The Hospital of St.Cross, Winchester

We bump into a fellow on the street, who tells us how he had heard people talk of a local monastery that used to take in pilgrims. We cannot ignore this perfect hint, so we seek out the place, to make enquiries.

We find its outer doors are shut, but a small hatch swings open through which we duck inside. This building is intense, a great square of apartments, each with its own jagged chimney, surrounding a lush square green and a cathedral-sized chapel. It is an English stone paradise.
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We find a door which has a knocker, and we bash on it. A man appears.
“Hello there, we’re wondering if there’s any way we three pilgrims can sleep in your monastery tonight?” It is a direct approach, but honest.

“Not a chance” the man says, but does not slam the door, so we ask a few more general questions – when it was built, what monastic tradition it follows. He looks bemused, then confesses he has no idea. “I’m an army-man. My wife works here. She’ll tell you what it’s about.” He goes to fetch his wife, and our hope lingers.

When she emerges, she tells us that this monastery is now a place for Christian widowers, who give all their worldly property to the monastery, in order to live out the end of their lives in holy poverty and worship.

doleShe tells us that this place is the original source of the ‘dole’ in British social history. It was first given here. Each Sunday, a ‘Wayfarer’s Dole’ of small ale and white bread was given to any pilgrims passing over the water meadows. The Queen Mother herself has taken this dole.

We ask again if we might stay here tonight, explaining that we have walked here from Canterbury. She says: “that’s not possible, I’m sorry…”, but when we ask if we too could take the dole, she seems to waver.

“Look, I’ll go and get the Master. He’ll tell you what is possible.”

She disappears, and waiting, we hum harmonies in the stone corridors. Ten minutes later, a stern bearded man in a dog-collar emerges from a shadowy doorway. He slowly looks into our eyes, one at a time, and asks us to say precisely the route we took to get here. We do so, and after a minute of standing in silence, he agrees. “Give them the dole” he says, “and let’s put them out on the bowling green tonight. What do you say lads?”

We are glad to have passed his tests, and to take the sainsbury’s bread and beer in the proffered plastic cup. The Master is now quite excited, and talks about the rites of pilgrimage. Then we are shuffled off to the bowling green, which is a small overgrown grave-yard with a sycamore growing in the corner. We string our sheets from the tree, and nestle between the roots.
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A path passes right alongside this garden, and during the night we witness city lads passing, their mobile phones carried before them as torches and stereos, blaring out bad drum and bass. Where they go so late at night, amongst the ghosts of ancient wanderers, we have no idea. With this mystery we sleep.

We rise early, as last night the Master told us of a 7:30 matins service, and invited us. A gardener, seeing us risen, rushes off to fetch us mugs of sweet coffee. Well grateful, we leave our bags in the stone colonnade, and enter the chapel. It is bigger and more glorious than most town churches, and we sit in the choir pews together with the Brothers, all clad in red or black robes. The rest of the stone fortress is empty, echoing the service where no-one sits.

We follow the rituals: standing when all stand, sitting when all sit, reading from the texts over the brethrens’ shoulders. The Master explains our presence to the gathered few: “These three lads are pilgrims, the first we’ve taken in for over 200 years.” We’re very happy to be announced so, and the old fellows look at us as though they’re almost impressed.

Immediately after the morning service, great clanging alarm bells ring, and a fire-drill is practised. We watch the 25 Brethren assemble on the green, a community with their own rules and rites. We see amongst them the classic eccentric, with great whiskers and a permanently smoking pipe.

After the drill, the Master explains a little more of the place. The Jerusalem crosses that each brother bears on his robes are the mark of the Knights of St John, who are the same lot who today provide the ambulance and first aid at many civic events nationwide. The monastery, it turns out, is not actually a monastery, but a hospital, started by William the Conqueror’s grandson Henri du Blois. But neither is it a hospital, in the conventional sense. It is a place of hospitality.

Pleased at our interest, and gladdened that none of his charges were lost in the practise inferno, the Master turns to us with gleaming eye. “How about if I offer you a place to wash your clothes?” We admit that such a kindness would be most welcome. “And how about a cell of your own? We have one spare. You can stay another night if you like.”

So we spend the day stitching and washing our clothes, showering and feeding our bodies. It is a fine relaxing day, although the monastic cell we are shown does not match our grim expectations (hopes?). “It’s EU regulations” we’re told. “No more stone bed and dripping pipes; everything must be double-glazed and carpeted now.”

The original Master of this place was called Robert Sherborne. He has engraved his motto all over the stone walls, into the old church and its windows. ‘Dilexi Sapientiam’ is the Latinate graffitti we find, which means love of wisdom.

After a long morning, and some afternoon of relaxing, we decide to move on, and not stay for the next night. We walk to the Master’s residence, and he laughs that we’re off so soon. “Go on, get walking then boys, and Godspeed.

Refreshed and contented, we walk out of Winchester.

One Response to “The Hospital of St.Cross, Winchester”

  1. Harry Facey says:

    Back in the 50s My Grandfather, Father, and Uncle, took me to St Cross, I remember some fine drinking horns silver mounted mugs my family were offerd to drink the pilgrim dole out of. One of which was used by King John. It was from here My Great Grandfather set out for London to find work.Walking all the way.

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