We have spent several days in and around the Winchester area, in the county of Hampshire, UK. This ancient city, and it justifiably deserves this title, was until the middle ages England’s major commercial and political center. The original stone age inhabitants occupied the adjacent St Catherine’s Hill, before moving down to establish a village on a raised piece of land between two spurs of the River Itchen. The village grew and with the arrival of the Romans early in the first millennium, expanded across the river’s flood meadows as the waters were diverted and channeled. Today at the lower end of the city, there is plenty of evidence of the original water-ways and in the recent past the Cathedral itself had to be dramatically rescued from sinking into swampy ground underneath it.
With a bustling main street, delightful half-timbered, Georgian and Victorian buildings, along with the remains of various Roman and medieval structures, this is a very pleasant and historically rich destination. ‘Locals’, The Romans, The French and many others have all contributed to the fortifications that can be seen at points around the city. Of particular interest is the Great Hall which was built in the 13th as part of a castle complex started by William the Conqueror (1066 and all that).
Exactly why it was made and who for is not exactly clear, but a huge round table made in the late 1200’s hangs at the northern end of this hall and is described a little ambitiously perhaps in tourist literature as being King Arthur’s Round Table. Henry VIII certainly thought that it was, and had it painted up as he imagined it would/should have been. So, it’s hard to move around this city without falling over something very old and steeped in history!
And that applies equally to the surrounding villages and countryside. Nearly every village you pass through has its share of extremely ‘cute’ cottages and a good story to go with them. You have to be selective, but pubs (and there are plenty to choose from) are a good place to start if you want a bit of local background. Over a pie and a pint (actually I lie; in this case it was a fresh baguette with brie, bacon and pesto, with draught cider. British pub food has come a long way in recent years!) we were directed to Selbourne which is a small village about twenty minutes from Winchester.
Apart from being slightly self-consciously picturesque and suffering the indignity of having a fairly busy road through the middle of it, Selbourne’s main claim to fame arises from being where eighteenth century naturalist Gilbert White composed a natural history of the village. I’ve not read it, but no doubt for contemporary readers it conjures up a romantic and bucolic vision of the countryside, which along with the tourist literature is why so many people visit.
There is a very small village ‘green’, surrounded by beautiful cottages and on one side, a church, apparently one of the oldest in Southern England. Tucked away down a tiny side alley at the center of the village is the Selbourne Pottery, which looks lovely even before you get anywhere near the pottery. Established in 1985 by Robert Goldsmith, the small workshops are on the ground floor with a display area upstairs. All the work is hand thrown and the Pottery has established a niche for itself with a range of ‘classically contemporary’ tableware.
The designs are clearly hand worked, but are refined, delicate and beautifully executed, drawing on ‘skills rarely practiced today’. Using stoneware glazes, fine brush work, wax resist and glaze trailing the results are distinctive; with rich copper reds, cobalt blues and gold lustre detailing, there are undertones of Chinoise, but used with motifs that in some cases are almost Mediterranean.
Of the two types of jug the milk jug with the olive motif was the best example of its type I’ve come across. Unlike the cream jug with its full, round belly, these jugs swell only slightly before pulling in towards the top and the lip. A very nice shape.
With Jane Austin (who died in the village) in mind, there are also pieces that would not have looked out of place on her dining table…to my eye in particular the blue and silver tea pot, cups and saucers.
Really nice stuff!
- Nick C