7th May, 2016
And so it was that we set out to extend the Via Francigena journey from Canterbury to Rome by walking from Winchester to Canterbury – a route many would have taken in the Middle Ages. The first part of the walk – from Winchester to Farnham – follows St Swithuns Way, starting from the doors of Winchester’s magnificent Norman Cathedral.
We spent the previous day as ‘tourists’ walking the city bounds, visiting the Great Hall where history and legend meet with tales of King Arthur, taking a tour of the Cathedral – the sun shone, people sauntered and it felt like a holiday……..
But on Saturday, 7th May, it was down to business. Being the purists that we are, we waved goodbye to our luggage (the lovely Keith has arranged for it to be transported for us!), expressed our thanks to our wonderful bed and breakfast hosts and set out for the cathedral where The St Swithuns Way starts.
Before we get started, just a few words on St Swithun. A very righteous and holy man by all accounts, he received his sainthood by public demand rather than Rome it would seem. In life, there was the miracle of the eggs. He met a woman on the bridge whose eggs had all broken and he made them whole again (or did he just buy her another couple of dozen maybe?!?). Anyway he became famous for this and then, of course, there was the rain. It would appear that he wanted to be buried – as he was initially – outside the old Minster of Winchester. However, once the Cathedral was built they wanted to be associated with his glory and the pilgrims he attracted. So up came Swithuns remains and his bones were taken into the Cathedral. As they did this the heavens opened and it is said to have rained for 40 days – hence the saying. The old chap didn’t end here as a source of worry. They reburied his bones in the inner sanctum of the Cathedral where only monks could go and then the pilgrims could not get close enough – so they had to put a little door in behind the alter to allow the pilgrims access…… The moral of the story – don’t mess with miracle workers!
Leaving the Cathedral behind, we headed for the High Street through a very narrow covered passage out into the main thoroughfare of the city where the day was starting in earnest. Stalls were being set up to run the length of the pedestrian area. Our first point of note was Queen Eleanor’s cross, one of the many King Edward erected to mark the passing of his beloved queen. Probably the most famous of these is Charing Cross in London……
The city centre was soon behind us and we were wandering along streets named after the ecclesiastical establishments and the activities that were previously associated with the area. Parchment Lane, Nuns Walk, Monks Row. Soon the noise and traffic of was behind us and we made our first connection with the River Itchen that was to accompany us for most of the day. After an initial hiccup when I (much to Mr Gregory’s understandable frustration) lost my magnetic north and could not understand which way the route was heading, we left the metropolis behind us to follow the river Itchen.
The Itchen is a fast flowing, clear, shallow river which has tributaries running all over the water meadows of the area. Initially there were allotments on the other bank where small sheds stood sentry on industrious looking allotment patches. There was only one man working – industriously wheeling his barrow to somewhere important. Birds were tweeting all round. A cuckoo called.
Eventually we came to a tunnel under a busy road and we came to the village of Kings Worthy. Despite our St Swithuns Way guidebook insisting that there was a ‘vivid’ stained glass window of St Swithun in the church, I could not find it despite a thorough search, so before long we were back out in the sunshine and heading further along our route. Having left the river behind (although not for long) our path was edged with wild garlic – now in flower and past its picking time for another year.
We wandered on over styles and along the edge of fields. We passed under the M.3 and we were back to the River Itchen and the water meadows again. The houses we passed along the way were the large mansions of the investment bankers and captains of industry of the City of London. I do hope they have time in their busy lives to spend time in these amazing palaces. They were certainly in prime spots! A number of the older houses in the small hamlets were thatched and were surrounded by beautiful gardens full of spring flowers and scattered with bluebells. Once again we climbed away from the river, this time to reach the village of Itchen Abbas famous for its watercress.
Next in view was Avington Park, a stunning Georgian mansion with its landscaped grounds and huge black wrought iron gates. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and a real treat to walk through such glorious countryside but we were very pleased to take advantage of liquid refreshment at the Bush Inn when it presented itself. We sat in the garden and quaffed our pints gratefully, knowing that Alresford, our destination, was close at hand.
Our last lap involved a very nice walk along a leafy lane and then more watercress beds and we had to turn from the path to get into Alresford proper. The downside of walking. When you get to the sign that says you have reached the town and you have over a mile to walk up hill to your accommodation. Not much was said. It was heads down…….
Eventually, after going under the bridge of the Watercress Line railway, we were walking up the Georgian high street of Alresford. By this time the niceties of the little town were of little interest – The Swan Inn was our goal.
We arrived to find the inmates of our hostelry an amalgam of a wedding party and a group watching Leicester City receive their premiership trophy. When we had made our way through the throng, trying not to trample on the younger wedding guests, we were somewhat surprised to be informed that we were in the bridal suite! Looking at each other rather blankly at having this honour bestowed upon us, we made our way up the stairs to our room to find that our room was, indeed, at the rather exotic end of three star bedrooms and comprised a four poster bed and a metal slipper bath. Keith rather unromantically was extremely pleased to find a very sensible showe in the bathroom. While in the bathroom (as it were) I was interested to note the double hand basin. I have always been fascinated with this approach as I have never been able to work out the attraction. Why would you want to clean your teeth in tandem, particular on a wedding night. I have never thought myself particularly attractive with toothpaste running down my chin……….
We move on. Having made use of the bath – I could hardly see out once in it – we had a meal in the hotel restaurant and I was asleep before my head touched the pillow.