Rebecca JS Nice is your guide on a shivery stroll round Winchester – if you dare!
Have you been struck by ‘The Curse of the Butter Cross’?
It may be best to ask this of anyone who’s ever sat upon the cold, raked steps of this local landmark and watched the world go by. I certainly have. But you may want to think twice before doing so.
Situated on modern-day Winchester’s High Street, the Butter Cross was constructed during the reign of Henry VI. As a popular meeting place for centuries it has, inevitably, attracted its share of legends. One describes a witch in the Middle Ages who, before she was burnt at the stake, somehow converted the Cross into a site that compels you to return to it again and again, never leaving the city.
Perhaps it’s her curse that makes residents of Winchester so loyal to their historic home. Sit there and not only will you possibly never leave, but you might just glimpse a shadowy figure racing to the Cathedral when the Guildhall clock strikes eight and the curfew rings…
Wandering up the High Street and nipping through Royal Oak Passage, listen out for the whispered conversations resonating between the walls. But don’t linger too long, especially if you’re by yourself. You may notice that although you’re all alone, traces of a conversation can still be heard…
Then head past Barclay’s Bank, which was built on the site of a 17th-century stable block where a Royalist was tortured during the Civil War. Rasping and choking sounds were heard back when the building used to be a hotel. Perhaps Master Say – who tried to save his horses from pillagers and was betrayed by his servant – still relives his ordeal on this spot. Hauled up and down by the bridle placed round his neck, and almost-but-not-quite strangled, his body has apparently been heard thudding onto the cobbled floor…
Continuing my hunt for a ghostly visitation in Winchester, I head along Jewry Street to the Discovery Centre. The building was once the Corn Exchange, and later a theatre and cinema. Matthew Feldwick’s book Haunted Winchester tells of singing with no clear source heard in the basement. ‘One of the café girls got in a real flap once,’ the manager tells me, ‘and refused to go down there again.’ A real lad’s lad, he adds that upon occasion he’s felt an eerie twinge himself when locking up late at night.
Before I can hear more about this an assistant and I venture down to the library cellar. The brick arches and row upon row of books are silent now, but might they harbour vestiges of other and possibly disturbing stories after dark? The assistant is a real joker, switching off the lights and temporarily plunging us into darkness. Tip-toeing down to the far end of the space, which used to be a public toilet, I sense a definite drop in temperature. That’s when this fellow tells me about a woman who was found dead in the lavatory. He doesn’t say how long ago, nor what she died of, but this unsettling information is enough to bring these subterranean explorations to a halt.
When I return to the box office area, the manager remembers another night awhile back when the two men were working late. They were alone in the building, the last to leave and locking up each level, when suddenly the lift of its own accord announced that it was ‘going down.’ And down it came, opening its empty doors to the two slightly unnerved fellows who vow they never pressed any button at all…
Spoilt for choice with haunted pubs in Winchester, I opt for the Hyde Tavern. My choice is bolstered by a colleague at The University who almost jumps out of his skin with excitement when told what I’m researching for The Winchester Guide. ‘Come to the Hyde, Rebecca! I live next door, and if there’s anywhere to go and write about strange happenings in Winchester then that’s it. Jan the manager will tell you about the bed sheets that get thrown off the bed and other spooky goings on there.’
I know the tale of the poor woman who was long, long ago refused a room for the night at the Hyde. Her frozen body was found on the steps outside the next morning. Guests of the tavern are said to have experienced unsettling overnight stays thereafter.
So I head to the Hyde, ducking the beams of this simple but vintage bar with its sunken, sloping floors. I make myself at home there, chatting away to a friend and almost forgetting the reason I came. Eventually I speak with Jan, the Hyde’s owner-manager for several years. Although she doesn’t believe there’s anything awry with the place, she does recount a couple of incidents which are more than enough to set imaginations rolling and spines tingling. Mobile phones popping out of hands, for instance, or builders swearing blind that the cupboard they locked every night was open by morning…
Then there was the regular who was sitting at a table by the fire when his pint suddenly burst. Did heat from the fire on a cold pint cause the glass to crack, or is it perhaps that the spirit of the aforementioned frozen lady has a problem with certain males? Another pint left on the floor by Jan’s daughter also exploded for no apparent reason. The previous owners swore there was something or somebody ‘in residence’ at the Hyde, but since Jan took over everything’s been peaceful – no unexplained nocturnal antics involving stolen bedcovers!
The Theatre Royal, the Cathedral and the Eclipse Inn are just a few of the many other places associated with bloody histories, strange activities and so on in Winchester. Maybe some of you reading this have had your own odd or shiver-inducing encounters with the unexplained. People speak highly of the city as a community and a cultural hub, but you can’t help but wonder who – or what – might lurk in its darker corners, or tread in locations perhaps not quite as well-known to either locals or visitors. With Halloween approaching it’s tempting to take a walk through these ordinary and perhaps familiar places. But, as darkness falls and the chill sets in, don’t forget that something extraordinary and inexplicable might be just around the corner…
The tractors are twitching. The pumpkins are plump. It’s the Hampshire Harvest weekend (4th & 5th October), and Winchester Cathedral is throwing a free weekend of family-oriented events celebrating the County’s food and farming. Entry into the Cathedral is free all weekend too. Displays and activities include Kidsroam mobile farm, horse and carriage rides, vintage farming machinery, a static falconry display, the Hampshire & Isle of Wight Air Ambulance Pod, poultry displays and a vintage fairground organ. The Harvest event is held in partnership with Hampshire Farmers Market, Sparsholt College, The New Forest Show and Hampshire County Council.
To laugh off some of the root vegetables, The Winchester Comedy Festival is running from 2nd – 5th October at the Discovery Centre, The Theatre Royal and The Railway. There’s a brochure available here, but some of the headline acts are sold out so make sure you have booked in advance.
Speaking of witty folk, the absolutely fabulous Joanna Lumley will be in conversation with John Miller at Winchester Cathedral on 21st October at 7.30pm, followed by a drinks reception. Tickets are available to book online at £15 or £10 for Friends of the Cathedral. The evening will raise money to save the medieval stained glass windows in the building.
The Minster Gallery will be presenting work from The Society of Women Artists (founded in 1857) from 10th October until 10th November. Celebrating contemporary female talent in oil painting, water colour, sculpture, printing and ceramics, entry is free and it’s a great excuse to pop down to the Square for a post-exhibition drink at The Old Vine. The Discovery Centre will be opening the exhibition Trench Coat: From Field to Fashion on 4th October, which is running until 21st December. Introduced by Hilary Alexander OBE, the fascinating theme will explore everything and anything trench coat-related, from the more traditional WW1 calvary garb to such filmic connections as Marlene Dietrich in Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair.
Later in the month you can get in the mood for Halloween by joining Supernatural Tours on a guided tour of Winchester’s ghostly past, 28th October 7.30pm – 8.30pm, starting at the Royal Oak. Alternatively, if you pop into Winchester City Mill on the 31st October you can bake some Halloween-themed biscuits and treats using their own freshly milled stone-ground flour, combined with other local produce.
Happy harvest one and all.