Monday, 18 January 2016
At the summit of St. Catherine's Hill, just outside Winchester, there is a round copse of tall, straight beech trees surrounding the central mound where, presumably, the Norman chapel of St. Catherine once stood. Alongside it on the north-east side lies the Mizmaze, a turf-cut maze of uncertain antiquity. Last week we had a brief interval of cold, bright weather, and on Thursday afternoon I was up on top of the hill as the shadows of the beeches lengthened and deepened across the maze.
All around the hill the contrast of late afternoon sunshine and deep January shadow gave a certain air of mystery to even the most ordinary banks and hedges. It is a rather uncanny place, and it doesn't take much to bring out its strangeness. Charred logs, ash, and a litter of bottles suggest that the local youth favour it as a night-time gathering place. I can think of worse places to sit around an improvised fire than on the hill's south-east flank, smoking and drinking with your friends, well out of sight of the town among the Iron Age ramparts, and watching the stars overhead and the twinkling lights on the motorway in the distance below. Jackson Browne's song "The Barricades of Heaven" comes to mind.
On the way back down the most reliable track – and certainly the only route negotiable at night – goes through a brick tunnel which must once have passed beneath the abandoned branch railway line that used to run alongside the Itchen Navigation canal at the bottom of the hill. Someone has put some curious graffiti in there. I can't decide whether it's half-finished, interrupted, or simply hermetic to the uninitiated. Perhaps the right side is intended as a negative of the left? More curious still are the apparently random chalkmarks overlaying the part-stencilled graffiti, like snail trails. There's no lighting, so at night it must have something of the feel of a cave, and it's not hard to imagine some would-be teenage shaman inscribing scribbly spells by torchlight with a pebble of the hill's native chalk.