Avoiding altitude sickness and staying healthy on the Tour de Mont Blanc

Last September, my friend Julia and I completed a 4 day walk on the Tour de Mont Blanc, experiencing a few aching limbs, but no major mishaps. However, our walk the previous year on the earlier part of the route had been a lot more stressful, and it was only due to the kindness of strangers that we made it to our end point by nightfall – you can read the full story here.

We realised later, that Julia had been suffering badly from altitude sickness, also known as Altitude Mountain Sickness or AMS. Determined to have a better experience this year, Julia researched the condition and sought medical help, which meant that this year she was well prepared and was back to her normal fit self, forging ahead of me on the path, where last year she had been lagging behind. Here’s Julia’s advice on AMS and how to avoid it.

Walking on the Tour de Mont Blanc Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Heather and Julia walking on the Tour de Mont Blanc

The Symptoms of AMS

In retrospect it’s obvious why Julia was so badly affected by AMS last year, as we arrived in Chamonix at 1100M and the next day took the cable car up the mountain to 1875M at Flegere then proceeded to walk up to 2100 M in difficult terrain. The path descended to the valley at Tre-le-champs 1400M but then took us up again over the Aiguillette du Possette at 2200M, so we experienced large variations in altitude, combined with extremely strenuous walking.

Julia learned later that she was suffering from Ataxia, where you experience a loss of strength on your muscles. She described it as like walking on jelly and feeling that her legs would give way at any moment. The feeling was quite frightening, especially walking down hill with a rucksack. Combined with this was a feeling of extreme fatigue, being faint and dizzy with a feeling of heaviness. At one point on our descent Julia felt that she might not make it down to the cafe at the bottom of the valley without fainting. The only common symptom of Ataxia that Julia didn’t seem to suffer from was a headache. While we were walking together, I was aware that Julia was struggling, but not quite how bad she was feeling and in retrospect I should have stayed beside her or offered to carry some of her baggage.

The treatment for Altitude sickness

After our trip last year, Julia researched her symptoms on the Internet and was sure that she was suffering from AMS, which she had also experienced some years before in the Canadian Rockies. She sought medical advice from the nurse at a specialist travel clinic, who gave her an information leaflet about the drug Dimoxyl, which Julia was able to purchase through private prescription from her doctor.

Julia’s reading also told her that dehydration is a big contributing factor in AMS, combined with the fact that she had not always been wearing a sunhat and was only using one rather than two walking poles to support her legs. To address the hydration issues, Julia purchased a clear plastic water-pouch with a tube, which she was able to put in her rucksack, and take regular sips of water as she walked which she found really helped. She also tried to regulate her breathing, by taking deep breaths and then breathing out fully, to avoid a buildup of Carbon Dioxide.

Walking on the Tour de Mont Blanc Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Julia with her water pouch on the Tour de Mont Blanc

Knees, legs, twists and strains

Another hazard of walking a mountain trail, like the Tour de Mont Blanc, is the strains on your legs and knees. For the first two years that I walked on the Tour de Mont Blanc I had no problems at all with my legs and knees, but this third year one of my knees had was giving me a problem with an inflamed cartilage. My physiotherapist prescribed some anti-inflammatory medication – initially the strongest version of Ibuprofen that you can get over the counter in the UK and when that didn’t seem to be improving things I had a slightly stronger anti-inflammatory drug, which is available on prescription only. Although these helped calm down the inflammation and discomfort, I was still wary of putting my knee under any major strain, while walking on mountain terrain.

As an extra precaution, I continued to take Ibuprofen while we were on the walk, to dampen down inflammation and I also wore a neoprene knee support that you can buy at pharmacies, which helped to keep my knee warm and supported. Walking poles are essential on the Tour de Mont Blanc and even more essential if you have any knee problems, because they give tremendous support to the knees and legs, helping you to keep your balance on slippery, muddy and steep paths to prevent any twists and strains. Obviously if you are having joint problems, you should seek medical advice as your condition may be different to mine, but I would recommend keeping some over-the-counter ibuprofen in your medical kit as it is an anti-inflamatory as well as a pain killer.

What was in our medical kit?

Hearing about the fitness problems we suffered you may be surprised to hear that we both travelled with a very small medical kit. Mine was all contained in a clear plastic pencil case that I borrowed from my son. The key thing is that the Tour de Mont Blanc is a popular trail, and while you can get to some wild or remote places, there are normally other walkers on the trail and you are never more than a day’s walk down to the valley where you can get medical attention if you need it. With this in mind, the things in our medical kit were designed to alleviate minor ailments and discomfort, the sort of things that could spoil your holiday. Between us we were carrying; Antiseptic cream and wipes, plasters for blisters, nasal spray for blocked noses, lip sore cream for cold sores, antibiotic eye ointment, atheletes foot cream, a general antibiotic and diarrhea treatment (the strongest available over the counter). As many of the mountain refuges were pretty basic, some not having a shower, and you’ll be popping behind a bush for a call of nature, we both had a good supply of wipes to keep both body and hands clean.

Walking on the Tour de Mont Blanc Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Walking on the Tour de Mont Blanc

Major Medical Emergancies

Although there are parts of the Tour de Mont Blanc that are wild and take you well away from civilization, which is part of the attractions of the walk, you are never more than a few hours walk from a hut or a town or a village in the valley that you could get down to if you had a serious medical emergency. The Tour de Mont Blanc is a strenuous walk in parts, but nothing to put you off if you’re generally healthy and with a moderate level of fitness. Of course, you should have health insurance that covers you in case of a serious medical emergency that would require you to be evacuated from the mountain. If you already have a health insurance policy in place, make sure that you read the small print to check that it covers you for mountain walking and some policies have an exclusion when you go over a certain height, as you will be going over 2500m on the Tour de Mont Blanc.

Having said that, if this is something that concerns you, I would make sure that you follow the most popular way of walking which is clockwise, We did our tour anti-clockwise which meant that we were going against the flow and the clockwise direction is by far the most popular so you will get at all times during the walking season between May and September a steady flow of walkers who would help you get at least to the next refuge if you’re in trouble.

The Tour de Mont Blanc can be a strenuous walk, especially if you take the whole 12 days in one go, but if you are aware of the potential health hazards and take reasonable precautions, you should have an enjoyable trek as we did.

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Resources for walking the Tour de Mont Blanc

We used the Cicerone Tour of Mont Blanc guide by Kev Reynolds – we found it to be an excellent guide for both the clockwise and anti-clockwise route with detailed route guide, maps, accommodation information and points of interest along the route.

My jacket and walking trousers were provided by outdoor clothing specialist, Ellis Brigham who have a wide range of mountain clothing and walking gear you might need for a trek on the mountains, which are available both through their website and UK stores.

More adventures on the Tour de Mont Blanc

The TMB Diaries Day 3 – Mont Blanc from the Italian side – Rifugio Elena to Rifugio Bonatti
The Tour de Mont Blanc Diaries Day 2 – Ferret to Rifugio Elena and over the pass to Italy
The Tour de Mont Blanc Diaries Day 1 – Champex Lac to Ferret and a walk in the woods

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heatheronhertravels' Tour de Mont Blanc 2012 photoset heatheronhertravels’ Tour de Mont Blanc 2012 photoset

This article by Heather Cowper is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com – Read the original article here

You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey

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A Sunday stroll in the Pyrenees – Vall de Núria

After walking on the Tour de Mont Blanc in September, I was pleased to take a somewhat less arduous stroll in the Pyrenees at Vall de Núria later in the month, for a bit of relaxation after the intensive networking of the TBEX conference that I attended in Girona. This was one of the post conference trips organised by the Costa Brava Tourism board who were keen to show us the highlights of their region, so I set off from Girona with a group of bloggers, who included my blogging friends Barbara, Simon, Laurel and Isabel with whom I shared an apartment in Girona.

Vall de Núria, Pyrenees, Spain Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Vall de Núria, Pyrenees, Spain

The train journey up to Vall de Nuria

Our journey on the Cremellera or “Rack Railway” up to Vall de Núria was quite as interesting as our visit to the valley itself, starting at Ribes de Freser and stopping at the other stations of Ribes Enllac, Ribes Via and Queralbs to take on more passengers. The railway rises 1000 metres in altitude and the railway tracks have teeth, like a cog wheel, to stop the train slipping back down the mountain. The local people have decided not to build a road up to the high valley, to keep it special and unspoilt, so the railway is the only way up to the valley unless you fancy a 4 hour hike up the old pilgrim’s road. The railway was completed in 1931, being built with dynamite, pickaxes and hard labour and is a tourist attraction in its own right, with a background audio commentary, playing throughout the journey in French, Spanish and English.

Luckily, having got on at the first station, we were able to find seats, but as more and more people joined the train we were surrounded by chattering families with children in buggies and a few walkers with poles stuffed down the sides of their rucksacks. Having been that hiker with those walking poles on the Tour de Mont Blanc, I could imagine how these walkers couldn’t wait to get away from the daytrippers and into the wilder and more remote corners of the Pyrenees. Today, however, I was happy to gaze out of the window at the rocky mountain landscape where the cliff faces, which would be cascading with waterfalls in the springtime, were now bone dry following a summer without rain. As there is only one train track, we stopped halfway up the mountain at a passing place where the trains coming up and down the mountains can cross over. In the distance I could see tiny figures tracing their way along the walking trail that leads up to Vall de Núria.

Vall de Núria, Pyranees, Spain Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Vall de Núria, Pyranees, Spain

Arriving at Vall de Núria

The train passed through the final tunnel and skirted alongside the lake, depositing us at the small station beside an imposing building sitting in the bowl of the valley. At the heart of this building is the church sanctuary with the wings of the hotel, restaurant, gift shop and information centre stretching out on either side. To the front is a grassy area in front of the lake and the whole view is framed by mountains on all sides. I was a little taken back to find such a large complex in this high valley of the Pyrenees, but apart from the riding stables, chapel and cable car station nearby there were no other buildings in the valley. We watched an interesting film in the information centre, then took a stroll around to see what else was there. My friends Laurel, Isabel and Simon had a craving to stretch their legs on a long walk and decided to walk back down the pilgrim’s way, to meet the group back at the bottom, so Barbara and I spent most of the afternoon together exploring what the valley had to offer.

The name Núria means “place of water’ and the warm Mediterranean air rising to meet the cold air of the mountains, creates one of the highest areas of rainfall in Catalunya in this valley. The streams and rivers flow into the lake which is dammed at one end, and then continue to cascade down the mountains. They say that if you live up here, you’ll rarely get a headache, as the blue aconite that grows on the mountain slopes is a cure for migraine and the medicinal properties wash into the drinking water.

This is the high Pyrenees, close to the border with France, and you can see the path that people used during the Spanish civil war to pass from France to Spain. The black specks circling above us were vultures, gliding on the air currents and looking out for dead animals at the start of the hunting season. On these mountain slopes, you might spot mountain deer and the marmot, as well as the mouflon, a wild sheep with curved horns which the farmers don’t like as they spread disease among the sheep and mate with them creating offspring that can’t be sold for meat.

In winter, Vall de Núria becomes a small ski resort, where people come by train from Barcelona, and these gentle slopes are ideal for families who stay in the hotel. On the Sunday in September that we were there, it seems to be where the locals head for a family day out, spreading their picnics out in front of the lake and taking their children on a horseback ride, or to feed the ducks.

Chapel of San Gil, Vall de Núria, Pyrenees, Spain Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Chapel of San Gil, Vall de Núria, Pyrenees, Spain

Vall de Núria, a place of pilgrimage

Vall de Núria has been drawing pilgrims to the area for many centuries, seeking to emulate the simple life of San Gil (Saint Giles in English) who arrived in the area around 700AD. He lived the life of a hermit in caves around the valley, spending his time with the local shepherds, and is thought to have carved the painted image of the Virgin Mary that now sits in the chapel above the Sanctuary. The religious symbols of Vall de Núria are the cross, which San Gil brought with him to the valley, the cooking pot which he used to cook the meals he shared with the shepherds, and the bell with which he summoned them at meal times. The 8th September is the feast of Our Lady of Núria, when the carved wooden statue is carried in a procession around the valley.

Legend has it that the carved image of the Virgin was hidden in a cave when San Gil later had to flee from persecution. A few centuries later, a pilgrim called Amadeo was called in a dream to come to Núria and build a chapel there. He searched for and finally found the carved statue which San Gil had hidden, together with a cross, bowl and bell and brought them to the chapel he built. We visited the recently restored chapel where there is a copy of the wooden statue. The restoration had been paid for by donations from all the ladies in Spain who are called Núria which is a popular girl’s name – each of the donors having a plaque with their name on it inside the chapel.

Just inside the main Sanctuary there is a side room where women who are seeking fertility come to put their head inside a large metal pot and have the bell rung above their head, to pray for children. I remember when I was in the Quadisha Valley in Lebanon, there was a similar chapel at St Anthony’s monastery full of cooking pots brought as an offering by couples who were unable to have children, the pot being symbolic of the pregnant mother’s belly. If you were a Spanish girl named Nuria, looking to start a family quickly, this would be the perfect place to come on your honeymoon.

The Sanctuary, Vall de Núria, Pyrenees, Spain Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

The Sanctuary, Vall de Núria, Pyrenees, Spain

Walking around Vall de Núria

After lunch, Barbara and I walked on past the chapel of St Gil and the assortment of ponies, mules and ducks that were laid on for families and up to the end of the lake, where the dam across created a barrier that you could walk across. I’m not sure if we heard any water nymphs calling up from the depths of the lake to urge us to protect the natural environment for future generations, as we’d seen in the information video. From the dammed end of the lake we could see further down the valley over the small stone arch bridge beyond which you could climb up for a viewpoint. We also took the cable car up to the Alberg station where there was a cafe with views towards the Torrent de Fontedra.

From there it was an easy walk back down, passing the  pilgrimage stops and crosses along the way, part of a stations of the cross in the area, which is covered by snow in winter, but a popular walking route in summer. If you’re interested in walking, there is a useful map available from the information centre detailing all the walking routes around the valley, certainly enough to keep you going for a few days, and that’s without even leaving the valley. Other paths go through the black pine forests and up to caves that by tradition were used by San Gil and Amadeu as well as high-points for a view over the valleys. You can also choose to hike both up and down the mountain as our friends had done, along the”Camí Vell” that was used by pilgrims to reach the Sanctuary in the Vall de Núria

Walking in the Vall de Núria, Pyrenees, Spain Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Walking in the Vall de Núria, Pyrenees, Spain

If you’re in Catalunya, I highly recommend a visit to Vall de Núria as a relaxing way to spend time in the Pyrenees, which has something to offer everyone who love the mountains, from families with young children to serious walkers.

Visitor Information for Vall de Núria

More information for visiting in both summer and winter is available on the Vall de Núria Website

The Cremellara or Rack Railways starts at Ribes de Freser which can be reached by the RENFE train from Barcelona, Girona and other Spanish cities. There is free car parking at Ribes Enllac, Ribes Via and Queralbs and the price is around €22 per adult for a 1 day return train ticket plus cable car , €13 for children. The trains normally run hourly throughout the day.

Accommodation in Vall de Núria is at Hotel Vall de Nuria where there are 65 rooms and 12 apartments to choose from

My thanks to Costa Brava Pirineu de Girona who hosted the visit to Vall de Núria.

What the other bloggers said about Vall de Núria

(If you have also written about Vall de Núria, I’d love you to add your link in the comments )

Barbara Wiebel – Hole in the Donut – Vall de Núria in the Spanish Pyrenees, Sanctuary then and now
Laurel Robbins – Monkeys and Mountains – Hiking the Vall de Núria, Pyrenees
Laurence Norah – Finding the Universe – Exploring the Núria Valley in the Pyrenees
Isabel Romano – Diario de a Bordo – Vall de Nuria post #TBEX trip
Simon Falvo – Wild about Travel -Pyrenees – Rugged and beautiful Vall de Núria
CC Chapman – Vall de Núria through my lens

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heatheronhertravels' Girona and Vall de Nuria 2012 photoset heatheronhertravels’ Girona and Vall de Nuria 2012 photoset

This article by Heather Cowper is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com – Read more travel articles at Travel Blog Home

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10 ways to spend a wonderful weekend in Winchester – video

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

If you can’t see the Winchester video above, please view it on my travel blog here or on my Youtube channel here

The Winchester Hotel Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

The Winchester Hotel, Winchester

Friday Night

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.

Read my Review of The Winchester Hotel

The Old Vine in Winchester Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

The Old Vine in Winchester

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.

Saturday

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.

Farmers Market in Winchester Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Farmers’ Market at Winchester Cathedral

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.

Winchester Cathedral Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Winchester Cathedral

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.

Wolvesey Castle and River Itchen in Winchester Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Left: Wolvesey Castle Right: River Itchen in 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.

Winchester City Mill, South Downs Way Views Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

Left: Winchester City Mill Right: Walking the South Downs Way

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.

Read more about our walk on the South Downs Way here

Sunday

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.

Winchester clockwise from Top left: The Great Hall, Horse and Rider by Elizabeth Frink on the High Street, Westgate, Peninsula Barracks Photos: Heatheronhertravels.com

Winchester – Hover for details of each photo

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.

The Hall at Hinton Ampner, Hampshire Photo: Heatheronhertravels.com

The Hall at Hinton Ampner, Hampshire

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
Thanks to Visit England, Visit Winchester and Visit South East England who supported our visit to Winchester

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