18 Dec 19 / Winchester
Top Things to See and Do in Winchester
Winchester, Hampshire's county town, was the capital of England from Anglo Saxon times until the 13th century. And you can't miss the history of Winchester and its rich past, with the ruins of a royal castle, medieval buildings, an ancient cathedral and a bronze statue of Alfred the Great in the city centre. Just an hour southwest of London, on the edge of the South Downs, the city is nestled amongst idyllic countryside making it a great base for further exploring too. If you’re visiting the city, let our roundup of the top things to do in Winchester be your guide.
1. WINCHESTER CATHEDRAL
Take a guided tour of Winchester Cathedral (included in admission) to discover one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in all of Europe. Originally founded in 642, the site has been demolished and rebuilt numerous times over the last 1000 years. It is the longest medieval church in the world (169 m) and you can see Romanesque wall paintings, impressive late-Gothic fan vaulting in its nave and transepts, along with a series of bronze statues of James I and Charles I. There's also the wooden chair on which Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary) sat during her wedding with Philip II of Spain in 1554, and the largest and finest 12th-century bible (the four-volume Winchester Bible) that is kept in the Cathedral Library.
Do see the brass plaque near the entrance marking the tomb of Jane Austen (1775-1817), and Sir Antony Gormley's 'Sound II' sculpture in the Crypt. An enigmatic life-size depiction of a contemplative man, the mysterious sculpture can often be found holding water in its cupped hands during rainy months. You can also climb the 213 steps for a Tower Tour on selected days.
2. WINCHESTER CASTLE'S GREAT HALL
Built during the reign of William the Conqueror in 1067 (at the same time as the Tower of London), the only surviving section of Winchester Castle is the Great Hall. While the rest of the building was destroyed by parliament in 1647 under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, it was later completely restored by Sir Christopher Wren in 1683 as a residence for Charles II.
Winchester Castle has plenty of fascinating history. The future King Henry III was born in the castle in 1207, Edward I held his first parliament here and Sir Walter Raleigh was tried in the law hall for conspiring against James I.
The Great Hall is one of the best remaining medieval halls in the UK, but it is now most famous for the legendary King Arthur's Round Table hanging on the wall. While it is old, it is actually a medieval replica. Constructed from English oak dating to the late-13th century, the table-top is 5.5 metres in diameter and weighs 1200 kg. The Tudor rose at the centre is because it was decorated during the reign of Henry VIII. (Do note that the image of the throned King Arthur is rather reminiscent of a youthful Henry VIII.)
3. WOLVESEY CASTLE
Close to the Cathedral, you can see what remains of the 12th century Wolvesey Castle. This Grade I listed building was the fortified palace and chief residence of the Bishops of Winchester. The Old Bishop's Palace is managed by English Heritage and is free to visit.
Completed by Henry de Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror, when he was Bishop of Winchester, it served as the Bishop's residence throughout the medieval era. Queen Mary I and Philip II of Spain celebrated their wedding breakfast in the East Hall in 1554. Standing in the complex you can identify the remains of the hall which has a round arch and a complete Norman Romanesque window.
4. HOSPITAL OF ST CROSS
The oldest charitable foundation in England, the Grade I listed Hospital of St Cross has England's oldest almshouse. It was founded in 1136 by Henry of Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror, for thirteen "poor and pious men" as well as the care of pilgrims and crusaders en route to the Holy Land.
The Hospital of St Cross resembles a college at Oxford or Cambridge in the way it is constructed on quadrangles. There is a Norman church, a medieval hall and a Tudor cloister to visit. And it is also still home to 25 begowned brethren who wear red and black medieval-style uniforms. You can meet them if you ask at the Porter's Gate for the traditional Wayfarers' Dole (a crust of bread and a small measure of beer). Or you could go to the on-site tearoom or gift shop after exploring the grounds.
5. WINCHESTER COLLEGE
Established in 1382, the prestigious Winchester College may be the oldest continuously running school in the UK, and is certainly England's oldest public school. It was set up by William Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, in 1393, 14 years after he founded Oxford's New College.
As a functioning school, visits are by guided tour only but they are available all year round. Tours concentrate on the medieval heart of the school including Flint Court and Chamber Court, the cloisters and the Gothic chapel with its original fan-vaulted timber roof. You will also see the original scholars’ dining room (called College Hall), a vast red-brick open schoolroom from the 1600s where exams are still held and an impressive collection of artworks and antiquities in the Winchester College Treasury.
The English Romantic poet, John Keats stayed in Winchester in 1819 and his daily walks here inspired him to write his ode 'To Autumn'. You can follow in his footsteps on the self-guided two-mile Keats Trail through the city.
And near to Winchester is Jane Austen's House Museum – the only house in England where Austen wrote and lived that is open to the public. As this great author was laid to rest in Winchester Cathedral (aged 41 in 1817), there is also a Winchester Jane Austen Trail available.
Winchester has been a popular filming location so the Winchester Tudor Trail includes the locations for the BBC costume drama Wolf Hall and the film version of Les Miserables.
And while exploring the city, do look out for the painted bollards at The Square featuring designs taken from iconic paintings by artists such as Klimt, Picasso and David Hockney.
7. WINCHESTER CITY MILL
Winchester City Mill is a rare surviving example of an urban working corn mill. Powered by the fast-flowing River Itchen, The Domesday Book shows that there has been a water-powered mill here since the 11th century. The mill was given to Winchester by Queen Mary as compensation for the expense of her wedding, and the current water mill was rebuilt in 1743.
The building has been in the care of the National Trust since the 1920s and the water wheel can be seen working every day. There are hands-on activities as well as regular flour milling and baking demonstrations. And you can learn more about the rich wildlife in the area including one of Britain's only urban otter populations.
Winchester City Mill is also the official gateway to the South Downs National Park. You could try walking or cycling along the 100-mile South Downs Way, the only National Trail to lie entirely within a National Park. Or for a short trip, you could see the natural amphitheatre at Cheesefoot Head.
Winchester City Museum takes you on a three-floor journey from Winchester's Iron Age beginnings up to the present day. Do see the Winchester Model – a fastidiously detailed scale model of the city in Victorian times – and some personal items owned by Jane Austen.
You can climb the steps to the roof of the Westgate Museum for panoramic views from the last of the main medieval gates into the city. The gate was a debtors' prison for 150 years so the walls are covered in old graffiti. There is a unique collection of pre-Imperial weights and measures, and children can dress-up in suits of armour and try brass rubbing. And it is an absolute delight to see the painted Tudor ceiling from Winchester College that was crafted in preparation for the wedding of Queen Mary and Philip of Spain in 1554.
Peninsular Barracks is home to Winchester's Military Museums. The Royal Green Jackets (Rifles) Museum is home to a variety of uniforms and medals devoted to its three regiments, along with a highlighted diorama of Waterloo. The same building also houses the Gurkha Museum that tells the compelling tale of the Nepalese soldiers recruited by the British Army over the last 200 years.
And you can see the stars at Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium which has scores of hands-on interactive exhibits for families.
The Victorian Theatre Royal Winchester building has been sympathetically restored over the years to become the only surviving cine-variety theatre in the country. They offer drama, music, dance, comedy, children's theatre and pantomime as well as being a key part of the famous Winchester Hat Fair annual outdoor festival.
10. FURTHER AFIELD
Five miles outside of the city, Marwell Zoo is set amid 140 acres of rolling Hampshire countryside, with more than 1,200 animals. And Highclere Castle, aka Downton Abbey, is less than half an hour's drive away. The same architect who designed the Houses of Parliament in London (Charles Barry), created this castle set in a vast 1,000-acre 18th-century park boasting superb views over the North Hampshire Downs.
WHERE TO STAY
With an abundance of things to do in Winchester, you’ll want to be perfectly situated to enjoy them all. Hotel du Vin Winchester has 24 individually styled rooms and suites. The Georgian building dates back to 1715 so you get that history with today's luxury including roll top baths and custom-made beds. Stay for dinner as Bistro du Vin's French home-style cooking is a treat. Or have an al fresco lunch in the charming 18th-century walled garden.
Written by Laura Porter - Travel writer for Malmaison and Hotel du Vin