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Winchester, England

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Did You Know … ?

  • St. Cross Hospital, dating from the 12th century, is Britain’s oldest charitable institution.
  • Winchester College is believed to be the country’s oldest continuously running school (1382).
  • Winchester boasts the U.K.’s largest farmers market (95 stalls).
  • The game of cricket was born in nearby Hambledon in the 1750s.
  • The 12th century Winchester Bible was written on parchment using the hide of some 250 calves.

King Alfred’s city

Winchester Cathedral has a long and distinguished history — starting from the 11th century — but in certain circles, it gained new fame in 1966 as the central figure in a hit novelty song called, fittingly, “Winchester Cathedral.” The inanimate establishment stood accused of having “stood there and watched as my baby left town.”

There are two things to know about this cathedral, at least for starters. First, it is one of the world’s most beautiful churches and thus a key reason tourists put Winchester on their itineraries — no pop song required. Second, it was a latecomer to Winchester’s history, relatively speaking.

The hill fort on St. Catherine’s Hill dates from 150 B.C. and was followed in a couple of hundred years by a Roman town, but Winchester hit the big time when, in 871, King Alfred the Great made it the capital of Saxon England. It remained a royal and ecclesiastical city well beyond the Norman Conquest in 1066. The Normans, within in a few decades, made London the English capital, but kings maintained a royal residence at Winchester for centuries.

In 1079, the Normans created the nearby New Forest, a royal hunting ground on England’s southern coast, and in the same year laid the cornerstone for the cathedral.

Today’s visitors find a pleasant small city with the museums, architectural treasures and cultural traditions that befit its long and sometimes tumultuous history.

Next to the spectacular cathedral, a key must-see is the Great Hall, the only part of the 13th century Winchester Castle to survive the 17th century depredations of Oliver Cromwell. Other sites date from medieval times, too: St. Cross Hospital, Westgate (a fortified gate), Winchester College and the extensive ruins of the Bishop’s Palace.

Winchester is noted for its city and military museums and its outsized farmers market. Sitting in southern England, it is near several gardens worth visiting.

As for the New Forest, it is maintained as it was in the 11th century. It encompasses several villages. Cattle, ponies and deer graze there, and for the active traveler, it provides options for camping, cycling and horseback riding.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Ask for the Wayfarer’s Dole at St. Cross Hospital. Visitors must ask for it with these words: “May I have the wayfarer’s dole?” The payoff is a bit of bread and a small tumbler of ale, intended as a source of sustenance for weary travelers.
  • Walk to the heart of or find your way out of the Mizmaze, a maze on St. Catherine’s Hill. The hill originated as an Iron Age hill fort with a circular plan.
  • Overnight at Marwell Hotel, a safari-style building in the woods. It is adjacent to Marwell Wildlife, where you may see cats ranging from the Amur leopard and snow leopard to the sand cat, a small wild feline.
  • Fish in Hampshire’s River Test, which boasts it is the world’s most famous river for fly-fishing.
  • Make your way through the New Forest on a bicycle or on horseback.
  • See the top sights in Winchester, then head out on a six-day walking trip along the 92-mile South Downs National Trail. It winds up at Eastbourne, a Victorian seaside resort to the south and east.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Take in the Hampshire countryside by riding the so-called Watercress Line, meaning the Mid-Hants Railway, between Alresford and Alton. Travel is by historic steam or heritage diesel train, a train that formerly carried watercress and other produce to market. Choose a trip that includes dinner.
  • Visit protected British heritage sites, beginning with the Winchester City Mill, which dates from 1744 and sponsors regular milling demonstrations. Also, Wolvesey: Old Bishop’s Palace, the ruined former residence of the bishops of Winchester.
  • If making a holiday trip, shop in the cathedral’s Christmas market. Also, skate on the cathedral ice rink.
  • Attend the July Winchester Hat Fair, a festival that provides a platform (on the street) for theater, music and other arts. Performers are paid when their audience tosses coins into a hat, hence the event’s name.
  • Create a self-guided tour focused on Jane Austen’s life. Her home is now the Jane Austen House Museum, in nearby Chawton. See the site of her birthplace and her father’s church at Steventon. Her last residence was in Winchester, and she is buried in the cathedral.
  • See a game of cricket where the sport was born, Hambledon. Then have a look at the memorabilia in the Bat and Ball Inn across from the cricket ground.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Join a guided walking tour of Winchester that takes in King Arthur’s Round Table in the Great Hall (no, the table was not King Arthur’s; it is only a little more than 700 years old!) and Winchester College, as well as the city’s renowned cathedral.
  • Tuck into the fare at one of Winchester’s well-regarded gastro-pubs. Also, take tea at the Cathedral Cafe.
  • Sign on for a comprehensive guided tour of Hampshire sites relevant to the life of author Jane Austen. See houses where she lived as well as those she visited and connect the dots between her experiences and the content of her books.
  • Attend choral evensong in Winchester Cathedral. If it or part of it is on display, see the Winchester Bible (at 936 pages, it remains unfinished).
  • Buy tickets for a performance at the 1913 Theatre Royal. Be prepared for some funny business — the theater reputedly has two resident ghosts.
  • Treat your eyes to a look at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens, where you will see some fraction of the more than 42,000 plants on 180 acres of grounds. These gardens are in nearby Romsey, on the River Test and site of a 12th century Norman abbey.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult Winchester Tourist Information at