Winchester Guide editor Donald Hutera spends a few happy hours on the hoof in an exceptionally attractive city centre.
Walking about a city is akin to putting together a puzzle. The pleasure is seeing how the pieces fit together and into what kind of bigger picture they assemble themselves.
I didn’t plan to wander in whistle-stop fashion round the centre of Winchester on a late Tuesday afternoon in early October. In truth, I had no fixed plans at all other than to finish my three-hour teaching gig at Winchester University (topic: critical writing, especially as it pertains to dance) and then meet this website’s co-founder, George Sallis, to discuss the future of our burgeoning dance and performance festival, GOlive. My session with a dozen or so bright second-years on the Uni’s dance course went well. How do I know? No one fell asleep, including me. Joking aside, the students were alert and attentive during what seemed to be a fun and, I trust, informative dialogue or exchange of thoughts, feelings and opinions about art-making and art-watching.
Afterwards I was unexpectedly free to go where I would at least for a few hours. Why? Because something had come up that meant George would be unavailable for a few hours. Did I mind? Not at all. Having visited Hat Fair in July I already knew how attractive Winchester is as a place to amble about in.
This, then, was the route I took on that particular day…
First, directly across from the entrance to the University, are spread the seven or so sloping acres of West Hill Cemetery. It’s a place worth exploring further, especially for an aficionado of final resting places like me. Then uphill to Peninsula Square, the location of former military barracks that have been converted into private flats surrounding an ample courtyard complete with fountains and greenery. Very picturesque it is, too.
Little did I know that just behind the Barracks is the Great Hall (accessed via a pretty little sliver of a back door garden) wherein the Round Table resides, and next to it the Law Courts. Fronting the latter is a large plaza cobbled in a circular pattern, which – can’t help this, given my career as a professional arts journalist turned curator – put me in mind of possibilities for outdoor performance. (The cobbled area and a neighbouring plaza were, in fact, utilised during Hat Fair.)
I took a moment to admire the local landmark that is the Butter Cross before popping into both the Discovery Centre (a library, exhibition and performance space all in one) and, just across the road, the chocolate box-like Theatre Royal. I veered back to the High Street. Down at the bottom of it, on the stretch of road known as Broadway, sits the Victorian-era Guildhall. I stuck my head into two of its adaptable halls, the King Charles and the Bapsy, both of which are available for hire. Not far away above the River Itchen is the City Mill, a working urban mill powered by the fast-flowing water and operated by the National Trust. They were just about to lock up, rendering this another place to which I’d willingly surrender an adequate amount of time.
The Chesil Theatre, just round the corner on Chesil Street, was shut. I rang the stage door bell but, alas, no answer. No matter. This meant I could backtrack a bit and mosey along The Weirs, a relaxing and even romantic riverside walkway through gardened grounds complete with benches for sitting or, in my observation, something more intimate judging by the passionate, lip-locked embrace of one unabashed young couple.
Turning onto College Street I spotted the entrance to Wolvesey Castle, the extensive ruins of which are overseen by English Heritage. Although it was already past the supposed closing time of 5pm I’m glad to say I was able to meander there for a good ten minutes or so. Situated next to Winchester Cathedral, the Old Bishop’s Palace (to use Wolvesey’s other, informal moniker) has been an important residence of the Bishops of Winchester since Anglo-Saxon times. The ruins date largely from the 12th-century and are mainly thanks to Bishop Henry of Blois. The English Heritage website states that ‘the last great occasion here was on 25 July 1554, when Queen Mary and Philip of Spain held their wedding breakfast in the East Hall.’ What history this piece of land and these stones must contain! I wasn’t there long but Wolvesey immediately shot into a prime position as a favorite and resonant place in Winchester, and one more to which I want to return.
Further along College Street is Winchester College itself. According to Wikipedia, this boys’ school (ages 13-18) has existed in its present location for over 600 years and claims the longest unbroken history of any school in England. It can be toured, too, although not at 5.30pm. And so I strolled past Jane Austen’s house (where she spent her last days and died, but it’s a private residence and thus not open to the public) and on to the Cathedral for a mere five transportingly melodious minutes of the service known as Evensong. The sound of the choir singing far up at this resplendent building’s imposing centre was like a balm, but I had a dinner date at the Hotel du Vin on Southgate Street.
This handsome building dates back to 1715. Next time I ought to take a look at a few of the rooms, but I was there principally to wine and dine with George from a three-course set menu costing £19.95 per person. It was a case of decent food at a good price accompanied by smart service and in elegant surroundings. It’s worth drifting out into the back garden, an area lit by strands of white lights and anchored by a small fountain with fish swimming in its gently splashing waters. They can’t have been much more content than me with my full belly and a head full of Winchester’s eminently accessible wonders.
By Donald Hutera