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Britannia's Magical History Tour
Stop 16: Winchester, Hampshire
A pleasant shopping street near Winchester's cathedral
Winchester may be rich in history, but it is certainly not lost in the past and is a pleasure for the modern traveller. Traffic flows well and there is plenty of parking, both long and short term. There are many fine hotels, pubs and restaurants in town and shopping is both modern and plentiful. Its proximity to London and convenient location just off the M3 make it a great choice as a base of operations while in the UK. Of particular historical and architectural interest are Winchester Cathedral and the Great Hall of the ruined Norman castle that houses a giant replica of King Arthur's Round Table.

Winchester was the ancient capital city of Wessex, the predominant kingdom of the West Saxons, one of the original seven kingdoms (the Heptarchy) that struggled for pre-eminence in Anglo-Saxon England. Not only was Winchester the seat of government of King Alfred the Great, and all the other rulers of his line, it was a cathedral city, the seat of religious authority. King Cenwealh built the first Saxon cathedral there in 648, and the site is still occupied by the present cathedral.

In the middle of the ninth century, the unfortified city of Winchester found itself under frequent attack by the Vikings. St. Swithun, the town's Partron Saint and Bishop of Winchester from 852-862, is reputed to be responsible for building a wall around the city that helped save it from the Viking attackers. One of St. Swithun's pupils at the cathedral school may have been Alfred, the only king of England to wear the label, "the Great." Alfred, who was married and crowned at Winchester Cathedral, had great success in fighting against the Danes. He was responsible for establishing a system of fortified towns for the purpose of providing an effective national defense, and was credited with creating the first English navy. A statue, commemorating the 1000th anniversary of his death stands, sword upraised, at the east end of the High Street, overlooking the city.

The construction of Winchester Cathedral was begun in 1079. The original Norman (Romanesque) work has been overlaid and refurbished through the years, and much of what we now see is of fourteenth century provenance. At 556 ft. in length, it has the distinction of being the longest cathedral in all of Europe. The shrine of St. Swithun is situated in the Presbytery, but the biggest attraction is the tomb of the writer, Jane Austen, who spent her last months of life in Winchester.

Another cathedral "personality" is William Walter, known affectionalely as "Diver Bill." As St. Swithun singlehandedly saved Winchester from the Vikings by building a wall around the city, Diver Bill singlehandedly saved the cathedral. The original foundations of the cathedral had been laid, unwisely, in marshy ground and, over the years, they had begun to rot. For seven years, from 1906 thorough 1912, Diver Bill worked 6 hours a day in the murky marsh water replacing the rotting peat with bags of concrete, preventing certain collapse.

Elsewhere in the city of Winchester is St. Cross Hospital. Not a hospital as we know it, but a charitable house established in 1136, it was built by Bishop Henry of Blois, for the maintenance of 13 poor men. Nowadays, the inmates of St. Cross are aged men and wear distinctive caps, gowns and medallions of identification. One of the quaint medieval traditions that is still observed at the hospital, today, is available to all who apply. Any hungry traveller can still knock on the door of St. Cross and receive the Wayfarer's Dole, a sliver of bread and a glass of ale.

King Arthur's Round Table At the western side of the old city, stands all that is left of the Norman castle which occupied this site, the Great Hall. It is regarded as the finest hall in all England, outside of Westminster. It is the site of many Parliaments and the place where Sir Walter Raleigh heard his death sentence pronounced. The Great Hall's windows are the coats of arms of all the great medieval monarchs, churchmen and nobles, impressively rendered in stained glass. Of interest to Arthurians is the giant replica of King Arthur's Round Table hanging high up on the inside wall. It was painted in alternating green and white wedges, with the names of Arthur's knights centering around an image, labelled "King Arthur", but having the face of Henry VIII.

Take a Walking Tour of the City of Winchester
Take a Photographic Tour of the City of Winchester
Take a Photographic Tour of Winchester Cathedral

Next stop: Leeds Castle, Kent

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