Day 3: Winchester to Alton (34 km) Divine Providence

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends

Rough hew them how we will’

Hamlet Act 5 Scene 2

As I embark on the first stage of the Pilgrims Way from Winchester to Alton, here are a few more thoughts about that ‘mysterious’ incident that occurred a few weeks ago that I referred to in a previous blog and whose significance initially eluded me.

It was a Saturday morning and as I was doing some weeding in our garden near the church yard, I heard a bit of a commotion. A chap ,staying at the campsite, had found a wounded bird in the church yard and was debating with his young son as to what was to be done.

Peregrine Falcon

It turned out that the bird was a young peregrine falcon which had been wounded and was bleeding from the mouth. As Olivia examined it, she noticed that it had a ring on one of its feet which said ‘If found, please notify the British Museum’.

Bizarre. We did eventually manage to get the falcon to the Hawk Conservancy Trust at Andover but for some reason the bird remained on my mind. A few weeks later I got an alert on my Facebook page that there was a special exhibition at the British Museum commemorating the 850th anniversary of the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170, whose shrine at Canterbury I would shortly be walking to along the Pilgrims’ Way. Peregrine (as in peregrine falcon) means pilgrim in Latin. Strange coincidence? Divine Providence? Who knows, but it sometimes makes you think that there are signs in nature that are worth observing and that the chances of a ‘pilgrim’ falcon from the British Museum landing by chance in the churchyard at Winterbourne Stoke are pretty darned slim!

Becket ‘Miracle Wndow’ at Canterbury Cathedral

I had a fantastic view of the Cathedral as I sat eating breakfast this morning in the Mercure Wessex, which was a definite upgrade on the White Hill Campsite at Pitton. Although there were no spicy korean noodles on the breakfast menu, the ‘Full English’ was a more than adequate substitute!

The ‘Full’ English!

I think the last time I was in the Wessex was when my parents brought me here nearly 40 years for Sunday lunch from WinColl to celebrate my 18th birthday!

View of Winchester Cathedral from the Mercure Wessex as I ate breakfast

Having collected my pilgrim passport from the Cathedral I couldn’t resist quickly dropping in to the church of St Swithun-upon-Kingsgate, a place I must have passed on countless occasions over the years but, until today, have never visited. The church forms part of the original city walls and is dedicated to St Swithun, whose tomb is in the Cathedral.

Church of St Swithun-upon-Kingsgate

Swithun was a 9th century bishop of Winchester who legend has it, requested his body be buried outside. However, roughly a hundred years after his death, the decision was taken to move his remains into the Cathedral on the 15th July 971. On that day there was a torrential downpour, signifying the Saint’s displeasure at his remains being moved. Thus the legend was born that if it rains on July 15 (St Swithun’s Day) forty days of rain will follow.

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain

For forty days it will remain

St Swithun’s day if thou be fair

For forty days ’twill rain nae mair

Saint Swithun

Heading out of Winchester my second stop of the day was the church of St Swithun at Headbourne Worthy, where some scholars believe St Swithun was born.

St Swithun’s Church, Headbourne Worthy

No sooner had I entered the church, than a sonorous voice welcomed me from within. Intrigued, I ventured up the aisle and made the acquaintance of the Revd Paul Bradish ( the Rector) and the Revd Jemima Lewis, his curate. It almost seemed as if they had been expecting my arrival. I explained my pilgrimage to Rome and they kindly formed a huddle and prayed for my safe passage to Rome. It was a very unexpected and touching moment.

Revd Paul Bradish and Revd Jemima Lewis

Following St Swithun’s Way, which at times morphed into the Watercress Way, the Itchen Way and the Pilgrims Way, was at times confusing, not helped by the plethora of signs which didn’t always correspond with the route shown in my guidebook! The end result was that I went ‘off piste’ on several occasions during the morning. Thankfully none of the diversions proved too costly.

A plethora of footpaths run through Itchen valley.

I did have one slightly hairy moment during the late afternoon when my map reading skills went pear shaped. I’d used up my monthly data allowance and couldn’t access any GPS data on my phone. As a result I ended up on the side of the busy A31 dual carriageway, wondering whether it was worth taking the risk of walking along its narrow grass verge to my final destination for the day at Alton. Thankfully I was dissuaded from executing this rather reckless plan by a lady I met who was out walking her dog. She was mildly horrified when I outlined my plan to walk along the A31 and suggested that I take a 4 mile detour through Chawton Park woods that would keep me out of harm’s way. It proved to be eminently sensible advice which I followed to the T, and helped take me safely into Alton. Sadly, my unplanned detour through Chawton Park woods meant that I wasn’t able to visit Jane Austen’s house at Chawton, just outside Alton.

I was able to plot my course for much of the morning with the help of a compass and a sight of line to the River Itchen, whose gin clear waters I followed towards Alresford.

River Itchen near Alresford

Walking along its banks and watching the reeds gently swaying in the current, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Pre-Raphaelite image of Ophelia lying drowned in the river – a strangely uplifting image of death. In the painting, Ophelia is surrounded by colorful flowers and plants, symbols of life and continuity, and her body seems to be one with the water, perhaps signifying the concept of returning to the earth when one dies. Earth to earth, dust to dust.

Ophelia – John Everett Millais

After a brief lunch stop in Alresford, I decided to drop in to the pilgrim church at Bishop’s Sutton, which my guidebook suggested might have a pilgrim stamp for my passport. Sure enough there was indeed a Pilgrim stamp and what is more there was a tin beside it on the table, marked ‘For Pilgrims’. Intrigued, I gently praised it open. And what was inside. Miracle of miracles, the answer to my prayers – Club chocolate biscuits. It was a day of Divine Providence!

On the surface, the small village of Ropley which I passed through, has all the attributes of rural perfection. Rose bedecked thatched cottages line the main street, road noise is inaudible and there is an all pervasive atmosphere of bucolic tranquillity.

But all is not as it seems, and in the last few years the village has been the scene of a double tragedy. In 2002 Ropley hit the tabloid headlines following the brutal murder of a wealthy widow and her daughter, who were discovered brutally bludgeoned to death in their million pound mansion in the village. A 25 year old man subsequently turned himself in to the police and confessed to the horrific murder. As one local resident succinctly put it ” You might expect this in Birmingham or Manchester, but in a sedate residential place like Ropley, with its up-market appeal, you don’t expect this to happen.”

The murderer, who was the grandson of the deceased, was an Old Etonian professional golfer who was being treated on anti-depressants. During his subsequent trial the court heard that Christopher Francis, had seemed “quite normal” when making dinner at his parents’ home only minutes earlier.

After saying he was popping out to buy a bag of rice, Francis drove the short distance to his grandmother’s £1.5 million Victorian home, Wykeham House in Ropley, Hampshire.

There he launched a ferocious attack on the two women, Elizabeth Francis, 84, and her 54-year-old daughter, Teresa, using a house brick and one of his grandmother’s kitchen knives. Then he returned to his car and drove 20 miles to a police station in Southampton where, covered in blood, he announced to officers: “I have just killed two people.”

In 2014 tragedy struck Ropley once again this time in the guise of a massive blaze which gutted the Norman church of St Peter’s , destroying it’s roof and bell tower

Fire at St Peter’s Ropley.

The good news is that, thanks to a major fundraising effort, the Friends of St Peter’s Ropley have raised £500,000 and the church is being completely restored. It gives me hope that we’ll be ultimately successful in our attempts to raise £20,000 and repair the church roof at St Peter’s, Winterbourne.

Restoration work at St Peter’s Ropley.

I did have one slightly hairy moment during the late afternoon when my map reading skills went pear shaped. I’d foolishly used up my monthly data allowance and couldn’t access any GPS data on my phone. As a result I ended up on the side of the busy A31 dual carriageway, wondering whether it was worth taking the risk of walking along its narrow grass verge to my final destination for the day at Alton. Thankfully I was dissuaded from executing this rather reckless plan by a lady I met who was out walking her dog. She was mildly horrified when I outlined my plan to walk along the A31 and suggested that I take a 4 mile detour through Chawton Park woods that would keep me out of harm’s way. It proved to be eminently sensible advice which I followed to the T, and helped take me safely into Alton. Sadly, my unplanned detour through Chawton Park woods meant that I wasn’t able to visit Jane Austen’s house at Chawton, just outside Alton.

Jane Austen’s house at Chawton

I eventually made it to Alton and, after some confusion on arrival (I wasn’t booked in to stay the night at the Alton House Hotel!), checked in to my room for the night. With its peeling wallpaper and decrepit bathroom fittings, my room looked as though it could benefit from a serious amount of money being spent on it! But at least it was quiet, clean, conveniently located and, most importantly, there was hot water in the bath at the end of a long day’s walk.

As I hit the sack for the night I reflected on my day’s walk; the unexpected prayers for my safe passage at Headbourne Worthy, manna from heaven in the shape of Club biscuits in a tin at the church at Bishop’s Sutton. Perhaps they were linked to the mysterious Peregrine Falcon which appeared in the churchyard of St Peter’s, Winterbourne Stoke. A care of Divine Providence? Maybe The Age of Miracles is still with us after all!

Safe arrival at Alton – famous for its watercress.

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