Honestly I didn’t know anything about Winchester, I didn’t even know it existed. We were waiting out our two weeks after our covid boosters and looking for a place a bit less expensive than London with access to hiking and Katy suggested visiting. It turned out to be a lovely city with an interesting blend of old world pubs in a small town setting with all the conveniences of a larger one.
Winchester was the primary seat of power in England before the Normand invasion when the capitol gravitated to London. First developing as a prehistoric iron age oppidum in the first and second centuries and then into the Roman town of Venta Belgarum. The town continued to grow after the Romans left in the 4th century. King Ælfred the Great rebuilt the original Roman street plan into the modern day grid to better defend against the Vikings. By all accounts Winchester was the premiere city of the West Saxon kingdom.
Today Winchester is one of the most affluent communities in England, the home of many schools including Winchester College, churning out future heads of state and English luminaries, and for some reason Joss Whedon.
Walking around town.
Winchester can best be described as quaint in the best possible way. Ancient pubs, cute brick buildings, remnants of the old city wall. The river Itchen has been diverted through town in narrow canals creating a model town kind of feel. Flowering parks, little bridges, and a rich and layered history evident in every small detail you walk past. It can be upscale without feeling exclusive and the line at the McDonalds is as long as anywhere else in town. The history of the place really comes alive and it seems to have escaped the kinds of modernization that sucks the life out of most towns. I really enjoyed our week of strolling around and eating at pubs.
Built between 1079 to 1532, the Winchester cathedral is the longest gothic cathedral in the world. After William the Conqueror appointed his own Norman bishop to Winchester in 1070, a new church was begun 9 years later and the existing Saxon churches of the town were destroyed and the Saxon kings moved to the Norman cathedral. In 1642, Cromwell’s parliamentary forces destroyed much of the building including the Great West window and was never restored to its former glory. In 1905, fearing the complete collapse of the structure, a renovation was undertaken costing 20,000 pounds, and several restorations since, leaving the structure in good condition.
Cathedral Lightshow Installation
On our first visit to the cathedral we entered through a back door and accidentally discovered this impressive light and sound installation by Luxmuralis entitled “Science”. We later bought tickets and experienced the full show legitimately.
Jane Austin in Winchester
Jane Austin actually lived 17 miles away in Chawton where she wrote her 6 novels. When she became ill with what is now known as Addison’s disease, she moved to Winchester for treatment and died two months later at 41. This is the house where she spent her last months and was buried in the Winchester cathedral where you can find this stone dedicated to her. Oddly her memorial does not mention her writing at all, perhaps because the novels were published anonymously.
English food in Winchester.
English food, for some reason, has always gotten a bad rap. People tend to associate it with pasty gruel and dock workers with their fish and chips. The gruel, I have no idea what that’s supposed to be. And the fish and chips, well that’s just fantastic. It’s probably because of the shit fried fish in whatever shit town you were introduced to it in. But when prepared properly it is divine.
When I think of English food I think of meat pies with mash, slow stews, and a variety of rich sausages. And that’s a lovely lot. But still it’s just a small slice of what you’ll run into. For starters amazing food from all over the world, especially India, they were a bastard Empire once upon a time. But you’ll also find Michelin star restaurants galore with innovative cuisine of all sorts. Sure, if you’re in a sleepy little town in the English heartland, your options lean towards peasant dishes, but what small town anywhere doesn’t, and I’ll put the dinner special at the local pub against anything you’ll find at Applebee’s or Sizzler in SmallTown, USA.
Winchester has a smaller population than the town in West Virginia where I grew up, but also happens to be one of the most expensive and affluent towns in the UK, which has a positive effect on the dining options. The pub food is top notch and there’s no shortage of white table cloth places to drop some change if you’re in the mood. Me, I wanted the meat pies and the long stews. It’s my romantic notion of old England, minus the brutal public executions and beheadings. And that’s more or less the pocket we stayed in for Winchester. But there’s much more if you’re looking.
The Bishop of the Bridge
A quaint and upscale pub, a bit newer given the competition, the building being built in 1891. I couldn’t dig up much history except that James Cagney stayed at the pub in 1942. The menu included a variety of classics and I went for the chicken, bacon, leek pie with mash and greens and a couple of pints of London’s Pride.
The Chesil Rectory is the oldest commercial property in Winchester and a very stylish upscale pub and restaurant inside. Built in 1425, the building was originally a merchants house, antique shop, tannery, Bishop’s residence, general store and tea rooms, and now has been a restaurant for the last 50 years. King Henry the VIII took the rectory in the 1500’s while dissolving the monasteries and gave it to his daughter Queen Mary who gifted it back to the city after her wedding nearly bankrupted the city.
Today you’ll find an excellent menu of high end but traditionally grounded dishes executed with precision and delicious. I started off with the Laverstoke black pudding, poached egg, deviled jus, and for my main course, steamed venison suet pudding with tarragon parsnips and potato puree. Katy started with the roasted butternut squash soup with candied pumpkin seeds and old Winchester cream, and for her main, pan fried sea bream, crisp potato, peppered leeks, and chive butter sauce.
Oh this place was fun. It has the casual attitude of a fast food diner theme restaurant but with top notch meat pies, and a kitschy interior design featuring movie memorabilia. In addition to a long list of pies, you can choose from a variety of mash and sides, and a few over the top options like stacking pies into a pie tower and even a three pie eating challenge, the PieScraper, when finished in 10 minutes scores you a t-shirt and I assume a massive stomach ache. The tv at our table was playing Lord of the Rings!
The Black Boy
Now this was an amazing classic pub a short walk outside of the downtown area. Quirky in the best way, filled with weird taxidermy and odd bits, small rooms off here and there with multiple fire places crackling away, and a mix of locals reading papers and having a pint. The website says they serve food but that wasn’t an option when we were there. But a great place to relax, drink, and socialize. I wish I could have spent more time here. It’s part of a collection of places at the same corner including The Black Hole Bed & Breakfast, The Black Bottle Wine Bar, and the Michelin recognized Black Rat Restaurant.
The Eclipse Inn
This very old and casual pub sits in the middle of town near the cathedral. Built in 1540 with a Tudor façade, it was originally a rectory before becoming a tavern in 1750. The biggest story about the place involves the execution of Lady Alice Lisle in 1685 for harboring participants of the Monmouth Rebellion. She spent her last night in the room above the main bar (then a rectory) before stepping out the window onto a specially constructed scaffolding to be beheaded publicly above the town square. Her ghost is said to haunt the building but she didn’t grace me with an appearance. Although the bartender did give us a tour upstairs.
The Wykeham Arms
Continuously operated as a pub since 1755, this pub/restaurant/hotel is snug with loads of personality. There’s a more casual but posh vibe here and a professional feel to the bartending. We sat at two school desks facing each other as a table. We had to wait a bit for a table. There’s a fireplace with customer’s dogs napping in front. I’m not sure it would be my recurring haunt but we had a great time there sipping port and getting warm. Apparently it used to be in the middle of Winchester’s old redlight district and sits between the cathedral and the Wolvesey Castle Ruins right by the King’s Gate through the old town wall. Ridiculously classic spot.
Wolvesey Castle Ruins
Built in 12th century by Bishop Henry of Blois, brother of King Stephen, as a palace to entertain dignitaries this once grand castle now sits in ruins around the modern Bishop’s palace. Bishop Henry was the king’s chief adviser, and in 1139 became papal legate, the pope’s representative in England. The castle was destroyed by parliamentary forces in 1646 during the English civil war.