Pilgrim to Britain's oldest leprosy hospital

Archaeologists will be leading a group of pilgrims to the site of Britain's oldest-known leprosy hospital on Thursday.

The walk gets underway at Winchester Cathedral at 5:30pm and will end at the site of the Hospital of St Mary Magdalen at Magdalen Hill a short distance away.

Dr Phil Marter from the archaeology department at the University of Winchester has been excavating the former hospital site at Magdalen Hill for four years and is one of the organisers of Thursday’s pilgrimage.

He said the uniqueness of the find had inspired the charitable pilgrimage in memory of the community of St Mary Magdalen Hospital.

“The project at Magdalen Hill represents the most extensive excavations of a medieval leprosy hospital and cemetery in the country," he said.

“Out of almost 60 excavated burials, there is evidence of leprosy in 70 per cent of the cases.

“Evidence suggests the leprosy patients were very well looked after, and were drawn from all levels of society. They included men, women, children and a baby and also an individual who had been buried with a scallop shell pilgrim badge suggesting that he had once made the arduous journey to Santiago de Compostela.”

A collection will be taken during the pilgrimage in aid of The Leprosy Mission, a Christian charity working with leprosy patients around the world in education, job training and social support.

Although there are very few cases of leprosy diagnosed in 21st century Britain, each year around a quarter of a million new cases are diagnosed worldwide.

The Leprosy Mission estimates that around three million people are currently living with the effects of the disease.

Prayers will be led at Magdalen Hill by Prof Elizabeth Stuart, Pro Vice Chancellor of the University of Winchester.

A short talk on the work of The Leprosy Mission will be given by Natalie Husk, the area organiser for the charity.

She said: “Leprosy is a disease of the present but does not need to be a disease of the future.

“It is good to know that people affected by leprosy were treated with respect at Magdalen Hill as many today suffer from deep-rooted stigma surrounding leprosy.

“As a result people can delay seeking treatment which is problematic as leprosy causes nerve damage and, if left untreated, can lead to major injuries and eventually amputation of limbs.

“It also damages nerves in the face which can lead to blindness.”

This is the first time that a pilgrimage is being organised to Magdalen Hill. Organisers plan to hold another one next year.