Christine, Wondering

Random Musings of a Human Becoming

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A Journey to Winchester

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain,
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.

Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And here is the green for stringing the daisies!
Here is a cart runaway in the road;
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill, and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone forever!

"From a Railway Carriage", Robert Louis Stevenson (Child's Garden of Verses)

I loved this poem as a child. We had a copy of the Child's Garden of Verses in a "Big Golden Book", and it seemed as a whole to capture the magical Victorian childhood that prevailed in the literature I preferred. "From a Railway Carriage" in particular had an Englishness and magic about it that delighted me and called to me.

I am quoting it here because it was naturally the first thing to spring into my mind as my train to Winchester freed itself from the London suburbs and began its trek through the fresh, spring-green English countryside. This was my first trip outside of London, and despite being tired after a long day's work and a frustrating suitcase-dragging marathon through three train stations, I was excited to be on my way.

Arriving at Winchester I took a cab to The Hospital of St Cross. This is a Hospital in the old sense of the word - a hospitable place. It was founded in c. 1130 as a home for 13 poor men who could not otherwise support themselves. This tradition has continued unbroken to this day with elderly and impoverished lay brothers still living in residence. WOW. The architecture is chiefly Norman with Medieval and Tudor additions. Since then it has been left largely unaltered apart from the provision of modern kitchens and toilet facilities. It's simply stunning, in excellent condition, and just... wow. As a site for an SCA event, it's beyond words.

Those of us without our own tents or the ability to bring them dossed down in the "ambulatory", a hallway of interconnected Tudor rooms accessed by a narrow winding stair. The stair and I were not friends, but I forgave it on account of its age.

That night we ate simple travellers' fare of bread and cheese, and sat listening to readings from Chaucer and da Vinci while sewing pilgrim scrips, hemming veils and the like. Then we repaired to bed (and, if you were me, were called a wuss by hearty Englishmen for feeling the need to fill a hot water bottle for protection against the cold!).

Saturday morning dawned grey and grizzly. We broke our fast again with simple fare, then gathered in the porter's gate to set off in small groups on our pilgrimage to Winchester Cathedral. We were given bread and coin to carry, and a score card on which we could record our answers to the challenges that we would encounter on the way.

It began to rain before all of the groups had departed, and seemed like to continue all morning. This did not dampen our enthusiasm and like the faithful pilgrims of yore we persevered. I was idiotically gleeful about seeing my first buttercups and my first white swan, and covered myself in glory by preventing my own small group of pilgrims from purchasing a spurious relic, having remembered one vital fact about that saint that made said relic impossible (I believe this was the only useful fact I did remember though).

It was nearly noon by the time our cold, wet, hungry band reached Winchester. Before we even got to the cathedral our labours were rewarded with the wholly unexpected discovery of the house in which Jane Austen spent her last days. The Middle Ages were forgotten for a moment while we revelled in Regency lit geek glee.

And thence to the cathedral, which retains some of its original Norman architecture along with various Medieval and Tudor additions and improvements. Our physical state was forgotten as we went into transports over stone, wood, paint, plaster, paper and tiles. We were not allowed to photograph the 10th century Anglo-Saxon document in the gallery, so you must believe us that it was there, and it was amazing. We saw many wonders, including a Norman bench:

Norman stonework:

12th and 13th century painted chapels:

Medieval tiles:

Stunning stained glass:

Jane Austen's grave:

And the whole cathedral itself, which was just too WOW for words:

After a couple of hours we realised that we really were wet, dirty, hungry and thirsty, and went in search of comfort. A hearty English lunch later, we set off nursing take-away hot chocolates and tried to get back to St Cross without any further exposure to the elements.

We didn't get far before we found a second-hand bookshop. This was a problem . . . we were in there for a long time and barely escaped with our wallets intact. I picked up a 1917 copy of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for £1, which is a win both for content and for format (ancient lit in a heritage copy? ftw!). I masterfully resisted the 3000 other books I wanted, purely because I could see no feasible way to get them back to London.

I had an archaeologist moment while we were in the bookshop. I believe I said "wow" again ...

And so we ended our pilgrimage at last, and made our way back through Winchester to St Cross.

When we got back to the Ambulatory, it became immediately clear that we needed to be clean and dry ASAP. The other girls, being in rather more sensible ankle-length gowns, fared better, but my floor-length chemise and bliaut suffered rather badly; not to mention my white socks, which had been stained grey by dye from my black shoes, and were thick with mud besides:

The chemise and socks have not come clean, even after two washes. Oops.

After getting dry and as clean as hand-washing would allow, we had time to wander around, mingle and explore.

After the public fighter demo (for which I didn't have my camera), we made time to go and see the St Cross church. It's pretty, Norman and full of interesting bits and pieces. Unfortunately the low light made for fairly poor photographs, but here are some regardless:

Then it was time to change for the feast. With the King and Queen of Drachenwald and the Princess of Insulae Draconis in attendance, it was a spectacular affair. I was a volunteer kitchen helper and spent a lot of the feast running to and fro with platters (in between plentiful time to sit down and eat - I was not deprived of that pleasure!). The food was delicious, and the ambience in the Norman feasting hall delightful. The Court before and after were full immersion experiences, and I was enjoyably exhilarated by the experience. I was also blown away by being (along with all the other kitchen helpers) thanked personally by the Queen and given a little tin of home-made, period hand balm. I've been using it on my hands and elbows since I've got home, and it's great. Another moment in which I was just so glad to be a part of the SCA.

After dinner we cleared the hall and Mistress Judith lead the willing through a couple of hours of dancing. My feet and legs are still sore three days later (thin jazz slippers on stone flagged floors? Not a great idea) but it was a fun, convivial time with lots of opportunities to mingle and dance with some new people. We weren't a-bed until 2am.

Sunday morning was a time of packing up and clearing out. The clergy of St Cross church traditionally offer the SCA pilgrims the opportunity to attend the Sunday services in garb, and myself and two other girls took them up on it this year. The congregation seemed equally bewildered and delighted to see three gowned, veiled girls at the back of their church! For me as a churchgoer it was rather strange and wonderful to combine my love of the Anglican church with my favourite leisure activity. Communion in garb was quite the experience!

After church the moments ticked down towards the farewells. Before we knew it we were saying our farewells and being ferried to bus and train stations. And the train whisked me back to London, the modern day and reality.


This is Tassie from BtN.
Great to see you blogging again!
The Winchester adventure sounds like splendid fun, and I'm so glad you enjoyed it.
Wonderful pictures!
You looked like you had much tired fun! Still laughing about your chemise and stockings though.

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