This little adventure is taken from my new guidebook Daytrips From London, available now.
Winchester wears its history gracefully. The first “capital” of England, it was an important town from Roman times until the 12th century, when it lost out to rival London. Despite this decline, it remained a major religious and educational center, a role it still plays today. There are few places in England where the past has survived to delight the present quite so well.
Winchester's history goes back to the Iron Age, when the Belgae, a Celtic tribe, settled in the valley of the River Itchen. This became the Roman town of Venta Belgarum, the fifth-largest in Britain. Following the collapse of the Roman Empire, the Anglo-Saxons took over and, changing the name to Wintanceaster, made it the capital of their kingdom of Wessex. Threats from marauding Danes caused the rival kingdoms of England to unite behind Egbert, the king of Wessex, in the mid-9th century; an act that made Winchester the effective capital of all England. A few decades later, under Alfred the Great, the town reached its peak of importance, and afterwards became the seat of such kings as Canute, Edward the Confessor, and William the Conqueror. Winchester's time had passed, however, and during the Norman era the center of power was gradually transferred to London.
Trains leave London's Waterloo Station at least twice an hour for the one-hour ride to Winchester, with returns until late evening. Schedules at W: nationalrail.co.uk.
By Car, Winchester is 72 miles southwest of London via the M3 highway.
This trip can be made at any time, although some sights are closed on Mondays, especially in the off-season. Open-air markets are held in the town center on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. The local Tourist Information Centre, T:(01962) 840-500, W: visitwinchester.co.uk, is in the Guildhall on The Broadway. Winchester is the county seat of Hampshire, and has a population of about 33,000.
FOOD AND DRINK:
Winchester has a wide selection of restaurants and pubs in all price ranges, including:
Old Chesil Rectory (1 Chesil St., near the City Mill) Contemporary French and British cuisine served in Winchester’s oldest house, circa 1450. Reserve. T: (01962) 851-555, W: chesilrectory.co.uk. X: Sun., Mon. £££
Bistro (Hotel du Vin, 14 Southgate St., 2 blocks west of the cathedral) Immensely popular bistro with fresh food in a simple style. Reservations, T: (01962) 841-414, W: hotelduvin.com. £££
Wykeham Arms (75 Kingsgate St., near Winchester College) An 18th-century inn, now a pub with excellent meals. T: (01962) 853-834, W: fullershotels.com. X for food: Sun., Mon. eve. ££
Royal Oak (Royal Oak Passage, just off High St.) Lunch in an ancient pub with plenty of atmosphere. T: (01962) 842-701. £
Cathedral Refectory (Inner Close, by the Cathedral) Light lunches made from fresh, local ingredients, as well as teas. T: (01962) 857-268, W: winchester-cathedral.org.uk. £
Numbers in parentheses correspond to numbers on the map.
From the train station (1), follow Sussex Street to the Westgate (2), one of Winchester's two remaining medieval gatehouses. Built in the 12th century, its upper floors were added in 1380 and later served as a debtors' prison. It is now a small museum with an interesting collection of ancient armor and related objects. There's an excellent view from its roof. T: (01962) 869-864. Open April-Oct., Mon.-Sat. 10-5, Sun. noon-5; winter, Mon.-Sat. 10-4, Sun. noon-4. Closed holidays, Nov.Jan. Entrance free. Brass rubbings ₤.
Strolling down High Street, you will pass the Old Guildhall on the right. Its projecting clock and figure of Queen Anne were given to the town to commemorate the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. On the roof is a wooden tower housing the curfew bell, still rung each evening at eight. The 16th-century God Begot House, opposite, occupies the site of a manor given by Ethelred the Unready to his Queen Emma in 1012.
A few more steps brings you to the City Cross (3). Also known as the Butter Cross, it was erected in the 15th century. Make a right through the small passageway leading to The Square. William the Conqueror's palace once stood here. The City Museum (4) has fascinating displays of local archaeological finds, including Celtic pottery, a Roman mosaic floor, and painted walls. T: (01962) 863-064, W: winchester.gov.uk/heritage. Open same times as the Westgate, above. Free.
Opposite this is the main attraction:
*WINCHESTER CATHEDRAL (5), T: (01962) 857-200, W: winchester-cathedral.org.uk. Open daily, 8:30-5. Visitors Centre Mon.-Sat. 9-5, Sun. 12:30-3. Crypt Tours at 10:30, 12:30, 2:30, Mon.-Sat. Evensong Mon.-Sat. 5:30, Sun. 3:30. Access limited during services. Café. Gift shop. Adults £6, seniors £4.80, students £3.50, children free. Religious services free.
Winchester Cathedral, begun in 1079 on the site of earlier Saxon churches, is among the largest in Europe. During the 14th century the cathedral acquired a new Gothic nave, resulting in a mixture of styles ranging from robust Norman to graceful Perpendicular.
Enter the nave through the west doorway. The windows retain some of the original 14th-century glass, most of which was destroyed by Puritan zealots during the Civil War. About halfway down the nave, on the right, is the magnificent Wykeham's Chantry, dedicated to Bishop William of Wykeham, who was also the founder of Winchester College and New College at Oxford, as well as a noted statesman. Almost opposite this, on the north aisle, is an outstanding 12th-century font, carved with the story of St. Nicholas. The tomb of the authoress Jane Austen is nearby in the north aisle.
The massive transepts are almost unchanged since Norman times. Near the southeast corner is a chapel containing the tomb of Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler, who died here in 1683. A doorway in the south wall leads to the Library, which has a 10th-century copy of the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History as well as the rare 12th-century illuminated Winchester Bible. Library open at variable times.
Continue up the south aisle and enter the Presbytery. Above the screens are six mortuary chests containing the bones of early English kings. Behind the High Altar is a magnificently carved 15th-century ornamental screen. Adjoining this is the choir with some outstanding early-14th-century stalls and misericords. At the east end of the cathedral is the 12th-century Chapel of the Guardian Angels, and the modern Shrine of St. Swithun, the patron saint of British weather. If it rains on his day, July 15th, you're in for another 39 soggy days. Other sights include the crypt and the treasury.
Leave the cathedral and stroll through The Close, partially surrounded by the ancient monastery's walls. An arcade of the former Chapter House links the south transept with the Deanery. Dome Alley has some particularly fine 17th-century houses. Pass through the Kingsgate (6), the second of the two surviving medieval town gates. Above it is the tiny 13th-century Church of St. Swithun-upon-Kingsgate, which should definitely be visited.
Winchester College (7), the oldest “public” school in England, was founded in 1382 and is associated with New College at Oxford. T: (01962) 621-209, W: winchestercollege.org. Tours Mon., Wed., Fri., Sat. at 10:45, noon, 2:15, and 3:30; Tues. & Thurs. at 10:45 & noon; Sun. at 2:15 & 3:30. Adults £4, seniors and students £3.50.
Continue down College Street to the ruins of Wolvesey Castle (8), begun in 1129 and destroyed in 1646 by Cromwell's forces during the Civil War. They are enclosed by part of the old city wall, but you can enter and take a look around. W: english-heritage.org.uk. Open April-Oct., daily, 10-5. Free.
The adjacent Wolvesey Palace, thought to have been designed by Sir Christopher Wren, is now the bishop's residence.
From here there is a wonderfully picturesque riverside walk, said to be the inspiration for Keats' poem Ode to Autumn. It leads to the venerable Hospital of St. Cross, the oldest functioning almshouse in England. About a mile away, this medieval institution can also be reached by bus along St. Cross Road, but the delightful stroll along the stream is too lovely to miss. You can always ride back. To get there, just follow the map.
The *Hospital of St. Cross (photo, above)(9) has always had a tradition of providing a dole of bread and ale to weary wayfarers, which includes you. Ask and ye shall receive. Founded in 1136 by Bishop Henry de Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror, the institution cares for 25 brethren who live in 15th-century quarters and wear medieval gowns. There is a 12th-century Norman chapel and a 15th-century hall and kitchen that can be visited. Don’t miss this. T: (01962) 851-375, W: stcrosshospital.co.uk. Open Apr.-Oct., Mon.-Sat. 9:30-5, Sun. 1-5; Nov.-March, Mon.-Sat. 10:30-3:30. Adults £3, seniors and students £2.50, children £1.
Those returning on foot can take the alternative route via Garnier Road. St. Catherine's Hill, across the river, has an Iron Age fort and the foundations of an early chapel at its summit, as well as an excellent view.
Back in Winchester, the footpath leads across the River Itchen alongside the medieval walls to the City Mill (10), part of which is now a youth hostel. There's been a mill here since Anglo-Saxon days. The present one, built in 1744, may be explored. T: (01962) 870-057, W: nationaltrust.org.uk/main/winchestercitymill. Open mid-March to late Oct., Wed.-Sun. 10:30-5; late Oct.-mid-March, daily 10:30-5. Adults £4, children £2.
Turn left and follow The Broadway past the statue of King Alfred, who made Winchester a center of learning over a thousand years ago. The huge Victorian Guildhall of 1873 houses the tourist office. From here, High Street leads to The Castle, an administrative complex that includes the Great Hall (11), the sole remaining part of Winchester Castle. Dating from the early 13th century, the hall was the scene of many important events in English history. Go inside and take a look at the famous Roundtable, once associated with King Arthur but now known to be of 13th-century origin. T: (01962) 846-476, W: hants.gov.uk/greathall/. Open daily 10-5, closing at 4 on winter weekends. 50p.
There are five military museums in the immediate vicinity that might interest you: the Royal Green Jackets, the Light Infantry, the Gurkha, the Royal Hussars, and the Royal Hampshire Regiment. From here it is only a short stroll back to the train station.
Text and Map Copyright © 2010 Earl Steinbicker