The Heart of Ancient England
At the time of the Norman Conquest, Winchester was England’s premier city. Glimpses of this glory remain in the cathedral, alleyways, colleges and museums in this fascinating Hampshire county town
Article by Mark Nicholls
The spirits of ancient England look down upon you as you walk through the cavernous interior of Winchester Cathedral. Said, at 554 feet, to be the longest mediaeval church in the world, the scale of the nave lined with grand tombs of former bishops is impressive. But it is the painted mortuary chests perched high above the choir that offer a sense of intrigue.
For within them are the bones – albeit jumbled up by the ravages of history and conflict – of several of the early kings of England: Eadred, Ethelwulf, Canute and William II. “There are bones in the caskets,” explains our guide Colin Cook, “but we are still not really sure who is who. There were, for example, more leg bones than expected found in one of the chests.”
Over the years, the bones had become somewhat intermingled, but what their presence in death underlines is that by the time of the Norman Conquest, Winchester was England’s premier city and the seat of regal power. It was indeed where the Royal treasures were held and to where William the Conqueror duly raced to – not London – when he defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 to claim control of the realm.
When you approach Winchester Cathedral, you are struck by its simplicity; of a stub tower and the irregular stonework of rushed construction of an exterior that belies the spectacle within. As one of the largest cathedrals in Europe, there is evidence of construction and reconstruction as you walk through it, perhaps following in the footsteps of pilgrims who centuries ago kneeled the final steps toward the shrine of St Swithun. Many of the tiles are still original, having worn well since the 13th century.
With our guide taking my wife Sharon and I on a fascinating tour of the cathedral, the layers of history were peeled away as he explained that the construction of William I’s cathedral in 1079 was in fact on the site of the Old Minster and how the rushed Norman structure was superseded in subsequent centuries in a more considered style, though with ample evidence of the earlier construction remaining highly visible. Descending into the crypt, we couldn’t help but feel the air was heavy with dampness.
Even today, the high-water table means it often floods and a lone sculpture from Antony Gormley of a man contemplating the water acts as a poignant level marker. A popular statue for visitors is that of the early 20th century diver William Walker, who worked in the flooded foundations in virtual darkness from 1906-11 to effectively save the cathedral from tumbling. Using his hands, he packed the foundations with 25,000 bags of concrete over that period that gave it a new solidity.
Winchester, set on the River Itchen, has much to enjoy; the mighty statue of King Alfred; ancient guildhalls; military barracks; Roman artefacts and remains; and a hint of Arthurian legend. One of my favourite stops, as Colin guided us around this fascinating city, was the 13th century Great Hall where hanging high on the wall is the massive round table.
“It is not King Arthur’s round table, but the legend of King Arthur is the obvious message,” he said. “It was made for Edward I and painted for Henry VIII and while the face of the king at the top of the table is meant to be Arthur, it is clearly Henry.”
From the cathedral, we wandered through Winchester, in many ways like that of any other large town or small city with shops and cafes, but streets that hold a fascinating history. Tiny alleys survive as evidence of the old city, with fortified gates, guildhalls, bridges across the Itchen, and stories of forgotten palaces, long-since disappeared or now mere ruins belying a once grand and wealthy era. The sound of water trickling is never far away, through small gardens and gullies; there are the colleges and schools where choristers are trained and educated, military barracks, museums and quirky shops.
In Winchester, you’re never short of a place to eat and drink. Atmospheric pubs such as The Vine, the haunted Eclipse Inn, or The Black Boys contrast with fine dining at Rick Stein’s and The Ivy, or with other inns and restaurants where the food has individuality.
We stayed a few miles out of Winchester at the 17th century Lainston House hotel, a sprawling residence on a large estate with gardens, extended walks and a vista down across the Hampshire landscape. The hotel has a renowned cookery school and grows much of its own produce in the hotel garden. With a cosy bar, a more formal restaurant for fine dining, or the opportunity to enjoy afternoon tea, Lainston House is a short drive away from Winchester and ideally placed for exploring the countryside around.
Of course, in Winchester among these many kings, is a queen too…a queen of English literature. Jane Austen is buried in Winchester Cathedral but as you wander around the city the house where she lived in her final weeks before her death in 1817 still stands.
A 20-mile drive away is the village of Chawton, where you can see where the author of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Emma and Northanger Abbey lived during the latter – and most productive – years of her life. Now the Jane Austen House Museum, her rooms, writing desk and family home is much as it was when she lived there with her mother and sister from 1809-17.
Nearby is Chawton House Library, which is now a study centre but was also the property Jane Austen affectionately referred to in her writings as “the great house” and where her brother Edward lived having inherited an estate after being “adopted” by a wealthy, heirless family. It is another facet of highlighting how the Hampshire countryside and ancient Winchester have played such a rich part in the history of England.
Mark and Sharon Nicholls stayed at Lainston House hotel www.exclusive.co.uk/lainston-house/ / 01962 776088
For more information on Winchester and Hampshire, see www.visit-hampshire.co.uk and also Winchester Cathedral (www.winchester-cathedral.org.uk), Jane Austen’s House Museum (www.jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk) and Chawton House (www.chawtonhouse.org)