"Each step forward has a sacred meaning of its own" Sri Chinmoy
Keats Walk, Winchester - August 2021
The day after my half marathon in Bath (Two Tunnels) I had a whole day to get myself to Surrey and the idea of a hike in the chalk downlands somehow found its way into my mind - not sure how or why but it slowly morphed into the idea of a hike that gave me a view down over Winchester. I remembered looking down from a hilltop road into the city when I was in my mid teens, on a long ride from Surrey down to Lyndhurst, and that memory had clearly triggered some kind of longing to see the view of Winchester from the serenity of the hills. After a bit of googling I came across the Keats Walk which led out of town through the water meadows to the ancient settlement of St Catherine's Hill. Apparently this was his regular walk and while on this route he dreamt up some of his most immortal lines. Romanticism, prehistory, mediaeval connections, the English identity - could I resist a hike with all of those?
Parking can be a nightmare in any cathedral city in the summer so I opted for the park and ride and got a tour of the main roads of Winchester from a virtually empty bus before landing in the centre near the statue of Alfred. After a moment to contemplate the man who more than any other shaped our country along Saxon/Christian lines rather than letting it merge with the seafaring empire of the Vikings that spread from Iceland to Russia, I was off in the footsteps of the great romantic poet on a riverside walkway packed with tourists.
My usual hiking territory would be out in the hills, mountains and moors or on some secluded trackway unknown or forgotten to most, but the sunshine and the tranquility of the summer's serene consciousness seemed to be seeping into everyone and it was extremely peaceful even among so many people. As soon as I came to the edge of town and through a gateway into the meadows, I found myself alone.
The deep green of the meadows, a rim of gentle hills on the horizon and the placid water all combined to fill each inbreath with tangible peace. It became a walking meditation, with the occasional pause to take a photo or check the route. Like Keats I came out eventually at St Cross, but contented myself with the view from the gateway rather than paying the fee to get in and poke around. It looked like the abbeys you still see in France more than over here. Apparently you can still ask for a bread and water "dole" if you are desperate or cheeky enough, but I was neither and I had my eyes fixed on St Catherine's Hill.
From St Cross, my goal seemed only a low ridge a mile or two away but as I crossed the meadows and took the dusty road over the river it became more of an imposing hill with the unmistakable ramparts of an iron age settlement at the top.
I had only google to find the way and it led me down a riverside path to the foot of the hill then showed me a dotted line to the summit which was clearly a theoretical one not an actual path or right of way of any kind in reality. I got myself over the barbed wire on to the open hillside and climbed through the ramparts, soon finding an easy way through the scrub. The top reminded me of Chanctonbury - statuesque beeches forming a sanctuary from the sunlight and the wind, a cool sacred space at the summit where I was able to sit and meditate for a few minutes and feel a really deep connection with the place. I was aware of the constant waving of the highest branches in the summer breeze, but at the same time the scene seemed motionless and profoundly still. As I rose to carry on the walk the upanishadic line "That moves and That moves not" came into my consciousness. I felt that what I had just seen was one of that line's many meanings.
From this hilltop vantage I could see down to St Cross, probably looking not so different from the view in Keats' day. To the north I could see the immense cathedral and the town clustered around it.
Making my way down I took a direct route back into Winchester alongside the river and through the fields of Winchester School. At one point a flash of electric blue surprised me as a kingfisher darted past me down to the water. I so rarely see those elusive but beautiful birds - whenever I do it's memorable and seems somehow auspicious. It seemed in keeping with the timeless and dreamlike quality of the water meadows. I wonder if Keats saw one, back in the day?
I had an urge to see the old buildings in town so I wondered up the main drag, filled with shoppers (something very unfamiliary after a year and a half of lockdown) to the Westgate and then the Great Hall and Cathedral.
After that it was back to King Alfred and the end of the hike. I'd eased the previous day's race out of my stiff legs and assimilated some historic charm and natural beauty. Haven't written any poems about it yet though.
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