James Hobbs, Butter Cross, Winchester, 1990

A walk down by the water meadows is a popular thing to do on a Sunday afternoon. Homesick little boys in suits are taking awkward strolls with parents past the cricket pitches, and happier-looking, scruffier boys peer into the river from bridges looking for trout. The meadows are remarkably unspoiled despite being so near to the city centre. A dual-carriageway snakes around the foot of St Catherine's Hill, the footpath to its summit passing beneath it. It's a steep climb that leaves me puffing. At its top there is a maze, the old Iron Age fort, and a wonderful view over the city.

For a city that has experienced such turmoil and fervour down its historic past, Winchester has earned a breather now. Those who still like to think of England as being a gentle, sleepy place brimming with royalty and history could only find it delightful. I'm just glad I don't have to live here anymore. To me it is a place that time has left behind, not somewhere I would want to live, but perfect for a day out as a retreat from a truer more real world. 

The next day, having camped in a pull-in high up in the fields out of the city, fields famed for their corn circles that will no doubt appear later in the summer, and among the stacked and numbered trunks of trees sliced down by the hurricane in 1987, I set out for the church of St Cross. Down a lane towards the water meadows and through an arched gateway there is a large quadrangle bordered by the houses of the men who live at the Hospital of St Cross. It was founded in 1136 to house 13 poor men and provide free dinners for 100 others, and a few of its present inhabitants are sitting on benches in the sun looking towards the church. Besides the three rooms that make up their quarters, there are the old kitchen, a dining room and a hall adjoining the gatehouse.

James Hobbs, St Cross, Winchester, 1990

The church is beautifully proportioned and simple, and built at a time when Norman was (my guide book tells me) becoming Early English. Its quiet expanses of stone, wood and glass accentuate corners of activity. “Bird Beak Window” a sign says. Above it is the carved zig-zag arch and 500-year-old glass.

Along the back pew the May edition of the parish magazine has been sorted into piles fastened with elastic bands; Mrs Giles - 5, Miss Stanwyck - 9, and the visitors book left open. There is the mystifying nationality column, and then a comments section.
Parents married here in 1912.
Norman? (This sounds like an attempt to communicate with the dead.)
Kick out the darkness and let the light bleed in.

There is, as Morton would have said, a book to be written about the comments made in church visitors books.

The Wayfarers' Dole, the bread and ale handed out to travellers who demand it from the gatehouse, does not show the same unchanging qualities as the Hospital. Seven hundred years of generosity has resulted in a corner of a white Mothers' Pride loaf and a token sample from a plastic bottle of Webster's Yorkshire Bitter, both served with badly worn charity. A man serves it with the resigned air of one who has been through this a thousand times.

In Morton's time there was always a steady stream of wanderers stopping here for refreshment, the vagrancy laws keeping the homeless on the move between towns. Now the homeless are more static in city doorways or wandering the streets asking for change, and rarely seen on the grass verges of main roads. Tourists who have read Morton's book are the ones most likely to ask for it now, the porter tells me.

Taking the wooden platter and small earthenware goblet to a bench in the sun I can only hope they have not come too far for this. The hungry are better off heading straight to the pub on the corner by the main road where a more satisfying lunch can be found.

James Hobbs, 1990

Read on: Romsey, Hampshire, and Southampton docks

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