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Ritual Britain: Beer and bread are hospital's prescription for the weary

FEW PLACES remain in Britain where the weary traveller can stop for free refreshment. This worthy tradition, once so common, has died out except in some hidden corners. One is the ancient Hospital of St Cross, on the outskirts of Winchester, where for the past 850 years whoever asked has been given the wayfarer's dole of 'a morsel of bread and a horn of beer'.

These days the bread is Mother's Pride, the beer Whitbread's, and the partakers, rather than tramps, pedlars and convicts, are mostly tourists who visit the beautiful almshouses set round a quadrangle and chapel dating from 1135.

But it was not always so. When the hospital was founded by William the Conqueror's grandson Henri de Blois, 'corn (was) dear, and flesh, and cheese, and butter, for there was none in the land; wretched men starved with hunger - some lived on alms who had been erstwhile rich' - according to the English Chronicle for 1137. 'In those days it was said,' the scribe concludes sorrowfully, 'that Christ and His saints slept.'

Control of the hospital swung from saints to sinners, who alternated between pillaging the funds and providing charity. Sir Roger de Cloune (1370-74) raided the coffers and pulled down the larder, reducing to starvation 100 men who had daily been entitled to three quarts of beer, a loaf and two stews.

The other function of the hospital has always been to provide the elderly poor with homes. So, through the centuries, the visits of such as Henry VIII, Keats (who reputedly wrote Ode to a Nightingale in the hospital's watermeadows) and Trollope (who was inspired to write The Warden) have been watched by these brothers, recipients of its plush sheltered accommodation. There were 22 there yesterday, including former chauffeurs, butchers, soldiers and salesmen.

The only qualifications for gaining a place in these medieval self-contained quarters are that you are a gentleman in need, 60 or over, and a member of the Church of England, yet there are still vacancies. Three flats are empty, awaiting applicants who can afford the rent ( pounds 10 to pounds 50 a week, depending on means).

Wives can come too; but if their husband dies they must leave. 'Women,' the Master, Rev Tony Outhwaite, admits ruefully, 'don't exist for us.'

The only duties these men have are to attend the daily service in the chapel and maintain the flowerbed outside their door.

Harold Kay, a former manager for John Lewis in London, says: 'This place is a godsend. I remember when I saw the advert for vacancies on one of the rare occasions that St Cross advertised. That advert will always be printed on my brain.'

(Photograph omitted)