A London day trip to Winchester, England’s former royal capital

Nancy B Nathan

THE WASHINGTON POST – My random survey of friends, mostly boomers, tells me that the mere mention of the cathedral will bring that catchy novelty song (“Winchester Cathedral, you’re bringing me down . . .”) to mind.

It was in my head as I journeyed about an hour to the southwest from London’s Waterloo station. A few blocks from the terminal, there was the cathedral, towering over the town’s low roofs, surrounded by lovely gardens along the slow and narrow River Itchen.

The town was England’s royal capital until William the Conqueror moved it to London after 1066. On the way to the cathedral, you pass a famous landmark, a gigantic bronze statue of Alfred the Great, ninth-century king of the Anglo-Saxons, his sword aloft. By the meandering river are extensive stone remnants of the medieval Wolvesey Castle and, next to the cathedral itself, the outline of the sixth-century Anglo-Saxon church where the Roman forum once stood.

A day spent in the compact historic centre will take you to several fascinating reminders of tumultuous times, but Winchester’s present is serene. Even on an early August day, I saw no crowds or tour groups. In other words, it seems the perfect blend for a day trip – simultaneously relaxing and fascinating.

Start at the cathedral. In a country with no shortage of historic cathedrals, Winchester stands out because its royal connections brought many treasures and because it was a pilgrimage destination.

The rare sights include large and intricate 1308 wood carvings of birds, beasts and medieval soldiers, considered the finest wood carvings in England, which were left alone when 17th-century Puritans were destroying religious images; original decorated floor tiles from 1275; and exceedingly rare 1170 frescoes (they aren’t normally found in damp England), whose still-bright colours were discovered under whitewash in the 1930s.

A group of tourists approach Winchester Cathedral; the town, which served as England’s capital until 1066, is a popular day trip for visitors to London
Winchester Cathedral with the King’s Royal Rifle Corps memorial in the foreground. The bronze sculpture by John Tweed was erected in 1922
The Wykeham Arms, a tavern that dates to the 1700s, has traditionally served parents and teachers from Winchester College, the private boys’ high school down the street
Hospital of St Cross is an almshouse founded in 1136 for poor men and pilgrims. Its riverside setting, gardens and architecture are lovely
A huge tabletop known as King Arthur’s Round Table hangs on the wall in the Great Hall, all that remains of the 1235 royal castle

The cathedral also is known for these treasures: the 12th-century Winchester manuscript, an unusually large illuminated manuscript decorated by monks using precious inks on vellum from the skins of 250 calves; the 1150 black marble baptismal font, the gift of the grandson of William the Conqueror, with its carvings telling the story of St Nicholas, inspiration for the Santa Claus story; and tombs that some experts consider England’s most impressive, even compared with those at Westminster Abbey.

And there’s a modern treasure, a haunting lead statue of a man, by eminent contemporary sculptor Antony Gormley. It stands alone among the arches in the vast 11th-century crypt. The dramatically lit crypt very often is flooded; the water rises around the man, who looks down at his cupped hands, which collect the water.

But even more entrancing are the stories the cathedral has to tell. I took one of the tours given by volunteer vergers, which start on the hour. Bill Weeks gave context to all those rare sights, and added some fascinating stories.

The cathedral was sinking by 1900 – after all, it was built in watery meadows – and was in danger of collapsing.

For six years, six hours a day, starting in 1906, deep-sea diver William Walker suited up in his diving outfit and helmet to descend in total darkness as far as 20 feet below the cathedral floor, all around its inside perimeter, to insert bags of concrete. When he finished, King George V attended the service of National Thanksgiving in 1912. Walker’s statue, portrayed with him in a diving suit, is at the east end of the cathedral.

Nearby, another story, one that precedes Walker’s by roughly 750 years: In 1158, the relics of St Swithun, the ninth-century bishop and saint who was venerated by many thousands of pilgrims journeying to Winchester, were moved to a place behind the altar.

As our tour wound through the east end and then back toward the west main door, we heard two more stories.

First, novelist Jane Austen. She died in 1817 in Winchester because in her final weeks she had gone there for medical treatment from her home in nearby Chawton. Her grave is marked by a black slate floor tablet, which speaks of the “benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind”. But fairly soon after her death, it was noted that not a word referred to her literary achievements. A brass plaque was added in 1872, a “giant raspberry” to those who omitted those words from the black slate tribute, said Weeks. In 1900, a stained-glass window was installed above the two markers.

At the west end, over the main door, another story. In December 1642, the anti-royalist forces of Oliver Cromwell swept into the cathedral with “banners streaming and muskets blazing,” and destroyed the immense stained-glass window over the west door. Townspeople swept up the shards, as well as some from smaller windows; in 1660, when King Charles II was restored to the throne, those shards were pieced together. The result is an amazingly contemporary-looking collage of colours and images, all from medieval glass.

Weeks asked us to sit in the nave and look up at the carved stones, called bosses, that cover the joints where ribs come together in vaulted ceilings.

Close by the cathedral stands the town’s medieval Kingsgate, where the Roman gate had been. Just outside, on cobblestone streets, are the house where Austen stayed before her death, which isn’t open to the public, and the Wykeham Arms, a pub from the 1700s, a Winchester landmark and a good lunch spot. The pub traditionally has served parents and teachers from Winchester College, a private boys’ high school just down the street, which was founded in 1382 as a feeder school to Oxford University and is open for guided tours.

A 20-minute walk past Kingsgate or along the River Itchen is the Hospital of St Cross, an almshouse founded in 1136 for poor men and pilgrims. Its riverside setting, gardens and architecture are lovely. During the summer there’s a tearoom in the ancient Hundred Men’s Hall. And even if you don’t go in, there is a remnant of the time when pilgrims travelled past it on their way to the cathedral.

As you wind up your day in Winchester, you’ll walk up the city’s High Street to the 12th-Century Westgate and the 1235 royal castle. What remains of the castle is the Great Hall, an immense empty space below an arching timbered ceiling. Hanging on the main wall is a huge tabletop, 18 feet across, known as King Arthur’s Round Table. While the 15th-century book that recorded the Arthurian legend did fix Winchester as the site of Camelot, this round table was made in 1290 for a royal celebration. Its painted design looks a bit like an enormous dart board. Henry VIII ordered this look, which features his face and the figure of King Arthur in robes of Henry’s era.

As I walked from the Great Hall back to the train station, the “Winchester Cathedral” earworm played on, with its accusatory refrain about the cathedral tower’s cruelty. “You stood and you watched as my baby left town . . . “

IF YOU GO WHERE TO EAT

Wykeham Arms

Famous tavern just beyond the cathedral, decorated with memorabilia. Also includes a hotel (rooms from about USD122.) Open daily for lunch and dinner; hours vary.

Chesil Rectory

Modern British lunch and dinner menus served in a 600-year-old house. Open daily for lunch and dinner; hours vary.

WHAT TO DO

Winchester Cathedral

The Gothic cathedral that has dominated the history of the ancient capital of England. Cathedral, crypt and treasury open Monday to Saturday 9.30am to 5pm, Sunday 12.30 to 3pm. Closed during worship services.

Library (for Winchester manuscript) and ‘Kings and Scribes: The Birth of a Nation’ exhibit open Monday to Saturday 9.45am to 5pm and Sunday 12.30 to 3pm, April through October. Open Monday to Saturday 10am to 4pm and Sunday 12.30 to 2.30pm, November through March.

Guided cathedral tours (60-90 minutes) are offered on the hour Monday to Saturday 10am to 3pm.

Winchester College

This private high school was founded in the 1380s to prepare scholars for Oxford University after the Black Plague had decimated the previous generation. Tours of the medieval parts of the school offered Monday to Saturday at 10.15am, 11.30am and 2.15pm and Sunday at 2.15pm and 3.30pm. Additional tour at 3.30pm April through August.

Hospital of St Cross

Founded in 1136 as a home for elderly men with a mandate from the bishop of Winchester to feed 100 poor people daily; many original buildings survive. Open Monday to Saturday 9.30am to 5pm and Sunday 1 to 5pm, April through October; and Monday to Saturday 10.30am to 3.30pm, November through March. Closed Sundays in winter, except for church services.

The Great Hall and King Arthur’s Round Table

The remaining part of the castle of William the Conqueror, the Great Hall dates to 1235. The main attraction is the 13th-Century round table, dominating the hall. Open daily 10am to 4.30pm.