Saturday, 30 January 2016

Sixpence a Pint

The Itchen at Garnier Road

I was recently bemoaning my lack of progress with sorting out a book sequence from the accumulated photographs of St. Catherine's Hill, the Viaduct, and Twyford Down, and in the process mentioned the Keats Walk.  Poet John Keats spent seven weeks in Winchester, between August and October 1819, on his way back from a second stay on the Isle of Wight.  Second stay?  Seven weeks?  I have no idea how someone like Keats could afford this life of leisure.  One of these days, I hope someone will fulfil one of my more Pooterish fantasy projects: Bank Statements of the Great Poets.  Yes, yes, wonderful poems, John, but who was paying your mobile-phone bill?

Anyway, the Keats Walk is a bit of a touristic mash-up of fact and wishful thinking.  From his letters, we know he did walk from Winchester through the water-meadows to St. Cross, probably following the route prescribed in Charles Ball's contemporary guide, An Historical Account of Winchester, with Descriptive Walks.  That is, by doing the Keats Walk before it became the Keats Walk, he created the Keats Walk.*  We also know he composed the "Ode to Autumn" as a result of his wanderings around Winchester, the poem considered by many (not me, I'm afraid) as the culmination of his 1818-19 annus mirabilis.  What is certainly not the case, however, is that the poem describes this particular walk through the meadows to the mediaeval alms-houses of St. Cross.  There would never have been any "stubble-plains" or granaries in these quaggy acres alongside the Itchen.  Those would probably have been to the north or west of the town.

The water-meadows

It then occurred to me that I have only ever walked this route myself once.  It's not terribly exciting: flat, muddy, a narrow path squeezed between the multi-threaded river channel and various allotments and houses, with the high, dry downland of St. Catherine's Hill beckoning across the marshy meadows.  But it seemed perverse not to have something to weave into the book sequence which had been taken from this famous perspective.  Besides, what better form of procrastination is there, than to open a late line of enquiry, and pile yet more fresh material onto the disorderly heap?

Churchyard yews at St. Cross

Thursday morning offered a brief respite from rain and gloom, so I headed out.  It was a glorious morning, and I encountered a steady stream of dog-walkers, bird-watchers, and grey-haired ramblers, all kitted-out with the sticks, gaitered boots and daypacks appropriate to some rather more challenging wilderness.  We exchanged the smiles and greetings of the secret fraternity of those who need not be in work at 9:30 on a Thursday morning.  "Lovely day!"  "It certainly is!"  Although at one point I passed a mother and daughter having one of those fraught, "sort your life out, girl" conversations.  It seemed an odd place to choose.  At another, I was assured by a bird-watcher that, if I were to pass this way again, I would almost certainly see a kingfisher on this bend, but not today, because of the trio fishing the private beat on the other side of the river.

St. Cross Park

It was a pleasant way to spend a morning, and I think I got a few solid candidate pictures for the book sequence, but I'd rather have been up in God's Own Country, the chalk downland of St. Catherine's Hill and Twyford Down.  As Keats wrote in a letter to his publisher John Taylor on 5th September 1819, "Since I have been at Winchester I have been improving in health – it is not so confined – and there is on one side of the city a dry chalky down where the air is worth sixpence a pint."  Indeed there is.

* This starts to sound like a dance craze.  Everybody's doin' the Keats walk, baby!  Reminds me of when a friend decided to "run the West Highland Way" a few years back (a gruelling endurance run across the Scottish Highlands, following the West Highland Way long-distance trail). What fun we had, demanding to know how, precisely, one ran in the West Highland manner.  Heh...

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