It’s the thin, nutrient-poor soil of this 58-hectare chalk grassland site that allows spring flowers to thrive.
Come April, the western boundary of the reserve transforms into a carpet of yellow cowslips. Later in the season, fragrant, pyramidal and bee orchids emerge – species that, along with rock rose, horseshoe vetch and salad burnet, enjoy the lack of competition from more vigorous plants. Shetland sheep roam the hill, keeping down taller, shade-casting grasses. Hardly surprising that St Caths is also a haven for butterflies: the Adonis and small blues and the brown argus are the spring- emerging species to spot.
St Catherine’s Hill walk
4 miles | 2.5 hours | moderate
1. Clear waters
This delightful spring walk starts outside Winchester’s 11th-century cathedral, last resting place of Jane Austen. Make your way through the cloister then right through The Close, passing the Pilgrim’s School to exit through Priory Gate. Soon after, turn left under the 14th-century King’s Gate on to College Street. Turn left, then right on to College Walk to leave the road on a track to the right. At the gate, go left to follow the path along the crystal-clear River Itchen. Pass the college playing fields, cross the road, and pick up the gravel path opposite (signposted Clarendon Way).
Head across fields towards the 12th-century church and hospital of St Cross. Keep to the path through an avenue of trees, then fork left through a gate to follow the path to the old mill. Join the gravel path and, at the road, turn left to continue beyond the barrier.
2. Above the city
At the convergence of paths, turn left to continue along the Itchen Navigation, reaching a turning to St Catherine’s Hill on your right. Then it’s a steep climb up the imposing seam of wooden steps, but you’ll be rewarded by fine summit views.
St Catherine’s Hill is named after the vanished 12th-century Chapel of St Catherine, once to be found in the beech woods here. Now you’ll chiefly find abundant birdlife: whitethroats, yellowhammers, blackcaps and green woodpeckers. Just over the crest of the hill to the right is the intriguing 17th-century turf ‘mizmaze’. Beyond, steps mark the beginning of the descent back into the town.
At the base of the hill, turn right through the carpark, cross the road, and follow the path marked “Pilgrim’s Trail”. On reaching the road, turn left and continue until you reach College Walk, then turn right to return to College Street.