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Top places to visit in historic Winchester
Table of Contents
An introduction to Winchester:
Winchester is a beautiful, historic, city in Hampshire known today for the Cathedral, connections to Jane Austen and a famous Public School, Winchester College. It was also the ancient capital of Wessex and some say of England! In 827, Egbert, the first king of all England, was crowned in Winchester and the city retained its status until the 11th century and the arrival of William the Conqueror. He was crowned in both Winchester and London and declared both to be capitals. But, over the next few hundred years, the city lost its status. That perhaps explains some of the stunning architecture and historic sites. Somewhere I’ve driven past many times, given the opportunity to explore Winchester itself, I was thrilled. It’s about an hour’s drive from where I live in Surrey and takes about the same time by train from London Waterloo. I set off by car from home early on a sunny October morning.
I reached Winchester easily but finding the Old Vine Hotel, where I was staying the night and a parking space proved a bit more challenging. Narrow cobbled streets and a one-way system meant I circumnavigated twice before I found a space in the permit holders parking where I could use the permit I collected from the hotel.
Guided city tour of Winchester:
Having dropped off my bag, I made my way to the Winchester Tourist Information Centre, a short walk from the Old Vine Hotel, for the guided city tour. There are two tours offered. In the morning the upper city is covered, and the afternoon, the lower city. A fascinating and worthwhile experience, our guide pointed out many historic buildings as she filled us in on the history of this beautiful city.
Close to the Guildhall, where Winchester Tourist Information Centre is based, stands the statue of King Alfred the Great, he was the Anglo Saxon King of Wessex, of which Winchester was the capital and he was buried in the city. His outstretched arm points up the Broadway to the High Street, an impressive sight in the autumn sunshine.
We then strolled through the gardens and approached Winchester Cathedral from the east. It’s noticeable from this angle that this end of the cathedral is sloping dramatically, more on this later… The inner close is a walled area surrounding this part of the cathedral which is closed every night at eleven o’clock. There are the remains of the monastery and the Deanery a beautiful old building. Little huts nestled against the wall of the cathedral in preparation for the Christmas Market held every year in November.
Passing to the front of the cathedral the sight is even more spectacular although the stained glass window to the west, along with many other features were damaged and replaced in recent times.
The tour then took us towards Winchester High Street passing the City Museum, free to enter, and the Eclipse Inn, in The Square, on our right. This old Inn, dating from around 1540, is a small and beautifully preserved building. The main street in the city slopes upwards from the river Itchen, at the bottom end, to the Westgate at the top. The usual high streets shops are to be found here behind the old facades and it is said that there are Roman remains in their basements. Jutting out high above the street is the impressive Winchester Clock, which was installed at the end of the 19th century.
The Westgate, Winchester:
Originally there were five gates in Winchester; the West, East, North, South and river gates. These five gates are represented as castles on the emblem of Winchester. Of these, the only remaining one is the Westgate at the top of the hill. Now a free museum, this was formerly used as a debtors prison. Stairs lead to the top where you can look down on the city below, something I will definitely do on another visit. Deep grooves are apparent on the outside, where the portcullis used to be as well as windows from which guns could be fired. Used as a road until 1959, the only person who can now pass under this arch is Her Majesty the Queen.
The Great Hall, Winchester:
A few yards from the West Gate is the Great Hall, all that remains of what was once Winchester Castle. This was built on the site where William the Conqueror first constructed a castle in 1067. The Great Hall was added by King Henry III between 1222 and 1235 and is made of the traditional flint and stone to be found in buildings throughout Winchester. The current law courts adjoin the town side of the Great Hall with the wedding gates, a more recent addition to the hall to commemorate the marriage of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer, connecting the old with the new.
The Great Hall is famous as it contains what is allegedly the Round Table used by King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. There is the top of a round table fastened high on the wall, whether it is indeed King Arthur’s Table is not proven. Painted during Henry VIII’s reign it is a colourful sight with the Tudor rose, symbolising the houses of York and Lancaster in the centre.
You can also see a beautiful bronze statue of Queen Victoria, commissioned by the High Sheriff of Hampshire to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, in the Great Hall. From the hall, there is a door leading to Queen Eleanor’s Garden a small, medieval, walled space with planting that would be found in gardens of that era.
A short distance from the Great Hall is the site of the King’s House. At the top of the hill, on what was the site of Winchester Castle. King Charles II started to build this as a royal palace when he visited Winchester. It was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, who also built St Paul’s Cathedral. From its vantage point on the hill, the view down to the cathedral would have been spectacular. After the death of Charles II, it was never completed and largely destroyed by a fire in 1894. It was used as military barracks before becoming private housing today. With its central fountain and formal gardens, modelled on Versailles, it is a quiet and tranquil place for reflection.
This stunning medieval gothic cathedral was built in 1093, where the Old Minster used to stand. It is said to have the longest cathedral nave in the world, a staggering 566 feet. It certainly is an awe-inspiring sight when you enter the cathedral. Over the course of the centuries, the cathedral has been extended to create the magnificent building we can see today.
This historic cathedral houses the Winchester Bible, one of the finest examples of 12th century English bibles. A single scribe wrote out its entire text in Latin, while artists worked its exquisitely illuminated capital letters. Their glowing colours, including gold and lapis lazuli, are still intense today.
Winchester Cathedral is the burial place for some of England’s earliest monarchs and the remains contained in the six Mortuary boxes are thought to be those of King Cynegils, King Cenwalh, King Egbert, King Ethelwulf, King Cnut and his wife Emma, and three bishops, Bishop Wine, Bishop Alwine, and Bishop Stigand. As the bones have become muddled up together there is what sounds like a rather gruesome ongoing project to establish separate identities for every bone.
Saint Swithun, an Anglo Saxon bishop, is the patron saint of Winchester. His bones were buried in the old Minster and later brought into the cathedral and placed in a shrine visited by pilgrims. Sadly this shrine was destroyed during the reformation and it is not known where the bones of Saint Swithun are today – local lore says that the monks rescued and hid these sacred bones when they heard the army was coming.
The grave of Jane Austen, the famous author, is marked on the floor of the cathedral with a plaque. Jane Austen did not live in Winchester, but close by in Chawton, near Alton. She travelled to the city for treatment on her physician’s instructions as in those days it was difficult for him to go to her, as transport was by horse and cart. She stayed in the city with a friend, for a brief two months, from May 1817 until her death on 18 July 1817. For more about Jane Austen’s life in Hampshire do check out our earlier feature.
The water table in Winchester is high with the result being that the crypt is often flooded for months at a time, as water seeps up through the floors. This is probably the reason that the crypt does not contain tombs, but there are two wells and old pieces of masonry including two statues of Saint Swithun, which used to adorn the west of the cathedral before being removed due to their badly weathered state.
I was very fortunate to be able to join a guided crypt tour, this is not possible when the crypt is flooded. The lighting is golden and mellow with the arches rising overhead. For me, the statue as you enter the crypt had an immediate impact. A life-sized figure standing alone, the work of Antony Gormley, the world-renowned British sculptor, called Sound II. This was cast in lead from a plaster cast of the artist himself and seems to be looking into water held in his cupped hands. When the crypt floods the statue stands in water, sometimes as high as its knees.
Winchester has a strong military connection with former barracks in the town and several military museums today. One of the most striking impressions I had when touring the cathedral was the number of plaques and military memorials, it brought home to me the huge numbers of soldiers who died during the wars.
One of the things I was most looking forward to on my visit to Winchester was a tour of Winchester College. Winchester College is world renowned, being the oldest boarding school in England which was built as a school and has always been used as one. It was founded in 1382, by Bishop William of Wykeham, to educate boys in the hope that they would join the priesthood. The old buildings made in the traditional local style of flint and mortar are very impressive.
The chapel is a beautiful sight, with a wooden vaulted ceiling, stained glass windows and wooden pews. Photography is not allowed in the chapel so I was unable to take any photos. The school has a strong religious ethos with other chapels and places of worship to cater for differing religions – the 700 boys at the school must follow a religion to be accepted. The college men are those that live in the confines of the college itself, the common men live in boarding houses in the surrounding area. The old cloisters, used for lessons in the summer, are very evocative.
City Mill – The oldest working mill in England:
City Mill built on the river Itchen is probably the oldest working mill in the country and is now owned by the National Trust. The City Mill has stood at the heart of Winchester for over a thousand years, a mill has been on this site since Anglo Saxon times. In the restored building there is an exhibition depicting the history of the mill and how a mill works. You can visit the waterwheel itself and see it turning together with the mill race, a rushing torrent of water. The mill is still used to mill flour in the traditional way every Saturday and Sunday throughout the year. Given its location on the river, the City Mill is liable to serious flooding, most recently in 2013 and 2014.
I really enjoyed my visit to Winchester, there’s so much to see and do. With the beautifully preserved old buildings and the vibrant centre it’s somewhere I wouldn’t hesitate to travel to again as there are far more places I would like to visit.
Useful information about Visiting Winchester:
Winchester is easily reached by train from London, with a journey time of just over an hour from London Waterloo Station.
The website for Winchester Tourist Information, Visit Winchester, has extensive information about the city including where to book guided city tours of Winchester
For information on Winchester Cathedral check their website here
Winchester College is a working school so only open to the public as part of a guided tour. You can find out more about the tours on the school website
I stayed at the Old Vine Hotel
Thinking of visiting? Why not pin this post for later…
Looking for some alternative Cathedral Cities in England? Here are a few more to choose from:
Here’s a guide to the Cathedral City of York
Here’s more about nearby Salisbury in Wiltshire, another historic Cathedral City.
Why not visit Lincoln? It has one of the most magnificent Cathedrals in England and a copy of the Magna Carta but is just not that well known