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Out & about in Winchester

PUBLISHED: 12:09 11 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:30 20 February 2013

National Trust’s City Mill now an Otter Watch hot spot

National Trust’s City Mill now an Otter Watch hot spot

There's nowhere Emma Caulton would rather live; here she shares the secret gardens and hidden treasures she's discovered in Winchester Photographs by Emma Caulton

I fell in love with Winchester decades ago, before my family came to live here, when I stayed at the City Mill, then a youth hostel, in a dormitory above the mill race. I was entranced by the citys picturesqueness and by the close proximity of quaint High Street, ancient Cathedral, and verdant water meadows.
Little has changed. There are some niggles: the loss of the antiques shops on Jewry Street, the uneven patchwork surface on the High Street is, hopefully, finally being resolved; the Brooks shopping centre could have been designed with more sensitivity to its surroundings, and lets hope the Friarsgate development wont be a missed opportunity.


City of independents
In many ways, however, Winchester has got better and better. The narrow side streets have blossomed with a plethora of inviting independent shops (Parchment Street, St Thomas Street, The Square, Great Minster Street and College Street are all worth exploring). Its museums are excellent; my favourite is Westgate, the only one of the Citys gatehouses to remain, it served as a debtors prison for 150 years and prisoners graffiti is scored into its walls; upstairs a sun trap of a roof terrace has great views down the High Street.
Winchesters restaurant and caf scene has burgeoned over the past couple of years helped perhaps by its reputation for the biggest and best farmers market in the country seek out The Black Rat, Chesil Rectory, Bridge Street Patisserie, and Ginger Two, the latter is in an old-fashioned corner shop with window seats
where you can people watch over coffee and cake.


Hide and seek
I never take for granted its obvious delights, such as the Cathedral, but for a compact Cathedral city it still takes some discovering even now I come across unexpected corners, secret gardens and hidden treasures.
The old City Mill where I first stayed has now reverted to the National Trust. Set back off the High Street, its easy to miss, but worth a visit for regular milling demonstrations, a hidden island garden, quality gift shop, tasty wholemeal flour stoneground on the premises and, absolutely fascinating, the otter watch. Otters pass below the mill where cameras have been set up.
The countryside still feels surprisingly close. Its fairly well known that meandering through the water meadows beside Winchester Colleges playing fields inspired Keats to write Ode to Autumn. Whats perhaps less known for the visitor is how to find this elusive footpath. Its on the other side of the Cathedral, at the far end of College Street, past P&G Wells (an old-fashioned drawing room of a bookshop with possibly the largest childrens section in the county) and the house where Jane Austen died. Turn right and right again as if youre entering the back of the College and youre there.
The footpath leads to the hospital of St Cross, Britains oldest charitable institution described by Simon Jenkins in Englands Thousand best Churches as Norman cathedral in miniature and Englands oldest and most perfect almshouses.
Beyond is St Catherines Hill, worth the climb for a Southerly view over Winchester and the Itchen Valley (although I dont think Keats would approve of the incessant grumble of the M3 and planes approaching Southampton airport).


The secrets out
On the other side of Winchester, off Durngate Place, is one of Winchesters best kept secrets: a wilderness of more than 100 acres of wet grasslands and reed beds. The acclaimed Winchester School of Art (all blocks of glass) backs onto this hidden landscape. This is what I like about Winchester its idiosyncratic contrasts.
Slip off the High Street, behind the Buttercross (a scheduled ancient monument nudged up too close against Tudor gables), down a covered alleyway, past the hidden church of St Lawrence on The Square, and you find yourself in a semi-continental pavement caf scene.
Beyond you enter the elegant Anthony Trollope world of Cathedral, Close, and cloisters (St Cross was possibly the inspiration for Trollopes The Warden; Trollope was a pupil at Winchester College).
Beautiful buildings
The Cathedral is an obvious choice to visit (its the longest in Europe). Somewhat unexpectedly, however, it has an excellent refectory hidden behind an old flint and brick wall. Anthony Gormleys Sound II in the Crypt is worth a detour (contemporary art imaginatively punctuates some of Winchesters vistas and corners), but there are also opportunities to go up the Tower or see the Winchester Bible in the Cathedral library, considered the finest surviving 12th Century English bible. The Cathedral has a glory of splendours, of course dont miss the gruesome cadaver effigy of Bishop Fox that enthralled a young Colin Firth when he visited the Cathedral on school trips.
Winchesters origins are iron age, its grid pattern of streets is Roman (appropriated by the Anglo-Saxons under King Alfred) and much of its architectural magnificence is medieval. It was the Westminster of its time. Henry III was born at Winchester Castle (only The Great Hall remains), Mary Tudor and Prince Philip of Spain were married in the Cathedral. But for nearly two centuries it was plagued, quite literally, by the Black Death.
Winchester College, in a quiet enclave between water meadow and Cathedral and considered the oldest school in England, was founded by William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, twice Chancellor of England and one of the greatest architectural and artistic patrons of his day, partly to replace the numbers of educated priests lost through
the plague.
Many of the original features of its charter of foundation (granted 1382) are still in place, including the quiristers who are now part of Pilgrims School (within the Cathedral grounds). You can occasionally hear their angelic voices in uplifting song as you walk through The Close. The Colleges original buildings are still in use, too, and mostly for their intended purpose. Guided tours take visitors into the Colleges medieval heart including the Chamber Court, the 14th Century Gothic Chapel with one of the earliest examples of a wooden vaulted roof, College Hall School, the 17th Century redbrick schoolroom, and the medieval cloisters.


Embracing change
In the early 19th Century, when Trollope was at Winchester College, the city was emerging from a lengthy period of decline, reinventing itself as a centre of commerce and tourism.
That spirit of reinvention continues, creating new treasures and patronising the arts. An example of this is The Dean Garnier Garden under the shelter of the Cathedral. This secret garden, opened about 15 years ago, comprises three rooms with rose arbour and Charles Normandale Sculpture.
A more recent City garden is Hyde Abbey Garden, on the edge of North Walls recreation ground, which opened in 2003 and commemorates the last known resting place of King Alfred the Great. Archaeological discoveries on the site have been used as a framework for this open and contemporary design.
Winchester has something of a skill in combining the traditional with the contemporary, and heritage with creativity. It once seemed too classic to be cool (just visit Gieves & Hawkes on The Square or gunmakers BE Chaplin on Southgate Street), but not only is it home to Winchester School of Art (part of Southampton University), but artwork is scattered through the cityscape: Barbara Hepworths Construction (Crucifixion) in the Cathedral Grounds, Elizabeth Finks horse and rider sculpture by the law courts. More recent additions have been the kite flyer archway across Parchment Street and Alice Kettles vast embroidery inspired by the Winchester Bible and displayed in the Discover Centre (library-cum-gallery-cum-caf), itself a restored Grade II corn exchange. Bollards in The Square have been painted with some exuberance by The Colour Factory, a group of artists who operate out of a quirky studio complex in a converted bungalow next to the leisure centre.
If you can, do make the climb up St Giles Hill to take in the Easterly view over Winchester. Its as not as far as you think, although a little taxing on the leg muscles.
These are just a few of my very favourite things about Winchester. There are many more; the city offers me endless opportunity for exploration. Its a very easy place to live and on many days, especially when I wander through the Cathedral grounds on my way to farmers market, I really cant believe my good fortune to call this delightful Cathedral city home.

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