Winchester – where history is all about you

By | Category: Travel destinations
Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great

Winchester is a city steeped in history with not a high rise, other than its cathedral, in sight.

Surrounded by hills, the city has a Saxon street plan within Roman walls of which there are still two surviving gateways. It was the greatest Saxon king, Alfred the Great, who made Winchester his capital and, for hundreds of years afterwards, Winchester was a key administrative centre not just for Wessex but for England as well. Alfred is buried in the cathedral and his bronze statue dominates the Broadway.

The city isn’t very big and it is very easy to walk around. The main street is pedestrianised with market stalls as well as shops lining the thoroughfare. For the disabled, manual and powered wheelchairs and battery-powered scooters are available from Shopmobility but must be booked in advance.

Alfred isn’t the only king with Winchester connections. William the Conqueror came to Winchester in 1066 and built a castle here, the remains of which can still be seen while walking around.  At least twelve kings of Wessex or England are buried here such as Canute and William’s son William II.

King Arthur's Round Table

King Arthur’s Round Table

On a hilly part of town, the Great Hall the only part remaining intact, houses King Arthur’s Round Table which hangs from one of its walls. The table was made in 1290, but only painted in the reign of Henry VIII. Records of the Great Hall and Castle are on display in the Long Gallery for the curious and those interested in the Arthurian legend.

Visiting is free although they ask for a voluntary donation. A door leads to a medieval garden created to show visitors how a 13th century castle garden would have looked. Its wall is the only surviving part of the King’s House, an unfinished palace, designed by Sir Christopher Wren for Charles II, which subsequently burnt down. On the site, now called Peninsula Barracks, are five of Winchester’s six military museums. They include the museums of the Royal Green Jackets and the Gurkhas. Each museum, with its own story to tell, has a display of medals, paintings and military objects, which include historic cannon and artillery.

The main focus of the town, however, is the cathedral built on the site of the Old Minster and which dates back to 676, long before the time of even Alfred. Its treasures include four volumes of the Old Testament known as the Winchester Bible dating back to 1170.Construction work is currently going on to include a new exhibition centre to house them.

the cathedral

the cathedral

At the rear, and currently curtained off, are the remains of mortuary chests from Saxon Kings. These were vandalised during Cromwell’s time when the bones and ashes were muddled. With the advancement of technology and the use of DNA, the remains are currently being analysed. When this is completed, the chests will again be put on display.

It is worth descending to the crypt to see Sound 11, a statue by Antony Gormley of a lifesize figure gazing at his cupped hands. Sadly the area tends to flood in the winter and on my visit I was only able to see the sculpture from a distance.

On Saturdays, and in the summer months, those energetic enough can climb the cathedral’s tower 200 steps for views over the city. Because of the lack of high rise buildings which I mentioned earlier, a good view can be had over the city.  Visitors are given the option of a recorded guided tour or going around in a group with one of the volunteer guides.

There are lots of ways to approach the cathedral. On one of the less used paths, you can see the Water Gardens designed by Sir Peter Smithers. Apparently, Ian Fleming used his exploits in the Second World War to create the character of James Bond although at least fourteen others have also been suggested as Fleming’s inspiration.

in the Wykeham Arms

in the Wykeham Arms

Exiting in another direction to the Close, and worth admiring although only from the outside as it is a private residence, is Cheyney Court, a beautifully maintained honey-coloured, half- timbered building which was once a former bishop’s courthouse.

Nearby, and a real find as I had my dog Poppy with me, I discovered the dog-friendly Wykeham Arms, an inn since 1755 and where allegedly Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton carried out their liaison. The place is ‘olde worlde’ with beer tankards hanging from the ceiling, open fireplaces, and a gastro-pub dining area. The restaurant, partitioned from the drinking area, has lots of character with its walls filled with photographs of famous visitors. As Poppy was with me, the management kindly set up a table in the drinking area so that I could enjoy their culinary offerings, which included the pie of the day.

Jane Austen is another figure connected to Winchester although she only spent the last months of her life here. Her main home at Chawton and where she wrote her famous novels is just sixteen miles away. Her grave is in the cathedral.

the courtyard of Winchester College

the courtyard of Winchester College

Two doors from where Jane Austen had her lodgings (now a private residence) is a must on any itinerary – Winchester College. Founded by William of Wykeham in 1382, (students are called Wykehamists) the college is believed to be the oldest continuously running school in the country, and England’s oldest public school.

William of Wykeham, at that time Bishop of Winchester, used his wealth to educate priests. The first part of his scheme involved the foundation of New College Oxford, with Winchester conceived as a grounding place for those going on to Oxford. Since its initiation, when it was built for seventy scholars the College has grown and now educates around 700 students, although not specifically for the priesthood. Visitors are obliged to join one of their guided tours at a cost of £7, which concentrates on the medieval heart of the college and includes their 14th century Gothic chapel, one of the earliest examples of a wooden vaulted roof.

the hospital of Holy Cross

the hospital of Holy Cross

Slightly away from the city centre, the River Itchen flows through an area of uncultivated land, and if like me, accompanied by a dog, is a place where the animal can run free. A path led me to the Hospital of St. Cross, one of the oldest almshouses in England. Founded by Henry of Blois (a bishop of Winchester for over 40 years and brother to King Stephen) in 1130 the Hospital was required to provide a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine – the ‘dole’ to travellers. This, according to their leaflet, has been reduced to a cup of beer and a piece of bread but travellers can still claim their ‘dole’ from the porter. A charge is made for anyone visiting the beautifully kept gardens and church.

Steeped in history Winchester certainly is. You only realise just how important it was in our past when you tour the city.

For more about Winchester, click here.


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