Winchester City Mill granted gateway to the South Downs
PUBLISHED: 16:50 20 August 2015 | UPDATED: 16:50 20 August 2015
©National Trust Images/Phil Ripley
Winchester's City Mill welcomes visitors to explore the country's newest National Park says Joanna Crosse
King of England and former Winchester resident, King Alfred the Great, cuts an impressive figure at the bottom of Winchester’s high street. The immense seventeen foot bronze statue, set on rough-hewn grey Cornish granite, was created by Ham Thornycroft to celebrate the 1901 Millenary of Alfred’s death.
A national icon, Alfred is considered by many to be ‘the founder of the kingdom’, defending Wessex from the invading Vikings and establishing Winchester as his capital. Thornycroft’s tribute – Alfred with arm raised, clenching a mighty sword – gives the distinct impression that this legendary being continues to watch over the old city, but did you know that the bronze king also guards the start of an ancient trail?
The South Downs Way National Trail is a 160km route which follows old paths and droveways along the chalk escarpment of the South Downs, from Winchester to Eastbourne. It takes in some of our most glorious countryside - landscapes rich in wildlife and heritage – but until now, its Winchester beginnings have been more ‘off the map’ than on.
Now, all that is set to change. Another historic Winchester landmark, Winchester City Mill, has been granted the official status of ‘gateway’ to the South Downs National Park. Set in the heart of the city, over the roaring waters of the famous river Itchen, the Mill has a history dating back to Saxon times. One of just a few surviving urban watermills and a popular destination for thousands of visitors, it is a hive of activity, its enthusiastic team of volunteer millers supplying visitors and local businesses with flour ground from wheat grown on the South Downs. Volunteer bakers run regular baking demonstrations, filling the mill with delicious, spicy aromas.
This summer, in partnership with the South Downs National Park, a new permanent exhibition at the Mill is introducing people to the delights of walking, cycling and enjoying days out in England’s newest National Park: “Winchester is famous for its magnificent Cathedral and medieval Great Hall, to name just two attractions,” says Ric Weeks, who has managed the Mill for several years. “But many people don’t realise that they’re also just a short cycle ride or walk from one of our most beautiful stretches of countryside.”
Alongside traditional milling activity, visitors can now discover more about the South Downs’ special landscapes and wildlife, find ideas for local walks and experiences, as well as how easy it can be to explore by trains, buses or bicycle. The new facilities also tell the fascinating story of the Mill and its produce: “The South Downs is a key part of the story of the Mill and the river that powers it, because without our farmers and wheat fields there would have been no wheat to grind, no flour and no bread,” continues Ric. ”For centuries a mill on this site has worked in complete harmony with the landscape - even today, our grain is sourced from the South Downs. It’s very much a local story.”
This isn’t the first time the Mill has been a stopping place for walkers and cyclists. For over 70 years from 1931 it was a youth hostel, welcoming thousands of travellers keen to get away from grim city life and experience the gentle countryside of South East England. Hostellers slept in dormitory-style accommodation, and washed and swam in the icy waters of the mill race which rushes beneath.
Trevor Beattie, Chief Executive for the South Downs National Park Authority says: “For the first time we have a central information point for people to find out about the wonderful wildlife, historic attractions and adventures that the South Downs National Park has to offer. This new partnership with the National Trust singles out Winchester as a historic gateway to this very special part of England.”
A 20 minute stroll south from the Mill, along back streets, playing fields and watermeadows, brings walkers to the base of the Park’s St Catherine’s Hill, a flower-filled nature reserve renowned for its orchids, and awash with butterflies on a warm summer’s day. Ascend the chalk hill and you’ll be treated to spectacular views of the city, the ancient meadows and river Itchen. Further west lies Cheesefoot Head, a vast natural ampthitheatre and beauty spot, where General Eisenhower addressed American troops before D-Day, and which is a regular site for mysterious crop circles.
For those fancying a longer walk, the National Trust house and gardens of Hinton Ampner make an excellent destination, and somewhere to relax and grab a bite to eat, before walking or getting the bus back to Winchester. Look out for Hinton’s ancient parkland – the site of the Civil War’s Battle of Cheriton, and dotted with magnificent veteran trees, some of which overlooked the original battlefield.
Someone who knows the Downs better than most is National Park area manager, Nick Heasman: “The diversity of the Park’s landscape is stunning, and it’s full of gems to discover,” he explains. “You can’t beat a sunset over the Meon Valley, viewed from Old Winchester Hill, or twilight on the bridge at Avington, watching wild trout smash the water in a mayfly frenzy.
“The South Downs is a terrific place to see and hear birds too. The skies are full of screaming swifts in summer, and elegant inky-blue swallows. One of my favourite walks is across Longwood Warren, accompanied by a skylark, yellowhammer and white throat sound track - it’s magic.”
Plan your trip
Winchester City Mill’s new South Downs experience is open every day from 10am to 5pm. For more information visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/winchester-city-mill or call 01962 8700057. For more information on the South Downs National Park and South Downs Way National Trail please visit www.southdowns.gov.uk
• Rick Stein and son Jack at their new Winchester restaurant - The Stein family have fallen hook, line and sinker for Winchester’s historical charm. We met with Rick and son Jack in their new high street restaurant to find out why
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