Winchester waits for West trial invasion

It has never seen anything like it, Andy Beckett reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online
"NOT many finer spots in England," thought William Cobbett of Winchester in 1830. And today, King Alfred's High Street still sweeps down from Castle Hill to the deep-green woods beyond with the perfection of a well-made advertisement aimed at Americans.

But on Tuesday week Castle Hill will be the scene of another, less attractive, English tradition: a sensational murder trial. At 10.30 that morning Rosemary West, the wife of the late Gloucester builder Frederick West (who was found hanged in his prison cell last New Year's Day), will go into the dock at Winchester Crown Court, charged with murdering 10 young women, including one of her daughters, between 1971 and 1987. She denies the charges.

Winchester has been staging big trials ever since Alfred made it his capital city in the ninth century. Queen Emma reputedly walked barefoot over nine red-hot ploughshares here to disprove charges of infidelity to King Canute; Sir Walter Raleigh was tried for treason in the Great Hall, just above the modern courts, in 1603; Judge Jeffreys held his Bloody Assizes in the city in 1685. In recent years IRA suspects have been ferried heavily guarded across the court square.

But Winchester has seen nothing like the Rosemary West trial, which was moved there, say the police, to minimise the upset to victims' relatives in the Gloucester area.

When the date was announced, the phones at Winchester's Moat House Hotel "went berserk, literally 10 minutes later," says Sally Middleton, the sales manager. "We had to get two extra people in. It didn't stop for two days: we had agents and journalists ringing in just asking for blocks of the hotel."

Since then, official Winchester has been preparing for the tidal wave. Press requests to attend - more than 100 in all, ranging from the London Review of Books via the Gloucester Citizen to Liberation - have been sent to the Lord Chancellor's Department in London for sifting. The number of courtroom seats for journalists has been tripled, and two extra courtrooms, connected for sound but not pictures, have been emptied to take the less fortunate overflow. A daily queuing and ticketing system has been devised for the public gallery of Court No 3, which has just 48 seats.

For the citizens of Winchester, all of this impending intrusion is less shocking than convention should dictate. "I was going to stick a notice on the window saying `Tickets For The Court'," says the landlord of the nearby Westgate Hotel, "but the trial's like the O J Simpson thing - people will get so bloody bored." The owner of the designer boutique opposite the courts casually lets slip that he thought about "theme T-shirts" but decided they were "tasteless".

A similar knowingness touches the quaint, bow-windowed offices of the local paper, the Hampshire Chronicle, founded in 1772. "We're going to be covering the media circus, not the trial," says Kit Neilson, the news editor. "Everyone can see trial reports on TV every day - so we'll just do a resume each week."

Court No 3 itself is a near-impregnable redoubt in the city's Seventies bunker of a courthouse. Hidden away high up behind thick concrete walls, no building overlooks its small windows. Its plain mid-brown wood panelling and ceiling suggest a severe Scandinavian health farm. The sun barely penetrates from above the pretty rooftops nearby.

Outside the courtroom, all is vinyl sofas and well-worn brown carpets, net-curtained-off and patrolled by private security. The wide square in front of the courthouse will be kept clear of reporters, or, as Winchester police put it, "sterile".

On each day of the trial Rosemary West will be driven from her specially built unit in the male segregation block at Winchester prison, half a mile up the road in the Georgian part of town. Members of the public and journalists - scores more are expected to arrive without a court pass - will be penned behind riot barriers on either side of the road. (At the committal hearing in May, a cameraman jumped in front of the van and lost a lens.)

For Winchester, this is a profitable event. "From the point of view of commerce it's going to be quite good," says Dr Alan Mitchell, the leader of the Liberal Democrat city council. The Chamber of Commerce guesses the city could make between half a million and a million pounds out of all the expense accounts visiting during the trial.

At the Westgate Hotel, which is the nearest pub to the courts, the landlord is increasing beer deliveries by one-third and thinking of using up "some of those bottles we've had for a long time".

Meanwhile, the rather posher Hotel du Vin is planning to hire out spaces in its car park, right against one side of the courts, to outside broadcast vans for a daily fee equivalent to what it would normally expect for a month.

With its regional health authority lost to Bristol, and its magistrates' court to Basingstoke, Winchester Crown Court is an increasingly important institution in a city which now bustles prosperously but provincially. And for all its labrador-owning citizens' scepticism, all their assurances that "no one's really interested" in the Rosemary West trial, everyone this reporter spoke to wouldn't stop talking about it.