Thursday, 8 October 2009
A Day in Winchester
Having arrived the previous evening in Winchester, following the successful completion of the South Downs Way, the narrative continues the following morning.
Despite being billeted on the second floor, garret room of a large imposing Victorian house, and despite Eric's best attempts to scare us half to death with tales of vampires, were-wolves and other undead creatures of the night, we slept soundly and awoke without any puncture marks on our necks, or without experiencing any other ghostly manifestations! We wandered down to breakfast where we joined the house's other guests, Helle and Ulla - two very pleasant and charming ladies from Denmark who were visiting Winchester for the weekend.
We enjoyed a most interesting conversation over breakfast about our common ancestry (Danish kings such as Canute, Viking place names and Norse words etc), before packing our bags and heading off into the city centre to explore Winchester. Our first stop was the Tourist Information Centre, housed in the imposing Victorian-Gothic-styled town hall. This is situated right at the bottom of the High Street almost opposite the statue of Winchester's most famous ruler, King Alfred the Great. We enquired as to where we could obtain our certificates for having completed the South Down;s Way, and were somewhat surprised to be presented with one each there and then. It was slightly disappointing that no actual proof of us having walked the 100-mile trail was required, meaning any old Tom. Dick or Harry could have walked in off the streets and requested one. However, we both know that we have completed the walk in its entirety, and as well as the photographic evidence have the scars on our feet to prove it!
I had read in the official National Trail Guide that a fitting way to end the South Downs Way is to walk to the Hospital of St Cross, a mile or so to the south of Winchester, knock on the door of the Porter's Lodge, and request the "Wayfarer's Dole". The latter consists of a small beaker of ale, plus a morsel of bread, and is said to be the oldest charity in England. Eric and I had been determined to do this, right from the start of our journey in Eastbourne, so we set off to to find the Hospital after first visiting Winchester's huge and imposing cathedral. Only we didn't actually go inside the cathedral, as it would have cost me £6.00 and Eric (being a pensioner) £4.80.
Now neither of us are cheapskates, but having to pay to enter a house of God seemed totally wrong to us. It appeared as though we weren't the only ones objecting to the entrance fee, as a group of tourists, just behind us, also made their objections known. Earlier in the year, I had stepped inside Cologne's huge cathedral, without having to pay a cent. I of course, put some money in one of the collecting boxes upon leaving, and both of us would gladly have done the same in Winchester had we been given the choice. After vague mutterings about the money lenders in the Temple, and Jesus's reaction to them, we decided to have a look around the thriving Farmer's Market, that is held in the cathedral precinct, instead. We were tempted to buy a take-away container of Itchen Valley beer, at £2.00 a pint, but didn't want to have to carry it around with us. Eric was also tempted by a watercress burger, but I managed to persuade him that it would not be a good idea!
We made our way south through the water meadows, alongside the River Itchen, towards the Hospital of St Cross. The sky was overcast and the temperature was much cooler as we made our way along the gravel path. It must have been a "country mile" as it seemed to take quite some time to reach our destination. The scenery was pleasant though, passing initially through the back of the college grounds, and then along a stretch of the river with exclusive fishing rights. To our left we could see St Catherine's Hill, another Iron Age Hill Fort, and one that is perhaps more deserving of the title "Old Winchester Hill", than the one in the Meon Valley.
Eventually we reached the "Hospital of St Cross & Almshouses of Noble Poverty". The Hospital was founded around 1134 by Henry de Blois, Bishop of Winchester and grandson of William the Conqueror. It is Britain's oldest charitable institution. Today it is home to a community of elderly gentlemen, who still wear the traditional black or red gowns, in accordance with the Hospital's monastic foundation. We made our way to the Porter's Lodge, which somewhat disappointingly has been converted into a gift shop. We knocked on the counter and the porter appeared from an office to the rear.
The Porter was a very pleasant lady with a strong local accent, and a very dry sense of humour. Apparently visitors have to actually request the "Wayfarer's Dole" before it can be given; not that we were slow in coming forward when it came to asking for beer! We were pleasantly surprised to witness it being poured from a mini-pin under the counter, as we had half expected it to be something awful like John Smiths Extra Smooth! The Porter told us the beer is specially brewed for the Hospital by Fullers, but as it was given to us in a pottery beaker we couldn't really see what colour it was. We enjoyed our small beaker of beer, plus the small square of white bread (only the best for the poor traveller, according to the organisation's founder), and had an interesting chat with our hostess about the Hospital, and also the South downs Way. It transpired that she had cycled the route herself several years ago, but was now planning to walk it, as we had done. We posed for the obligatory photo's as after all, for us, this was the real end of our walk.
Whilst we were chatting who should walk in but the two Danish ladies, Helle and Ulla whom we had breakfasted with earlier. They saw us enjoying our beaker of beer and asked for the dole themselves. Coming from Denmark they were no strangers to beer, and enjoyed it as much as we had done. The subject of lunch then came up. Eric asked the Porter if she could recommend a decent pub nearby. She suggested one called the Queen Inn, and gave us directions of how to find it. Hearing this the two Danish ladies asked if they could join us for lunch, to which of course we agreed. Thanking the Porter for her hospitality, we departed through the imposing gatehouse and made our way back towards the town centre, but this time by road as suggested.
We found the Queen Inn without too much trouble, and despite it being tied to Greene King, entered for further, and more substantial refreshment. We ordered pints of Abbot all round, before finding a table in the raised area to the left of the bar. I was impressed with the pub; it was bright and airy, having recently been decorated in an attractive cream colour scheme. There were posters advertising up and coming events, and the place had the feel of a real community local. Our companions also liked the pub, and we spent a very entertaining half- hour or so swapping tales and doing our bit to promote Anglo-Danish relations, before ordering lunch. Lunch called for more beer, which washed down well the home-made burger and chips that my friend and I had ordered. The two ladies had chosen sandwiches and were a bit taken aback by the size of them, until we explained that slices of bread that thick are known as "doorsteps" in England!
Our companions had booked a tour around the cathedral for 3pm. so we bade them farewell and thanked them for their very pleasant company. We departed a little bit later, with no clear intentions of what to do next apart from finding another pub. We walked back into the city centre, and then turned up the High Street so that Eric could find a bank. On the way we stopped to watch a very entertaining, and rather dangerous piece of street theatre, which involved a performer juggling a scimitar plus a chain saw! Don't try this at home folks!
We eventually found ourselves at the top end of the town and guided by the notes I had made from the latest Good Beer Guide, made our way along Hyde Street to the Hyde Tavern. This small, medieval, timider-framed pub specialises in beers from local breweries. The landlady informed us that there are normally seven on sale at weekends, but as they were holding a party that evening, there were eleven on sale that day! Some of the beers were on hand pump, whilst others were stillaged behind the bar. I couldn't resist the Hop Back Entire Stout to begin with, which I then followed with Goodens Gold from the Flowerpots Brewery.
The landlady told us how she had turned the pub's fortunes' around by concentrating on local beers and not stocking major lager brands. Conversation is the order of the day at the Hyde Tavern which makes a pleasant change from a lot of town pubs these days. We would both have liked to have stayed and sample more of the beers, but time was getting on and we thought we had best return to the B&B to collect our rucksacks, and then make our way to the station for the train home.
We were both very impressed with Winchester as a city, and thoroughly enjoyed our stay there. The pubs were excellent, the people we met were smashing and there were no signs of the moronic behaviour that seems to mar so many of out towns and cities these days. In short, Winchester couldn't have proved a more fitting place in which to have celebrated the completion of our walk.