christianity, exercise, faith, Hockley Railway Viaduct, Hospital of St Cross, Hyde Abbey, King Alfred, Kings Worthy, Martyr Worthy, Pilgrims Way, River Itchen, St Catherine's Hill, walking, Wild Swimming, Winchester, Winchester Cathedral
Having just finished this post, it has turned out considerably longer than originally intended, but I felt that editing it, or turning it into two posts would be wrong, given it is a single walk. I don’t plan to be blogging about each stage I do of the Pilgrim’s Way, but will return every now and again if something is particularly noteworthy.
The forecast turned out to be a little disappointing as I set out on the first leg of what is going to be my new walking project. It’s going to be less demanding this year, only because I’m not aiming for the wider aim of walking 1000 miles this year. To be honest there were points while I was driving to my start point where I thought about turning around but after over an hour in the car (not very long I appreciate for people living in larger countries, but a reasonable time for many in the UK), I didn’t think it was worth doing so and just hoped that the rain I had driven through wasn’t going to come back and kill off a second expensive camera. Thankfully, though, the weather was going to be the only disappointment of the day.
I had moved my start point for the walk after some concerns about the ability to park for the day where I had originally intended to. In the end, although it added over 10% to the walk distance, I was glad that I did. Starting a couple of miles south of the start of the Pilgrims Way meant that I started in the countryside rather than the city, and that is always a more pleasant commencement.
My route for more or less the whole way out was to more or less track the path of the River Itchen. The only divergence from it would be to the cathedral, but even then I doubt that I was more than a couple of hundred meters from it. This wasn’t my first encounter with the river as I had walked alongside it when I was on the last leg of completing the South Downs Way last year. That path finishes in Winchester and although it’s not at the cathedral, it’s easily within sight. This was a different part of the Itchen though, less managed than through the city where it has it route directed by the human hand to make it an attraction. It is a beautifully clear river, especially at this point. Fast flowing, you can see through to the river bed and variety of aquatic plants growing there.
Heading out I could just about see the old fort hill through the mist. I’d be passing closer by on my return, but this was the better distance to see it clearly with the ridges created to make an ascent slow and an attack trickier. As I strolled upstream I met several groups of river fishermen, standing in the river, statuesque so as not to send a warning to their prey. Irrespective of your feelings towards fresh water fishing, both the vegetation and the animals is a good sign of a healthy river. Photographers were gathered further trying to capture the kingfishers in flight. Wielding a reasonable camera on my shoulder, they thought I was looking for the same. I suspect they were going to need to be patient but as a keen photographer I am all too aware that the key to good photographs is that virtue.
The health of the river was also evident before getting to Winchester with a semi natural swimming pool that had developed. Helped with a sluice gate and some landscaping, a pool for dipping had been developed. No room for training lengths here, though I expect that swimming against the tide here would keep you fit. This early in the year there weren’t any brave swimmers, but during long hot summer weekends I can see it being a popular location.
Coming to the main road there was traffic control to ease my way across, something that I knew wouldn’t always be the case, not just on this walk, but on future ones I had my first official diversion off the main walk. I had hoped that I could do this as a loop, but the route would have been longer than quickly retracing my steps. The Hockley Railway Viaduct is disused but has been restored and made accessible to the public. Parts of its story are told as you walk along it but it dates back to the 1880s and played a part in the lead up to D-Day during World War 2.
I had now come to the start of the planned walk and having seen all that I had thus far, was glad that the extension had been added. None of the things I had seen thus far would be repeated on the rest of the journey apart from the last part of the walk where I was walking back along the same riverside path.
Although still not on the official Pilgrims Way, I had seen some maps that have a path starting at the Hospital of St Cross. It’s a magnificent building, originally founded in 1136, though added to up until the 16th century. If you think of the images you see on television shows of old hospitals, run by nuns with large open quadrangles, then this is what you get here. The place also has the distinction of being the oldest surviving charitable institution in the UK, still carrying out the work that it was set up for. In addition, now it will also cater for events as many such magnificent places do.
Reaching the edge of the city I parted ways with the river temporarily to head to the cathedral. It was open to the public but I was also aware, approaching from the reverse side of the building, that there was also a wedding about to start as well. I expect that was taking place in one of the private chapels. The bride had already arrived and I could see her disappearing inside the oversized doorway. With it being a city centre it was clear people had misjudged the parking and there were people running to the door to get in before the ceremony started. It was a very interesting juxtaposition that not only was I just ambling by, but also I was in anything buy the finery they were in.
Like most major cathedrals, Winchester has a small shop. It’s actually separate from the main cathedral, next to their coffee shop. I liked this. I accept the need for commercial sales, even for religious buildings of note, but keeping the original cathedral separate seemed somewhat appropriate. The gift shop was my destination through as it was there I was to collect my ‘Pilgrim’s Passport’. A small leaflet on which to collect stamps and stickers along the way. They provided the first one and though there wasn’t a charge, I made a small donation to the charity box on the desk to show my gratitude.
Ready for the official off, I moved round to the front of the building and headed up along the avenue of trees that lead away from the cathedral. The ‘pilgrimage’, such as it was, had officially begun.
For anyone walking the Pilgrim’s Way I would recommend investing in a guide. There are a couple out there and they will be wonderful at pointing out places of interest as well as keeping you on the right track. Mine was useful almost immediately as no sooner was the largest religious building in the city out of site, but I was about to walk past one of the smallest without noticing it. Indeed without the guide I would have. St Lawrence’s Church only holds about 120 people but is the sole surviving church in the city with a Norman foundation. If your walking boots aren’t as muddy as mine were, step inside and have a look.
Weaving my way through Winchester I was reminded that the last time I had visited I had felt that this was a place to revisit when not engaged in a long walking adventure. Even the traditional high street shops looked different, being set up in buildings that have history’s dating back to before highstreets or these brand names existed. When walking it’s always important to look at where you have been from time to time. Without doing so, unless you are heading the same route back, you’ll miss things, and I was reminded of that upon leaving the city with old advertising painted on walls that had I not turned around I would have never noticed.
Nearly out of the city there was you meet the first official remains that you’ll come across on the route. Not much of Hyde Abbey remains. Parts of it can be seen in the walls of people’s gardens and a section is kept at Hyde Gate. It’s known to be the last recognised resting place of King Alfred, one of the early kings in the country. The tale about his grave is a sad one with the remains being re-found during the construction of a prison in 1788. Unfortunately, the coffins were stripped of lead and the bones scattered. A rather inglorious end to someone who changed the county as dramatically as they did.
Now on the outskirts of the city homes and meadows met and I was reminded that in the days of the original pilgrimages I would have already been in the countryside and that with the exception of the roads, much of what I was looking out upon would be relatively unchanged from those early days. In fact with the exception of the roads I wouldn’t be seeing a lot of modernity until the next village a few miles further on.
After a combination of underpasses, styles and kissing gates, I came to the first village on the route. Unsurprisingly for such a walk, the place had a religious theme to its name and the first two areas you pass through once out of Winchester are Abbots Worthy and Martyr Worthy. Both have wonderfully ancient and small churches with beautiful stained glass windows.
When open I always try to pop into these churches as there is often something to see, be it an old organ, memorial plaques or bell ringing ropes as there were with this one. Also in the church was a stamp. It wasn’t one that is on the official list, but I thought that I’d collect it anyway and it was a good reminder to stop into more places, where possible on the route.
Leaving Martyr Worthy I was nearly at my turn about point for the return trip and reaching Itchen Abbas my pilgrimage for the time being was at an end, to be taken up at some point in the future.
Heading back to the car had, for me, the unusual route of having to backtrack on some of the route out. I was able to break new ground though once back at Martyr Worthy, crossing the Itchen to weave through the fields and villages on the other side and having a different set of subways avoid having to play the human version of Frogger on the motorway above. Despite being on recognised national trails these are the more forgotten paths that occur when famous routes run alongside them. In some ways I prefer these are they can often produce pleasant surprises. There wasn’t much to see this time to be fair, but then I was heading back into the city.
I only had a few miles to go until I reached the car and by now I was glad of that. With the diversions I had taken, the route was going to be nearly 20 miles, which while I had done before, is quite a first outing and I knew that my muscles would be complaining later on. However I was glad of the extra distance. Much of what I enjoyed about the walk was on the extra sections. I’m also sure that now that I am through the city and into the countryside (at least for the while) there will be plenty more to enjoy on the future walks.