From the dramatic landscapes of the Lake District, Sam and I continued our travels in the UK by heading right back south again, this time to Winchester for a three week housesit (read more about the world of Housesitting in my review). We were looking after the adorable dog Digby and between walking him twice a day, we also managed to explore loads of the local area. Winchester is one of the best spots in the south of England for history; from Britain’s oldest high street to the thousand year old cathedral, there’s plenty in this city of literature, legend and lore to keep history buffs interested. Here’s my run-down of some of the best historic spots…
Best Things to do in Winchester
The history of Winchester’s iconic cathedral stretches back over 15 centuries, beginning life around 645AD as a small cross shaped church at the heart of Anglo-Saxon Wessex. As the burial place for some of the earliest kings of Wessex, including King Alfred the Great, the little church increased in size and fame over the centuries and by the year 1000 had become a mighty cathedral, housing the bones of St Swithun (a former bishop famed for healing the lame). Rebuilt by William the Conqueror in the Norman Romanesque style and consecrated in 1093, the cathedral flourished, and by the 16th century most of the cathedral you can see today was complete.
In the cathedral grounds, you can view dozens of historic sites. There’s Cheyney Court, an Elizabethan timber-framed building dating from 1479, the four Norman arches of the Chapter House arcade which are the last few traces of the old monastery buildings, and the archway-ed pedestrian passageway of Curle’s Passage, dating from 1632. In the grounds you’ll also find the Pilgrim’s School and Pilgrim’s Hall, the Priory Gate, the Deanery and Dean Garnier’s Garden, and in the Outer Close you’ll also find the excavated site of the Saxon Old Minster and the New Minster that replaced it.
Inside the Cathedral are even more treasures: the 17th century Morley Library, which still boasts its original carved shelves, a marble font bought in Tournai (part of modern Belgium) in the 12th century, a gallery of precious artwork, and the Winchester Bible, one of the best surviving 12th-century English bibles.
Even if you’re not interested in the history of the site, Winchester Cathedral is a beautiful place to visit, with centuries of English architecture on offer. There’s the Norman crypt, the Renaissance chantry chapels, 14th century oak choir stalls, and the 13th-century floor tiles which are largest surviving spread of medieval decorated floor tiles inside any building in England. The Cathedral also has a few more modern points of interest, including British sculptor Antony Gormley’s Sound II housed in the crypt.
Jane Austen Sites in Winchester
There are plenty of places in the Hampshire for literature fans to explore sites related to the celebrated life of Jane Austen – one of my personal heroines – particularly her birthplace in Steventon, near Basingstoke, and her home in Chawton. But in Winchester, fans of the great writer can visit the home where she lived her last days in order to be closer to her doctor, and her final resting place in the nave of the Winchester Cathedral. Although her tomb’s inscription makes no reference to Austen’s literary career, a brass plaque was erected in 1872, 55 years after her death, to redress this omission, and alongside this visitors will also find a permanent illustrated exhibition detailing her life, work and death in Hampshire. The small yellow house on College Street can sadly only be viewed from the outside, but there is a brass plaque above the door announcing the famous writer, and both this and the grave in the Cathedral make a great final stop on a Jane Austen tour of Hampshire.
King Arthur’s Round Table in Winchester
From a literary genius to a medieval legend, Winchester is also home to the Great Hall, founded in 1067, which is one of the places King Arthur is alleged to have held his famous meetings of the round table. You can even view a round table in the hall, although sadly it’s not old enough to be the round table, which appears to have been lost for good. For a long time, legend held that the round table in Winchester, which has hung on the wall in the Great Hall since at least 1540 was the very one that King Arthur once sat around with his 24 Knights, but carbon dating and tree ring evidence places the table at the 13th or 14th century. Still impressively antiquated, but simply not old enough to have ever known the Once and Future King, the huge oak table (5.5 metres in diameter) is thought to have been crafted in about 1290 for a tournament near Winchester for Edward I, and the painting was added in King Henry VIII’s reign, with King Arthur’s portrait surrounded by his 24 knights named in very difficult to read calligraphy.
The Great Hall itself is all that remains of a castle originally constructed for William the Conqueror in 1067, and has seen some royal dramas of it’s own – although none of them quite so magical as the Arthurian legends – Edward I and his second wife narrowly escaped death from a fire there in 1302, during the English Civil War it was held by Royalists until 1646, Sir Walter Raleigh stood trial here in 1603, and Queen Eleanor of Provence used the garden alongside the hall as her own private retreat. As well as exploring the enormous space of the Great Hall, with it’s marble pillars and ancient stone walls, you can take a stroll in a recreation of Queen Eleanor’s Garden, or descend the stone steps outside the hall down to the Sally Port, a slightly creepy underground passageway.
Winchester may have it’s roots firmly in Roman times – built in 70AD as Venta Belgarum – but the biggest historic stamp seems to have been left by the Tudors and Stuarts. At the Westgate Museum (free admission) in the last of the main medieval gates into the city, visitors can learn about that era inside the fascinating, Grade 1 listed building, learning about Britain’s first high street and the English Civil War. Personally, I had the most fun trying on the medieval costumes available in the museum (Sam looked great as a Stuart Lord). The views of the high street and the town’s significant historic buildings from the roof of the Westgate Museum are fantastic.
Over at the Winchester City Museum, also free to enter, there’s a lot more information on the whole history of the city, starting at the Roman roots and working right up to the Victorian era. Winchester also boasts five military museums, including the popular Gurkha museum.
More Awesome Things to do in Winchester
These are just a few of the historic highlights that Winchester has to offer, but there are plenty more fascinating and beautiful sites well worth a visit…
King Alfred’s Statue – a bronze statue of King Alfred the Great, built in 1901.
The High Cross, or the City Cross – a 15th century monument found on the high street.
The Manor of God Begot – also found on the high street, and now home to an Italian chain restaurant, the Manor of God Begot, was given by the Duke of Normandy to his daughter Emma in 1012, ten years after he’d already given her the small gift of Winchester and Essex as a wedding present when she married the excellently named Ethelred the Unready. The building had a turbulent history, but still stands on Winchester high street and has been beautifully restored.
Hyde Gate – a 15th century gateway which is one of the last remaining sections of Hyde Abbey.
The Hospital of St Cross – a hospital founded in the 1130’s by Bishop Henry of Blois for “thirteen poor men, feeble and so reduced in strength that they can scarcely or not at all support themselves without other aid”.
Winchester College – a beautiful building which is one of the oldest continuously-running schools in the country, and was founded by Bishop William of Wykeham.
Wolvesey Castle – the ruins of a castle built between 1130 and 1140 by Bishop Henry of Blois and the scene of Empress Matilda’s assault on the bishop during the period known as The Anarchy.
Winchester City Mill – a restored water mill on the River Itchen which was first recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086.
St Mary’s Abbey – the ruins of The Nunnaminster, a nunnery dating back to 903 which later became known as St Mary’s Abbey.
Hockley Viaduct – a 110 year old Victorian viaduct of 33 arches built in beautiful red brick.