The solemn saints of the Great Screen stared eerily out over the vast altar. Having just walked down Europe’s longest medieval nave, the cathedral’s intricately carved limestone wall – built over two decades from 1455 – had me transfixed.
By this point I’d lost my husband in one of the many curious chantry chapels and even baby was mesmerised by the strange, slightly hypnotic atmosphere. We hadn’t even reached two of the cathedral’s main pulls: the memorial of St Swithun (the ninth-century bishop of Winchester) or Jane Austen’s tomb (the writer was buried here in 1817).
We had come to Winchester, in Hampshire, for a weekend break, and the city – famous as the home of King Alfred the Great (849-899) – was fast proving a tonic. In the gentle afternoon sun we embarked on the popular Keats Walk. John Keats was inspired to write his ode ‘To Autumn’ after staying here in 1819 and you can see why. The two-mile route (a map can be downloaded at www.visitwinchester.co.uk), which starts at the big bronze statue of King Alfred in the Broadway and follows in the poet’s footsteps to the Hospital of St Cross via the cathedral and through the idyllic water meadows, is as romantic as they come.
Stop along the way at the Wykeham Arms (75 Kingsgate Street, Winchester, 01962 853 834) for a pint. The food isn’t quite fantastic but the quirky interior, stuffed with curious antiques, makes it a worthwhile pit stop.
Wandering down cobbled streets
The planned walk was edifying but we soon realised the best way to do Winchester is just to wander, getting lost in the old cobbled streets and stumbling upon the city’s many charms, like its tiny churches hidden down passageways and odd pieces of public art. Don’t miss Barbara Hepworth’s ‘Crucifixion’ in the Inner Close. Work by Antony Gormley and Elisabeth Frink can also be spotted. Add to that a few cosy pubs and a luxury lodge just out of town and this was beginning to feel like the best weekend break we’d had in a very long while.
In passing, we ticked off some of the city’s main points of historical interest, including the exquisitely designed Winchester College. Founded in 1382, it’s the oldest continuously open school in England. The Great Hall, the only remaining part of Winchester Castle and home to King Arthur’s Round Table, is also hugely impressive. For Jane Austen fans, the little house on College Street she inhabited shortly before her death is worth a peek.
Finally, there’s a twice-monthly farmers’ market (second and last Sunday in the month), with more than 90 local producers showcasing Hampshire food – from ostrich meat and home-baked bread to crabs fresh from the Solent. Borough Market? Forget it, this is the country’s biggest, and there’s space to stroll around.
Where to eat
The Black Rat
This stylish converted pub dating back to 1700 offers delicious modern British food in cosy surroundings. The kitchen is led by the very capable Chris Bailey, who trained at Chez Bruce. Dishes include starters such as roast quail with preserved lemon, fig and honey, and mains such as the melt-in-the-mouth Gressingham breast with runner beans, piquillos and lentil dressing. Yum.
Set within a golf course, fringed by lush woodland, these multi-award-winning lodges are just a few minutes’ taxi ride from the city centre, providing the ultimate self-catering option. Plump duvets, fluffy pillows, plush cream leather sofas, flatscreen TVs and swanky bathrooms await you beyond the wooden walls – rather like deluxe ski-chalets. The surrounding woods are teeming with stoats, woodpeckers and owls, the latter providing a calming nocturnal soundtrack. The price includes a basket packed with scrumptious local breakfast goodies.