diamond geezer

 Sunday, March 22, 2009

Day out: Winchester
Long before London was the nation's capital, the seat of kings lay in deepest Hampshire. Winchester was established as the capital of Wessex about 1200 years ago, surrendering its superiority to London only following the Norman Conquest. Its most famous ruler was the legendary King Alfred, the only English monarch ever to be officially deemed 'Great'. His statue now stands at the foot of the High Street [photo], conveniently located for the tourist information office, and looking down over a row of Park and Ride bus stops. Winchester's a bit like that, marvellously old but with a twist of new, and it made for a splendid spring day out.
  » Visit Winchester

Winchester Cathedral
Winchester Cathedral naveWhere else to start but the cathedral? [photo] It's the longest Gothic cathedral in Europe, 170 metres in length, and a mighty imposing sight visible across the city [photo]. There used to be an Old Minster nextdoor, dating all the way back to 648AD, but that's now visible only in outline on the grass. Five quid will get you inside its replacement, and then you can gawp in wonder at the scale and spectacle of medieval architecture. The nave is most impressive [photo], with a high vaulted ceiling above tall Norman arches, and you may either choose to sit here in quite contemplation or whip your camera out and attempt to take arty shots [photo]. Jane Austen is buried beneath a plaque in the northern aisle, and the house in which she spent her last days is only a few yards round the corner in College Street [photo]. Beyond the low altar is the medieval quire [photo], packed with ornate carvings and (if you pick your time right) angelic voices in cassocks. Look up on top of the screens in front of the high altar and you'll see six painted mortuary chests containing the relics of several Saxon and Danish kings. Canute's up there, and Ethelwulf, and the odd important bishop too. Alas there's no trace of the most famous bishop of all, 9th century St Swithun. His shrine has been plundered, shifted and destroyed over the years, but you can still see the tiny arch through which pilgrims used to crawl to pay their respects [photo]. The glazed floor tiles here are some of the oldest surviving in the country, and it's a joy to step across their delicately crafted heraldic and geometric patterns [photo][photo]. Take the stairs in the south transept and you can climb up to view the Winchester Bible, an exquisite document inked by generations of monks with perfect handwriting, and illustrated by vivid gold-leaf drawings. As the building's creators once hoped, this space is still heavenly.

Winchester Round TableGreat Hall: Only the 13th century Great Hall survived Cromwell's demolition of Winchester Castle. The beam-roofed building's impressive enough, but completely upstaged by the Round Table hanging on the west wall [photo]. It's not the genuine Round Table of legend, alas, just an 18-foot oak reconstruction ordered by one of the Plantagenet King Edwards. And that's not Arthur in the centre, that's King Henry VIII who had the table repainted to impress a visiting European monarch.

City Mill: Recently restored by the National Trust, this 18th century watermill squats over the River Itchen at the foot of the High Street [photo]. There are some beams and wheels and ropes to gawp at, and maybe some otters too if you time your visit right. The best bit, almost but not quite worth the £3.50 entrance fee, is the opportunity to stand in a confined space downstairs and watch the river thundering through the millrace.
Buttercross: A many-pinnacled monument halfway down the High Street, once the centrepiece of medieval market trading, and now just somewhere to sit and nibble something unhealthy from one of the two neighbouring pasty shops [photo].
St Giles' Hill: The perfect city viewpoint [photo], just a short climb beyond the Itchen, whose grassy slopes are promoted as the best place in town to watch the sunset.

City Museum: This town has 2000 years of history, so there's a lot to cram in. Top floor Roman (with some impressively large chunks of tiled mosaic), middle floor Alfred's kingdom (and a canter through the subsequent millennium), and on the ground floor Winchester's more recent tourist and commercial heritage (including an evocative recreation of a 1960s corner shop).
Westgate: Another museum, this time accessed by climbing up to rooms above the old city gate. It's not a thriller (ooh look, a complete set of Winchester's historic weights and measures), but the view from the roof almost makes up for it [photo].
Military Museums: If you're the type who loves pottering around museums depicting army life, Winchester has a cluster of six. There's one devoted to the Gurkhas, another to the horseback Hussars, another for the Royal Greenjackets, etc. They're all housed in the former Peninsula Barracks, built on the site of Winchester Castle. Me, I gave them a miss and enjoyed the central formal gardens instead [photo].


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