Winchester: The Former capital of England (part 1)

king Alf
King Arthurs Statue

When it comes to history, I must admit that this fine & pleasant land has shed-loads of it. And there is one place that has more than it’s fair share – Winchester.

Essential Historical Trivia

Located in the heart of Hampshire, it is suggested that the city known as Winchester, first started out as a poppidum, sorry, I mean an oppidum (a Late Iron Age settlement, not a deep fried Indian crispy thing that one eats with pickles). Probably this was due to it having a decent sized hill on which to site the settlement (St Catherine’s) a substantial water course (the River Itchen) & it’s proximity to decent roads (the M3 & A34). Following this the Romans jumped in & re-named it Venta Belgarum (I always think the Romans should of developed a football team – Venta Belgarum FC). Anyway, from the Roman development & their subsequent clearing-off, the Venta became known as Wintancaester (Fort Venta) in Old English. In the late 9th Century, King Alfred the Great, the Saxon ruler, destroyed the Roman layout favouring a new plan (obviously including a shopping arcade, a Weatherspoons & a McDonalds). King Art was said to be a jolly decent chap who looked after the welfare of his underlings & was posthumously awarded ‘the Great’ in the 16th Century (along with King Cnut – a name one has to be careful pronouncing, especially if one is dyslexic). Another notable figure at this time is the Bishop of Winchester – Saint Swithun, who is famous for his post-death miracles. Tradition holds that if it rains on St Swithun’s day (15th July), it will persist down nonstop for another 40 days. Better keep the brolly to hand, what?

Right, enough about all that, let’s bimble….

Now, must point out that my family originate from Winchester & so I am rather familiar with the city. Although the route that I describe below is undertakable on foot (at a push), I chose to use my Brompton as, well, it was just easier. Oh & by the way, if anyone fancies bimbling the route, I have added the street names in bold & the exciting stuff to look-at, in uppercase italics.

Starting at the (remarkably dull) railway station…..

For a city as wonderful as Winchester, I am always surprised how dull the railway station is. Anyway, as I passed through the remarkably dull automatic sliding glass doors, I wheeled my bike onto the remarkably dull pavement & remarkably dull station drop-off area, before bearing immediately right & pedalling up the path that runs parallel to the railway line. Up & over the crest of the hill of Station Road I wheelied down to the Law Courts, where I paused momentarily to get a pic of the Westgate– one of Winchesters medieval archways. Feeling the weight of history above me, I gazed down the steep slope of the high street & observed all the crowds below. ‘F**k that’ thought I, & about-turned, heading back up Romsey Road. Keeping the curved façade of the Westgate Hotel on my right, I aimed my small, but perfectly formed front wheel for the open wrought iron gates of Peninsula Barracks – the former home to the Royal Green Jackets; a historic British Army Regiment that had a tendency to march at pace faster than the rest of the military, ensuring that they always got to the bar first.

The Westgate
The Westgate Hotel

Note: It must be mentioned here that the City of Winchester is built on quite a slope & that other than the hospital & prison, there is very little of tourist interest uphill beyond this point – with the exception of St James Tavern if you fancy a quick snifter.

Once inside the gates, something stopped me dead in my tracks. A shiver went down my spine. I caught a waft in the air – a waft that I hadn’t wafted for a very long time. It was a waft that transported me back to my days in green. A waft that wafts around every British Army barracks in the known world. It was a waft of floor polish. But it wasn’t a waft of ordinary, everyday floor polish, oh no. This was a waft of extra special floor polish. It was a waft of guardroom floor polish. Now, this might be hard to explain to those in the ranks of Civvy Street, but the guardroom holds ‘interesting’ memories to every Brit squaddie. On the one hand, it is the last place you visit when you leave barracks, & the first you enter when you return – the process of signing out & then in. It is also a place where you undertake guard duties from – patrolling the barracks at all hours for security purposes. But it is also a place of terror, a place of incarceration & a place where you will be sent to if ‘you has been a very naughty boy’ (As Windsor Davies would say). Inside every guardroom is what are known as Provost Staff – soldiers usually holding the rank of Corporal & above, that have been specifically chosen for their damn good looks, intellectual prowess & sparkling charisma, by the Really Scary Man (the RSM or Regimental Sergeant Major). And it is their job to ensure those ‘naughty boys’, quickly learn the error of their ways. So, it is here, outside the guardroom in Peninsula Barracks, that thanks to a waft of Mark 1 Guardroom Polish, I was back, mentally marking-time on the spot, with my legs going faster than Michael Flatley on Columbian dancing dust – “Eft, ite, eft, ite, eft, ite*, mark time. Street, you’re a f**king disgrace to other amoeba. Get those f**king knees up….”

*Eft = Left, ite = right – Provost Staff often lacked the ability to pronounce words completely

Leaving the former guardroom (& sudden, waft-induced post-traumatic stress) on my right, I coasted towards a signpost which said in no uncertain terms that there was to be no cycling over what used to be the parade square.  I was in no mood for rebellion & knowing my luck I would encounter the ghost of a long-departed RSM (“You boy, get off my f**king square”), so instead I followed the signs & scooted behind a large, red-bricked, multi-storey building & into a tree-lined parking area.  As I spun along something caught my attention.  Midway along the red-brick block was a grand, pillared archway, that led through to the former parade square beyond & being the inquisitive sort/nosey bugger that I am, I parked the bike & wandered in.  The actual parade square itself had been turned into a rather formal garden, that wouldn’t look out of place in Versailles, complete with neatly spaced box hedging & an enormous water feature.  Standing between the pillars, a sobering thought came into my mind.  I imagined how many thousands & thousands of troops had paraded on the square in front of this building over the years, prior to being sent to conflicts worldwide. And how many of them made it back again.

A quick banana later & I was back on the bike, meandering downhill towards towards the small camp church (Ooo er Misses).  Eventually I exited from the regimental confines & bearing left onto the traffic-laden Southgate Street, I moseyed past the front of Searles House, before turning down into St Clements Street. This narrow back lane, full of wonderful, higgldy-piggldy houses, was just wide enough for a horse & cart, but not as it turned out, a fat bloke on a Brompton & an on-coming Mercedes Sprinter van.  After a cheerful wave to the driver as he sped on his merry way, I carried on down this lane, with the sight of Winchester Cathedral afore me. At the crossroads I decide to take a right continuing on the flat along St ThomasStreet, then a left flowing downhill along St Swithun Street, pausing at the junction with Symond Street & the ancient Christ’s Hospital & Almshouses on the corner.  With the high flint wall marking the cathedral grounds on my left, I carried on down towards the fortified stone archway of Dome Alley, which marks an entrance to the prestigious Pilgrims School – the academic home of Winchester Cathedral choir. If you so desire you can wander through the arch & following the road left, you can get to the cathedral itself, but I decided to keep my wheels a-rolling, & bore right heading under another of Winchesters’ medieval gates – the Kingsgate. This gate with the dinky St Swithuns Church atop, was used for a scene or two in Les Miserables the movie & although the thought of giving the tourists a hearty rendition of ‘Bring him home’ flashed through my mind, I decided to keep my dulcet tones to myself.

From the other side of the gateway you can now turn left onto College Street, to see the formal entrance to Winchester College – the prestigious public school, but at this time, I was in need of some much needed rehydration, so I carried straight onto along Kingsgate Street, & straight into The Wykeham Arms for a swift ale.

To be continued…

The Wykeham Arms