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Winchester, England 72-Hour Vacation

The World of Winchester
From the Cathedral to Watercress
By Mary Anne Evans

The Round Table of King Arthur
The "Round Table" of King Arthur

Winchester's history is a rich one, spanning the centuries and touching on great matters of church and state, of the laws of the land and the fortunes of war.

From the 3rd century B.C. Iron Age fort, through the British settlement of Caer Gwent to the 6th century capital of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex, Winchester has played a vital part in English history, officially recognized in 827 when Egbert was crowned the first King of all England here. But Winchester's most famous early inhabitant was King Alfred, who defended the country against the Vikings and ruled from 871 to 899 A.D. Winchester was joint capital with London under William the Conqueror; the catholic Queen Mary Tudor and Philip of Spain were married in Winchester Cathedral in 1554, safely away from the hatred of London's Protestant citizens. Through the centuries the city has had more than its fair share of famous residents and visitors like Izaak Walton and Jane Austen; in the 18th and 19th centuries, its reputation as a medical center rivaled London.

Twentieth century, post-World War II redevelopment was a mixed blessing. Some of old Winchester was destroyed and other parts insensitively redeveloped, but during this process, enormously important archaeological discoveries were made. Priceless sites were uncovered such as traces of the Iron Age defenses, part of the Roman forum, the Old Minster site and Roman cemeteries. The discovery of the huge church of Hyde Abbey was particularly significant. Built in 1110 and almost as large as the Cathedral, the building was destroyed by Henry VIII in the 16th century. Somewhere among the foundations lie the three graves of Alfred the Great, his wife and his son. Archeologists place the probable site of their graves in what is now a charming landscaped park on Hyde Road.

Hotel du Vin & Bistr
Hotel du Vin & Bistro

A walk around Winchester will confirm your impression of a delightful, quiet British city, so it seems odd to learn that its law courts have seen some of Britain's most high profile trials, including the IRA suspects in the 1970s. Located outside London and away from the media glare, the courts are still used for notorious crimes cases.

All the major historic sites are conveniently found close to the center, so it's a wonderful city to stroll around. Spend the rest of your time in the surrounding countryside—a sweeping landscape of glorious rolling hills, delightful small towns and world-renowned fly-fishing rivers like the Test, the Itchen, the Dun and the Alre.

With the center part-pedestrianized and a traffic system that can drive the uninitiated motorist mad, it's best to arrive by train and take local taxis or hire a car there where necessary. Trains from Waterloo to Winchester take about an hour. If you drive, you can leave your car at one of the parks and ride facilities at Junction 10 of the M3. It is an easy drive by car from Southampton Docks. There are long-stay car parks in the center, but they are expensive and some are restricted to four hours.

Winchester offers a good range of hotels. The most idiosyncratic and satisfying is the boutique Hotel du Vin & Bistro, located in a Georgian building and with the advantage of a charming, sunny walled garden. Bedrooms offer a taste of chic minimalism with individual touches and odd eccentricities such as a free-standing claw-footed bath. This is a great place for a meal, and the Bistro is known for its cooking and the excellent wine list. The best views of the Cathedral Close are found in the comfortable and central Mercure Wessex Hotel (ask for a room with a view). The Winchester Hotel, also centrally-located, has been transformed into a delightful boutique hotel, with a spa and indoor pool.


Winchester Cathedral interior
Cathedral interior

If you want to discover a lot in a short time, book a tour or a walk with a qualified guide from the Tourist Information Centre. If you're on your own, the best starting point is the City Museum for a quick trot through Winchester's history. Then make for the heart of the city and the ancient Cathedral, founded in 1079. Here, excellent guides will take you around this glorious monument to medieval Christianity. The Cathedral is one of the longest medieval churches in Europe at 535 feet, and is full of architectural gems: the series of chantry chapels (1366-1555); the Norman Nave itself; the magnificent wooden carved misericords (the turned-up side of the choir stalls where the monks rested their weary posteriors); the Winchester Bible (the finest of the great 12th-century illuminated Bibles); and in the crypt, a haunting modern statue by the sculptor Anthony Gormley. But it is the smaller touches that bring the place alive: the tombs of Jane Austen (who died at No. 8 College Street in 1817) and the 'father of angling,' Izaak Walton (1593-1683), whose The Compleat Angler, published in 1653, is the most reprinted fishing book of all time with more than 400 editions to date. Oddest of all is the small statue of deep-sea diver William Walker who, after the discovery in 1905 that the Cathedral was shifting dangerously due to the marshy ground it was built on, worked under water for six years painstakingly replacing the foundations with concrete in specially-dug trenches.

Winchester College
Winchester College

Have lunch at the Wykeham Arms, named after the 14th-century bishop who founded the famous nearby school. The old pub houses a collection of small rooms decorated with a delightfully haphazard mix of artifacts. Reserve for a satisfying restaurant meal. Otherwise, rub shoulders with the loyal locals and enjoy the pub's hearty bar snacks.

Make your next stop Winchester College, one of Britain's foremost public, fee-paying schools (private schools are confusingly known as "public" schools in Britain, while state-run free education takes place in "state" schools). Founded by William of Wykeham in 1382, the College originally stood outside the city walls, protected from the street by a hefty wall with arrow slits for windows. You can visit the atmospheric collection of buildings that make up the oldest continuously-running school in the country on a guided tour that takes in the 1420 chapel the cloisters, the College Hall (the original Scholars' dining room), the 1680s schoolroom and New Hall. It's a glimpse into a privileged world of erudition.

The Hospital of St. Cross
The Hospital of St. Cross

From here, a footpath takes you beside the River Itchen for a twenty-minute stroll to The Hospital of St. Cross, where pilgrims (and you can claim to be one) are offered beer and bread as the Wayfarer's Dole. It's now a charity for the elderly, but you can visit some of the 12th-century buildings. The walk was one of the inspirations for the poet John Keats in his ode, To Autumn, which he wrote on a stay here in 1819.

Back in Winchester, walk first to the picturesque ruins of the 12th century bishop's palace of Wolvesey Castle, then make your way to High Street past the old Butter Cross and through Westgate to the surviving part of the castle begun by William the Conqueror. The Great Hall is dominated by the "Round Table of King Arthur," which is eighteen feet in diameter and dates back to the 14th century, though not, as legend would have it, to the mists of time.

Military history enthusiasts must take in the historic Peninsula Barracks dating back 2,000 years to the Roman encampment. The army had depots here from the early 18th century to 1986 when they were converted into a visitor center with five separate and extremely impressive military museums.

Chesil Rectory
Chesil Rectory

For a taste of Winchester's lively night life, try one of the many pubs. The delightful Black Boy is full of extraordinary artifacts; the Willow Tree has a riverside garden for the summer. The theater (which is haunted) has a varied and entertaining program of music and theatre. The smart Screen Cinema on Southgate Street shows the latest films.

Winchester has become quite a gourmet destination. Book a table at the Hotel du Vin's Bistro for excellent contemporary European cooking. The Black Rat, now under the same ownership as the popular Black Boy, offers top cooking in a converted pub; The Chesil Rectory has a new chef and continues to champion local, contemporary cooking; the Willow Tree is another worthwhile contender.

Continue to Day 2


Travel Guide: Great Britain
Business Travel Guide: London
Business Travel Guide: Birmingham

Best Hotels in London
Best of London

* The "Round Table of King Arthur image courtesy of Winchester City Council

(Updated: 03/31/09 SG)

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