While John Keats was staying in Winchester he wrote the Ode to Autumn, probably his best-loved poem: it has twice been voted one of Britain’s top ten. In a letter to his brother George dated Tuesday 21 September 1819 (two days after he wrote the famous ode) he describes the daily walks that gave him such solace and inspiration. “Now the time is beautiful. I take a walk every day for an hour before dinner and this is generally my walk – I go out at the back gate across one street, into the Cathedral yard, which is always interesting; then I pass under the trees along a paved path, pass the beautiful front of the Cathedral, turn to the left under a stone door way – then I am on the other side of the building – which leaving behind me I pass on through two college-like squares seemingly built for the dwelling place of Deans and Prebendaries – garnished with grass and shaded with trees. Then I pass through one of the old city gates and then you are in one College-Street through which I pass and at the end thereof crossing some meadows and at last a country alley of gardens I arrive, that is, my worship arrives at the foundation of Saint Cross, which is a very interesting old place, both for its gothic tower and alms-square and for the appropriation of its rich rents to a relation of the Bishop of Winchester – Then I pass across St Cross meadows till you come to the most beautifully clear river – now this is only one mile of my walk I will spare you the other two till after supper when they would do you more good.” Tantalisingly, he never finished the description. Elsewhere, however, he records that “… there is on one side of the city a dry chalky down where the air is worth sixpence a pint.” He may well have been describing St Catherine’s Hill, to the south-east of the town. From here one can look back towards the Hospital of St Cross in the middle distance. The speculation is that he would have climbed the hill and then returned to the city along the bank of the Itchen Navigation.
Clearly the electricity pylons in the background of this shot were not there in the early nineteenth century, but they have done little to disturb the rural setting immediately around St Cross. On a late summer’s day the tiled roofs, the stone of the ancient church and of the tower that leads to the main quadrangle still stand out in the sunshine amongst the meadows, just as John Keats would have seen.
The Hospital of St Cross is one of English Heritage’s Grade I listed buildings.