My Jane Austen pilgrimage led me to Winchester, and I’m glad it did. The city deserves a visit based on its own merits. So I thought it would warrant its own post as well.
Winchester is the ancient capital of England, and the first king of all England, Egbert, was crowned there in 827.
It’s easy to get there from London — just an hour’s train ride from Waterloo. But since I was coming from Chawton, I took the 64 bus. It stops right in the city centre, near the statue of King Alfred and a ten minute walk to the cathedral.
My main reason of visiting was to see the cathedral. I spent two hours inside.
It was worth it.
Winchester Cathedral was built by the Normans around 1,000 years ago, but the site contains 1400 years worth of history. History buffs are in for a treat. King Cenwalh built an Anglo-Saxon church at the site in 648, called the Old Minster. However, after the Norman cathedral was consecrated in 1093, the Old Minster was demolished.
I arrived a few minutes after 2 pm and just missed the guided tour. The next one was in thirty minutes and one of the docents suggested I see the Winchester Bible to pass some time.
The Winchester Bible, the largest surviving 12th century English bible, is currently on temporary exhibition in the north transept. The exhibit resembles a small hut-like structure. No photos are allowed inside and the bible itself is kept behind glass.
After viewing the bible and spending some time at Jane Austen’s grave, I joined the next scheduled guided tour. I could have kept wandering around the Cathedral solely armed with the welcome brochure. But after going on the York Cathedral tour, I understood the value gained from hearing the histories from a docent. There’s something about a story that cements the experience in memory. And you must like stories if you’re here reading this blog.
Typically, the tours last around fifty minutes. Ours lasted around seventy minutes. But it was well worth it.
A large French-speaking group arrived at the same time our tour was to depart, so our original tour guide was reassigned. The replacement guide apologised for keeping us waiting, but explained she was pulled from the choir to fill in. I commend her for being able to switch straight into tour guide mode from whatever else she had been planning on doing that afternoon.
She was absolutely lovely. She had an understated sense of humour full of quick asides and well-placed puns. Honestly, this was the best cathedral tour I’ve been on.
Saint Swithun (d 863) was an Anglo-Saxon Bishop who later became the patron saint of the Cathedral. His most famous miracle recounts how the saint took pity on a poor, old woman who dropped her basket of eggs and made them whole again.
During the medieval period, Winchester was a popular pilgrim destination. Medieval folk associated Saint Swithun’s bones with healing maladies and would visit his grave hoping for miraculous recoveries.
This isn’t the original tomb of Saint Swithun. Nor are his bones inside. Originally buried outside in accordance with his wishes, Saint Swithun was exhumed one hundred years later. His bones were placed inside a large, silver chest adorned with gems and rested inside the Holy Hole. But, in the 16th century, King Henry VIII confiscated the tomb in order to meltdown the silver and raise money for his war efforts against France and Spain. This modern memorial stands opposite the Holy Hole in the Retrochoir.
Make sure to look down when you are walking in the retrochoir. Otherwise you will miss the medieval floor tiles.
Another Anglo-Saxon tie are the mortuary chests. Six chests rest ontop of the walls of the Presbytery, near Saint Swithun’s memorial.
During the English Civil War in the 1640s, many of the relics, dated medieval and older, were vandalised. It’s unfortunate that some history was lost, but such is the price of war.
Our guide told us that the West Window of the Cathedral was once an impressive medieval stained-glass window. However, during the rebellion the Roundheads raided the Cathedral. Their cavalry rode down the center of the nave followed by the infantry. Using their muskets they destroyed the West Window. They went so far as to remove the bones from the mortuary chests and lob them through in order to assure maximum damage.
After the troops withdrew, the locals collected the bones and shards of glass. They hid them for safekeeping until a later time when they were restored to the cathedral. The West Window is now a mosaic comprised of those salvaged shards. The bones returned to the chests are mixed up, but the Cathedral plans to rectify that with scientific tests.
The Presbytery opens to the choir (alternatively spelled quire), which is truly stunning. The vibrant blue against the rich oak carvings is a delight for the eyes.
I can only imagine how much prettier it must be when the candles are lit.
The oak used for the quire was from Poland — a tidbit I personally appreciated. And the carvings are thought to be done by William of Lyngwode, a master carpenter from Norfolk.
The cathedral itself is built in two different styles: Norman and Gothic architecture. The nave features the Perpendicular Gothic style with lierne-vaulted ceilings of the 14th and 15th centuries.
The north and south transepts are older, in the 11th century Norman style. Pay particular attention to the arches. I just love that ceiling; it is stunning.
Our guide called attention to the stonework here. If you look at the column on the left you can see it’s not completely flush. This part was built by Anglo-Saxon masons who likely resented having to build a church for the Norman invaders.
In the crypts stands the exquisite sculpture, Sound II, by Antony Gormley. Every winter water rises up through the floor and floods the crypt — the photos of which are eerily magical.
I visited in September so there was no water. It’s terrible to wish to have seen the crypt flooded because of how inherently damaging that is for the structure. But selfishly I wanted to see it in the way Antony Gormley intended.
If I had to pick one favourite thing from the cathedral, it would be this sculpture.
I got a little bit carried away with the minutiae of the historical details, but I found it fascinating. It also helps explain how I spent two hours inside.
The last thing I want to mention is completely random, but I wanted to include it anyway. I noticed this above the Jane Austen memorial window. It seems like a series of extraordinary coincidences. If anyone knows more about it, please leave a comment.
When I finished at the cathedral it was 4:15 pm. My next destination was the Great Hall to see King Arthur’s Round Table. By the time I arrived, they had closed the entrance. However, the girl let me in through the shop explaining I only had twenty-five minutes to explore.
Honestly, that was plenty of time. As you see below, the room is basically empty, save the iconic Round Table mounted on the wall and a sculpture of Queen Victoria (in the left corner blocked by a column).
A closer look at the legendary Round Table. The wood dates back to the 12th Century during the reign of Edward I, but the paintwork was done by Henry VII, possibly for a Round Table tournament.
I found the opposite wall extremely interesting. Names and dates are printed forming an intricate pattern, which reminded me of a family tree. They are the Parliamentary representatives (I think, but I’m not 100% sure I’m remembering that accurately).
The wrought iron gates are something straight out of a fairy-tale, or fantasy film. I also enjoyed the stained glass windows with the names and coat of arms of the English kings (plus Saint Swithun).
I decided to head back to London at this point. I had been awake since 6:30 am. I had met my 15,000 step goal. I was, in truth, tired and looking forward to sitting on the train and reading Jamaica Inn.
But there’s so much more to see and do in Winchester. I really want to return and do the City Walk.
I think I just might have to.
Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed it 🙂