Grant Templeton discovers a delightful mix of the old and new in England's ancient capital.
Morris men, jubilee bunting and searing summer heat – this was our welcome to Winchester, the ancient capital of England and steeped in Arthurian legend.
We were thrown into the middle of Mayfest, the town’s annual celebration of traditional song and dance, incorporating jazz, blues and folk music. And it coincided with the hottest weekend of the year too, luckily for us considering the subsequent washout that has been summer. Not good though when you’re in a hotel with no air-con, although the desk fan worked valiantly in trying to subdue the heat.
However, when your room in Mercure’s Hotel Wessex overlooks the grounds of Winchester Cathedral and you can walk to the high street in under a minute, room temperature is a minor gripe.
Winchester is an appealing mix of old and new, a quaint Saxon town with well maintained public parks and great for strolling around (driving is more of a challenge though). So we set off on a quick recce of our immediate surroundings before a pretty good dinner at the hotel. The menu wasn’t vast but the food, mains of pork belly and linefish, were pleasant, although service was terribly slow.
Morning dawned and after a good buffet breakfast we headed out on a self-guided city walk, although a variety of city walking tours are available from tourist information. Of particular interest to history buffs would be one which charts the final journey of King Alfred the Great, who rebuilt the city after the Dark Ages, and encapsulating his life. Our circular route took us into the Abbey Gardens, past the statue of King Alfred and then along the River Ichen where the path clings to the river’s bank and offers a scenic oasis of calm. A short detour took in the ruins of Wolvesey Castle and then into the arms of the university and the house in which author Jane Austen spent the last six weeks of her life before her death in 1817. Her family home is in nearby Chawton and open to the public.
Minutes later our route returned us to the glorious cathedral, where Austen is buried, with its ornate carvings and magnificent interior. The cathedral also houses volumes of the ornately decorated Winchester Bible, the 12th century marvel that has somehow escaped the ravages of time and is as vivid now as its creation all those centuries ago.