Winchester is a cathedral city, just north of Southampton and about 70 miles south west of London!
It’s England’s ancient capital and is steeped in history. From the top of St Giles’ Hill you can see across the city and look across the medieval and Georgian buildings that are laid out on the original Saxon street plan.
With Iron Age forts, Civil War sites and its world-famous Cathedral, Winchester boasts an impressive array of historical attractions that will keep you busy!
The first settlers arrived here in the Iron Age, that’s over 2,000 years ago, building a hill fort on the edge of the modern city.
With the arrival of the Romans, Winchester became known as ‘Venta Belgarum’ – Venta meaning market and Belgarum is thought to originate from the name of the local Celtic tribe.
The Saxons referred to Roman settlements as a ‘caester’ so over time ‘Venta Belgarum’ became ‘Venta Caester’ before being changed to ‘Wintancaester’ and eventually… Winchester.
Winchester might be a quite and peaceful place today but it’s seen the odd battle or two. In particular, during the Civil War when Oliver Cromwell’s army had one of its most important victories – at the Battle of Cheriton on 29 March 1644. In a day-long battle , Royalists fought Parliamentarians for control of central southern England. In the end, Cromwell’s forces were victorious and forced the King’s supporters to retreat northwards.
There’s a walking trail around the battlefield – the full walk is 8kms long, but there’s a shorter circular route. You can pick up a leaflet from the tourist information office.
Winchester once had its own mint making coins for the king – between the 9th and 13th centuries, it’s believed it produced over 24 million silver pennies. Now… whilst it would have been a privilege to work at the mint, if you were caught issuing coins that were too light, you’d have your hand chopped off!
Did you know that the largest collection of Winchester pennies is in St Petersburg? The coins were used to pay annual protection money to the Vikings and eventually made their way into circulation in Russia.
Places to Visit
One of the most iconic places to visit in Winchester is the Cathedral. It’s one of the largest in Europe and boasts the longest medieval nave! It boasts centuries of English heritage, magnificent architecture, priceless treasures and works of art. Once the seat of Anglo-Saxon and Norman royal power, the Cathedral has been host to Kings and Queens for centuries!
Whilst most people know it as Winchester Cathedral, its actual name is The Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity, Saint Peter, Saint Paul and Saint Swithun.
Its origins are in the 7th century when the first Christian church was established here. They started building the current cathedral in 1079 and it’s a mix of architectural styles, including Norman and Gothic.
Throughout its history, the Cathedral has played a pivotal role, witnessing several royal marriages, including King Henry IV and Joan of Navarre in 1403, and Mary I and the catholic King Philip II of Spain in 1554.
They married here for fear of unrest by disgruntled Protestants in London.
While the union was of great strategic importance, it was perhaps not the best physical match, with one of Philip’s courtiers describing the royal bride as “old, badly dressed and almost toothless”.
Did you know that the Cathedral is the final resting place for no fewer than twelve English Kings and also famed author Jane Austen? It also houses the stunning Winchester Bible, an amazing and important 12th-century illuminated manuscript.
Old City Mill
Close to the Cathedral is the Old City Mill – a historic watermill with a captivating history dating back to Saxon times.
Initially used for grinding grain to feed the community, the mill evolved through the centuries and was rebuilt in the 16th century after a fire. Today, visitors can explore its functioning waterwheel and milling machinery, gaining insights into centuries of milling tradition.
It’s really cool because not only can you learn more about the mill through interactive quizzes and hands-on activities, you can also watch CCTV footage of Winchester’s resident otters!
William the Conqueror’s Castle
No visit to Winchester would be complete without checking out the remains of William the Conqueror’s castle.
Built in 1067, it was a great stronghold and the seat of government for more than a century.
The castle was extended and rebuilt by Henry III, who added the Great Hall. But when the castle was captured during the Civil War, much of it was destroyed and only the Great Hall remains intact.
The Great Hall is a fine example of a medieval aisled hall with its soaring Purbeck marble columns and beautiful Gothic pointed archways.
Hanging on one wall is the iconic Round Table linked to the ancient legends of King Arthur and his Knights. Whilst it’s believed that King Arthur lived in the 5th Century, modern technology has dated the table to around 1290.
It’s thought it was made for a “Round Table” tournament held to celebrate the betrothal of one of Edward I’s daughters. Originally standing on legs, it’s been displayed hanging on the west wall since 1873.
The artwork you see on the table dates to the reign of Henry VIII who had the table painted with the Tudor Rose at its centre.
Queen Eleanor’s Garden
Behind the Great Hall is Queen Eleanor’s Garden – a small, narrow garden that’s a re-creation of a 13th century garden.
Two women named Eleanor would have sat in this garden. Eleanor of Castile, the wife of Edward I and Eleanor of Provence, the wife of Henry III. Both spent a lot of time in Winchester.
In those days, gardens were much greener and often included vegetables and herbs.
Across the courtyard are some remains of the castle, including an entrance to a sallyport – that’s a secret tunnel!
Also close to the Great Hall is Westgate – one of the surviving medieval gates into the city. It was built in the 12th century, with a portcullis and two gun ports added over the next 200 years.
Gatehouses were important places to defend medieval towns but over time they fell out of use and would be used for other purposes. Westgate was used as a jail and debtors prison, and you can still see some of the prisoners graffiti on the internal walls.
It’s also packed full of historical facts telling the history of the Tudor and Stuart era in Winchester. There’s also a unique collection of weights and measures. If you’ve got a head for heights, you can even walk on the roof!
Originally Winchester would have had six gates but only two have survived. Along with Westgate is Kingsgate. First mentioned during the 12th century, it’s now a monument which houses a small church above the gate itself – St Swithun-upon-Kingsgate.
Hospital of St Cross
Another place to explore is the Hospital of St Cross.
Founded 65 years after the Norman invasion by a young French monk and nobleman, Henri De Blois who was Bishop of Winchester and also grandson of William the Conqueror.
Legend has it that Henry founded the hospital after he had taken a walk in Itchen Meadows. He was supposedly stopped by a young peasant girl who begged Henry to help her people, who were starving because of the civil war.
The parallel with the Virgin Mary was not lost on Henry, who was so moved by the girl’s plight that he used a nearby site to establish a community to help the poor, creating what is said to be England’s oldest charitable institution.
It remains a Christian almshouse for elderly men. The hospital welcomes visitors to its magnificent private Chapel.
What you like
We caught up with some children to find out their favourite places to visit in and around Winchester…
- “We like going to Marwell Zoo which is quite near, I like the White Rhino because it’s quite rare and has two horns instead of just one!”
- “Me and my family like going to the farmers market on the last Sunday of each month – it’s really massive and we can buy nice things to eat like cakes and cookies.”
- “I love the Science Centre because it’s got a really cool planetarium as well as load of cool things to play with like a giant guitar you can climb inside!
- “If you love animals definitely go to Manor Farm – they have farm animals like cows and sheep but cute bunnies too and lots of places to play.”
Winchester has its own saint – St Swithun. He was a Bishop of Winchester and a reputed tutor to King Alfred.
He left instructions that when he died he should be buried outside the cathedral and be subject to the feet of passers-by and raindrops.
However, 100 years later he was re-buried within the cathedral – after which it rained for 40 days and nights.
Some think it was a sign that he was angry at being moved and ever since it’s been said that if it rains on St Swithun’s Bridge on 15th July, it will rain for 40 days.
Alfred the Great
Even as a child, he had a deep love for tales of heroes and warriors. Little did he know that his own life would soon become a legend!
In his days, the country was divided into numerous small kingdoms, each with its own ruler. It was a time of turmoil, with conflict and strife all too common. It was far from a united realm!
He was a young man when he became king, after his older brother, King Ethelred, passed away. He was thrust into the role as King of Wessex and made Winchester his capital. But he did not let his youth deter him. He knew he had a duty to protect his people from the fearsome Vikings.
To face the Viking threat, he realised that knowledge was a powerful weapon. He championed education, founding schools and encouraging all to learn to read and write. He even translated important books from Latin into English, so more of his subjects could partake in their wisdom.
Exploring was a passion of his, and he often embarked on secret journeys to better understand his kingdom.
You might have heard the tale of his mishap with some cakes while he was hiding from Viking invaders in a lady’s home – he was so preoccupied with the fate of his kingdom that he let those cakes burn to a crisp! But fear not, for even this did not deter him from his mission.
His most renowned battle was the Battle of Ethandun, where his valiant warriors clashed with the Vikings and emerged victorious! It was this triumph that helped to unite England and usher in an era of peace.
Under his leadership, Winchester grew in prosperity and was rebuilt. Alfred died before his cathedral was completed and his final resting place is thought to be Hyde Abbey.
Thanks to Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, all that remains of the original abbey is a 15th century gatehouse.
Alfred’s story doesn’t stop there – after a community dig in 1999, a garden was created at Hyde Abbey which you can visit.
Don’t miss the famous statue of Alfred the Great on The Broadway. It was created by Hamo Thornycroft in 1901 to celebrate 1,000 years since Alfred’s death.
Getting to Winchester
Hop on a South Western Railway train to Winchester station to explore!