St James’ Way 4: in my end is my beginning

Alresford to Winchester, 25 July 2015

St James’ Way 1: Ultreya

St James’ Way 2: the way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns

St James’ Way 3: the rain it raineth

I promised myself that if it was raining I’d take the bus. It wasn’t. I walked. It hurt.

It was a fantastically beautiful walk. I’m glad I did it. I just would have liked my right leg not to be hurting.

I joined the Itchen to the south of Alresford, first crossing the Watercress Line and walking around the bottom edge of the town. The hotel, and the church of St John the Baptist at which I stopped on my way out of town, were bustling with wedding preparations. As good a day as any to get married, St James, pilgrim through this barren land. And the weather turned out nice for them. I passed the bride’s parents and the wedding dress as I was going down to check out, and wished them well.

Waymark on the wall of St John the Baptist church, Alresford
Waymark on the wall of St John the Baptist church, Alresford

Out past the watercress beds, everything very fresh and green after the day before. My leg hurt a lot while walking, but more when I stopped. I joined St Swithun’s Way; it had been St Swithun’s day only last week, and whatever the weather had done then, it clearly wasn’t going to keep it up for forty days. Crossing the main road, and off down a lane into Ovington. I met a confused and frightened sheep coming the other way, herded accidentally by a confused and unwilling cyclist. I could only hope he managed to overtake it before they reached the main road.

My father had recommended the Bush at Ovington, but at that hour in the morning it was closed. I turned right instead and crossed half-way over the Itchen. The path continued down a narrow strip of land in the middle of the stream. It was delightful: the water ran fast and shallow over a pale bed, and speckled fish basked in the sun, twitching their fins gently to stay where they wanted to be.

After a little while another footbridge took me across to the far bank of the river, and I walked on up to the road in Itchen Stoke. Here, my father had told me, I should look out for the Angry Red Eye of the Almighty. ‘Is that a Jowittism?’ I asked.

‘Sort of,’ he told me. ‘It was some neighbour, I believe, but it got taken up in the family.’

The Angry Red Eye of the Almighty
The Angry Red Eye of the Almighty

But what is the Angry Red Eye of the Almighty? Having looked at the thing, I’m still not entirely sure, but I can see exactly what that neighbour meant. It’s a lump of red glass caught in the pierced opening – not even a window – at the top of the west end of the church of St Mary. This is another one that’s under the protection of the Historic Churches Preservation Trust, and it’s well worth their attention; it’s an unlikely homage to Sainte-Chapelle in the middle of the Hampshire countryside. The original may have been Louis IX’s over-the-top reliquary, but St Mary’s, Itchen Stoke, has evangelical antecedents as well, and there are no pictures in the magnificent stained glass.

The east end of St Mary’s, Itchen Stoke

Next I crossed back over the river, through some very boggy fields and past some farm buildings (some converted to offices and studios, some still apparently used for their original purpose), heading west all the while. I stopped at the top of a very steep slope to eat some of my brioche rolls, spreadable cheese and chocolates, and then headed on across a golf course. Then I had to get down again, to the level of the river, following a lane. My leg complained. Still, I was in a better mood than the previous day, as evidenced by the fact that I looked into the church at Itchen Abbas.

The next item on the list was my grandparents’ grave at Martyr Worthy. Blessed are the peacemakers: they met working for the local branch of the League of Nations. I promised not to light a candle for them at the cathedral; my grandfather in particular didn’t go in for popery.

My grandparents' grave: Blessed are the peacemakers
My grandparents’ grave: Blessed are the peacemakers

The other Worthys lie west of the motorway, and the Itchen splits itself off into a tangle of little streams. I followed both, or all, of them south, into the suburbs of Winchester, and finally into Winchester itself. I passed the pub, the King Alfred, where I was booked in to stay that night. I hadn’t realised, when I’d made the reservation, that it was the birthplace of Friends of King Alfred Buses, another significant presence in my life. Should I go in and drop off my rucksack? No, of course not. I pressed on to the cathedral.

Now, when you’re walking the Camino de Santiago, every bar, hostel and church will have a sello, or rubber stamp, and the prudent pilgrim will collect at least one every day. It’s like collecting stamps in your passport to heaven. Anyone who has got this far in this account of this walk will not be surprised to hear that I didn’t collect any along St James’ Way.

But Winchester cathedral has a sello. Or so I was assured by the guidebook, before I threw it away in disgust at its sopping unreadability. I asked at the desk. No, they couldn’t find it, but the vergers had one in their vestry. I should go in and look around, and see if I could find a verger.

I did that, wandering around and finding a more or less acceptable balance between the plaints of my knee, the desire to get my money’s worth from my free entry, and the bliss of having finally got here, to a holy place. When I got tired of that I found a verger.

‘It’s a good day to arrive,’ he said. ‘St James’ Day.’

I didn’t say, well, yes, I knew that. I asked him to stamp my map, which he did, along with a passport for the Pilgrims’ Way, which I may complete some day.

Afterwards, I hobbled outside to buy an ice-cream and people-watch in the sunshine on the green until it was time for Evensong. I’d made it: foul weather and dodgy knees had failed to daunt my spirit; it was St James’ Day, and I was back in the city of my birth on the eve of my thirtieth birthday. As overambitious plans go, this one had gone rather well.


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