St Catherine's Hill, Winchester

by Paul Nettle

St Catherine's Hill was a centre of human settlement around 3000 years ago, long before the founding of Winchester.  An iron-age fort was constructed here in the 3rd century BC, and a Celtic oppidum within it.  However, some time around 100 BCE it was occupied by an invading tribe from the continent, the Belgae.  The local tribe is sometimes known as the Atrebartes, but they were as commonly simply known as the Belgae.  In Roman times Winchester was known as Venta Belgarum, or "market place of the Belgae".  But Winchester has been overlaid by architecture and is now very much a Roman, Saxon and Norman city; whilst the hill-fort that towers above it, with its obvious field defences showing on the skyline, retains very much a feel of the Celtic, druidic past.  It is a perfect place to feel the past and reflect upon it.

There is a grove of primarily beech trees on top of the hill which are welcoming and surprisingly open, with benches carved on fallen trunks and pleasant walks around well-used paths.  It provides a pleasant refuge from the busy world, a time a reflect and meditate.  The beech trees are very mature, and ready, as the Ogam teaches us, to reveal their ancient mysteries of objects, places and writings.

The final element which makes St Catherine's Hill such a magic place is that it contains one of only 8 turf-cut labyrinths in the UK, known as the "Miz-Maze".  Unusually, a groove marks the path of the labyrinth (most turf-labyrinths use the turf as the path) which only occurs in one other place in the UK.  The labyrinth takes about 20 minutes to walk, and is the prefect place to meditate upon a question.  By the time you reach the centre, the magic of the Miz-Maze should have produced an answer.

The combination of iron-age celtic feeling, the welcoming beech trees and the turf-labyrinth make this the perfect place for a magical adventure where time can be woven from the past to the present.

Some Facts about St Catherine's Hill

In the 12th Century AD a substantial Norman chapel was built on the hill, dedicated to St Catherine; but the chapel was destroyed in 1537 during the English Reformation.  Today only a few scattered building stones remain amongst the bushes.  It is this chapel which gives the hill its modern name.

The chalk hill towers over Winchester, rising to 220 feet above the water-meadows below, to the summit at 318 feet (97 meters). 

It is a scheduled ancient monument, and a Site of Special Scientific Interest due to its abundance of chalk downland flora including 'practically the full range of downland orchids', which attract the distinctive Chalkhill Blue butterflies.

The hill is managed as a nature reserve by Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust.

To the west of the hill runs the River Test.  To the east of the hill lies "Plague Pits Valley" where victims of the great plague are buried.

The Miz Maze

The current Miz-Maze was originally drawn in Victorian times, although it is rumoured that it was first carved back in Medieval times.  As a boy I was told it was originally the Bishop of Winchester who carved the labyrinth so that pilgrims could walk it - and pay the Bishop for the privilege!  In Medieval times pilgrims walked labyrinths to reduce the amount of time they would be punished for sins.  In fact, some cathedrals contain labyrinths for the same purpose.

The Miz-Maze is roughly square and 624 meters long.  It has rounded corners and contains nine lines from the outside of each edge to the middle.

I have always found that walking the Miz-Maze is a profoundly moving and spiritual experience.  The Sunwise Seedgroup used to meet here before Samhuin and walk the labyrinth before retiring to the beech wood for the ceremony.  There are many uses for a labyrinth, but one of the uses I have found most powerful is to use it as a meditative tool.  In particular, I usually find that any question I need an answer to is answered by the time I reach the centre of the maze.

Practicum - A Magic Journey on St Catherine's Hill.

Each journey to St Catherine's Hill starts by climbing the hill.  There are two main paths up the hill: the open side from the south west, or the tree-covered side from the north-west.  The open side is popular in the summer

However, I usually walk up the tree covered side, partly because I think it is a more interesting climb, and partly because it is more convenient, being closer to the car park and the park-and-ride bus.  Either way, it is a longish climb, some 326 steps by my counting, although there are plenty of places to rest.

After a while you will see the ditch and bank, and this is a good place to stop, relax after the climb, and start to attune to the place.  I always find iron-age hill-forts very easy to attune to - the druidic origins of our ways are based on the ancient priests of the Celts, and it is easy to imagine the hill fort as it was in the iron-age, with a community living on the top and living in harmony with their surroundings.

After saying a brief prayer to the spirits of the hill fort it is time to climb from the ditch and ramp into the grove of trees at the hill's summit.

The grove is surprisingly open, and you will find it easy to walk around the sun-dappled woods.  I usually find a tree that I can attune to, and I spend some time attuning to one of the trees - and I recommend this practice.

The grove is littered with fallen boughs, and some of these have had benches carved within them.  This is the ideal place to stop and simply absorb the presence of the woods, their roots deep in this sacred soil of our ancestors.  Take your time, this is not something to be rushed, sit and feel the resonance of the trees and see if they have a message for you.  The Ogam teaches us that Beech trees are renowned for their ability to reveal ancient knowledge - old objects, places and writings.  Finish with a short prayer to the spirits in woods.  It is time to weave this ancient learning into the present and future.

You will see the Miz-Maze appear as you reach the North East of the grove - the mesmerising loops of the labyrinth pull you towards it.  Settle yourself fully before starting to walk the path into the labyrinth.

As an aside, the hill and Miz-Maze are very popular and the best time to walk the maze is either early in the morning or just before dusk.   My seed group find that the dog-walkers tend to disappear before it gets dark, and this time - between light and dark - is the perfect time to walk the maze.

Because the Miz-Maze is a groove labyrinth, you need to walk carefully, concentrating on placing you feet in the groove.  This leaves your mind free to contemplate questions that will affect your future, replying on your communion with the ancient land and the grove of trees to guide your thoughts and feelings.  As you continue to walk, turn and turn again, a clarity begins to emerge in your mind, and by the time you reach the centre you should have seen a vision of the future where your questions are answered.

All that is left is to thank the spirit of the labyrinth, bring yourself fully back to the present, and then start the journey down the hill.  It is, of course, much easier to walk down than up, which is good because hopefully you will have much to ponder!

Hopefully this personal journey is one anyone can use to  make a magical journey through the past and into the future.