Welcome to Winchester, Capital of Wessex
Winchester, the county town of Hampshire, is located by the flowing waters of the River Itchen at the western end of the rolling chalk hills that form the South Downs National Park. Awarded the 2016 title ‘best place to live in Britain’ by the Sunday Times, and highly praised for its ‘food, festivals and feel-good factor’, Winchester attracts over five million visitors throughout the year; all eager to explore the city and to experience the warm hospitality and friendly nature of the locals.
I was dazzled by the splendour of Winchester Cathedral, the city’s most prominent landmark, which was originally built in 1079. This building features the longest Medieval nave in Europe, exceptional examples of architecture spanning from the 11th to the 16th century, and it is the final resting place for a number of high profile individuals including King William II, William of Wykeham; Chancellor of England and Bishop of Winchester and the celebrated novelist Jane Austen who died in 1817 at the age of 41.
Winchester Cathedral’s history is linked to the 7th century when Cynegils, the Saxon king of Wessex, was baptised, and Cenwalh, his son, built Winchester’s first Christian church, which was then known as the Old Minster. William the Conqueror, the first Norman king of England, replaced Winchester’s last Saxon bishop with his relative and chaplain, Wakelin, who promptly drew up plans to build a new church in the Norman Romanesque style. Old Minster was demolished and its stones formed the new Cathedral, which was consecrated in 1093.
The new Cathedral was to be the burial site for King Alfred the Great, but in 1110 his remains were moved to a local Benedictine monastery, known as Hyde Abbey. The Abbey was destroyed in 1539 as a result of the dissolution of monasteries during the reign of King Henry VIII and the bones of King Alfred the Great were lost.
Be sure to wander around the Cathedral Library and view the magnificent Winchester Bible, which is thought to be the largest and finest example of surviving 12th century English Bibles. The Latin script, which was written by only one scribe with, it is believed, a goose feather quill, is mesmerising, and the capital letters, at the beginning of each book of the Bible, are illuminated with the use of glittering gold leaf and lapis lazuli, which was transported from Afghanistan.
Admirers of Anthony Gormley should head for the Cathedral’s crypt to view his sculpture entitled ‘Sound II’, which was installed in 1986. The life-size statue is in the form of a man contemplating water in his cupped hands and the art work, as is Gormley’s trait, is fashioned from lead out of a plaster cast of his own body. His talent is evident.
Winchester offers visitors an extensive choice of quirky restaurants and trendy cafés. For a tasty luncheon that’s kind on the wallet, The Slug and Lettuce, a contemporary restaurant housed in a spacious Grade II listed building, is located on The Square. The menu features a wide range of enticing dishes including a delicious Asian platter (for sharing) and the flavours are perfectly enhanced with a refreshing glass of Domaine Vacheron Sancerre.
And for a very special treat, visit Raymond Blanc’s Brasserie, located on Jewry Street, which presents the utmost level of service and quality French dishes including the house special; a succulent steak tartar. And served with a bottle of Merlot Cabernet Bordeaux Superieur, it’s just the ticket. The dessert menu offers temptations that are impossible to resist and I succumbed to the pistachio soufflé, which was sublime. The flickering light from the candles on each table creates a warm ambience of romance and with the soft music playing in the background, the overall dining experience is one to savour.
For weary travellers seeking a central place to stay, the Winchester Royal Hotel offers a high standard of comfort and service. The property, built in the reign of Charles II, was once known as the Bishop’s House and incorporates part of the Tudor House of Lady Mary West, which was a secret centre for local Catholics in the 1580’s. The hotel is located on St Peter’s Street, which is only a stone’s throw from Winchester Cathedral. Consider the Milner Suite, which features antique furnishings, a spacious seating area flooded with light from the lattice windows and a comfortable four poster bed ensuring a deep slumber.
The ideal spot to relax is within the hotel’s large private walled garden and for an excellent dining experience you won’t have to go far as the in- house Garden Restaurant, which is featured in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight Food and Drink Guide, serves a wide range of tempting dishes in a conservatory style space. The slow braised pork belly and sage roulade is mouth watering and a zesty glass or two of the Silver Lake Sauvignon Blanc provides the perfect balance.
To learn more about Winchester, head for the City Museum, built on the site of the Old Market House, which was once a place of execution. Located on the corner of the Square and Great Minster Street, the three galleries focus on the story of Winchester’s past from the Iron Age right up to the present day. Exhibits include Anglo-Saxon jewellery, Roman mosaics, and objects once owned by Jane Austen. There are plenty of opportunities for family activities including role playing as an archaeologist sifting through artefacts and of course every man and boy is keen to prove they are an Indiana Jones in the making. Visitors are invited to colour their own Anglo-Saxon pots and transport themselves to another era, by trying on period costumes including Saxon, Roman, Victorian and Edwardian pieces.
Take a leisurely stroll along to the Great Hall, one of Winchester’s most popular attractions and a fine example of a medieval aisled hall of the 13th century. Situated at the top of the High Street, the Great Hall and Sally Port are all that remains of Winchester Castle, first constructed under the rule of William the Conqueror. Pause a while to admire the magnificent stained glass windows and wrought steel gates, which were installed in 1983 in celebration of the wedding of HRH the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer. The Great Hall presents what is said to be King Arthur’s Round Table, which hangs on the wall and demands your attention.
Winchester City Mill, another popular attraction, has stood on the same spot, on Bridge Street, beside the River Itchen, since at least Saxon times and it is thought to be the oldest working watermill in the country. Rebuilt in 1744, the mill remained in use until the early 20th century and under the care of the National Trust since the late 1920’s it was restored to full working order in 2004. Look out for a family of playful otters, known to frequent the banks of the River Itchen, right by the mill.
For those with a passion for animals, Marwell Zoo is located on Thompson’s Lane, only seven miles from the centre of Winchester. The 140 acre site is home to over 1200 animals including cheetahs, White rhinos, giraffe, Grevy’s zebra, Humboldt penguins, snow leopards, meerkats and Amur tigers. Getting around the site, particularly for families with children, is made easier by hopping on and off the road train.
For train enthusiasts, keen to experience the golden age of steam travel, head for the railway station at New Alresford; also only seven miles from Winchester. The Mid Hant’s Railway, known as the ‘watercress line’ due to the transportation of Hampshire’s watercress to London, runs restored steam trains and heritage diesels over ten miles of track. Run mostly by volunteers, including station staff, signalmen, guards and locomotive crews, engineers, builders and gardeners, our railway heritage will be preserved for generations to come and it really is a wonderful experience for both adults and children.
And for a tasty luncheon, the Globe, located on The Soke, is only a six minute walk from the station. Take a comfy seat on the terrace or in the fragrant garden and as you admire the beautiful surroundings you are sure to spot some of the feathered residents passing by on Alresford pond. Consider sampling the succulent 10oz Rib-eye steak and as you sip on your favourite tipple, reflect on the words of Jane Austen ‘To sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon verdure is the most perfect refreshment’.
Tip: For more information on the Winchester Royal Hotel visit www.winchesterroyalhotel.com or tel: 01962 840840
Tip: Let the train take the strain, avoid traffic delays and parking problems. The direct South West Trains service from London Waterloo to Winchester takes less than an hour. For more information visit www.southwesttrains.co.uk.
Tip: Visit www.minicabit.com and compare taxi rates in over 300 towns and cities, nationwide. Book your car on line and save time, effort and money.