Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A Literary Tour: Day 2

Day 2: Winchester (Jane Austen, King Alfred, King Arthur - sort of!)

From Oxford, we are going to make a short hop down to the even more ancient city of Winchester, capital of King Alfred the Great's Wessex. My literary pretext is the desire to pay homage beside the grave of another great author, Jane Austen, but Winchester is too good to miss even if it had no literary links. Above you can see the house near Winchester College where she died, and below her tombstone (if you click on the picture, hopefully you will be able to read the text).
Jane was buried in Winchester Cathedral, one of the great medieval English cathedrals. Today's building was begun in the late eleventh century, on the site of an earlier Anglo-Saxon church. Until the Reformation it was also a Benedictine monastery dedicated to Saint Swithun, bishop of Winchester in the ninth century. To me it seems a very appropriate burial place for the quintessentially English Jane.

After visiting Jane we are going to abandon all literary pretensions and take a walk for the sheer pleasure of it. If you have ever read one of Elizabeth Goudge's cathedral city novels (or The Cathedral by Hugh Walpole) you will be familiar with the English cathedral close, a little town within a town where the cathedral staff and dignitaries lived - and in Winchester, still live. Behind the cathedral the close is a jumble of buildings of assorted dates, ranging from remnants of the medieval monastery, to beamed seventeenth century and Georgian houses. After strolling through we head out past the old bishop's palace to another ancient building still used for its original purpose - the almshouses of Saint Cross. Set up in 1130 to provide support for "thirteen poor men, feeble and so reduced in strength that they can scarcely or not at all support themselves without other aid", the almshouses are still home to thirteen "Brothers". Apparently it is still possible to knock and ask for the "Wayfarer's Dole" - a piece of white bread and a cup of beer - but I'm not brave enough to try this! I'll settle for tea and cake in the cafe, once the refectory where hundred poor men were fed each day.

Fortified by the tea and cake, it is time to hit the royal trail. Winchester is King Alfred's city. I would love to have a literary link here, but I don't have any great books on the great Alfred to recommend. One of my favourite authors of children's historical fiction, Geoffrey Trease, wrote a book about him, but Mist Over Athelney has long been out of print and I haven't yet run across a copy. In my children's historical fiction collection I have a tatty paperback copy of The Namesake by C.Walter Hodge, another out of print story of Alfred, but I'm ashamed to say I have never read it. I should, as I have a soft spot of Alfred, who as the youngest of four brothers became king against all the odds. He succeeded in turning the tide against the Danish invaders who had swept across most of England, converted his enemy Guthrum to Christianity, set up an effective defensive system for his kingdom of Wessex, and even turned his hand to personally preparing translations of great Christian works from Latin to Old English. Judging by his biographer, Asser, he inspired real love and loyalty in those around him. Truly a great king, and Winchester quite rightly honours him with a statue in the city centre. (Ha! I just realised! King Alfred himself was an author so counts for my literary tour.)
Before leaving Winchester, we are going to drag our tired feet up the hill to the Great Hall, all that remains of Winchester Castle (Oliver Cromwell had the rest knocked down in the seventeenth century). Here we can find a reminder of one of the earliest great works of English literature, Sir Thomas Malory's version of the Arthurian legends. In the fourteenth century King Edward III founded the chivalric Order of the Garter and had his own version of King Arthur's Round Table made. It still hangs in the Great Hall, with the names of Arthur's knights painted round the edge. Your eyesight would need to be better than mine to make them out, though!

After all that, I for one am more than ready to eat. When we visited Winchester last summer, Tevye and I found a very nice Italian restaurant just round the corner from the Great Hall. Just what I need. Care to join me?