Living History

9th October 2009

It was a favoured residence of medieval kings, boasts the longest cathedral in Europe, and inspired the poetry of Keats. Now, with the advent of the new South Downs National Park, Winchester could be about to enjoy a new upsurge in popularity. Jack Watkins drops by to enjoy the view…

In its sleepy, old England setting, midway between north Hampshire’s London commuter belt, and the south coast conurbation of Southampton, it’s hard to imagine Winchester as one of the major towns in the country. The train approaching from the north sweeps through miles of green fields and open country before its sudden arrival at the station. Because Winchester sits low in a flood plain it makes surprisingly little announcement of its charms to the visitor…

…but few places can boast such a history. The Romans made Winchester the fifth largest town in Britain, and called it Venta Belgarum. It was Alfred the Great’s favourite town, the traditional capital of Anglo-Saxon Wessex, and he turned it into a centre of great learning. After William the Conqueror scored his great victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he was careful to stage his coronation here, as well as in London. Even as late as the 17th century, there were ideas of building a new royal palace at Winchester.

Its surroundings still have great meaning and impact today. If you walk through the meadows of the River Itchen, which flows south from the cathedral, for example, the massive tree-crowned eminence that rises up from the fields to your left is St Catherine’s Hill, effectively the beginning (or the conclusion) of the South Downs Way that stretches from Hampshire though into East Sussex, ending at Beachy Head near Eastbourne. Just beyond St Catherine’s Hill is Twyford Down, scene of one of the early environmental battles of the late 20th century, when campaigners fought – and failed – to prevent the building of the M3 through the precious ancient downland landscape. Their efforts are now commemorated by a small monument on the hill, above the insistent scream of the traffic below. Now that the South Downs have been made into a National Park such abuse should, in theory, be harder to enact. Another outcome is the likely rise in interest in Winchester itself. Let’s hope it doesn’t have the effect of cheapening it, for thus far it remains refreshingly free of tourist tat.

‘Historic’ Winchester starts at the medieval West Gate, its arch as the main entry into town as late as 1959, and, to be fair to road-building advocates, ample testimony to the way that traffic volumes have grown in recent decades. Amongst an ensemble of council buildings to its side is the Great Hall, built in 1235, and all that survives of Winchester Castle, originally built by William the Conqueror.

The hall is a vast, echoing, empty space, with a stone floor, pillars of Purbeck stone and a wooden tie-beam roof high above. Nikolaus Pevsner deemed it the finest medieval hall in England, after Westminster and if, with its rough, flinty walls, it seems both austere and draughty to us, it was state of the art in its time.

Henry III was born in Winchester and liked to return here as often as duty allowed. As a monarch he may have been feeble, but he loved the arts, and when he ordered the renovation of the castle, which had fallen into a state of disrepair in the reign of his father King John, he effectively transformed what had been a fortress into a palace. It was Oliver Cromwell who destroyed it, leaving only this hall, in 1651. It was thirty years or so later that Charles II, desirous perhaps of associating the restored monarchy with its medieval heyday, ordered Sir Christopher Wren to build him a new palace here, although, sadly, Wren’s plans never reached fruition. High on the wall is the so-called Round Table of King Arthur, a later fabrication. The Hall was also the setting in which Sir Walter Raleigh received his death sentence in 1603.

The old High Street, with its sagging Georgian colonnades, winds its way characterfully downhill into the Broadway, an amalgam of mainstream stores and smaller shops, with further pockets of historic and retail interest in the little side streets running off to the sides. At the end of the Broadway stands the famously imposing statue of Alfred, atop a slab of limestone which hails him as ‘the founder of the kingdom and the nation’. It was the Victorians who first started calling Alfred ‘the Great’, at a time of rising nationalism across Europe. Serious historians would argue that the claims that he founded a nation, or had any intention of doing so, are decidedly shaky, great and scholarly warrior leader that he was. Still, it makes for a good story, and the bronze statue, sculpted by Hamo Thorneycroft and unveiled in 1901, is undoubtedly stirring.

It is just beyond the statue that the Itchen froths and burbles past Old City Mill. The small balustraded bridge looks cutesy enough, but rivers these days are relatively muted beasts, channelled and tamed where in the past in times of heavy rain the Itchen was a raging torrent, and at least twice as wide as it is now. The high flint walls that follow the walkway enclose the ruins of Wolvesey Castle, built by Henry of Blois, bishop of Winchester and brother of King Stephen, during whose benighted reign Winchester was frequently the scene of fighting. It was at Wolvesey that Mary Tudor first met her bride-to-be Philip of Spain in 1554, with the wedding banquet held here the following day. The bishops still reside at Wolvesey, in the elegant building behind a fascinating assembly of ageing beech trees.

Naturally enough, a place as beautiful as Winchester also has its literary associations. Jane Austen spent her last days here in a house on College Street, close to the famous public school. It was along this road, too, that Keats passed each day when he lodged here in 1811, when the setting of the cathedral close and the water meadows inspired him to write his Ode to Autumn. If you follow the meadow pathway behind the college fields and beyond, you eventually come to St Cross Hospital, founded in 1136 as a hostel for ‘poor brethren’, and still home to twenty-five brothers today. The church is a fine example of stout-columned, round-arched Norman architecture, but the 19th century scandal of the almshouses, when the rents were being passed on to a relative of the bishop rather than benefiting the inmates, provided the storyline for the first of Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, The Warden.

The impressive nave of the Cathedral

One of the most distinguished of all the bishops, was William of Wykeham, founder of Winchester College, from whom its scholars’ nicknames – the Wykehamists – derives. William of Wykeham twice held the position of Chancellor of England in the late 14th century. His ornate shrine lies in the nave of the cathedral, and no man contributed more to the development of this, one of the finest of English cathedrals: 356 feet long, with the longest nave in Europe. It’s a pity that you are relieved of £6 to enter the building, a considerable disincentive to the less well off and, unless you possess an ‘annual pass’, to those seeking a moment of prayer or contemplation. It is perhaps why so many Church of England cathedrals have such sterile amospheres in comparison with Westminster Cathedral and the Catholic cathedrals of Europe, which still echo with life and a sense of ongoing spiritual purpose. Cathedral fabrics are massively expensive to maintain, it is true, but if the money can be found to make national museums, with all their priceless artifacts, free to enter, why can’t the same be done for the cathedrals?

As I walked back through the close, I wondered how many other visitors had turned away on seeing the price of an entry ticket, confining themselves to a view of the exterior and thus missing out on perhaps the finest of Winchester's many beauties.

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