Lyme Regis quickly passed out of sight as I rode on the bus towards Dorchester. The pale blue of the sea began to blend with the sky and after turning to catch a few more glimpses of the English channel it had given way to the rich green pastures of Dorset county. I was headed for Winchester, the last stop on my road trip through parts of southern England. I can’t deny that Jane Austen had played yet another part in the decision to visit this city. After all I am a great admirer of her writings and having seen Lyme Regis and traced some of her steps as well as the missteps of her literary characters it seemed appropriate that my trip should end, where Jane Austen’s life ended. After a long illness and only 41 years old she had died there on July 18 1817. But it wasn’t Jane Austen alone who influenced the decision to visit Winchester. Romantic poet John Keats was inspired by the beautiful countryside surrounding it and lastly a vicinity to Gatwick airport was a key element in the choice of the destination – my trip was almost over and after 10 days of traveling southern England, I was getting ready to go back home.
In Dorchester I got on the train and after just a little more than an hour and a half I exited at Winchester station. I had found a beautiful B&B in the central, but quieter south-eastern parts of the city, not far from the cathedral and after the devout observance of the ritual cup of tea, which my friendly host had most generously invited me to partake of, I was off to my first exploratory walk through Winchester.
Winchester is a regal city. Wherever you walk you can almost breathe its noble atmosphere. Well groomed gardens, charming houses, a beautifully restored city center with pleasant streets and lanes, that invite you to spend hours just strolling around aimlessly. Or maybe not that aimlessly after all. Everything in the city is dominated by one grand edifice: Winchester Cathedral. And after wandering around town for a bit, looking here and there, I realized that even though the cathedral may not be the geographic center of Winchester, it certainly seems to be its center of attention. No matter where I went, whether I ambled around to the south of the cathedral and marvelled at the gigantic cedars which tower over the generous courts in the close, whether I rambled on past Cheyney Court, through Kings Gate and onto College Street, where you pass private gardens with gigantic Magnolia trees in full bloom and the house where Jane Austen passed away in 1817. Whether I wandered on and took a peek at the ruins of Wolvesey Castle, which used to be the bishop’s palace in medieval times or whether I walked north again along the river Itchen and onwards to the monument of King Alfred the Great (849 – 899), who ruled over the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, of which Winchester was the capital in those almost forgotten days. Whether I strolled along bustling High Street or whether I drifted off to explore another one of those chaming medieval lanes, again and again I found myself, almost magically, drawn back to the Cathedral. I must have walked by it several times on my first day in Winchester and I realized I wasn’t the only one who felt that way – hundreds of people just like me were gravitating around the cathedral, enjoying the great weather, dozing on the lawns of the beautiful park, which bends around the church’s grand front entrance, sitting there on the benches having lunch or inhaling the peaceful atmosphere that seemed to surround the cathedral grounds.
On my first day I chose not to enter Winchester Cathedral, I enjoyed the walks around the city and after several hours I decided to shift my attention slightly towards less intellectual human interests – I was ready for a good pint of ale. I had already decided to frequent an interesting pub called the Wykeham Arms, which I had briefly visited in the afternoon, searching for some lunch, but which had its kitchen closed during those hours – as it is commonly done in English pubs. I had found my food elsewhere, on the go, but the beautiful interiors of the Wykeham Arms had convinced me to come back. Which I did and yet again I found myself pleasantly surprised by the English hospitality. The bartender, who’d had to tell me that his kitchen was closed in the afternoon, was still there, and even though I hadn’t spent more than 5 minutes in the pub that afternoon, to my great astonishment, he caringly inquired whether I had managed to find something edible that day! Paul was the name of this most hospitable barkeeper, and since it was a slow evening at the Wykeham Arms, he and his pleasant colleague Luke were generous enough to not only serve me some delicious ale, but also to share some interesting and entertaining stories about Winchester and its citizens.
The next day was dedicated to the cathedral and after a hearty breakfast at my B&B, which came together with the Times, personally delivered to the breakfast table by my host as well as some very interesting conversation, I was off and despite the most beautiful weather, I managed to stay inside the cathedral for more than 3 hours without the slightest signs of boredom. The reason for this was once again the marvellous guide system, this time offered by Winchester Cathedral. Together with an Australian couple I had the pleasure of being guided through the church by an extremely well-informed elderly gentlemen, who seemed to know just about everything that was somehow connected with the history of the cathedral – all nicely decorated with a bit of myth and some great anecdotes.
We would see Jane Austen’s grave and find out that she lies buried in the cheaper western division of the church, the east being most expensive, in case you’re already planning…and we would learn that the plaque above her grave, which mentions her literary achievements was put there after her death, because at the time it wasn’t suitable for a woman to write. Jane Austen’s novels had all been published without even mentioning her name, just with the indication „by a lady“. Thankfully her brilliant style is nowadays no more a subject of dispute, she proudly holds her place amongst the worlds most renowned authors.
On we went through the nave, which is the longest of any European cathedral, along beautiful gothic arcitecture as well as some older remainders of the romanesque style, which can still be seen here and there. Around we walked again to the west window, which is probably the world’s greatest (unsolvable) puzzle. It had been blasted to smithereens by Oliver Cromwell’s armed forces, but the citizens of Winchester saved the pieces of broken glass, which can now be seen re-arranged in random, but nevertheless strikingly beautiful, new order – a challenge to any supercomputer to figure out their original pattern.
We went back again towards the east and our walk was most suitably accompanied by a small orchestra practicing medieval music, which was to be performed later. When we reached the apse, we stopped short in front of a black gaping orifice in the feretory platform, which was proudly introduced by our host with the following exclamation: „Welcome to the Holy Hole!“ I must admit, that right then and there I stopped following our guide’s explanations for a minute or two, because in my mind I was watching a succession of imaginary Monty Python skits, which were triggered by the above mentioned exclamation. Only in England is a name like this possible, as well as mentioning it without breaking down in a fit of laughter. I won’t elaborate on any other more Freudian associations. For anybody who is still interested in the facts: The above mentioned hole has been built into the feretory platform, which used to be the location of St. Swithun’s shrine, who is the patron saint of Winchester Cathedral. His shrine was destroyed during the English Reformation in the 16th century, but when it still existed, the hole which is visible now had to be built in order to make the relics of the saint accessible to the many pilgrims, who flocked to Winchester Cathedral. In medieval times pilgrimage was a lucrative business. Only, nobody was lured anywhere, unless there was the possibility to see or at least get very close to the remains of the respective saint and – which was the intended effect – to leave precious gifts. So the hole is actually the entrance to a sort of crawl space that leads around the site of the former shrine.
On we went and we passed another most curious statue in the westernmost corner of the church, which was dedicated to the diver William Walker (1869–1918). A man, who single-handedly saved the cathedral from collapsing. He did so by spending six years diving underneath the church and shoring up the construction. Mr. Walker’s heroic efforts saved the entire cathedral, which had slowly been sinking into the soft grounds beneath – sunken floors in the western corner of the building as well as some strikingly crooked walls and pillars still bear witness of it today.
After finishing the first tour – our host had guided us back and forth around the church for almost two hours – I took adavantage of yet another excursion, this time to see the eerily beautiful crypt of Winchester Cathedral, where – unless it is flooded – you can admire the Anthony Gormley sculpture „Sound II“. Another well informed guide explained the crypt and its function to a small group of about ten people, who, due to the chilly temperatures, were alltogether glad to surface after 30 minutes of cryptic exposure. I then chose to take a short walk through the library of the cathedral, which holds a beautiful medieval Bible, hand-painted by one monk, who would turn in his grave, if he knew that it was a Victorian bishop’s children who cut out some of the ornamental letters, of which only one could be retrieved. A well-founded argument for celibacy, some might venture, maybe it’s just an anecdote. A good one though.
Finally after more than 3 hours of continuous admiration I decided that I had dedicated enough time to Winchester Cathedral. I chose to cancel the pre-planned excursion to the fake „real round table of king Arthur“ in the Great Hall, because outside the sun was shining and all the gloomy medieval tales of bishops and holy holes had left me longing for a leisurely stroll along the water meadows, following in John Keats‘ footsteps.
Before I ventured on my poetic promenade – Keats was inspired to his „Ode to Autumn“ when he walked the trails of the river Itchen to St. Cross Hospital – I made another short stop at the Wykeham Arms in order to give their food a try. Well worth it!
Finally I headed out, left the cathedral behind and followed the foot-path to St. Cross. On the way I passed some of Winchester’s schools and colleges, which are renowned in the entire country. Winchester college, for example, is one of the oldest continous running colleges in England, and when walking through the city you constantly seem to bump into the well-groomed boys and girls, prettily dressed in their school uniforms, carrying books or sports equipment. Not surprisingly, I found myself reminded of Harry Potter. I walked on and left the city behind, the day was bright and sunny, and the country presented itself from its most beautiful side.
Weeping willows along the path, which meanders at the side of the calmly flowing Itchen, here a field with a lone archer perfecting his technique, there a leisurely practice game of Cricket, with the players of both teams shining in their bright white uniforms on top of a perfectly manicured lawn, a melancholic swan drifting on the river, horses grazing on a meadow, a row of little ducklings paddeling swiftly after their mother, smells of fresh cut grass in the sun, cool river water in the shade and damp earthy scents along the tree-lined trail towards St. Cross. Not hard to imagine what John Keats must have been thinking when he walked here almost 200 years ago, easy to understand when you read what he wrote:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun, Conspiring with him how to load and bless With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run…..(From John Keats‘ „Ode to Autum“)
Finally my last day in Winchester was nearing its end, and I chose to visit one more of the many pleasant pubs in the city. This one was called Black Boy and was recommended to me by my host. The Black Boy is a quirky pub off Chesil Street, which boasts a seemingly endless collection of bizarre artifacts and decorations, as well as a charming garden and a good selection of locally brewed ales. Behind counters of bars and pubs, so my experience, you can often find not only most charming bartkeepers, but on some occasions great artistic talent too. In case of the Black Boy, the girl, who was tapping my ale, turned out to be the singer of a terrific band called „Polly and the Billets Doux“.
Happy about having made an interesting musical discovery, I finished my final ale and headed back to my B&B, realizing that the next morning I would have to leave England. Leave a country, which I had only started to discover and which had still so many places I would have wanted to see. But I didn’t leave sad, because I knew I would take a lot back home with me. Memories of places I had visited, which had left me with the knowledge that everything I had expected, had been surpassed far beyond my expectations. Most importantly, I had learned and lived a great deal on my trip, I had been incredibly lucky to have met the most delightful people on the road and so I finally left England, convinced that I would have no choice but to return to continue my journey. Some day. Hopefully soon.
Most important information on Winchester can be found on the city’s official homepage, where you’ll find links to accomodation as well. I stayed at the Wolvesey View B&B, which I can highly recommend. The rooms are pleasant, it is centrally located, but in a quiet neighborhood. From the yellow room, you have a beautiful view of Wolvesey Castle, I stayed in the blue room, which was just as nice. More information on Winchester can be found on Wikipedia.
There are many restaurants in Winchester, I can personally recommend the Wykeham Arms, which has a more upscale cuisine in the evenings, but still serves the pub classics for lunch – try the Wyk Pie! It is also a hotel. Nice pubs to visit are The Eclipse Inn, which is a very traditional pub that is frequented by the locals, or the above mentioned Black Boy Pub. All three places have a nice selection of locally brewed ales.
Winchester Cathedral currently charges 6 Pounds entry fee for adults, which includes tours through the cathedral and the crypt as well as the entrance to the library, the tower tour requires a small extra charge. More information can be found here as well as on Wikipedia.
If you like to check out „Polly and the Billets Doux“ – which I would recommend you do – you can do so here.
Susanne, 28 August 2009