Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:22 am
The Hospital of St Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty, to give the institution its full name, is almost nine centuries old and said to be England’s oldest charitable body. Never heard of it? Neither had I – until reading about it in Ian Marchant’s delightful book, ‘The Longest Crawl’. This is an account of an often amusing and always interesting pub-crawl, from one end of Britain to the other, and the Hospital of St Cross is one of the stops along the way. That may surprise you, because it doesn’t look or sound like the kind of place you’d drop in for a swift jar, does it? However, the Hospital of St Cross is known for the unique and ancient tradition of the Wayfarer’s Dole. The Wayfarer’s Dole is a horn (or beaker) of good beer or ale with a piece of white bread given to any traveller that asks for it. According to Mr Marchant, the Wayfarer’s Dole evolved from a meal intended to feed 100 people, though the Hospital’s website says the custom was begun by a monk from Cluny whose holy order always gave bread and wine to travellers. It doesn’t really matter how it started, because it is exactly the sort of eccentric tradition that reassures us Britain can still be a decent sort of place; and, besides, I like beer.
The Hospital was founded between 1132 and 1136 by Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, grandson of William the Conqueror and younger brother of King Stephen. The story goes that our Henry was walking near the Cathedral in the water meadows beside the River Itchen, when he came across a wretched young girl. She told the powerful bishop that her people were starving, due to the Anarchy, the dreadful civil war that was raging across the land, and begged for his help. The young bishop (he was only in his late 20s or early 30s) was much moved by what the girl had said and, stumbling across the abandoned ruins of a religious house further along the river, decided there and then to establish a new community to help the poor. Whatever the truth of this tale, Henry founded the Hospital, which supported thirteen frail and destitute men and fed one hundred more each day at its gates. It was endowed with land, mills and farms, which gave it the means to exist and provide, though its website notes that “the water was unfit for drinking so copious amounts of ale and beer were needed.” This was indeed a noble place. In 1445, another powerful Bishop of Winchester, Cardinal Henry Beaufort, created the Order of Noble Poverty, and added the almshouses to the existing Hospital buildings.
The successors to both charitable acts live in the Hospital today, twenty-five of them, and are called Brothers – though they are not monks. Brothers from the original foundation by Henry of Blois wear a black robe, a black trencher hat and a silver badge in the shape of the Cross of Jerusalem, because the Hospital originally came under the care of the Knights of St John. Brothers of the Order of Noble Poverty wear a claret robe, a claret trencher hat and a silver Cardinal’s badge as a nod to Henry Beaufort. So the residents are known, respectively, as the Black and Red Brothers. Each one has his own self-contained flat in the fifteenth century buildings and, though they are expected to pay their way as well as contribute to the community, it is surely a privileged place in which to enjoy your twilight years. I do wonder if there are plans to admit women, however.
If you are anywhere near Winchester, the Hospital of the Cross is somewhere you simply have to visit. I daresay, if you really had to, you could get there by road, though that seems a trifle unseemly. By far the best way is on foot from Winchester Cathedral Close, through ancient gateways, past No 8 College Street, where author Jane Austen finished ‘Persuasion’, and died, turning right by Winchester College to the water meadows alongside the River Itchen. The path is wide, well trodden and wonderful. Keats enjoyed the same walk – it apparently inspired the ode ‘To Autumn’, written in 1819. To the right are the immaculate playing fields of Winchester College, founded in 1382 by William of Wykeham, Henry Beaufort’s predecessor as Bishop of Winchester. Its pupils are known as Wykehamists and the college motto is ‘Manners Makyth Man’ – the same as New College, Oxford, which was also founded by Wykeham. To the left are the water meadows, cattle-grazed and seeming to lap against the contours of St Catherine’s Hill, site of an ancient univallate Iron Age hillfort and medieval chapel. It is an immensely peaceful pathway, steeped in history and, somehow, very English. On a still, warm, June day, with the rich earthy scent of the riverbank wafting upward and the water sparkling and lapping nearby, it is almost heavenly.
The buildings of the Hospital of the Cross come into view across a small stream, framed by trees. Ian Marchant describes them as rising “from the water meadows like a dream of medieval England” and you couldn’t put it any better than that. It is like stepping back in time or, at the very least, into a scene from a movie. We passed through the sixteenth century entrance gate a little apprehensively, only partly because we visited during Covid restrictions and weren’t entirely sure what to expect. The website (yes, even medieval institutions have websites) made it clear that much of the site was closed to visitors to protect elderly residents – and quite right too. We entered into an outer quadrangle with the Beaufort Tower ahead. A benign looking elderly man with flowing robes and similar hair was striding briskly out as we went in. He smiled broadly at us and wished us such a cheery good morning that I immediately liked the place even more than I was predisposed to. To our left was what used to be the Hundred Men’s Hall, where the lucky peasants were once fed. It is now a tearoom, run by volunteers. Looking through the arch of the Beaufort Tower, it was clear that a wedding was due to take place. A gaggle of young chaps, smartly though somewhat oddly clad in evening dress, milled about, gradually being joined by elegant young women. We sought guidance in the teashop and one of the friendly volunteers scurried off to find Chris. Chris would sort us out. Meanwhile, we sat with coffee in the shadow of the old buildings, and shared an extremely good piece of sticky ginger cake whilst watching more guests arrive. Chris turned up wearing a hi-vis vest. His wife, the Porter, ran the shop and dispensed tickets, but was busy because of the wedding. However, we could give him the cash to allow us to look round the Master’s Garden; so that’s what we did. Everyone was so affable and informal; a culture based on giving shelter, perhaps.
Through the Beaufort Tower into the inner quadrangle, there is a Tudor cloister on the left, 15th century almshouses to the right and the Hospital’s 12th century church ahead – described by Simon Jenkins as “a Norman cathedral in miniature.” Alas, the church – and alack, the Wayfarer’s Dole – had to wait for another day. To be honest, I was particularly upset, but obviously resigned to, not being able to experience the Wayfarer’s Dole, even as early as eleven in the morning. When Ian Marchant wrote his book, the beer was supplied by Gales of Horndean, my local brewery as a lad and a brewer of particularly fine ales. Sadly, Gales was taken over in 2006, albeit by another excellent brewery, Fuller’s of Chiswick. Fuller’s still brew Gales’ HSB (Horndean Special Bitter), which is as rare as rocking horse manure where I now live (though I did find several spare pints later, in Winchester), but I don’t know what the current Dole beer is. The Hospital shop currently and appropriately stocks beer from Alfred’s Brewery in Winchester, so maybe that is what they use.
There was a bit of a carnival atmosphere as we made our way through the thronging wedding guests – and it did not escape our attention that either the groom, or the bride, sold second-hand cars, because a selection was lined up by the almshouses. Yet another world opened up as we stepped through the old doorway into the closeness of the walled garden. It no doubt helped that we had it mostly to ourselves, but it was one of the most tranquil, beautiful, gardens I have ever visited. I would be terribly upset if I ever forgot the experience of wandering round, taking in the colours, the views of the old buildings, feeling the warmth, inhaling the smells; altogether a completely relaxing assault on the senses. My knowledge of these things is scant, but I did note a particularly fine ceanothus and a wonderfully heady aroma from, I think, some kind of choisya.
Frankly, it was with some reluctance that we dragged ourselves away from the Hospital of St Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty. We made a slight detour along what I would call a little twitten, and friends in the north a ginnel, which opened up into a narrow road forming part of the village of St Cross. Next to a graceful wisteria-festooned house was a brook with a notice nearby that read:
“Dipping Gate. Since the Middle Ages, the villagers of St Cross have had the right to dip for water here from the Lockburn Stream, before it heads to the Hospital of St Cross.”
Maybe that’s why the residents of the Hospital had to rely on beer and ale.
More information about The Hospital of St Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty, including how to apply to become a brother, can be found on the Hospital of St Cross website. I don’t know about you, but I certainly need to go back.