Poet’s corner – Romancing the tome
A Winchester walk in the footsteps of John Keats
I ADMIT to being an old romantic at heart, and appreciate that sometimes the purest of words can prove to be the easiest way to touch the heart.
I was schooled in the verse of Milton, Wordsworth, Tennyson and Shelley, but somehow the works of John Keats passed me by, although I was aware of Ode to a Nightingale, and those enchanting opening lines of To Autumn… Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun…
And so one Autumn day, as the trees were slowly shedding their golden leaves and the last traces of the warming sun were begrudgingly giving way to the onset of winter, I set out to retrace the daily route which one of our most celebrated Romanticists had taken during his stay in Winchester, from the High Street to St Cross, passing through the landscape which had so inspired him to pen his famous ode.
I begin my walk at the Victorian Guildhall on High Street, close to the statue of King Alfred. Turning left, I walk along High Street before turning left into Market Street, walking between a row of mature trees to the magnificent west front of Winchester Cathedral. Groups of people are scattered across the sloping lawned area, enjoying conversation over cups of take-away coffee. It is a tranquil scene, befitting the moment.
Keats would enjoy walking along the cathedral’s north aisle, reading letters from his betrothed, Fanny Brawne. He would pass by the tombstone of Jane Austen, who had passed away two years prior to his visit. Sadly, there is no mention of her literary occupation on her tombstone, although in 1872 and 1900 respectively, a brass plaque and a stained glass window were erected in her memory.
I walk to the right of the cathedral’s west front, passing through a narrow pedestrian passage, which leads through a buttress from the outer to the inner close. Built in 1632, the archway offered a new outdoor route between the two areas, where before, pedestrians had to walk through the cathedral.
I wander through the Inner Close, which is much as Keats would have observed it, as ‘two college-like squares seemingly built for the dwelling place of Deans and Prebendaries – garnished with grass and shaded with trees’. I stop and take in the magnificence of the buildings, including the 14th century Deanery and Pilgrims’ School, where the cathedral choristers and Winchester College quiristers are educated.
Most impressive of all is Cheyney Court. With its towering gables and leaded windows, the much-photographed timber-framed property once served as the Bishop of Winchester’s courthouse. The long timber-framed building next to it dates from 1479 and was once the priory’s stable block. Through an open window I hear someone practicing on the piano. To the right of Cheyney Court block is the 15th century Porter’s Lodge, with its small entrance.
I pass under the 15th century Prior’s Gate and walk a few paces to Kingsgate, one of two surviving medieval gates to the city. Above it is the tiny church of St Swithun-upon-Kingsgate, which was built in the Middle Ages and forms a part of the fabric of the old city walls.
Emerging through the gate, I turn left into College Street. It is quiet as I stroll along the attractive road, which is dominated by Winchester College. Partway along, I stop and ponder awhile in front of No.8, where Jane Austen spent the last few weeks of her life. The house is where she completed her last novel Persuasion, before passing away on 18 July 1817.
At the end of College Street is Wolvesey, the present-day Bishop’s Palace. Having turned right into College Walk, I turn right again into Winchester College car park. At the far end I turn left on to a path, which leads me through the water meadows. The path is guarded by a spectacular weeping willow, its canopy of tender leaves almost draping the earth. It is beautiful here, and I can understand how Keats must have become so enchanted by the scenery, walking by the clear waters of the chalk stream to his right, and the River Itchen meandering through the meadows to his left. Across the stream are the perfectly manicured playing fields of Winchester College.
I cross Garnier Road and continue my walk to Hospital of St Cross, which Keats described as, ‘a very interesting old place, both for its gothic tower and alms-square, and for the appropriation of its rich rents to a relation of the Bishop of Winchester’. This was by way of a reference to a contemporary corruption scandal, which featured in Anthony Trollope’s novel The Warden.
Situated in the water meadows alongside the River Itchen and in the shadow of St Catherine’s Hill, Hospital of St Cross is England’s oldest continuing charitable institution. Summer visitors may enjoy refreshments here, otherwise the Bell Inn on St Cross Road is a good option, with its wood panelling, flagstones and open fires, and an excellent European menu to hand.
As he ended his walk, Keats was to observe, ‘Pass across St Cross meadows till you come to the most beautifully clear river’. With no record of his return route, I choose to retrace my steps to the cathedral, where I call into the modern Visitors’ Centre, built to house the cathedral refectory, shop and box office.
What I found so pleasant about this self-guided walk of around two miles was that the area clearly has changed little since Keats’s day, back in the late summer and early autumn 1891. We know that Keats had been an avid reader, and often lost himself in classical myths. With book in hand, he would become absorbed in the Elizabethan translations of Ovid. With his poetic airs and graces, he once told friends that poetry was “the only thing worth the attention of superior minds”.
Racked by illness, he left for Rome and, at only 25 years of age, on 23 February 1821, died of pulmonary tuberculosis, the same illness that had claimed his younger brother Tom three years earlier. His promise might seem unfulfilled, yet Keats left us with some truly wonderful poetry, laden with meaning, much of it juxtaposing time and nature. To Autumn’s three stanzas create a journey of sights and sounds, embodying mortality through the rhythms of life.
‘I have lov’d the principle of beauty in all things, and if I had had time I would have made myself remembered,’ Keats wrote to his betrothed, Fanny Brawne, a year prior to his death. Buried in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery, his headstone bears no name, the only inscription, at his own request, being the words, ‘Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water ‘. Even in death, he left us a line laden with thought and meaning.
IN A NUTSHELL
HOW TO GET THERE
Road: Winchester lies one hour west from London, and is located off Junctions 9, 10 and 11 of the M3. The city is also accessible via the A34 from Newbury and Oxford
Park & Ride: There are four P&R car parks, at South Winchester, Pitt, and the East Winchester car parks Barfield and St Catherine’s. The bus service currently operates Monday to Saturday only. One P&R ticket covers one car and its occupants for parking and travel for the day at a maximum cost of £3. www.winchester.gov.uk/parking/park-and-ride
Rail: Direct train from London Waterloo; also from Southampton, Portsmouth, Bournemouth, Weymouth, Birmingham and the north of England. To check all connections from across the UK and Europe visit www.goeuro.co.uk
Coach: National Express operate up to 8 services a day from London, in 1hr 45min. www.nationalexpress.com
Winchester is a compact, pedestrian-friendly city, and is perfect for exploring on foot.
WHERE TO FUEL UP
The Corner House, 71 North Walls, Winchester SO23 8DA
T: 01962 827779
Open Tuesday-Saturday 8 till late, Sunday 9-4
All-day café/bistro. Stay at the King Alfred, and the pub will give you a 20% off voucher for a cooked breakfast, if you do not fancy, or have already consumed, the continental available in the room
WAKE UP HERE
King Alfred, 11 Saxon Road, Winchester SO23 7DJ
T: 01962 854370
Traditional Victorian pub, a 10-minute walk from High Street. Each of the five rooms has tea/coffee making facilities, flatscreen television, complimentary bathroom toiletries, fridge, WiFi. Two large double rooms and one twin at £95 per night, and two standard doubles at £85. Serves freshly cooked classic pub food, daily specials and real ales. Street parking, and the staff will provide you with a permit to display in your vehicle
TIC, Winchester Cathedral, High Street, Winchester SO23 GH
T: 01962 840500
IF YOU DO NOTHING ELSE
Visit Great Hall, one of the finest surviving medieval aisled halls of the 13th century. Possibly the greatest symbol of medieval mythology, King Arthur’s ‘Round Table’ hangs from the west wall.
Weighing in at a colossal 1,200kg, the table is around 800 years old, and was originally made of 121 separate pieces of English oak. Are we trading Winchester as Camelot here! To the left of the Round Table is Queen Victoria’s statue, sculpted by Sir Alfred Gilbert RA, sculptor of Eros in London’s Piccadilly Circus. Think the length of four double-decker buses, or a blue whale if you are that way inclined, and you have the scale of the building, which is divided by two rows of Purbeck marble columns into a nave and two aisles. The magnificent stained glass windows date from the 19th century. Check out Queen Eleanor’s Garden, named after Queen Eleanor of Provence and Queen Eleanor of Castile, the wives of Henry III and his son Edward I.
The Great Hall, Castle Avenue, Winchester SO23 8UJ
T: 01962 846476
Open daily 10am-5pm except Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Adult £3, child (5-16) £2, concessions £2.50, family (2 adults, 2 children) £8. Souvenir guidebook £2
- Main image | The route to the water meadows follows the course of the River Itchen | All images © Michael Cowton/Essential Journeys