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 center 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 colors were discovered under whitewash in the 1930s.
The cathedral also is known for these treasures: the 12th-century Winchester Bible, 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 to 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, 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 seeking miracles, were moved to a place behind the altar. To allow pilgrims to get close to the saint’s bones, a small arched opening, called the “Holy Hole,” was created at floor level. Layers of black handprints surround that hole, where thousands of pilgrims stooped to crawl in.
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 colors 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. Here’s what he asked us to consider about the 12th-century feat of hoisting those bosses, each weighing at least a ton: “Cathedrals have the power, whatever your beliefs, to bring you to your knees in awe.” Amen.
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, 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 traveled past it on their way to the cathedral. Any visitor can still get the “Wayfarer’s Dole,” a small cup of beer and a piece of bread, simply by asking for it at the hospital’s Porter’s Lodge.
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 . . . ”
Nathan is a writer based in Bethesda, Md.
If you go
Where to eat
75 Kingsgate St.
Famous pub just beyond the cathedral, decorated with memorabilia. Also includes a hotel (rooms from about $122.) Pub open daily for lunch and dinner; hours vary. Lunch entrees from about $12.50, dinner entrees from about $20.
1 Chesil St.
Modern British lunch and dinner menus served in a 600-year-old house. Open daily for lunch and dinner; hours vary. Lunch or dinner entrees from about $21.
What to do
The Gothic cathedral that has dominated the history of the ancient capital of England. Cathedral, crypt and treasury open Monday to Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 12:30 to 3 p.m. Closed during worship services.
Library (for Winchester Bible) and “Kings and Scribes: The Birth of a Nation” exhibit open Monday to Saturday 9:45 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 12:30 to 3 p.m., April through October. Open Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday 12:30 to 2:30 p.m., November through March.
Guided cathedral tours (60-90 minutes) are offered on the hour Monday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Admission (including tour, library and “Kings and Scribes” exhibit) about $12; seniors about $10; students about $8. Visitors younger than 16 free.
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 10:15 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. and Sunday at 2:15 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Additional tour at 3:30 p.m. April through August. Check schedule for updates. Admission about $10, seniors and students about $9. Visitors younger than 11 free.
Hospital of St. Cross
St. Cross Rd.
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 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m., April through October; and Monday to Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., November through March. Closed Sundays in winter, except for church services. Adult admission about $6, children younger than 13 about $3.
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 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Admission about $4, children 5 to 16 about $3, visitors younger than 5 free.