Cathedrals and markets: they’ve shadowed each other down the centuries.
After that whole turning-over-the-tables-in-the-temple business in the New Testament, you’d have thought Christians would be fairly unequivocal about avoiding commerce. But even Clergy must eat, and great ancestral piles of holy stone must be shored up and prevented from toppling onto the local populace. Ideally they must be fit for services too, and all this takes money. Wonga. Hard, cold cash.
Since England can remember, markets would be held close to cathedrals and churches. There were rents to be taken and tidy sums to be made by men of the cloth who had a pragmatic head on their shoulders.
There was even a special ‘tolbooth’ housing a court which policed the market in many cases. In 1285 the markets were banned from churchyards, but the market was never far away.
Today I saw one.
It must be very good for business. Winchester Cathedral Close is engulfed, swarming in tourists even on a weekday as they file past little alpine sheds stuffed with good things for those who have the cash.
For someone with a full purse it must be a wonderland: crafts of every conceivable type, all with a Christmas theme. Even nuns from Minsk, Russia have made their way to set up stalls here, selling presents to Western capitalist families. Pottery, candles, jewels, trinkets, chestnuts, candy floss, you name it, it is there, with a gleaming ice rink as its centrepiece.
What the good folks who live in the Close must think, I really don’t know. Their normally idyllic view across the Close to the Cathedral is now interrupted by hordes of tourists; the sound of bells is drowned by Christmas carols and the bustle of the crowds.
It is a rude transformation.
Yet was is a visual feast, on this clear blue warm day on our arrival, and everyone was enjoying themselves. Maddie disappeared to buy presents and I returned to our meeting place to find her delightedly tucking into a huge swathe of candy floss, having purchased a Christmas present and a perfumed candle.
“Do you mind if we wander away?” I asked her; and she was delighted. It was not difficult to stroll towards the old city walls and disappear from all that buying and selling. As we wandered out of Kingsgate, one of the ancient gates in the city walls, I realised I had never, in all my years, visited the church over the city gate. We wandered upstairs, and all was deserted. This ancient little gabled church sat in the city wall with the sun streaming through its windows and we pottered round, inspecting.
Back down the narrow old stairs and out, past the house where Jane Austen died, to the river.
Winchester Water Meadows are part of Winchester College, founded in 1382 by William of Wykeham. The natural river has been diverted in a series of small channels so the ground around is fertile and green, and salmon spawn in its waters abundantly.
It is, even in the dead of Winter, quite simply, an English paradise.
And there, at a fork in the channel, was a grave grey heron; and by her side sat her perfect small white offspring.
The little heron was still skittish. Mother melted away, but Small flew from spot to spot along the bank, drawing us far away from the commerce into an entrancing English afternoon. He disappeared for a while, but was soon back, closer to the city this time, playing with water which glistened in the sunlight as he tossed it up in the air.
He was a wraith who seemed to tell us: this is what matters. This is where you need to be. Put that other stuff behind you.
There’s always the internet for shopping, after all.
If you ever get the chance to tread those meadows, do.
They draw one away from the material world.