Winchester seems to be one of those places that has “Weekend Break” stamped all over it. Despite being a city, (it has a cathedral after all) it has that small, market-town feel, with a very walkable historic centre and plenty of green spaces, river walks, interesting artizan shops and great places to eat. If that’s not enough, you have the beautiful Hampshire countryside on your doorstep, with walking and country houses to explore within a short drive of Winchester. I thought it would be perfect for a weekend away with my sister who lives on the South Coast and an easy drive for both of us after work on a Friday night. Here’s what we got up to, which I hope will give you ideas for what you might like to see on your weekend break in Winchester;
I hope you enjoy the video below about 10 ways to spend a wonderful weekend in Winchester
1. Check in at The Winchester Hotel and dinner at The Old Vine
My sister and I rendezvous from opposite directions, arriving after work at The Winchester Hotel. Since we’re both driving, we’re relieved to find a free car park behind the hotel, as parking is quite limited in the historic centre of Winchester. The hotel is fronted by a public car park which doesn’t make it especially pretty from the outside, but the inside things improve considerably with a stylish, modern reception area and a bar that has lots of dark wood, leather chairs and attractive coloured glass for decoration.
We check in and head for our second floor room which is quite compact for two people, but has everything that we need – tea and coffee making for my sister who is gasping for a cuppa and a hairdryer, large wardrobe, fridge and free wifi. The bedroom is under the eves with a sloping roof and with only one window is on the dark side, but the bathroom is spacious, modern and well lit with a large mirror and Taylors of London toiletries. Overall, as a base for sightseeing in Winchester we’re very happy with our choice, especially as the hotel is just a short walk into the historic centre, where we have a table booked that evening at The Old Vine.
Staying just long enough to leave our bags, we head out into the evening and wind our way through some of the old streets to find The Old Vine, on the edge of the Cathedral Close. This 18th century inn is divided into a restaurant that’s full of old beams and old fashioned charm on one side, with an adjoining bar that has more of a designer feel. They pride themselves on using local ingredients and I order the pretty-in-pink smoked salmon mousse with salad, followed by a pan-fried confit of duck salad scattered with pomegranate seeds, both of which are delicious. I ask for a recommendation of a pudding, and am told that they are known for their bread and butter pudding, so I give that a go and it’s very good too. It’s all very convivial with plenty of real ales on tap and the menu is reasonably priced too – a great combination of good food and pub prices.
2. We buy a picnic lunch from the farmer’s market
The next morning we’re keen to make the most of the day, so after breakfast we set off towards the Cathedral, as we know this is one of the main attractions of Winchester and we want to look around before it gets too crowded. We get slightly distracted by so many interesting things along the way, like the painted bollards around The Square where we had dinner the night before. Last night I’d only noticed Mona Lisa, but in the daylight we spot a Picasso, Klimt, Hockney and plenty more. In the green space at the front of Winchester Cathedral, a farmer’s market is in full swing, so of course we take the opportunity to sniff around all the delicious looking stalls in search of something for a picnic lunch. There’s everything from organic meat, to cup cakes, to plump fresh asparagus and buckets of flowers.
With a picnic in mind, we home in on the pie stall for a chicken and mushroom pie and the cake stall for a lardy cake which as the name suggests is oozing in fat, raisins and sugar, but I’m counting on working it off on my walk later. At the blueberry stall there are fresh blueberries, blueberry jams and blueberry cakes which I buy and I also find a small bottle of strawberry liqueur for my father’s birthday which I have to resist opening myself. Chatting to the stallholders we find that there’s a farmer’s market once a month around the Cathedral but there are markets of one kind or another on most weekends around Winchester or in nearby Hampshire towns. It’s a great way to get a taste of fresh Hampshire produce and you can find out where and when the markets are being held on the Hampshire Farmers’ Market website.
3. A moment of calm in the Cathedral
We finally make it into the Cathedral, paying our entrance at the desk, although of course it’s free if you are attending one of the many services. There’s a free tour just starting from one of the volunteers but as we’d rather go at our own pace, we hire an audio-guide, narrated by actor, David Suchet who plays Hercule Poirot in the TV series. The cathedral is enormous and I’m amazed at how many things of interest there are to see here, such as the special exhibition of sculpture that’s dotted around in different parts of the Cathedral. The cathedral dates back to the 11th Century and the nave has a soaring, vaulted stone roof with tombs of benefactors along each aisle, leading past the Quire at the end of the nave, to the site of the shrine of St Swithin.
In the middle ages the tomb of St Swithin was a big draw for pilgrims who came to seek healing, and the story goes that when his bones were moved into the cathedral on his feast day in 971, there was a terrible storm that lasted for 40 days. Perhaps you’ve heard the saying “If on St Swithin’s day it does rain, for 40 days it will remain!” In the North Transept we find the small door that leads a few steps down into the crypt which often floods after rain, although there’s a viewing stage at one end from which you can see the Antony Gormley sculpture of a man standing, often up to his knees in water. Up the stairs in the South Transept and we find a library of old documents and take a look at the Winchester bible, one of the finest 12th century bibles which is illuminated in gold and glowing colours.
4. We discover the Jane Austen trail
In the cathedral, we notice the grave of Jane Austen, one of England’s most popular writers, especially since her novels have been made into films and television series. The original grave on the north aisle of the nave makes no mention of Jane Austen’s work as a writer, but as her fame grew, a public subscription raised enough money for the brass memorial in the wall near the gravestone.
We walk out of the Cathedral grounds into College Road, to have a look at the house where Jane lived for the last few weeks of her life, before she died of what is suspected to be Addison’s disease. The house is a private home and is marked by a plaque, but the next day I drive out of Winchester to the village of Chawton to see the house where Jane lived with her sister and mother and is now a museum with information and memorabilia from Jane’s life.
In this house Jane wrote some of her greatest novels, such as Sense & Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. The house was provided for the ladies by Jane’s brother, Edward who had interited a nearby estate, and the thatched cottages and fields where Jane and Cassandra would have walked seem hardly changed. The house is arranged with furniture belonging to the family or of the period and the small table where Jane sat and wrote in the afternoon is set beside the window where she could get a view of life passing by in the street. The letters, portraits and objects owned by the Austen family, show the life of a close and affectionate family, with frequent happy visits from Jane’s brothers who were both in the navy with their families.
Read my article about following the Jane Austen Trail in and around Winchester
5. Walk on the ruins of Wolvesley Castle
A little further along College Road, we pass Winchester college, the famous public school which is a place of interest in its own right, but not having time for everything, we continue until we find the lane that leads between the Bishop’s house and the playing field to the ruins of Wolvesey Castle. Built in the 12th century, this was once the palace of the powerful and wealthy bishops of Winchester but is now in ruins. We look around the site, reading the information boards that give us interesting factoids about the medieval plumbing and the wedding breakfast that took place in the East Hall in 1554 following the wedding of Queen Mary and King Phillip of Spain. It’s free to enter the site and an enjoyable half an hour or so, if you are interested in the history of Winchester.
6. Along the river to Winchester City Mill
Continuing to the end of College Road, we turn left and take the picturesque path along the River Itchen towards the Winchester City Mill which is owned by the National Trust. There has been a mill on this site, supplying the good people of Winchester with flour since the Middle Ages, although the current mill was built in the 18th century. Inside, there is a large display area with a video playing and you can see the grain being poured in at the top and then pop down the steps below where you can barely make yourself heard above the noise of the rushing water under the water wheel which turns the millstone and grinds the flour. We get shown the newly ground flour by one of the volunteer millers as he changes the sacks of flour over. He also tells us about the otters that live in the river by the mill – there’s a webcam so that you can see if they are playing in the millstream. Back up the top and another volunteer is putting the newly ground flour into bags to sell in the shop and I just have to buy one to take home to my husband who likes making bread for the family in his bread machine.
7. An afternoon walk on the South Downs Way
It’s already past lunchtime, but we decide to wait for our picnic until we’re on the South Downs Way which we’ve planned to walk that afternoon, so we head back to the hotel to pick up our cars. Although you can start the South Downs Way near the mill, we’re running out of time, so to avoid the less interesting part of the walk on the outskirts of Winchester, we drive both our cars and position one in the village of Chilcomb and the other at Beacon Hill where we start the walk. It’s early summer and the fields around Winchester are filled with sheets of yellow rape-seed creating blocks of vibrant colour, with white lacy cow-parsley fringing the roadside verges.
At Beacon Hill we park the car in the small muddy car park and backtrack a little way to the trig point which doesn’t give us the breath-taking views we hoped for, just pleasant rolling countryside stretching out before us. The track takes us through shady woodland, green lanes between the fields and the the chalk upland over Gander Down that is typical of the South Downs Way. Every so often we pass a landmark such as an open barn, an old cottage or a few grassy mounds in the field that mark one of the ‘lost villages’ that were abandoned in the Middle Ages. We sit on a fallen log to eat our picnic as the odd mountain biker passes at speed, but otherwise we have the path pretty much to ourselves apart from the odd startled pheasant or hare darting across a field.
By the time we arrive at the end of the walk in Cheriton, it’s nearly 7 o’clock and so we head for The Flowerpot Inn, a country pub that my sister has visited previously with her husband, who loves a pint of real ale. It’s an unpretentious country pub with a brewery attatched and of course they serve their own ales. At the Flowerpot Inn, the beer is the main event and although I’m not normally a beer drinker, I order half a shandy to eat with my lamb and apricot hot pot, before we drive back to Winchester.
8. The Great Hall and King Arthur’s Round Table
On Sunday morning we plan to see a few more of the sights of Winchester before spending the afternoon visiting the country houses and gardens nearby. First stop after breakfast is the Great Hall and King Arthur’s Round table at the top of the High Street which we hadn’t had time to see the day before. We are a little too prompt and wait outside with a gaggle of chattering French teenagers until the hall opens at 10am. The hall is all that remains of the Winchester Castle and is an open oak-beamed medieval hall with vaulted ceiling, with the huge round table top hanging high at one end like a giant dart board. The table was probably created for a royal celebration in the 13th century and was later painted with the picture of King Arthur and the Tudor Rose as well as the names of King Arthur’s 24 knights around the edge of the table. There are information boards along one wall of the hall and a door that leads outside to the Queen Eleanor’s Garden, which is planted with all those sweet smelling herbs and flowers that they favoured in the 13th century, but the garden is closed when we visit. We continue up the steps to the information gallery in the adjoining wing and learn all about the King’s House, that was built next door, the site of which is now covered by the Peninsula Barracks.
9. Military History at the Peninsula Barracks
Finshing our visit to the Great Hall we walk a little way up the road and into the Peninsula Barracks, an imposing set of buildings that were built on the site of the King’s House, a palace built by Sir Christopher Wren for King Charles II, that was destroyed by fire. The Peninsula Barracks were built on the site in the 20th Century, and became the base for the King’s Royal Rifle Corps. The attractive buildings have now been mainly made into private apartments and the parade ground at the centre is now a formal garden with fountains, trees and low box hedges. There are also five different miltary museums here, which my husband who was once in the army would love, but they are closed at the time we visit so we have to content ourselves with a wander around the gardens.
10. Country House and Gardens at Hinton Ampner
Back at the hotel, we check out and drive just outside Winchester to the country house of Hinton Ampner, which is owned by the National Trust. At the entrance we get our timed entrance ticket for the house, but as we have a while before it’s time to go in, we have a good look around the gardens first. We admire the formal kitchen gardens which you walk through to get in, and then around the house are various separate garden areas, each with its own character. In front of the house is a wild orchard garden with apple trees and white, lacy cow-parsley framing the stone church tower in the distance. Beside the house the cherry trees are in blossom and we pass the lily pond, before moving onto the Sunken Garden in front of the house where there is an avenue of clipped yew trees.
There are wonderful views over the Hampshire landscape, but suddenly the rural tranquility is broken by a flock of sheep running in panic. In reality they’re just being rounded up by farmers on quad bikes, but from the racket, you’d think a massacre was taking place. We move on past the classical summerhouse and the roses borders that are not quite in bloom and demand another visit in a month’s time when they’ll be in flower. At the end of the walk, we find a hidden Dell where a family with young children is having a lovely game of hide and seek.
It’s time for our look around the house which is the creation of the 8th Lord Sherbourne, Ralph Dutton, who went out for a walk one day in 1960 and returned to find that a terrible fire had taken hold, damaging many of the rooms. Lord Dutton took the opportunity to re-model the house in classical Georgian style to his own taste, replacing much of Victorian Gothic interior that he had inherited. The pastel coloured rooms are full of beautiful antiques, gilt mirrors, chandeliers and all the objects collected by the owners over the years. Having finished our visit to the house, we just have time for a quick cup of tea and a scone in the stable tea rooms before it’s time to hit the road back to Bristol.
We managed to take in a lot during our weekend visit to Winchester, but even if you see half the things that we did, you’ll have a great time. With so much history packed into a small area, not to mention the beautiful Hampshire countryside nearby, Winchester seems to encapsulate the very best of England. Enjoy your weekend!
All the knowledge for a great weekend in Winchester
- We stayed at The Winchester Hotel, a modern and stylishly decorated hotel and spa within walking distance of the town centre. Check for the best hotel prices in Winchester and book here.
- We recommend The Old Vine near the Cathedral, an 18th century inn with a convivial atmosphere, great food, real ales and reasonable prices.
- For information about the Farmers’ Markets in and around Winchester, visit the Hampshire Farmers’ Market Website
- Winchester Cathedral is highly recommended with many different things of see, the entrance is £6.50 for adults and there’s a free guided tour each hour or you can hire an audio-guide.
- Wolvesey Castle is the Old Bishop’s Palace run by English Heritage, and is free to enter – there’s a free downloadable audio guide on the website and information boards around the site.
- Winchester City Mill is owned by the National Trust and for non members the entrance is Adult £3.70, Children £1.85, Family £9.25, and is ideal for families, especially at the weekends when there are often demonstrations.
- For information about walking the South Downs way, we recommend the National Trails Website which includes details of accommodation along the route. The South Downs Way is well-marked but if you plan on walking more than one stretch we suggest the Cicerone Guide for the South Downs way which you an buy on the Cicerone website, or on Amazon here . We enjoyed the real ale and pub supper at the Flowerpot Inn at Cheriton
- The Great Hall and King Arthur’s Round Table is all that’s left of the medieval Winchester Castle at the top of the hill and is free to enter.
- The five Winchester Military Museums are; The King’s Royal Hussars, The Royal Hampshire Regiment, The Royal Green Jackets, The Ghurka Museum, The Guardroom Museum.
- Hinton Ampner is a short drive to the east of Winchester and is owned by the National Trust. It is known for the elegant Georgian interiors and the gardens that surround the house, with clipped topiary, plants and flowers. Entrance for non-members is £7.50 Adult, £3.60 child.
- The Jane Austen’s House Museum is just outside Winchester at Chawton, where you can find out more about the life and times of this very popular English writer . There is helpful website for the Winchester Austen Trail, and you can download a leaflet that is also available at the Tourist Information centre in Winchester.
For more information on things to do in Winchester and the surrounding area you will find the following websites useful;
- Visit Winchester – the Winchester Tourist Information Site, they’re on Twitter too
- Visit Hampshire – for things to see and do in the country of Hampshire, they’re on Facebook and Twitter
- Visit South East England – Your guide for fun things to do and places to visit in south-east England covering Kent, East and West Sussex, Surrey, Hampshire, the Isle of Wight, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire
- Enjoy England – The English tourism board site with hundreds of ideas for enjoying and exploring England and insider tips at the Visit England Blog
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey