On The Road Travel Essays

back to index


Winchester lies on the small River Itchen. One of England's oldest towns, and one of its most unspoilt. Famous too for its cathedral, made popular by the song. Historical sketch: Winchester was a royal capital long before London — the capital of a separate Anglo-Saxon Kingdom, Wessex. It was even important under the Romans, centuries before, who called it Venta Belgarum. Its days of glory were under King Alfred, the first king of major importance in England — a century before the Norman Conquest. Winchester was Alfred's capital (Alfred reigned from 871 to 901). What established Alfred's greatness was his defeat of the Danes, who had been menacing English trade and towns by coastal raids. Under Alfred, Winchester became a seat of learning; the art of manuscript illumination was perfected in local abbeys. So it was natural that William the Conqueror, when he wanted to take a census of the population, had the Doomsday Book compiled in Winchester. With this importance, the town had to have a proper cathedral. Winchester Cathedral is one of England's most distinctive: longest Gothic nave in Europe. Inside are superb examples of three architectural styles: Norman, Early English, and Perpendicular. Winchester ranks second only to Westminster Abbey as the place for crowning English kings — 35 in all, of whom 20 are buried here (these are mainly pre-Norman kings, although William Rufus — son of William the Conqueror — is also buried inside). The famous King Canute — who ordered the tide to stop advancing (to no avail) — is also buried in the cathedral.

How the cathedral was built. Though large, this building was built on precarious foundations: oaken rafts floating on a peat marsh! The building began in 1079, and for 800 years the raft was able to carry the weight (remember: longest Gothic nave in Europe — lots of weight). But sinking began, and in 1107 a tower toppled over. Nothing was done to the foundations, but the sinking slowed down — somewhat. But by the 19th century, the sinking had started to crumble the building, so the foundations had to be rebuilt (by digging under from the side). Inside are the tombs of England's early kings: Ethelwolf, Egbert, Canute, and William Rufus. Queens and bishops too are buried, including St. Swithin, the great tutor of King Alfred. The Pilgrim's Gate is the oldest piece of iron grillwork in the country (11th century). The dark oak choirstalls and great Screen are other impressive features.

St. Swithin's Ghost. One of the popular legends of the cathedral. St. Swithin died but his body couldn't be buried for 40 days, because heavy rains prevented completion of his shrine (located in the retro-choir). Thus, the legend goes, if it ever rains on St. Swithin's Day (July 15), the rain will last for 40 days and 40 nights.

Winchester College and Castle  Winchester College was founded (1382) by William of Wykeham, who is buried in the cathedral. Is now one of the most prestigious "public (i.e., private) schools." Winchester Castle hasn't had the same longevity: it was built by William the Conqueror, but was all torn down except the Great Hall, which we'll visit if there's time. Inside this Great Hall hangs the famous "Round Table" of King Arthur and his knights. The table is 18 feet in diameter, and seats 25 people. It was painted in Tudor green and white in 1522 under Henry VII. Near the Great Hall is West Gate (14th century), one of two that remain of the original five.


(COURIER: You should be able to park nearby. If there's time, take the group to West Gate to the Great Hall down High Street, passing the Old Guildhall and Pentice, and then into cathedral grounds. The cathedral is likely to close around 7 p.m., so if it's a choice between the town and the cathedral, go straight to the cathedral.)

West Gate  14th Century. One of five original gates in the city. (Recall the importance of Winchester as royal capital of Wessex). The grooves which held the portcullis (door — made of iron grating which slid up and down) are still visible. Look for the holes through which the drawbridge chains passed (west side), and the slits through which defenders shot arrows or poured molted lead and boiling oil on attackers. The gate is now a museum: inside are headsmen's axes, shackles, wooden stocks, and gibbet irons. The carvings on the west wall were done by prisoners. Inside are kept old medieval standards of measurement. E.G., "Winchester Bushel" — an exact bushel barrel; also the standard yard proclaimed by Henry I (a yard was the length of his arm)! (The Hall, now a museum, is open until dusk. Admission free).

Great Hall (or Castle) (Just view it from a distance)  Built by William the Conqueror; in it were born Henry III, and Arthur (son of Henry VII who died in youth). During the Civil War (17th century) it was besieged by Cromwell, who took it in 1645, and demolished all but the present Great Hall. King Arthur's Round Table is inside. The chivalrous Sir Walter Raleigh was sentenced to death in this Hall, as were many other famous people. Today it is occasionally used as a court of law.

Gothic City Cross (or Butter Cross) (This should be nearby.)  It dates back to the reign of Henry VI (15th century). The figure of John the Baptist (south niche) is the oldest one. The cross was restored by Gilbert Scott in 1865. "Butter" comes from the fact that the cross was built by levying a tax on people eating butter during Lent. (Private vices, public virtues, etc).

Visiting Winchester Cathedral (Take the group through the front portal.)  The best view inside is from the south aisle, where you can appreciate the great length of the nave. Notice the massive Norman columns. Look up at the original roof timbers (above the stone vaulting). Half-way along the south side is the Chantry Chapel of Bishop William Wykeham, founder of Winchester College and local bishop, who designed this chapel himself. Pilgrim's Gate (11th century) is between the South transept and the Choir: the oldest iron grillwork in England. In Prior Silkstede's Chapel is the tomb of Izaak Walton (died 1683), the great fisherman (The Compleat Angler). He used to fish from the local River Itchen. Notice the Choir, and the thickness of the columns: the people wanted to avoid a repetition of the collapse of the tower (1107)! The Choir is dedicated to St. Swithin — that's where his ghost hovers. Choirstalls: dark oak (14th century), beautifully carved. Pulpit is 16th century. Great Screen (i.e., rood screen) is 15th century — lovely niches; statues in them were put there in 1885 to take the place of original ones destroyed during Reformation. On sidescreens around Presbytery are coffins of early kings: Ethelwolf, Egbert, Canute, etc. After seeing the inside, look at the old tombstone in the churchyard in front. Some of the inscriptions are hilarious — like the one about the sailor who died by overdrinking.

Other Sights in the Town (Again, if there's time.)  Get back on High Street and walk down to the King Alfred statue. It was set up in 1901 to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of his death. Turn right at the river bank, and follow it past the medieval walls. You'll come to Wolwesey Castle, built by the Bishop of Winchester (also called Bishop's Castle). Follow the walls around the corner to Winchester College, the famous "public" school. Then back through King's Gate to the cathedral churchyard.


passports educational travel logo

passports Educational Group Travel partners with teachers across the United States to provide high-quality educational travel experiences to their students. Educational tours visit destinations around the world - primarily France, Italy, England, Spain and Costa Rica - at low, guaranteed prices.

Passports, Inc., ToursOperators & Promoters, Spencer, MA


Facebook icon   Twitter icon   Pinterest icon   Blog icon

For updates on educational travel tips, ideas and news, subscribe to our newsletter:


51 Union Street Suite 106
Worcester, MA 01608

Email Us

© Copyright 1992-2022 Passports Educational Travel | All Rights Reserved | Privacy Policy