How to spend a weekend in Winchester, where the chalk stream, River Itchen, snakes its way through the heart of the city that King Alfred the Great once chose as England’s capital.
Winchester by day…
Winchester Castle, founded by William the Conqueror displays King Arthur’s round table. This symbol of medieval mythology has been exhibited in the Great Hall for almost 700 years.
Walk in the footsteps of John Keats whose poem ‘Ode to Autumn’ was inspired by his nature filled hikes amongst the water meadows 200 years ago.
The self-guided walk leads the way to Hospital St Cross and almshouse. Here, the ancient “Wayfarer’s Dole” tradition of handing out bread continues. En-route watch cygnets bravely leaving their parents’ side, smell cattle before you see them and spot fly fishers with lines appearing as fine as a cobweb in a breeze.
Winchester Cathedral, the burial ground of Jane Austen and King Canute, wins bragging rights by having the longest nave of all gothic cathedrals in Europe. It also displays the largest of all surviving 12th Century English Bibles. Inside, marvel at the colossal mosaic stained glass window, made of fragments of glass from windows destroyed during the English Civil War.
St-Swithun-upon-Kingsgate Church is dedicated to the Patron Saint and 9th Century Bishop of Winchester. Not much larger than an average living room in size, it perches atop Kingsgate.
Kingsgate is one of the remaining city gates spanning cobbled streets scattered with independent shops such as an Aladdin’s cave of giftware and an old bookshop and bindery. The Minster where St Swithun was laid to rest was extended and on 15th July 1861 when his relics were moved, a spectacular thunderstorm followed. This led to the saying that if it rains on St Swithun’s day it will rain for 40 days.
In pastel hued College Street, number 8 is the 18th Century house where Jane Austen spent her final days.
Further along is Wolvesey Castle, an old Norman palace subject to a succession of extensions from each resident Bishop. Though now largely ruins since its destruction in the English Civil War, the walls of the castle kitchen still stand. The wedding breakfast of Queen Mary & Philip II of Spain would have been prepared here.
A five ton bronze statue of King Alfred the Great stands proud at the heel of the High Street. Browse its mixed budget shops, stopping for a sweet snack of handmade chocolate at Chococo then head over to The Square for an alfresco caffeine hit at the wonky cafe.
Things to do in Winchester at night
Pre-dinner, cross the stone bridge for a wine tasting session and board games at unique ‘The Black Bottle‘. Think… a rabbit warren of rooms with smoke-stain-effect ceilings and vintage wallpaper. Tracks from Pixie Lott to ELO play just loud enough to dull the whirring white noise from vending machines filled with intriguing bottles of red white and rosé. Select from 25ml, 125ml or 175ml servings, plonk yourself at a bench, return the stare from King Henry VIII on an oversized canvas and sip to your heart’s content.
Dinners are exciting with a plethora of diverse eateries. Waterfront venue Bishop on the Bridge has a courtyard abuzz with diners savouring dishes such as innovative salads of feta, watermelon and spicy cashews.
The Chesil Rectory offers a fine dining experience within a Grade II Listed medieval rectory …
… or try celebrity chef Rick Stein’s only seafood restaurant outside England’s West Coast for a sweet Indonesian seabass, cod and prawn curry with a kick.
Craving more? Then spend the day at a popular nearby attraction or head off to a fun filled annual event…
Round off the weekend in Winchester with a wildlife extravaganza. The Maasai Mara might not be on the cards at the moment but nearby Marwell Zoo will delight animal lovers. Overpowering fish aromas lead the way to the Humboldt penguins, impressive Rothschild’s Giraffe nudge six metres while Amur tigers pound their way so close, if it wasn’t for the safety glass you could feel their breath. Allow 5 hours including obligatory burger and ice cream stops.
Annual events to look out for on a weekend in Winchester
Annual crowd drawing outdoor events include the alluring hat fair dazzling all with its fire eaters, stilt walkers, dance and theatre displays. The cheese and chilli festival offers sampling, masterclasses and a chance to take part in a chilli eating competition. These may have been snuffed out this year following Covid-19 but still there is plenty to seduce visitors for a weekend in Winchester.
Where to Stay:
I recommend Hotel du Vin for its cleanliness, exceptional staff, comfortable rooms and central location.