Britain at its best: Once the capital of Saxon rulers, handsome Winchester is brimming with historic treasures… truly a city fit for kings
- James Litston goes on a tour of Winchester Cathedral, which he says is ‘an essential part of a visit to the city’
- He stays at The Old Vine, an authentic Georgian inn with six ‘light-filled and spacious’ guest rooms
- To learn about the city’s history, he recommends checking out the collection at Winchester City Museum
What, you might think, could possibly connect Norman architecture, a deep-sea diver and a city 20-odd miles from the coast?
The answer is William Walker: a Navy-trained diver who almost single-handedly saved Winchester Cathedral from collapse.
In 1905, the stately structure — consecrated in 1093 — was crumbling and sinking into the swampy flood plain on which it stands. It was Walker who braved the watery crypt to shore up the foundations, using more than 25,800 bags of concrete, 114,900 concrete blocks and 900,000 bricks. His story is an unexpected highlight of my cathedral tour — an essential part of a visit to the city.
Grandeur: James Litston finds that you’re ‘never far from history’ in Winchester. Above is the city’s centre
According to James, exploring Winchester Cathedral (pictured) is an ‘essential part of a visit to the city’
Built on the orders of William the Conqueror here in what was once the capital of England, the cathedral’s Norman nave was remodelled in the 1300s to embrace the Gothic style of the day.
Sharp-eyed visitors may recognise its grandeur from Netflix’s The Crown. Standing in for St Paul’s Cathedral, scenes for two funerals (Winston Churchill’s and Lord Mountbatten’s) and a wedding (of Prince Charles and Lady Diana) were filmed here. Nearby Winchester College will double as Eton in season five.
Winchester’s story far predates that of its landmark cathedral, however.
On a 90-minute walking tour, I discover that its roots go back more than 2,000 years to when Iron Age tribes built a hill fort above the town and established a trading post close to the River Itchen. This became a large town under the Romans.
Winchester’s roots go back more than 2,000 years to when Iron Age tribes established a trading post close to the River Itchen, pictured above running nearby the city
The city’s statue of King Alfred The Great, who chose Winchester as his capital
But it wasn’t until the 800s that Winchester rose to prominence, when a Saxon warrior drove Danish invaders from Wessex. That warrior became King Alfred.
Alfred chose Winchester as his capital and, as the Saxon kingdoms merged to form England, it remained the nation’s seat of power until after the Norman conquest. Alfred’s statue now stands near the city’s Guildhall.
More of the story is on display at Winchester City Museum, its collection spanning Saxon weapons and coins, medieval pottery and Roman artefacts. There’s even a rail of Saxon-style clothes to try on.
You’re never far from history here. I head for lunch at Inn The Park, a restaurant housed in an old water mill overlooking Abbey Gardens, whose abbey was destroyed in the 1500s by Henry VIII.
Even my hotel is historic. An authentic Georgian inn, The Old Vine has six rooms, each light-filled and spacious with original features. It’s across the square from the cathedral, so its pavement tables are perfect for lingering over a post-lunch coffee while soaking up Winchester’s genteel buzz.
James eats lunch by Abbey Gardens, pictured, whose abbey was destroyed in the 1500s by Henry VIII
James heads on a 90-minute walking tour of the city to learn about its history, before paying a visit to Winchester City Museum
It’s also just a block away from another pub, the William Walker, where I find myself rounding off the day. Its sign is an actual old-fashioned diving helmet — the copper bonnet and breastplate glow warmly in the street lights’ glow.
Being within a stone’s throw of the cathedral that he saved, it’s a fitting tribute to his remarkable legacy.
Here’s to William Walker, I think to myself as I raise a silent toast.