CHAPTER I. WINCHESTER AND CENTRAL HAMPSHIRE
A peculiar arrangement of the eastern ends of the choir aisles is noteworthy. They are square as seen from the exterior, but prove to be apsidal on entering. At the end of the south choir aisle, forming a reredos to the side altar, an ancient Saxon Rood will be seen; the Figure is sculptured in an archaic Byzantine style. The Jacobean altar in the north choir aisle was once in the chancel and had above it those old-fashioned wooden panels of the Lord's Prayer and Ten Commandments that may still be met with occasionally. When these were removed an ancient painted reredos was found behind them. It is now placed in the north choir aisle. The subject is the Resurrection and the painting is dated at about 1380. In a glass case is the Romsey Psalter which, after many vicissitudes, has become once more the property of the Abbey.
In 1625, for some unknown reason, the two upper stages of the tower were pulled down and the present wooden belfry erected. Outside the "nuns door" is a very fine eleventh-century Rood that owes its preservation to the fact that for many years it was covered by a tradesman's shed!
Nothing remains of the conventual buildings but a few scanty patches of masonry. The history of the Abbey was not a very edifying one and, although every effort was made to save the house at the Dissolution, chiefly by the exhibition of the imposing royal charters of foundation and re-endowment, the many scandals recorded gave the despoilers an additional, and possibly welcome, excuse for their work.
A great amount of careful and reverent restoration was carried out some years ago by the late Mr. Berthon, a former vicar; but he will probably be remembered by posterity as the inventor of the portable boat that bears his name and which is still made, or was till recently, in the town. Romsey (usually called Rumsey) is not a good place in which to stay and, apart from the Abbey, is quite uninteresting. In the centre of the town is a statue of Lord Palmerston, who lived at Broadlands, a beautifully situated mansion a short distance away to the south.
A pleasant journey by road or rail can be taken up the valley of the Test between the low chalk hills of Western Hampshire to Stockbridge (or even farther north to Whitchurch or Andover, but these districts must be left until later). At Mottisfont, four miles from Romsey, was once a priory of Augustinians. Remnants of the buildings are incorporated with the present mansion. In the church perhaps the most interesting item, by reason of the alien touch in this remote corner of Hampshire, is an heraldic stone of the Meinertzhazen family brought here from St. Michael's, Bremen, at the end of the nineteenth century. The square font of Purbeck marble is of the same date as the Norman arch in the chancel. Just to the south of the village a branch line of railway follows a remote western valley to its head and then drops to the Avon valley and Salisbury. To the east is another lonely stretch of country through which the ridge of Pitt Down runs to the actual suburbs of Winchester. At the western end of this ridge, and about three miles up the Test from Mottisfont, are the villages of Horsebridge and King's Somborne on the southern confines of what was once John of Gaunt's deer park. The present bridge is higher up the stream, but the railway-station is on the actual site of the ancient road between Winchester and Old Sarum and the "horse bridge" was then lower down stream and almost immediately due west of the station. Somborne gets its prefix from the fact that an old mansion usually called "King John's Palace" formerly stood here, it may be that it belonged to John of Gaunt. Certain mounds and small sections of wall are pointed out as the remains of this house; they will be found to the south-west of the church; a much restored, but still interesting, thirteenth-century building. The font, of Purbeck marble, is very fine; of interest also are the late Jacobean chancel rails and certain crosses and monograms on the north doorway.
A road runs for six miles north-westwards up into the chalk hills by the side of the Wallop brook to the euphoniously named villages of Nether, Middle, and Over Wallop. The first and last have interesting churches, but the excursion, if taken, should be as an introduction to perhaps the most remote and unspoilt region of the chalk country. Although the Wallop valley is fairly well populated, the older people are as unsophisticated as any in southern England. The scenery is quietly pleasant, the hills away to the southwest exceeding, here and there, the 500 feet contour line. One of them, near the head of the valley, is named "Isle of Wight Hill." It is only upon the clearest of days that the distant Island is seen over the shoulder of the neighbouring Horseshoe Hill and across the long glittering expanse of Southampton Water.
Proceeding up the fertile valley of the Test, Stockbridge is reached in another three miles. This sleepy old country town and one-time parliamentary borough occasionally wakes up when sheep fairs and other rural gatherings take place in its spacious High Street, but on other days it is the very ideal of a somnolent agricultural centre; it is, therefore, a pleasant headquarters from which to explore the north-western part of the county. The long line of picturesque roofs and broken house-fronts, in all the mellow tints that age alone can give, makes as goodly a picture as any in Hampshire. On the right-hand side, going down the street, is the Grosvenor Inn with its projecting porch. Next door is the old Market House and across the way stands the turreted Town Hall.