Winchester (pop. 95,000) is the attractive county town of Hampshire and one time capital of England. Its cathedral, founded in the 7th century, is one of the largest and historically most important in England. Winchester College is a renowned public school claiming "the longest unbroken history of any school in England".
Winchester was settled since the Iron Age. The Romans founded the city as Venta Belgarum (named after the Belgic tribes that occupied the region), which went to become the fifth largest city in Roman Britain.
Winchester acted as the capital of Wessex since 590, but really got a kickstart when the episcopal see of Wessex was moved there from Dorchester in 670.
In 827, King Alfred the Great kept Winchester as the capital of the newly unified England, which it remained until soon after the Norman conquest, two and a half centuries later (note that William the Conqueror was crowned both in London and in Winchester).
It was the monks of Winchester that William I commissioned in 1086 to write his famous Domesday Book (sometimes called the 'Book of Winchester'), a survey listing the owners of all lands and properties in England.
A fire ravaged the city in 1141, and it fell behind London in importance. That didn't prevent Bishop William of Wykeham (1320-1404) to establish Winchester College in 1382 and to start the construction of the present cathedral in 1394.
Not much happened in Winchester afterwards, except that the city was the starting point of the "Pilgrims' Way" leading to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury. Novelist Jane Austen died in Winchester in 1817 and was interred in the cathedral.
Winchester Cathedral was first built by King Cenwalh in 642 and was the largest church in the country. It was replaced in 1070 by a 164m-long Romanesque structure. In 1107, just 14 years after its completion, the central tower collapse due to marshy grounds.
Restoration work took place from the 13th to 15th century, including the transformation of the nave into the Gothic style by William of Wykeham.
The cathedral saw the coronations of Edward the Confessor (1043), of Matilda of Flanders as queen consort (1068), of Henry the Young King and his queen, Marguerite (1172) and the second coronation of Richard I of England (1194), as well as the marriages of Edward the Confessor and Edith (1045), King Henry IV and Joanna of Navarre (1403) and finally Queen Mary I and King Philip II of Spain (1554).
King William II (son of William the Conqueror), Izaac Walton and Jane Austen are all buried within the precincts.
Founded in 1382 by William of Wykeham to educate "seventy poor and needy scholars", Winchester College was the first exclusive public school (see Eton) in Britain, and now one of the most prestigious.
On weekdays between April and September, there are guided tours starting from Porter's Lodge in College Street. Tours commence at 10:45am, 12noon, 2:15pm and 3:30pm and cost £2.5.
Also in College Street are Jane Austen's house (at No 8), where she moved 6 months before succumbing to Addison's Disease, and Kings Gate, one of the city's 13th-century gateway.
Wolvesey Castle & Palace
Built around 1100 as a residence for the Bishops of Winchester, Wolvesey Castle was fortified during the war between Queen Matilda and King Stephen (1135-48).
Queen Mary of England and Philip II of Spain had their weding breakfast here in 1554. The castle was torn down in 1680 and the stones used to built a new Baroque-style bishop's palace.
The palace sits next to the ruins of the castle, between the cathedral and college. The castle is open to visitors daily from 10am to 6pm between April and October (admission £1.5).
Hospital of St Cross
1.5km south of the College down Kingsgate, then St Cross Road, the hospital was founded . in 1132 by Henry of Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror. It was extended in 1446 by Cardinal Beaufort, who created a second order of almsmen, the `Noble Order of Poverty“.
As its name ("St Cross") indicate, its purpose was not only to treat the ill and feed the poor, but also to give hospitality to the crusaders on their way to the Holy Land. It is still home to 25 brothers nowadays, who will be happy to serve the needy a small portion of bread and beer.
The hospital is open from 9:30am to 5pm from Easter to September, and 10:30am to 3:30pm the rest of the year. It is closed on Sundays. Entry costs £2.
Situated at the crossing of Romsey Road and Upper High Street, the Great Hall is all that remains of Winchester Castle. The castle claims Saxon origins, but the hall that can be seen today is that of the castle built by Henry III in 1222-36, and destroyed by Oliver Cromwell.
The Great Hall first served as a royal residence, the as legal and administrative building. Sir Walter Raleigh was tried and sentenced to death here in 1603. The hall was used again as a court of justice from 1938 to 1974.
Tourists come to see the so-called Round Table of King Arthur (5.5m of diametre). It is of course not the real one, but an imitation made for King Edward I (1272-1307).
Facing the cathedral is the City Museum (open April-Sept Mon-Fri 10am-5pm and Sat-Sun 2-5pm, Oct-Mar closed Modays; admission free) has Roman artifacts and explanations about Winchester's history.
At the other extremity of the cathedral are the ruins of St Mary's Abbey, which was England's main university during Alfred the Great's reign and until the rise of Oxford and Cambridge. The abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536.
Wnchester has a few more museums concentrated around the Great Hall. These include the military Green Jackets Museum (£2), Light Infantry Museum (free), Royal Hussar Museum (free), Gurkha Museum (£1.5), Royal Hampshire Regiment Museum (free), but the most interesting is the Westgate Museum (open Mon-Fri 10am-5pm and Sun 12noon-5pm; free), an old prison with medieval armour, weapons and household objects. Also note the old Roman wall between the Westgate Museum and the Great Hall.
How to get there
Trains run between Winchester and London's Waterloo station (1h to 1h15min, £20.90), Bournemouth (45min to 1h, £12.20), Portsmouth (1h, £7.60) and Brighton (1h30min, £18.70).
National Express buses link between Winchester and London (1h45min to 2h30min, £11.50), Oxford (1h30min, £8.75) and Bournemouth (1h15min to 2h, £5.25), among others.