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.