Nowadays a tranquil, handsome market town, WINCHESTER was once one of the mightiest settlements in England. Under the Romans it was Venta Belgarum, the fifth largest town in Britain, but it was Alfred the Great who really put Winchester on the map when he made it the capital of his Wessex kingdom in the ninth century. For the next two hundred years or so Winchester ranked alongside London, its status affirmed by William the Conqueror’s coronation in both cities and by his commissioning of the local monks to prepare the Domesday Book. It wasn’t until after the Battle of Naseby in 1645, when Cromwell took the city, that Winchester began its decline into provinciality.
Hampshire’s county town now has a scholarly and slightly anachronistic air, embodied by the ancient almshouses that still provide shelter for senior citizens of “noble poverty” – the pensioners can be seen walking round the town in medieval black or mulberry-coloured gowns with silver badges.Read More
Winchester CathedralThe first minster to be built in Winchester was raised by Cenwalh, the Saxon king of Wessex in the mid-seventh century, and traces of this building have been unearthed near the present cathedral, which was begun in 1079 and completed some three hundred years later. The exterior is not its best feature – squat and massive, it crouches stumpily over the tidy lawns of the Cathedral Close. The interior is rich and complex, however, and its 556ft nave makes this Europe’s longest medieval church. Outstanding features include the carved Norman font of black Tournai marble, the fourteenth-century misericords (the choir stalls are the oldest complete set in the country) and some amazing monuments – William of Wykeham’s Chantry, halfway down the nave on the right, is one of the most ornate. Jane Austen, who died in Winchester, is commemorated close to the font by a memorial brass and slab beneath which she’s interred, though she’s recorded simply as the daughter of a local clergyman. Above the high altar lie the mortuary chests of pre-Conquest kings, including Canute (though the bones were mixed up after Cromwell’s Roundheads broke up the chests in 1645); William Rufus, killed while hunting in the New Forest in 1100, lies in the presbytery. Behind the impressive Victorian screen at the end of the presbytery, look out for the memorial shrine to St Swithun. Originally buried outside in the churchyard, his remains were later interred inside where the “rain of heaven” could no longer fall on him, whereupon he took revenge and the heavens opened for forty days – hence the legend that if it rains on St Swithun’s Day (July 15) it will do so for another forty. His exact burial place is unknown.
Accessible from the north transept, the Norman crypt – often flooded – is home to Anthony Gormley’s contemplative figure Sound II, reflected in the waters. The cathedral’s original foundations were dug in marshy ground, and at the beginning of last century a steadfast diver, William Walker, spent five years replacing the rotten timber foundations with concrete.
The Watercress Line
The Watercress Line
ALRESFORD, six miles east of Winchester, is the departure-point for the Mid-Hants Watercress Line, a steam-powered train so named because it passes through the former watercress beds that once flourished here. The train chuffs ten miles to Alton, with gourmet dinners served on board on Saturday evenings, plus real ales from local breweries and traditional Sunday lunches.
Jane Austen in Chawton
Jane Austen in Chawton
A mile southwest of Alton – accessible on the “Watercress line” steam train, – lies the village of CHAWTON, where Jane Austen lived from 1809 to 1817, during the last and most prolific years of her life, and where she wrote or revised almost all of her six books, including Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. A plain red-brick building in the centre of the village, Jane Austen’s House contains first editions of some of her greatest works and provides a fascinating insight into the daily life of the author. A short walk from the house is Chawton House, which belonged to Jane’s brother, Edward Austen Knight. It remained in the Austen family until 1987, when it was bought by American IT millionairess Sandy Lerner who opened the Chawton House Library, containing an impressive collection of women’s writing in English from 1600–1830. The house, which has now been fully restored, can be visited on a guided tour, or you can look round the gardens independently. The library is open by appointment only.