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Uncovering the history of Winchester

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Uncovering the history of Winchester

While Winchester is a fantastic destination to visit during a holiday in the region, it’s also a city which offers an endless amount of history to explore. From Roman Britain to the present day, the city has been documented in the past and has even played a significant role in British history.

If you’re an historical enthusiast keen on unravelling the city’s great past during your cottage break in Hampshire, our guide is a great place to start.

The story behind the Cathedral

The Cathedral is undoubtedly the star landmark of the city, boasting the largest nave of any Gothic cathedral in Europe. The first cathedral in the city was founded in 650 and was known as Old Minster. Standing just slightly north to the present-day cathedral, this Anglo-Saxon cathedral was completely different to the cathedral you see today. One of the most notable residents to be buried in the cathedral was King Eadwig of England, an early Saxon King whose remains are thought to lie in one of the mortuary chests inside the current cathedral.

The old cathedral, or Old Minster, was demolished in 1093 after work on the Norman cathedral had been completed. Old Minster had served as the burial ground of King Alfred the Great, but his body was moved to the new cathedral upon completion. His body was later moved to the new abbey church in Hyde in 1110.

Winchester Cathedral

“Construction of the cathedral you see today was first started in 1079, and much of the original design still stands today. One part of the cathedral which has had to be rebuilt is the crossing tower after the original collapsed back in 1107, however the replacement stills stands strong.”

- Visit Winchester

Winchester Excavations

With so much history, the opportunity for archaeological study is extensive. It’s this field that the Winchester Excavations Committee has been excelling in since 1961. Under the direction of Professor Martin Biddle, it was this team that uncovered the foundations of the Old Minster between 1961 and 1972.

Old Minster Image of the excavation of Old Minster in 1966.

“Until Professor Biddle's excavations in the 1960s and 1970s nobody knew exactly where the Anglo-Saxon Cathedral of Old Minster had stood. If you travel to Winchester today, you can see the plan of Old Minster marked out in brick in the grass lying next to the present-day Cathedral.”

- Clare Chapman, Winchester Excavations Committee

As well as Old Minster, the team also excavated New Minster, the palace of the medieval bishops in Wolvesley and 12 Anglo Saxon houses on the west side of Lower Brook Street. Their work is unprecedented; without it so many points in the city’s history would remain a mystery.

Books to read before you go

To help you make the most of your journey it’s important to have a plan of where you will want to go. Fortunately, Winchester: History You Can See by Penny Legg offers the perfect photographic tour you need, and highlights the places that local residents and visitors may walk past without understanding its historical significance. Every place featured is clearly shown on a map, making it easier than ever to discover these incredible places for yourself during your holidays.

We were able to speak to Penny to find out about the inspiration behind the book:

Winchester: History You Can See was such an interesting book to research and write! The History Press, the publisher, approached me to write and photograph this book, as they wanted to bring the history of the city to life for a wider audience.

St Catherine's Hill

The trouble with Winchester is that it is so old and has such a very long history, which is still in evidence in many of the streets and buildings, that visitors don’t see what is staring them in the face. The Sarsen stones that dot the city, for example by the Priory Gate that allows access to Cathedral Close from St Swithun Street, date back to a glacial time in history. How many people walk past the lovely Church of St Lawrence in the Square and don’t venture in, simply because they miss it as they go by? What has ‘Hanging Judge’ Jeffrys to do with the Eclipse Inn and who is the ‘grey lady’ sometimes seen in an upper bedroom, or in the corridor outside? St Catherine’s Hill is a lovely Winchester beauty spot, once used as a navigation point for Solent shipping. How many know that it was the place that Winchester College boys played its notoriously rough version of rugby, WinCoFo (Winchester College Football), or that the picturesque path at the top of the 111 steps up the hill is actually part of a Neolithic hill fort?”

- Penny Legg

We also asked Penny why she feels that Winchester is such a great destination for a holiday cottage getaway with Hideaways.

“Winchester has it all! Lots of history; a compact centre that you can walk around in a short time; decent shopping along historic streets; some lovely walks along the river or out into the countryside; festivals and markets; a wonderful cathedral that oozes age (check out the medieval floor tiles we are still walking on in the twenty-first century!); statuary by such notables as Barbara Hepworth, Hamo Thorneycroft, Sir Alfred Gilbert and Dame Elisabeth Frink; a theatre, reputed to be haunted, and a cinema; great restaurants and cafes, I could go on and on and on …”

- Penny Legg

Another fantastic publication to read is King Arthur’s Round Table: an archaeological investigation. Credited to archaeologist Professor Martin Biddle but with the help of many authors, it explores the history behind the round table, which has hung on the wall of the Cathedral for over 600 years. Was it ever a table? When was it made? These are just some of the questions which this detailed archaeological analysis looks to uncover.

Round Table

Get involved with a walking tour

With so much to see and do, walking tours are a fantastic method of learning all that you can about the city quickly. Among the best of these is the Winchester Tudor Trail, a tour devised by the city council which you can enjoy at your own pace by printing this great guide. With details on everything from the Arthurian Round Table, the Tudor ceiling in Westgate Museum and even the chance to learn about Queen Mary’s wedding venue, if offers a great day of discovery for the whole family.

We were able to contact Visit Winchester about what they think makes Winchester such a special place, and here’s what they had to say:

“The perfect English city on the edge of the South Downs National Park, Winchester combines cosmopolitan elegance with rural idyll and is packed with historic buildings and museums - all within a short walking distance of each other.

The striking cathedral is the resting place of the early English Kings and Jane Austen and was Mary Tudor’s wedding venue. The legendary Arthurian Round Table has been in the Great Hall for 700 years. Close by is the medieval Westgate, a debtors' prison for 150 years. Don’t miss Winchester's Military Museums, the City Museum, Winchester College and Winchester City Mill and the UK’s largest Planetarium too!”

- Visit Winchester

Another set to be confirmed is the archaeological walking tour of Winchester. Devised by the Winchester Excavations Committee, it will be led by Professor Martin Biddle and will form a key feature as part of the 2015 National Archaeological Festival, which returns between 11 and 26 July.

Image Credit: Penny Legg, Winchester Excavations Committee, Mark Hillary (flickr.com)