Winchester is famous for being the former capital of the UK and the setting for Keats' 'To Autumn'. Now the city provides the perfect setting for break away from it all
Are you looking for an easy weekend away with good transport links, some of the oldest and cosiest pubs in the UK, a healthy dose of history and of serene walks, a smattering of interesting boutiques and a wide choice of restaurants and cafes? Winchester provides both the perfect weekend escape from the big smoke and the perfect base for longer holidays in the south of England.
What to do: a walk around Winchester
The best way to see Winchester is on foot. All of the principal attractions are within around half an hour walk of each other and are well supplied with local pubs and cute cafes.
If you arrive in Winchester by train, and are not laidened with heavy luggage, you can begin your trip straight away with a short walk past Oram’s Arbour (former home to Martin Bashir and Colin Firth). Walking onwards along Clifton Terrace you come to the Peninsula Barracks, former military buildings that have since been refurbished and sold as private residences. Still standing in this complex are five Military Museums: The Royal Green Jackets (£3 for adults, concessions available) and Gurkha (£2 for adults, concessions available) museums charge for entry, whilst at the other three admission is free (variable opening hours, although most open Mon-Sat 10-4, Sun 12-4) (see www.winchestermilitarymuseums.co.uk). Even if you are totally uninterested in the Military Museums, the barracks make a pleasant walk in themselves.
Downhill of the Barracks is one of Winchester’s principal tourist attractions, the Great Hall (open 10-5 daily except Friday, admission free). This houses the famed Round Table of King Arthur, which is mounted on one of the walls and contains the names of the 24 Knights of the Round Table. The Great Hall complex also contains the beautiful Queen Eleanor’s Garden and a display on the history of Winchester.
A walk away from the High Street takes you to St James Lane and down to Southgate Street. Cross Southgate Street and head straight down Canon Street. This will take you to the oldest part of Winchester, home to the Cathedral grounds and past the archway at the corner of the grounds, Winchester College, one of England’s oldest and most prestigious schools. At this point why not stop at the Wykeham Arms, which offers traditional English fare and a wide selection of beers and wines. This traditional pub boasts a cosy atmosphere, perfect for a cold day, and a real sense of being part of the College’s history, with touches such as former school desks.
Next you will come to the Cathedral and its surrounding grounds, which are among the grandest in England, and well worth a visit. A little known gem is the Dean Garnier Garden, a former monastic dormitory which makes for a perfect suntrap on a summer’s day. At Christmastime, the grounds are filled with the Christmas market and an ice-skating rink.
If you have more time…
If you have more than a day in Winchester, or walk a little faster than the average tourist, take time to enjoy the Water Meadows and the grounds of Winchester College. From the Wykeham, walk back on yourself a few paces and turn right at the College shop (College Street). Down this road you will find the final home of Jane Austen on your right. Just after this lies the ‘oldest continuously running school in the country,’ Winchester College; whose age has blessed it with quaint medieval quads and cloisters to rival those of Oxford and Cambridge (tours are run several times each day except Sunday, adults £4.50, concessions £3.50). Turn right where the road splits to reach the Water Meadows, the majority of which now form the grounds of Winchester College, but are still visible from the pathway across the river. This makes a beautiful stroll year-round, and it is easy to see why the area provided the inspiration for Keats’ To Autumn.
If you avoid the water meadows and carry straight on, you can take in the charms of Wolvesey Castle and a beautiful riverside walk that ends at Winchester City Mill, a National Trust site (open 10:30am – 5pm most days, entrance £3.60 adults, children £2). At the end of the pathway you will find The Bishop on the Bridge pub (01962 855 111), perfect for a late afternoon drink next to the river, as the garden (which is heated in the winter) catches the day's last rays of the sun. This place can get very busy on warm sunny days, so arrive before 7pm if you don’t want to wait for a table. If you’d prefer an afternoon tea, head right at the end of the path to the Bridge Patisserie, which serves a variety of freshly baked treats, as well as salads and paninis. The chocolates here are really tasty, and the café has a lovely feel with its display of locally sourced art, which is also for sale.
Finally, walk back up past the King Alfred’s Statue through the High Street, off which streets like Parchment Street, Great Minster Street, and the Cathedral Square boast some pretty smart boutiques if you are looking for something special. In the opposite direction, you can take a walk up St Giles Hill where, after a steep ascent, you reach a rewarding view point that looks up the High Street to the West Gate. During the height of the summer, the sun sets directly behind the High Street, providing a perfectly romantic end to the day.
Where to eat and drink
Due to Winchester’s beautiful architecture some otherwise-standard chains can still be very pleasant places to dine. In particular, Zizzi’s (which sits in a medieval building that was home to the local newspaper the Echo) (01962 841 814) and ASK (01962 849 464), opposite it. Next to this, down the dark alleyway, is The Royal Oak (01962 842 701 www.theroyaloakwinchester.com), which claims to be England's oldest pub. Most of the town’s bars and restaurants are on Jewry Street (Greens (01962 869 630) is particularly good for lunch and evening cocktails, Dim T (01962 843 000, http://www.toptable.com/en-gb/venue/?id=10410) for dinner), at the top of the High Street.
Venture beyond this and you’ll find some special places to eat, including my favourites the Corner House, on the corner of Parchment Street and North Walls (www.cornerhousewinchester.co.uk), a lively pub (hosting weekly knitting and games nights) that has recently been refitted and serves tremendous food at good prices (£22.50 for three courses). The reassuringly small menu changes frequently, but I would recommend the cheese course for dessert, for its collection of the best local cheeses. At the other end of town near to the Mill and St Giles Hill viewpoint are the Black Rat (very well-regarded by locals for its good food 01962 844 465, www.theblackrat.co.uk), and the Black Boy (owned by the same publican as the Black Rat, but with more of a focus on drinks and eccentricity - you only need to look at the ceiling) (01962 861 754, www.theblackboypub.com).
Where to stay
The Wykeham Arms, in the heart of old Winchester, offers traditional B&B from £105 per room per night, and is fantastically located just a few steps from Winchester Cathedral, Winchester College, and five minutes from the High Street. Closer to town and with a more modern feel is the Mercure Wessex Wincester, situated right between the Cathedral Grounds (over which some rooms have a wonderful view) and the High Street. Rooms cost from £95 per night including breakfast.
Being on both the Bournemouth/Weymouth to London and Weymouth to Manchester train lines, Winchester can be accessed with ease from many principal cities across England (check train services at www.nationalrail.co.uk). A typical London to Winchester ticket costs £27 return, without a railcard; tickets from other destinations can be booked weeks in advance at reduced cost. National Express operates frequent, direct coach services from London Victoria, London Heathrow, and Southampton, as well as indirect services from many other places (from £5 one way, www.nationalexpress.co.uk). Coming from outside the UK, Winchester is within easy reach of Southampton airport (less than 10 minutes on the train) and London Heathrow (around a 45 minute drive).