I like cities and urban areas in general, especially ones with a rich history. History is not only evident in architecture and monuments, it’s traceable in a city’s diversity and detectable in its atmosphere. Imagine strolling through a British country town, surrounded by timber framed houses, taking a rest on the steps of the buttercross, having a pint and amazing food from the grill in a local pub to warm the cockles of your heart on a chilly spring day… Is it the apparent medieval charm, is it the food or the buzz in my head after the strong brew? Who knows. But all I can think of right now is just how good life is.
Quite by chance I ended up in Winchester for a day trip while hosting a friend for a few days. Can’t say I knew much about the town before we set out. Well, it’s not big, it has a population of roughly 120 thousand people; maybe wouldn’t be anybody’s first touristic choice visiting the UK, but I’m telling you, its eclecticism makes it worthwhile.
Winchester is situated about 100 kilometres (63 miles) from London. It developed from a Roman settlement, which developed from an Iron Age fort, and has seen a lot of coming and going throughout the ages: Roman, Saxon and Viking invasions shaped the town’s past.
Pillage and fire almost obliterated the entire town, but due to serious restorations it came to serve as an important trade centre in Medieval times. That more or less ensured the town’s survival despite all the struggles. Today Winchester is best known for the Great Hall of its Castle that houses the Round Table, the Cathedral, and its public school (which was the first in the UK) that still resides in the original building.
Yes, the Round Table… Ever since I was a kid I was fascinated by the Arthurian legend, and (like many tourists year after year) was wooed by just being in its presence, reading the names of the Knights of the Round Table written around the edge, looking up on King Arthur sitting proudly on his throne. I have to say I was psyched. Until I learned it’s not the real deal. Oh, blissful ignorance! Don’t get me wrong, it still has historical significance, and its story is thrilling, yet I couldn’t help feeling like a kid who just lost his favourite toy.
Recent tests proved that the table hanging in the Great Hall could’t have coexisted with King Arthur; it is in fact much younger, dating to the late 13th century. It was created during times when throughout Europe it was customary to host festivals called Round Tables in imitation of Arthur’s court. These gatherings had jousting, feasts and a lot of drunken dancing on the menu, and in some cases attending knights even assumed the identities of Arthur’s entourage. The table was most likely created for such an event.
Also have a look at the somewhat intimidating statue of Queen Victoria sitting to your left, and visit the recreation of a small medieval garden just outside the side door.
The Peninsula Barracks are about a 5 minutes stroll from the Great Hall. Just off the square you can enjoy a nice view of the town, and the buildings house five military museums if you’re interested.
Circling around the castle district it only takes about a further 10-15 minutes to reach Winchester Cathedral. Originally built in the late 11th century, Winchester Cathedral remains to this day the longest cathedral in Europe. Paying the somewhat steep entry fee is worth it, since it includes a walk through the cathedral, the library and the tower. If you come at the right time you might stumble upon a mass or a choir practice, the latter being a magnificent atmospheric addition to your tour.
One of the great historic figures of Winchester, Alfred the Great also deserves a mention. He was so great they erected a statue in his image. Fighting the Viking invasion in the 9th century, Alfred is recorded for finally succeeding to hold back the Heathen Army led by Ivar the Boneless. He’s also known for his exuberant attempts to maintain and develop education during those turbulent times (like establishing the first court school in the UK), and advocating for education in English. To keep the Church happy he proposed a compromise for primary education to be taught in English, with those wishing to progress further to continue their studies in Latin. That led to the opening of the very first public school.
And while you’re in town, there are 24 bollards around Great Minster Street and The Square that were painted in the style of famous artists or with topical scenes. It could be great fun trying to find all of them.
Also your visit to Winchester cannot be complete without being chased away by armed military personnel at the nearby training grounds, when thanks to the large amount of beer consumed with your dinner, you need to stop for a pee break. But that might be just me…
Did you know that a person from Winchester is called a “Wintonian”?
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Sometimes the corrected story is more interesting than the original. So I find your twist in the roundtable history. Here’s to the continuing festivals, whenever and wherever …
Agreed. I don’t find it less fascinating to look up on that table, no matter when it was made.
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