Winchester - England's ancient capital

Posted on August 16, 2014 by Toothpicker There have been 0 comments

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Winchester Cathedral


It is so easy for us Londoners to be absorbed in our lifestyle and become London-centric. We forget that London is not the centre of the world and there is 'life' beyond the city. Sometimes I am shocked to hear that many foreigners who move to London for work have never ventured outside of the capital. It's a pity that when they don't explore cities and rural countryside outside of the capital because there are many wonderful and historical places in Britain that are worth visiting.

My good friend from school has been living outside of Winchester for many years, and so I have had the opportunity to get to know this historical city. This year, I was again invited to stay with her and her family in their new house, for me it was just lovely to spent some quality time with her and her family, and to explore the city and the beautiful Hampshire again.


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The Great Hall and the Queen Eleanor’s Garden 


Most of the foreign visitors I know who come to the UK would visit popular destinations like Cambridge, Oxford, Bath, Stratford-upon-Avon, Canterbury or even Brighton, Winchester though, is not very high on their lists. Yet this ancient capital of England is steeped in history and it is only an hour's train ride from London, so I am surprised that it is still under the tourist radar.

The most famous sights in the city is no doubt the magnificent Winchester Cathedral, one of the largest cathedrals in England. Originally founded in 635 as the first Christian church in Winchester, it was replaced by a new Cathedral in 1093, but it was in early 16th century that much of the Cathedral we see today was complete. One of more recent attractions is Antony Gormley's life-size statue of a man contemplating the water held in his cupped hands located in the Cathedral crypt, which floods during rainy months.

Another popular historical attraction is The Great Hall, home of the famous Round Table and remains of the 13th century Winchester Castle. Although many originally believed that the 13th century Round Table is the table around which King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table met. Scientific research proved that this Round Table is not the original but was made some six centuries later by Edward I and later painted by order of King Henry VIII.

There is also a wonderful Queen Eleanor’s Garden here, a re-creation by Dr Sylvia Landsberg, of an enclosed medieval garden. In medieval times gardens offered pleasure, repose and refreshment to the senses as well as food and medicine. Queen Eleanor’s Garden is an accurate example of a medieval garden which features turf seats, bay hedges, a fountain, tunnel arbour and many beautiful herbs and flowers of the time.


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Top right & bottom row: City Museum; 2nd row left: The Buttercross; 2nd row middle & right: art bollards can be seen on the streets of city


For those who want to learn about Winchester's history, the free City museum is a good place to start. The museum is not very big but there are many interesting historical artifacts dating back to the Iron Age up to the present day. Being the fifth largest town of Roman Britain, the museum also showcases some fascinating Roman mosaic work including a well-preserved floor design, as seen above.

Walking around the city, I also noticed many painted bollards, and it turns out to be a project funded by the Winchester City Council as part of its wider contribution to the refurbishment of The Square. There are 16 in total created by the team at The Colour Factory, which includes principal artists Jenny Muncaster and Rachael Alexander, took inspiration from some of the world’s greatest painters.


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Architecture in the city centre including the 16th century Eclipse Inn (2nd row left)


A range of architecture style can be in Winchester's city centre, but one that stands out is The Eclipse Inn from 1540, one of the oldest inns in the city. The building has had many uses including a rectory, private residence, ale house (around 1750) and from the nineteenth century an Inn. The inn is also rumoured to be haunted by The Grey Lady or Dame Alice Lisle of Moyles Court who was executed nearby in Winchester Market Place in 1685.


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Top & 2nd row left: Jane Austen's final home in Winchester


Hampshire is home to one of the most famous English authors, Jane Austen, who died in Winchester in 1817 at the age of only 41. A year before she died, she moved to Winchester's College Street (next to the Cathedral) to get medical assistance from a celebrated doctor at the newly established Winchester Hospital. This also explains why she was buried in the Winchester Cathedral and not in Chawton where Jane Austen spent the last eight years of her life. Now passerby can still see the commemorative plaque outside the yellow house (now it belongs to Winchester College) where she spent her final days.


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 The Chesil Rectory


Often voted as one of UK's most romantic restaurants and one of the best in city, The Chesil Rectory is my friend's favourite in the city and I can see why. Situated in a 600 year old grade II listed Medieval house, the restaurant is charming and cosy (probably even better to visit in winters). The restaurant lost its Michelin star when the it changed ownership/chef, but now the restaurant has a younger vibe and serves locally-sourced produce in a more contemporary style. The place was almost empty when we visited at lunch time, so my friend and I were happy to indulge and enjoy our 'bargain' set lunches in a wonderful and relaxing setting.


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 Wolvesey Castle (Old Bishop's Palace)


Located next to the Cathedral is the Wolvesey Castle (Old Bishop's Palace), a 12th century palace ruins of the Bishop of Winchester, Henry of Blois (grandson of William the Conqueror). Although it is largely a ruin now, you can still see the scale and imagine how luxurious the palace used to be. It also reveals the wealth and power of the bishops in the English church, as well as in national politics back in the medieval period.


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 The hospital of St Cross and its church and garden


About 15 walks from Wolvesey Castle along the river lies The hospital of St Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty, founded by Bishop Henry of Blois between 1132 and 1136, and it is said to be England’s oldest charitable institution.

The Hospital was founded to support thirteen poor men, so frail that they were unable to work, and to feed one hundred men at the gates each day. The thirteen men became the Brothers of St Cross. Then, as now, they were not monks. St Cross is not a monastery but a secular foundation. Medieval St Cross was endowed with land, mills and farms, providing food and drink for a large number of people. The medieval almshouse is not only the largest but it is the oldest in Britain.

The site is a hidden gem, not only it is extremely tranquil, it is also very well maintained. There is also a beautiful garden with a large pond and plants introduced from America into England during the 17th century. Unfortunately, our time here was limited by the parking metre and it was starting to rain when we were strolling around. I think this garden would be perfect for those who want to enjoy nature and peace within the city.


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Properties are well sought-after in Winchester because of their attractiveness and proximity to London


This post was posted in Food & dining, Architecture, Travel, Gardens & parks, British heritage, Britain and was tagged with Food & dining, architecture, gardens, heritage, Winchester