A medieval town centre, a fine Norman cathedral, and a riverside setting. A one time seat of kings, including the legendary King Arthur. This is Winchester, an ancient city surrounded by peaceful countryside. Let me show you some of the best things to do in Winchester.
Why Visit Winchester?
Winchester has a long history, stretching back to Roman times, but it really came to prominence in the Middle Ages. The connection with King Arthur may be tenuous, but Winchester was certainly the capital of Wessex under the Saxon King Alfred. It was later one of the meeting places of the English court until power was centralised in London around the 12th century.
As a result there is medieval history everywhere, from the historic centre to the Early English cathedral, to old alms houses and a former bishops’ palace. Look hard enough and you’ll find some more recent history too, particularly in the Military Museums which are a reminder of the city’s role in numerous conflicts through the centuries.
Then there is the natural setting. Winchester is on the river Itchen, surrounded by parkland and hills. It is on the edge of the South Downs National Park and the New Forest is just a short drive away.
A Historic City Centre
There isn’t much evidence of the Romans here today: Winchester is firmly medieval. The city centre is a delight, a hotchpotch of buildings in different styles. Walk along the High Street and look carefully at the facades of the buildings noting the tiny architectural details and the names that date back to the Middle Ages (my favourite was Got Begot House, now an Ask Restaurant).
You’ll find some remnants of the medieval city walls beside the river (follow the path on the western side of the City Bridge towards the Old Bishop’s Palace). Two of the city gates survive – the Westgate (now a museum) and the Kingsgate – as does much of the wall around the Cathedral Close.
The exterior of Winchester Cathedral is unremarkable, and there is an entrance charge, so I nearly skipped going inside. Which would have been a pity, because it turned out to be very impressive inside. Apart from the vast size of the place two things strike you immediately. The first is the number of small chapels, not just around the edge but also a few tucked away in the body of the cathedral. And the second is that – unlike many similar buildings – the upper floors are accessible to visitors.
An exhibition area contains the “Winchester Bible”, a magnificent illuminated manuscript from the 12th century. When you have looked at the Bible climb up two flights of stairs (or take the lift) to an exhibition area with information about the building and history of the cathedral. At the very top you can also enjoy a birds eye view of the nave.
Back on the ground floor there is much more to explore. I was particularly keen to see the medieval wall paintings in the Holy Sepulchre Chapel. I discovered that the chapel is kept locked (apart from during a service in the chapel on Saturday mornings), but a helpful churchwarden opened it for me and let me look inside.
The many other items of interest in the cathedral include the grave of Jane Austen, and a “holy hole” through which pilgrims would crawl to touch the relics of St Swithun.
King Arthur And The Great Hall
Winchester Castle was built in the reign of William the Conqueror and remained a royal palace until it was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell. All that remains now is a few ruins (look for the underground passageways beside Castle Hill) and the Great Hall. This is regarded as one of the finest remaining medieval halls in England, a cavernous space with wooden beams, columns and stained glass windows.
Above the hall is the Long Gallery, a museum area with information boards about Winchester and its history. And outside is a small herb garden known as Queen Eleanor’s Garden.
However the main attraction is the massive round table top mounted on one wall. This is said to be King Arthur’s Round Table, and it has the names of Arthur’s knights written around the edge. Winchester is one of many places that claim to be the site of the king’s court at Camelot, but the authenticity of the table is cast into doubt by the fact that it is known to have been created in the 13th century, many centuries after the supposed exploits of Arthur and his knights!
In case you are wondering, the Tudor Rose at the centre of the table was added by Henry VIII, who wanted to claim King Arthur as an ancestor.
Other Things To Do In Winchester
Once you’ve walked round the historic centre and visited the Cathedral and the Great Hall there are still several more things to do in Winchester.
The Westgate is one of two remaining medieval gateways into the city. For many years it was used as a prison but today it is a small museum with displays showing the history of the city, and including a collection of historic weights and measures.
For me the most interesting thing about the Westgate was the building itself. The upper chamber is small but ornate, with painted walls and ceiling. One wall is covered by graffiti carved by the former prisoners. You can climb a further staircase to get onto the roof, and look out over the medieval High Street.
Winchester City Mill
The City Mill is an ancient water mill owned by the National Trust. Until recently it was still in operation, but it is currently in need of repair. Hopefully it will soon be fixed but, whether the wheel is turning or not, it is an interesting site to visit. You can walk around the old building, and learn about its history (there has been a mill on this site since 1295) and about the production of flour.
There is a shop and a café, as well as a small secondhand bookshop. Visitors can also walk down the stairs to see the wheel and the fast flowing river beneath the mill. This is apparently a haven for wildlife – I didn’t see any but otters, kingfishers and many other species have been spotted here.
Wolvesey Castle was an important Norman palace, and home to the bishops of Winchester. Visitors can enjoy the extensive ruins and peaceful parkland.
(Note that the castle may not be open during the winter months – check the website for details.)
Winchester’s Military Museums
For those with an interest in military history Winchester’s Military Museums are not to be missed. Centrally located on the site of the former Peninsula Barracks there are six different museums covering subjects as diverse as the Royal Hampshire Regiment and the contribution of Gurkhas to military service.
Round About Winchester
There are lots of opportunities for walkers in the hills that overlook the city. In particular St Catherine’s Hill is a peaceful nature reserve with walking trails, and an oddity in the form of St Catherine’s Mizmaze.
To the east of Winchester is the South Downs National Park, and Jane Austen’s House (now a museum) is 25 km away. The New Forest is just over 30 km to the southwest.
How To Visit Winchester
- Winchester is an easy day trip from London by train; the journey takes an hour from Waterloo Station.
- If you are arriving by car there are several Park and Ride sites around the edge of the city. However note that there are no Park and Ride bus services on Sundays or Bank Holidays.
- The city centre is compact and walkable. To get the most from the city you might like to take a guided walking tour.
- There are lots of places to eat in the city, from historic pubs to upmarket restaurants to more basic bars and cafés.
- If you are staying overnight have a look at the accommodation options on booking.com. Note that you are likely to find a better deal (and more availability) if you stay outside the centre.
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