The big idea

As would befit the ancient capital of Wessex, Winchester is steeped in history, is overwhelmingly beautiful and is brimming with intellect – it’s also a complete gem of a city. Ingrained in its culture is a certain inquisitiveness, a desire to understand, which has led to its reputation as a thinker’s city. So if you combine this with its location on the major route between London and the important port of Southampton, it’s not hard to see why the place was of such importance to the monarchy and why it played such a big role in its history.

Ancient and Royal

So, what of that history, both royal and otherwise? Well, the tough part is where to start, but we could do worse than looking at Alfred the Great, who defended the Anglo Saxons against the Vikings, and became known as the ‘father of the English navy’. Winchester was his seat and capital of Wessex. As well as his skills as defender of the realm, Alfred (the only English king to be given the epithet ‘the Great’) was well known for being a great believer in, and promoter of, education and the legal system. His dedication to excellence in mind and deed obviously rubbed off on the place, as it is very much what makes Winchester what it is today.

The wonderful cathedral also has its fair share of history: it contains the tombs of the early English kings and, in six small wooden chests, some of the oldest royal bones in England. It’s also home to the famous Winchester Bible, a 12th century bible with the most glorious illuminations, and the longest mediaeval nave in Europe. And then there’s the Hospital of St Cross, the oldest almshouse in England and The Great Hall, deemed to be ‘the biggest and finest of all the 13th century halls’ and home to the legendary Round Table of Arthurian legend. It truly is a sight to behold. In fact, Winchester is home to some of the greatest mediaeval buildings in Europe, including one of the oldest continuously used city streets in the country.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, and gives us some indication as to why it’s one of the leading archaeological cities in the world…

Intellectual pursuits

You may think we’re over-egging the intellectual pudding a little with Winchester, but it really is quite, well, highbrow. Winchester College is the oldest continuously running school in the country (in its 700 years it’s even picked up its own college language and customs, known simply as ‘notions’). The annual Writers’ Conference is designed to support fledgling scribes by holding seminars, workshops and lectures by authors, playwrights and poets. And Art and Mind, set up in association with the University of Winchester, is a charity set up to explore the art of science and the science of art by putting on festivals and events throughout the year. Not events you’ll see on every city’s event list we’re sure you’ll agree…

But it doesn’t stop there, Jane Austen – renowned for her sense of humour and love of the absurd – lived and was buried here (there’s a stained glass window in the cathedral in her memory); Keats’ poem To Autumn was written after taking a walk near Winchester one Autumn; Antony Gormley (he of Angel of the North fame) installed his sculpture Sound II in the crypt of the cathedral (talking of the cathedral, parts of The Da Vinci Code film starring Tom Hanks were filmed here); the city can even claim to be the cradle of the game of cricket – surely the original thinking man’s sport?
 

The essence

Captivating

Who’s it ideal for/how it can make you feel

 Very few places give you such a sense of history, and our place in it, than Winchester. It’s thought-provoking, inspiring and educational in equal measure. Anyone interested in the pursuit of intellectual excellence will love it here, as will history buffs, creative types and kids of all ages.

  

Interesting bits in the history

The history of the city can be traced right back to c400 BC, when a hill fort was built on St Catherine’s hill, and trading started in the area known as Oram’s Arbour. In about 43 AD the Romans captured the town from the Celtic Belgae tribe, and promptly renamed it Venta Belgarum (‘market-place of the Belgae’); much building work followed, so much that by the third century it was one of the biggest towns in Roman Britain.

Following the Romans departure the town of Venta fell into disrepair; but by 519 AD Cedric, a pagan Saxon chief, founded the Kingdom of Wessex, and chose the renamed Winchester as his capital; fast-forward to 825 AD and Egbert, King of Wessex, was recognised by the other Saxon leaders as the King of Britain, hence making Winchester the capital of England. And over the next couple of hundred years of Saxon and Danish rule the Kings of England resided in its capital, Winchester. Amongst them were King Alfred, who did so much to make the city a centre of learning and culture, and whose original street plan is still evident today; the Danish King Canute; and Edward the Confessor – the last English King to be crowned in any place other than Westminster Abbey. Shortly afterwards the capital moved to London.

Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, William the Conqueror settled into Winchester, built a new castle and rebuilt the Royal Palace. Shortly afterwards, a new cathedral was built. In the 12th century, the Bishop of Winchester, Henry do Blois, founded the Hospital of St Cross, and work started on the beautiful Winchester Bible.

In the middle ages  wool was the main industry in the city, and during the 13th century the castle’s Great Hall was built and King Arthur’s Table commissioned. Tragedy struck however in the late 14th century as the Black Death swept through Winchester, wiping out over half the population. The city bounced back though, in part down to the efforts of the Bishop William of Wykeham – at the time the richest and one of the most powerful men in the country – who was responsible for much of the current structure of the cathedral, and for founding Winchester College, the model for English public schools.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the wool trade had dwindled in the face of competition from overseas and any growth in the town stopped. It was however still a town of much royal significance; Prince Arthur, son of Henry VII, was born in Winchester Castle in 1486; Henry VIII entertained Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, in 1522 – showing him the newly repainted Round Table; and Queen Mary of Tudor and Philip of Spain were married in the cathedral in 1554.

Winchester changed hands several times during the Civil War, but in 1651 Cromwell’s soldiers demolished the castle to ensure it never fell into Royalist hands again – only the Great Hall was left standing.

Over the next couple of centuries much of the city was rebuilt, with fine Georgian houses constructed, the impressive Guildhall and a new theatre; the railways connected Winchester with London and Southampton. The famous novelist Jane Austen died in the city in 1817; some two years later the romantic poet John Keats stayed here and was inspired to pen several poems.

And so to the 20th century: it kicked off with the unveiling of the statue of Alfred the Great, commemorating the 1,000th anniversary of his death; the city centre was redeveloped and the streets widened; new shopping facilities were opened as retail and tourism played a bigger role in the city’s fortunes.
 

How to experience what’s different/get under the skin of Winchester
Start next to the original site for the city, at St Catherine’s Hill, where the original Iron Age hill fort stood. From here head towards the city and pass over the river on College Walk (this is the area that so inspired Keats in his poetry); in front of you look out for the ruins of Wolvesey Castle – despite being ruins they’re still impressive to this day, as this was one of England’s greatest buildings for centuries, and home to the Bishops of Winchester. Head along College Street and you’ll see Winchester College on your left-hand side (the College’s famous motto? Manners maketh man), and Jane Austen’s House (now a private residence) just past it. Take a right onto Kingsgate Street and left at the end for St Swithun Street (named after the saint famous for signalling the start of rainy days and buried at Winchester); pop up Symonds Street and you’ve got Winchester Cathedral and to the right the Cathedral Visitor Centre.
Prepare to spend a lot of time at the cathedral as there’s a lot to take in (why not take a guide? There’s even a rather well-known ex-newsreader doing some of the tours today). As well as being the longest Gothic cathedral in the world, it boasts the most beautiful intricate fan vaulting in the nave; the delightfully carved Great Screen – one of the finest in the country; those six wooden mortuary chests, which hold the remains of kings such as Egbert and Canute; and the ‘Rufus Tomb’, the statue of Joan of Arc, and the black marble gravestone in memory of Jane Austen. And if that’s not enough, how about the Winchester Bible, the 1,000-plus intricate bosses in the ceiling, the ‘Diver Bill’ statue and the new shrine to St Swithuns? A wealth of treasures.
After the delights of the cathedral, pop over to the opposite corner of the green for the City Museum which brings to life the changing fortunes of the city over the years by way of an extensive archaeological collection. When you’re done with the past, cut through Market Street, and turn right onto Broadway. Stroll down here and on the right you’ll see the Guildhall, which is now home to the Tourist Information Centre. At the end of Broadway is the imposing King Alfred’s Statue, which was unveiled over 100 years ago, and to the right you’ll find the peaceful Abbey Gardens, so-called because one of the country’s biggest religious houses, St Mary’s Abbey, was once located here. The gardens are overlooked by Abbey House, the official residence of the mayor of Winchester – the second oldest mayoralty in England (only five cities in Britain have the distinction of possessing such an official residence for their mayors).
Head back along Broadway, turning right along Middle Brook Street, and you’ll find the Brooks Shopping Centre, which boasts a mix of well-known chains and smaller independents. From here go back to Broadway and take a right up the High Street. Once the Roman’s east-west route through the city, this is now an attractive, busy, pedestrianised street home to a wealth of shops with attractive Elizabethan and Regency architecture (it’s on this street that the curfew bell still sounds each night at 8pm to remind people to cover their fires until the morning).
At the top of the High Street, past the Hampshire Hog statue and outside the County Council buildings, you’ll find Westgate, one of two surviving fortified gateways in the city, and now home to a museum. Used over the years as a jail, it now houses the city’s archives and a rather famous collection of pre-Imperial weights and measures and a fine painted frieze from Winchester College, which was created to commemorate the wedding of Mary Tudor.
Then behind Westgate is another jewel in the city, the Great Hall itself. The first and finest of all the 13th century medieval halls in England, it is second only to Westminster Hall in size. With the Round Table hanging on the wall – King Arthur’s mythical table created by the wizard Merlin, with the names of the 24 Knights – it makes for an impressive sight.
And behind here is one of the largest collections of regimental history outside London. In the corner of Peninsula Barracks is the Visitor Centre and Museum of the Adjutant General Corps; on display inside is a War Department driving permit issued to Her Majesty the Queen. Also in the Barracks are The Rifles Museums , with collections of uniforms, medals, weapons and a huge Waterloo display; Horsepower, the Museum of the King’s Royal Hussars; and The Gurkha Museum, which details 200 years of their fascinating story; and, just around the corner, is the Royal Hampshire Regiment Museum on Southgate Street. A moving tribute all in one compact area. 
And afterwards, why not take the road south along Southgate Street; you’ll find to the right, just beside the River Itchen and the inspiring Water Meadows, the oldest almshouse in the country, the Hospital of St Cross.
Winchester: an archaeological delight.

 [LMH1]Nigel this is the first time you’ve mentioned wolvesey castle – is this the same one mentioned earlier? If so it needs mentioning there, too

How to experience what’s different about Winchester

Start next to the original site for the city, at St Catherine’s Hill where the original Iron Age hill fort stood. From here head towards the city and pass over the river on College Walk (this is the area that so inspired Keats in his poetry); in front of you look out for the ruins of Wolvesey Castle- despite being ruins they’re still impressive to this day, as this was one of England’s greatest  buildings for centuries, and home to the Bishops of Winchester. Head along College Street and you’ll see Winchester College on your left hand side (the College’s famous motto? Manners maketh man), and the (private) Jane Austen’s House just past it. Take a right onto Kingsgate Street and left at the end onto St Swithun Street (named after the Saint famous for signalling the start of rainy days, and buried at Winchester); pop up Symonds Street and you’ve got Winchester Cathedral and to the right the Cathedral Visitors’ Centre.

Prepare to spend a lot of time at the cathedral, as there’s a lot to take in (why not take a guide? There’s even a rather well-known ex-newsreader doing some of the tours today). As well as being the longest Gothic cathedral in the world, check out the beauty of the intricate fan vaulting in the nave; the delightfully carved Great Screen- one of the finest in the country; those six wooden mortuary chests- holding the remains of kings such as Egbert and Canute; and the ‘Rufus Tomb’, the statue of Joan of Arc, and the black marble gravestone in memory of Jane Austen. And if that’s not enough, how about the Winchester Bible, over a thousand intricate bosses in the ceiling, the ‘Diver Bill’ statue and the new shrine to St Swithuns? A wealth of treasures.

After the delights of the cathedral, in the opposite corner of the green is the City Museum; an ideal way to bring to life the changing fortunes of the city over the years, through an extensive archaeological collection. Cut through Market Street, and turn right onto the Broadway. Stroll down here past the Guildhall building on the right; now home to the Tourist Information Centre. At the end of the Broadway is the imposing King Alfred’s Statue, unveiled over a hundred years ago; and to the right the peaceful Abbey Gardens, once the site of St Mary’s Abbey, previously one of the country’s biggest religious houses. The gardens are overlooked by Abbey House, the official residence of the mayor of Winchester- the second oldest mayorailty in England (only 5 cities in Britain have the distinction of possessing such an official residence for their mayors).

Head back along Broadway, turning right along Middle Brook Street, and you’ll find the Brooks Shopping Centre, with a mix of well-known chains and smaller independents. From here go back to the Broadway and take a right up the High Street. Once the Roman’s East-West route through the city, this is now an attractive, busy, pedestrianised street home to a wealth of shops with with attractive Elizabethan and Regency architecture (it’s on this street that the curfew bell still sounds each night at 8pm to remind people to cover their fires until the morning).

At the top of the High Street, past the Hampshire Hog statue, outside the County council buildings, you’ll find the Westgate, one of two surviving fortified gateways in the city, and now home to a museum. Used over the years as a jail as well, this now houses the city’s archives and a rather famous collection of pre-Imperial weights and measures and a fine painted frieze from Winchester College, created to commemorate the wedding of Mary Tudor.

Then behind the Westgate is another jewel in the city. The Great Hall itself. The first and finest of all the 13th century medieval halls in England, this is second only to Westminster Hall in size. With the Round Table hanging on the wall- King Arthur’s mythical table created by the wizard Merlin, with the names of the 24 Knights- it makes for an impressive sight.

And behind here is one of the largest collections of regimental history outside London. In the corner of Peninsula Barracks is the Visitor Centre and Museum of the Adjutant General Corps; on display inside is a War Department driving permit issued to the Her Majesty the Queen. Also in the Barracks are The Rifles Museums- with collections of uniforms, medals, weapons and a huge Waterloo display; Horsepower- the Museum of the King’s Royal Hussars; and The Gurkha Museum- detailing 200 years of their fascinating story; just around the corner is the Royal Hampshire Regiment Museum on Southgate Street. A moving tribute all in one compact area.  

And afterwards, why not take the road south along Southgate Street; you’ll find to the right, just beside the River Itchen and the inspiring Water Meadows, the oldest almshouse in the country, the Hospital of St Cross.

Winchester. An archaeological delight.

When to visit

City pics

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