I’d been dying to go to Winchester for ages. Partly, because it was the ancient capital of England, and partly, because I’ve been reading lots of Norman history books and the city crops up a lot as the setting for quite a bit of drama. So after years of ‘I must go…’ and not doing anything about it, I finally bit the bullet and caught the train from London.
Did it live up to expectations? Absolutely. The ye olde part of Winchester is pretty, so very, very pretty. One of those picture perfect English towns with quaint, charming buildings at every turn. It’s also steeped in history, there’s lots to see and do, and oodles of great food. I just wish I’d hopped on that train a few years earlier…
My first stop on my autumnal visit was the imposing cathedral. The magnificent stone building, reputedly the longest medieval cathedral in Europe, was commissioned by William I and opened in 1093, on the site of an old important church that dated back to 635AD. The site has long had strong royal connections with Alfred the Great buried in the original church, William II buried in the present cathedral and as the venue for Mary I’s wedding to Philip II of Spain. It’s also home to the Winchester Bible, one of the world’s best preserved bibles from the 12th century.
Unbeknown to be, I’d picked the Hampshire Harvest Festival weekend for my trip to the city and the impressive cathedral was decked out in agricultural displays, with harvest sculptures and lots of fruits, vegetables and flowers. The architecture was incredible and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Jane Austen was buried in the cathedral. Along with her gravestone, there’s a gold memorial window on one of the walls commemorating her. Jane Austen is one of my favourite authors, so it was nice to see the place where she was laid to rest and to pay my respects.
My next stop was Wolvesey Castle just down the road from the cathedral. Now ruined, Wolvesey Castle was the medieval home of the powerful bishops of Winchester and was built by the former bishop Henry of Blois, brother of King Stephen, in the 12th century. The extensive collection of ruins gives you an idea of the former grandeur and scale of the palace, and I had a great time exploring the crumbling collection of stone walls and discovering lots of nooks and crannies. The palace must have been an amazing sight in its day and it’s a shame it’s no longer standing in all its glory.
Feeling hungry after the ruined castle, I walked back towards the cathedral grounds to have a look around the many stalls that had popped up for the harvest festival. There were stalls selling all manner of fresh fruits and vegetables, and local produce such as cheeses and ciders. Tempted by the wonderful smells coming from one of the stalls, I bought a burger for lunch – I don’t normally eat burgers, but this one was delicious and really hit the spot. I really enjoyed taking in the festival as harvest festivals aren’t something that are celebrated at home. I’d definitely look at coinciding any future visits to Winchester with the harvest festival – if only, to indulge in all the great foods in the market.
The next stop on my busy itinerary was Winchester City Museum (above), a charming museum that charts the city’s history from Roman times to the present day. I started on the ground floor, which recreated a number of Winchester shops from the Victorian and Edwardian ages; then moved up to the first floor, which focused on the city during Anglo-Saxon and medieval times; and finally, the second floor, which explored the city’s Roman past and featured a stunning mosaic floor. I enjoyed the museum, it was only small and didn’t take long to get around, but it was interesting and informative.
I then headed to Winchester College (above). The boys’ school was founded in 1382 and is the oldest school in the country. I was educated in a state school and so public schools are a whole other world for me. I’d never been inside one before, although I have had a sneaky peek into Eton’s courtyard, so I decided to join one of the guided tours around the school.
The hour-long tour took us around some of the oldest parts of the college, including the chapel, the hall and the medieval cloisters. Our group was small and our guide very informative, and it was a fascinating experience. I learned a lot and it gave me a good insight into the public school system in the UK and the merits of attending one. I was really glad I’d decided to join the tour, and would definitely recommend it to anyone visiting the city. The architecture within the school is magnificent – the wooden roof in the chapel, for example, is exquisite.
On leaving the college and making my way back towards the town centre, I stopped outside Jane Austen’s old house. The yellow painted building is where the author died and is marked by a solemn slate plaque (above).
My last stop on my day’s itinerary was the Great Hall and Round Table. The Great Hall is a grand medieval building, the only surviving part of Winchester Castle, which was otherwise destroyed on the orders of Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century. On the far wall, a large table top, which resembles a dart board and is reputedly the Round Table, dominates the room.
Having admired the Round Table and a few displays in the room, I then wandered through a door at the other end of the hall to a small, pretty garden. Queen Eleanor’s Garden, named after Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III, is a recreation of a medieval garden and is a sweet space. And after a quick tour, I moved on to the gallery, a small, interesting exhibition that traces the history of the castle and the Great Hall.
I had a wonderful day in Winchester. I was bowled over by how utterly charming and delightful the medieval sections of the city are and as history buff, adored all the old buildings and historical sites. It was a really fun and informative day, and I can’t wait to go back. It’s definitely somewhere worth revisiting.
Winchester Cathedral, The Close, Winchester, Hampshire SO23 9LS
9.30am-5pm Mon-Sat, 12.30-3pm Sun (all year round)
£7.95 Adults, £5.95 concessions, children go free when visiting with family
Winchester, Hampshire SO23 9NB
10am-5pm, daily (April-October)
Winchester City Museum
The Square, Winchester SO23 9ES
10am-5pm, Mon-Sat, 12-5pm, Sun (April-October); 10am-4pm, Mon-Sat, 12-4pm (Sun) (November-March)
73 Kingsgate Street, Winchester, Hampshire S023 9PE
£7.00 adults, £6.00 concessions