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David Ford, History EditorTours > Winchester  > A Walk through Winchester

A Walk Through Winchester: Part III
by David Nash Ford BA, Editor, History on Britannia

It is the Cathedral which is, naturally, the epicentre of tourist Winchester. The area before the West Front is a popular place for eating lunch al-fresco, though there are excellent dining facilities (and shop) at the Cathedral Visitors' Centre. As you approach, note the wordy grave, to the far right under the trees, of a grenadier guard who died of "drinking Small Beer" in 1764.

A cathedral has stood in Winchester since King Cenwalh of Wessex let St. Birinus build the second church in the kingdom here in 648! Marked out in the grass to the left of the spectacular West Front (late 14th century) of the present building is the outline (pictured at right) of that original little church (and the larger late Saxon church that grew around it) as revealed through excavation. Explanatory Boards describe its history. This first cathedral, known as the Old Minster, was the burial place of most of the Saxon Kings of England (and Wessex) and also of St. Swithun, patron saint of both Winchester and the County of Hampshire. Bishop Swithun of Winchester was originally buried outside the Saxon Minster but, as his grave (marked in the grass) became, increasingly, the scene of miracles, it was decided to enclose his last resting place within one of the extensions to the church. An old legend says that Swithun's spirit was not best pleased and it began to rain for forty days and forty nights. You will still hear people today saying that if it rains on St. Swithun's Day (15th July), the episode will be repeated! St. Swithun's Shrine was transferred to the present Norman Cathedral when it was build after the conquest (1066) and was a place of pilgrimage for centuries. A modern representation of the shrine (destroyed at the dissolution) now stands behind the high altar and parts of the original can be seen in the Triforium Gallery.

Apart from St. Peter's in Rome, Winchester Cathedral is the longest Cathedral in Europe. It is an awe-inspiring building both inside and out: the scene of the Weddings of King Henry IV & Joan of Navarre and Queen Mary Tudor & King Philip II of Spain. The two transepts and the tower remain to give a wonderful impression of how the original Norman building would have looked and display some of the best Norman architecture to be seen in the country. The tower originally had a small spire, but this came crashing to the ground in 1107. The rest of the cathedral shows off a grand array of architectural styles from throughout history: the retrochoir is Early English, the Presbytery decorated, the main nave is perpendicular and the north aisles and lady-chapel are late gothic.

The interior has innumerable treasures not to be missed: the most magnificent set of chantry-chapels you will see anywhere in the country, notably the outstanding chapel of Cardinal Beaufort and that of Bishop William of Wykeham with three little monks praying at his feet; the rare 12th century black Tournai marble font; the magnificent 14th century choir-stalls; the amazing 15th century Great Screen (right); the supposed tomb of King William II and the mortuary chests of the Saxon kings; the grave of Jane Austen; and you can actually walk on the largest spread of 13th century floor-tiles in England. Make sure to also visit the Triforium Gallery which houses the Cathedral Museum. Tours of both the cathedral and the tower and roof are available.

Early this century, the eastern end of Winchester Cathedral was in imminent danger of collapse due to subsidence. The retrochoir had been built on a marsh exactly seven hundred years previously using beech logs as foundations. These were rotting away (you can still see the lean from outside) and there was only one way to save the cathedral. A deep-sea diver was sent down into trenches below the water table to tunnel under the cathedral walls and replace the logs with bags of concrete. William Walker spent six hours a day in the water for five years from 1906 to 1911! A statuette commemorating him as the saviour of the cathedral can be seen near Bishop Langton's Chapel.

Around the south side of the cathedral stands the tranquil Cathedral Close. It contains many buildings of the old Priory which functioned at the cathedral before the dissolution. The massive flying buttresses (seen at right) along the south wall of the nave show where extra support was required after the removal of the monastic cloister. Winchester is one of the few cathedrals to be missing this almost obligatory piece of architecture. There are benches here now to sit and admire the surroundings. Nearby stand the ruins and entrance arches of the old Chapter House, Dean Garnier's Garden and also the complete Prior's House and Hall, dating from the 13th century and now known as 'the Deanery'. The Pilgrims' Hall with its 14th century hammer-beam roof is the only survivor open to the public. Adjoining the Priory Gate is perhaps the most photographed house in Winchester: the wisteria-covered Cheyney Court was the Bishop's Court-House and dates from the 15th century.

Through the Priory Gate is one of Winchester's only two surviving city gateways. The King's Gate dates back to the 14th century and is unusual in that, above its arches, it houses the tiny church of St. Swithun. It is usually open to the public and is accessed by a stone flight of steps. Opposite is the Wykeham Arms, perhaps the best known pub in Winchester, filled with curios and reminders of the nearby College. Jane Austen's House is nearby in College Street, identified by a plaque on the wall.

Further along is Winchester College itself, the oldest school in England. It was founded by Bishop William of Wykeham in 1382 and is one of the leading public schools in the country. The chapel, hall and cloisters are open for public tours in the Summer. The pupils are known as Wykehamists. The footpath to the ruins of Old Wolvesey Bishop's Palace is sign-posted not far away. It runs in front of the present (mid-17th century) Bishop's Palace which still retains the medieval Bishop's Chapel at its far end. Wolvesey is a large ruined castle owned and opened to the public by English Heritage. It is mostly 12th century and best known as the home of Bishop Henry of Blois who fortified it against the Empress Matilda during the Civil War of King Stephen's reign. Parts of the old crenellated city walls can be seen across the fields from here. A beautiful Riverside Walk skirts these, where the only remaining, and rather disappointing, piece of the old Roman wall can also be viewed.

A detour south from Wolvesey Palace across the Water Meadows (best reached by car along Southgate Street for the less adventurous), is the huge chapel of St. Cross circa 1160, (shown at right) and its accompanying hospital. This was a complex of almshouses (a sort of retirement home) established by Bishop Henry of Blois in the 1130s for "thirteen poor men" and expanded by Cardinal Beaufort. Even today, visitors may partake in the very ancient tradition of receiving the 'Wayfarer's Dole': a piece of bread and a cup of ale.

There are still further historic parts of Winchester to explore at the western end of the High Street though. Down Southgate Street is the Museum of the Royal Hampshire Regiment and also Winchester's cinema, 'The Screen'. Jewry Street (named after Winchester's medieval Jewish community) is a major restaurant area of the city including the 16th century timber-framed "Elizabethan Restaurant". The Theatre Royal and the City Library are also nearby and one of the most modern County Record Offices in the country is near the Railway Station. Proudly spanning the High Street itself is another of the city's many museums housed in the 12th century West Gate. It displays weights and measures and arms and armour. Here too is Elizabeth's Frink's statue of a 'Horse and Rider,' the 'Hampshire Hog' at the Council Offices and the Plague Monument where the 17th century inhabitants of the city left pennies in vinegar to pay for goods brought in from the uninfected surrounding countryside.

Further up the hill, climb the steps (or take the gentler entrance further up hill) to the County Law Courts to discover the Great Hall of old Winchester Castle nestling among the legal chambers. Along with Westminster, it is "the finest surviving aisled hall" in the UK and, as such, often appears in historic blockbusters at the cinema. There are presentations on the history of the castle to see, but the treasure of Winchester Castle is King Arthur's Round Table. Displayed high on the west wall of the Great Hall, this tabletop, sadly, does not date back to King Arthur's time, but it is impressive none-the-less. It was made early in the reign of King Edward I at the height of the Age of Chivalry and may have become connected with the feasts of the Order of the Garter. Winchester Castle was an important Royal residence: the scene of many episodes in history, including the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh. To remind us of its Royal past, a reconstruction of 'Queen Eleanor's Garden' has recently been laid out adjoining the Great Hall. One of the castle towers have also been excavated and put on display opposite the hall. It is worth seeking out.

Adjoining the castle are the Peninsula Barracks, best accessed from the Queen's Garden. Now beautifully developed as housing, this is also the location of most of the city's military museums: the King's Royal Hussars, the Light Infantry, the Royal Green Jackets and the Gurkas. The Balfour Museum of Red Cross History is in Stockbridge Road. The Barracks themselves incorporate all that remains of the Winchester Palace, a Royal Palace designed by Sir Christopher Wren to rival Versailles. Building began, but after Charles II's death, the money dried up. The 'King's House' was the only part completed and it bore little resemblance to Wren's plans. It was used as a prison and was demolished after being gutted by fire in 1894.

When Winchester Cathedral was built by the Normans, it replaced not only the Old Minster, mentioned earlier, but also the so-called New Minster which stood just to its north. This was founded in 900 by King Edward the Elder as a Royal Mausoleum for his father, King Alfred the Great. The New Minster moved outside the North Gate to become Hyde Abbey, on the outskirts of the city, and the monks took Alfred's body with them. Only the 15th century gatehouse survives today opposite Hyde Church, in a pleasant area dotted with streams and paths near the River Park Leisure Centre. In nearby Hyde Street stands the Hyde Tavern, supposedly a hostel for pilgrims visiting the Abbey, and the city's Historic Resources Centre, which occasionally hosts historical exhibitions.

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