Winchester Circular walk
A historic Cathedral City, St Catherine's Hill and downland.
Main walk: 18.0km (11.2 miles)
With river short cut: 15.6km (9.7 miles)
With tourist short cut: 9.1km (5.6 miles)
4 out of 10 - one big climb; otherwise gradients are gentle
Landranger 185, Explorer OL32 (formerly 132)
Winchester is a cathedral city steeped in history. It was founded by the Romans close to a major iron age hillfort, it was the capital of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex under Alfred the Great, it was a major royal city under the medieval kings, and it is the home of one of the country’s most famous public schools, Winchester College.
This walk takes in all of its major points of interest and some of its prettiest streets. It then carries on out along the idyllic River Itchen to St Catherines Hill, the iron age hillfort, from where there are spectacular views of the city. From here the route crosses some typical Hampshire downland, before descending to a section of ancient watermeadows and to a newly refurbished riverside pub for lunch.
In the afternoon, the walk again climbs up onto the downs, giving fine distant views of Winchester Cathedral, before descending to the ancient Hospital of St Cross, along the watermeadows and past Winchester College to tea in the Cathedral refectory.
Attractive though all this is, the walk does have one disadvantage, which is noise from the M3 motorway which was insensitively – and notoriously – routed just past the city (see The real Battle of Twyford Down below). Which parts of the walk this affects to some extent depends on the direction and strength of the wind: but only in the section around St Catherine’s Hill is the noise really intrusive - and then the fine views make up for it.
|Shortening the walk||
For those who want to have more time to explore Winchester, two short cuts are possible. Both offer extremely pretty views of the watermeadows, but both also bring you right up next to the motorway at one point, with consequent heavy traffic noise. In both cases the noise fades as the short cut progresses, however.
The River Short Cut takes you along the Itchen watermeadows from St Catherine’s Hill to the lunchtime pub in Shawford, cutting 2.4km (1.5 miles) off the morning of the walk and making the total walk 15.6km (9.7 miles).
The Tourist Short Cut loops you back to Winchester after the climb up St Catherine's Hill. This route still takes in St Cross (including a pretty approach to the church along the watermeadows which is not on any other route) and is an excellent introduction to the environs of the city. It makes a total walk of 8.9km (5.5 miles).
It is also possible to cut short the walk at Shawford, just after the lunchtime pub, 9.3km (5.8 miles) into the walk: see Transport below.
Winchester is served by up to two fast trains an hour out of Waterloo (stopping only at Basingstoke and Woking): there are also two slower trains an hour stopping at more stations. Journey time is about one hour. Catch the nearest fast train to 9.30am.
If you are cutting the walk short at Shawford, trains run hourly from the station (next to The Bridge), taking just 5 minutes to Winchester and 1 hour 15 minutes to Waterloo. Meanwhile, three buses an hour (two an hour on Sundays) go to Winchester from the Shawford Down stop, whose position is indicated in paragraph 82 of the walk directions.
|Lunch and tea||
The Bridge, Shawford (01962 713 171) 9.4km (5.8 miles) into the main walk, or 7km/4.4 miles into the River Short Cut, is a cosy and characterful chain pub with an extensive menu, plenty of inside seating and a garden, though it is also often busy and can get booked up. It serves food all afternoon to 10.00pm Mondays to Saturdays and to 9.30pm on Sundays, so it may be an advantage to arrive after the main lunchtime rush.
The Itchen Tea Room opposite The Bridge serves sandwiches, paninis and cakes. It is closed on Tuesday and only open to 2pm on Monday. From Wednesday to Sunday it is open to 5pm.
St Cross Hospital (a medieval almshouse: see History below), 3km/1.8 miles from the end of the walk, has a cafe, the Hundred Men's Hall, which is highly recommended by walkers: "a cream tea with a large poot of tea in very pleasant surroundings". It is open April to October from 10.30am to 12.30pm, and 2.30pm to 4.30pm, Monday to Saturday, as well as 2.30 to 4.30 Sundays.
Winchester Cathedral Refectory is a large self service restaurant and tea room open to 5pm daily from April to December and 4.30pm January to March. This is the recommended tea stop when the St Cross Hospital tea room is closed, but if you are doing the Tourist Short Cut and spending the morning or afternoon in Winchester seeing the sights, it is also an excellent choice for lunch.
Otherwise there are lots of other tea options in Winchester in and around the high street. Two ones that are open later than the Refectory are Cafe Monde (just to the right in The Square after you emerge from the Cathedral grounds), which is open until 6pm Monday to Saturday and 5pm on Sunday, and Caffe Nero, opposite the Buttercross in the high street, open until 7pm Monday to Saturday and 6.30pm Sunday.
Winchester is not short of pubs: two recommended ones passed on the walk route are the cosy Wykeham Arms just before the Kingsgate (where some of the tables are former Winchester College schoolroom desks), and The Old Vine Inn in The Square, just as you leave the Cathedral grounds.
Winchester was founded by the Romans, on site which commanded a ford of the River Itchen, and nearby a major Celtic hillfort, now called St Catherine’s Hill. The city was originally known as Venta Belgarum (the Belgae being the local Celtic tribe), which became Wintoncaster in the Saxon period, and then Winchester.
The city was the capital of the Saxon kingdom of Wessex in the days of Alfred the Great (ninth century). He was buried in the Old Minster, the Saxon cathedral, but his bones were later moved to Hythe Abbey and lost in the Dissolution of the Monasteries. However the bones of other Saxon kings who made Winchester their capital, including the famous Canute (of hold back the tide fame) are still preserved in the cathedral.
Even after England was united in the tenth century, Winchester remained a kind of second capital after London: Edward the Confessor, for example, was crowned there. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, William the Conquerer also made the town a major royal residence, building a palace in the town and a castle above the city which in its day was as important as Windsor is today. William’s successor, William Rufus, who was killed by an arrow while hunting in the New Forest, was buried in Winchester Cathedral, and Henry III (1216-1272) was born in Winchester and spent most of his life there. (He was known as “Henry of Winchester”)
Given its importance as a royal residence, the bishop of Winchester in medieval times was also a powerful figure in the land, and the cathedral is full of the tombs of bishops who were brothers of the king, chancellors of England, or key royal advisors.
Winchester’s importance came to an end as a result of the English Civil War in the 1600s, however. The city was not surprisingly a royalist stronghold, but was captured by Oliver Cromwell in 1642. He bombarded the town with cannon placed on a hill still called Oliver’s Battery to this day. The bombardment shattered the great west window of the cathedral, and Cromwell later rode his horse into the cathedral, scattered the bones of the Saxon Kings, and used the building as a stables.
When the monarchy was restored, Charles II planned a massive palace on the hill behind the now destroyed castle: it was designed by Sir Cristopher Wren and might have become a major royal residence, had it been completed. But Charles died before construction was finished, and his successor, James II, did not care for Winchester. The palace became a barracks, and later burnt down. Winchester reverted to being a quiet country town.
The city has one more melancholy claim to fame, however, as the place where novelist Jane Austen died. She was brought to a house in College Street (passed near the end of this walk, but not open to the public) for medical treatment in May 1817, and died in in the arms of her beloved sister Cassandra in the house on 18 July 1817, aged just 41. Cassandra wrote: “I have lost a treasure, such a Sister, a friend as never can have been surpassed. She was the sun of my life, the gilder of every pleasure, the soother of every sorrow. I had not a thought concealed from her, and it is as if I had lost a part of myself.” Jane was buried in Winchester Cathedral for no other reason than that she was a daughter of a clergyman, and because it would have been impractical to move her body back to the village of Chawton, where she lived with her sister and mother. Cassandra, as a woman, was not allowed to attend the funeral.
The Great Hall, passed on this walk, is all that remains of the medieval castle of Winchester. It was built around 1235 by Henry III, and is one of the best preserved medieval buildings in the country. This was the banqueting hall of the castle and its walls would have been hung with coats of arms and tapestries. More than twenty parliaments were held here in medieval times and Sir Walter Raleigh was tried and condemned to death here in 1603. High on its wall is King Arthur’s Round Table, which was actually made by Edward I to try and create a spirit of unity amongst his barons, and painted during Tudor times (it is Henry VIII who is depicted as Arthur). The hall is open from 10am to 5pm year round, though is occasionally closed for private functions. Admission is £3, which includes an exhibition on the history of the castle. You can see the table from the doorway without passing the desk collecting the entrance fee, however.
The Westgate and Kingsgate, both passed on this walk, are the survivors of five medieval gates of Winchester. The others were demolished in the 18th century, or fell down – the Northgate, for example, collapsed while it was being used for a wedding party. The insides of both the surviving gates can be visited. The Westgate has a small (and free) museum on its upper floor, open 10-5pm Saturdays and 12-5pm Sundays from April to October, and 10-4pm Saturdays and 12-4pm Sundays from mid February to March. There are pleasant views from its roof, where holes for pouring boiling oil can be seen.
The Kingsgate, on the site of the Roman South Gate, is surprisingly topped by a 13th century chapel of St Swithun (in medieval times, this was a common way to use the space above city gates, but the Kingsgate is now a very rare survivor). The entrance to the chapel (assuming you are visiting it towards the end of this walk) is on the left just after you have passed under the arch. At the top of the stairs, just after you enter the chapel, look out for the touching memorial plaque up on the wall to your right to William Widemore, “an honest Englishman”.. “who was (which is most rare) a friend without guile.”
The current Winchester Cathedral dates back to 1079, when it was started by Bishop Walkelin shortly after the Norman Conquest: the transepts are unchanged since that time. But even before the Norman building, there had been a cathedral – called the Old Minster - on this site for over four hundred years. Its ground plan can be seen laid out in the graveyard to the left of the west front. The grassy area in front of the cathedral has an even earlier origin as the forum (central square) of the Roman city. Though lacking the dramatic unity of architecture and soaring spire of the more visited Salisbury (a bit of local rivalry coming out here), the cathedral is full of historic interest, and well worth a visit. See A tour of Winchester Cathedral below for a guided tour. The cathedral is open to the public until 5pm Monday to Saturday and 3pm on Sunday, but there is a stiff £8.50 entrance fee. This does give you a year's worth of entry, however. If you go late in the afternoon, you may be lucky and get in for free.
Incidentally, if you are only interested in a quick photograph of the cathedral, the best place is up the hill from the west front, by the railings and in front of the fine Georgian house. On your way back to the west front, look for a famous tombstone among the graves to your right to a grenadier who died from “a violent fever contracted by drinking small beer when hot”. Whether it was hot beer or a hot grenadier that was at fault is not clear.
St Catherine’s Hill is a fine example of a Celtic iron age hillfort, and later in the walk you get to appreciate what a magnificent fortified position it must have been. The rampart and ditch of the fort are still in evidence, and the crown of trees at the top of the hill has a rather mystical feel, perhaps because they grow on the site of a medieval chapel. The Mismaze on the hill (passed on the walk) is a complete mystery. Some say it is ancient, perhaps a penance for monks, while others reckon it is more modern. Local tradition preserves something of the penitential flavour by suggesting it was carved with a penknife by a naughty schoolboy from Winchester College, sent up onto the hill as a punishment.
The watermeadows are a precious rarity, as they show signs (visible from the top of St Catherine’s Hill) of ancient medieval (or even Celtic?) field systems. In their natural state they would have been marshier, and seasonally flooded, but in medieval times they were drained by a clever system of rivers and channels on different levels, which still remain in use to this day, and which can be seen in several places on this walk. The section from St Cross Hospital (see below) to Winchester is said to have inspired the poet John Keat’s ode To Autumn, which contains the famous line “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. Incredibly, in the 1970s, the Department of Transport tried to build the M3 through these meadows (See The Real Battle of Twyford Down below).
St Cross Hospital is an almshouse founded in 1136 Bishop Henry de Blois, and expanded in 1446 by Bishop Henry de Beaufort. Twenty five “distressed gentlemen” still live there, and can be seen around the town wearing either the black robes of de Blois or the red robes of de Beaufort. You can still ask at the porter’s lodge for the “Wayfarer’s Dole”, a square of bread and a thimbleful of mead (it is quite a big thimble, mind). The attached St Cross Church dates from 1131 and is a wonderful landmark from the surrounding hills. The Church and its complex can be visited 9.30am to 5pm Monday to Saturday and 1pm to 5pm on Sundays from 1 April to 31 October: at other times of the year it is open 10.30am to 3.30pm Mondays to Saturdays only.
Winchester College was founded by Bishop William of Wykeham (college old boys are called Wykehamists) in 1387 to cater for needy scholars. As one of the country’s leading public schools, it now caters for very rich ones, though it also has rigorous academic standards. Wykeham (whose motto was “manners maketh man”) also founded New College, Oxford (one of the oldest Oxford colleges), and not surprisingly the entrance quadrangles of the school look remarkably like their Oxford counterparts. It used to be fairly easy to sneak inside from College Street (passed on this walk) to see them, but these days the gate is more closely guarded. The college does do hour-long guided tours throughout the year, however. Phone 01962 621 209 or see www.winchestercollege.org. Otherwise, you get good views of the college towards the end of this walk, including its famous playing fields.
Wolvesey Castle was the medieval home of the powerful Bishops of Winchester, and the walls around the castle grounds still preserve a section of Winchester’s medieval city wall. The whole south eastern third of the city was essentially an massive ecclesiastical enclave. The ruins of the castle are worth a quick look if entrance is free (as it was last time I looked), but are not really worth paying for. Next door is Wolvesey Palace, the current home of the Bishop of Winchester, which is in fact just a surviving wing of a much grander palace that once stood on the site.
The City Mill, which in its current form dates from the 18th century, is a National Trust property not far off the morning route. It is an actual working water mill, driven by the fast flowing river Itchen, which grinds flour that is on sale in its shop. There are also some information boards about the wildlife of the River Itchen. It is open from late May to December from 11am to 5pm daily.
A tour of Winchester Cathedral
Coming inside the entrance (which is usually through the door on the left-hand side of the west front), turn right and admire the enormously long nave, the longest Gothic nave in Europe, it is said (it looks even longer when seen side on from a distance). Walk up the nave a dozen metres and turn back to face the Great West Window. This was destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s canons but the glass was carefully collected by local people and replaced when the monarchy was restored. As the original pictures could not be reconstructed, the shards were replaced at random, giving it a curiously modern look. There is one panel which is nearly complete, however, which is four rows up and three columns in from the left. The West Window is the only remaining medieval glass in the cathedral.
Cross to the south aisle (on your right if facing up the nave). As you walk up this aisle look carefully at the very far east end of the cathedral: you should be able to see that the arches and wall of this are leaning at a crazy angle. This was the result of the cathedral originally being built on marshy ground, allegedly on a raft of beech logs. In the late nineteenth century when marshland in the city was drained, the back of the cathedral began to list dangerously. Between 1906 and 1911 a pioneering diver, William Walker, was employed to lay solid concrete foundations in the murky swamp water with his bare hands. The work was only just completed in time to save the south side of the cathedral from collapsing: today it leans foot for foot more than the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The cathedral crypt, underneath the choir, is still flooded in winter.
About half way up the south aisle, there is the chapel and tomb of Bishop William of Wykeham (1366-1404) who founded both Winchester College and New College, Oxford (one of the first Oxford University colleges). Note that he was also Lord Privy Seal and twice Chancellor of England: Bishops of Winchester were important figures. Further up, one comes to the chapel and tomb of Bishop Edington, who was treasurer to Edward III and also Chancellor of England. By now the leaning of the east end of the cathedral should be easy to see.
When you get to the South Transept, a surprise awaits. Both it and the North Transept retain their original 11th century Norman architecture with rounded Romanesque arches (in places somewhat unevenly constructed), though the wooden roofs are apparently Victorian. In the South Transept an exhibition - The Birth of a Nation - is currently being constructed, rather obscuring the beauty of this ancient architecture. But you will see it to its full effect later in the North Transept.
Climb the steps (turn around briefly at their top to get a fine view back down the cathedral) and in another 10 metres turn left through an archway into the choir (properly this bit is the presbytery, but never mind). The Great Screen to your right dates from the 15th century, but the statuary is all Victorian: the originals were smashed in the Reformation.
Near the Great Screen, there is usually a slanted mirror, designed to help you admire the decorated bosses on the roof. Look into it from the upper end, however, and it gives you an amazing upside down view of the whole length of the nave roof, showing just how long it is.
On the side walls of the presbytery you can see green chests which contain the bones of the Saxon Kings of Wessex and England (that is, the monarchs from before the Norman Conquest in 1066). The famous King Canute (who responded to the extravagant flattery of his courtiers by sitting in the sea as the tide came in, thus proving he was not all powerful) is over the door on the north side. Also present are various Ethelwulfs and Egberts. But their bones are all mixed up: they were scattered by Cromwell’s troops, who destroyed two of the original eight boxes and used the bones as missiles to smash the cathedral windows. When the bones and boxes were recovered, it was impossible to tell whose bones were which, and so each box contains one head, one thigh bone, and so on. The only skeleton which could be clearly identified was that of Emma, Canute’s queen, who is in the chest bearing his name. (Modern scientific analysis, which was carried out in 2016 for the Birth of the Nation exhibition, may reveal more about these bones.)
The part of the cathedral is also where Philip II of Spain (he of Spanish Armada fame) married Queen Mary, daughter of Henry VIII on 25 July 1554. Winchester was chosen because it was considered a safer venue for such a controversial match than turbulent London. In return for the expense of the wedding Mary gave the city the City Mill, now a National Trust property (see above). Mary’s marriage to Philip proved childless and she was thus not able to restore England to the Catholic faith as she had hoped. She was instead succeeded by her half sister, Elizabeth 1, whose long reign finally confirmed England as a protestant country.
Walk down towards the carved wooden choir stalls, which date from the 14th century. Before you get to them, you pass an unmarked black marble tomb directly under the tower. Tradition has it that this is the burial place of William Rufus, one of the few English monarchs not to be buried in Westminster Abbey. Rufus, the son of William the Conqueror, was killed by an arrow while hunting in the New Forest, which may have been an assassination made to look like an accident. There are even suggestions that he was killed because he was gay. The story is that Rufus was buried here in an unmarked grave as a sign of disgrace, and that the tower fell down on top of him, which is why Winchester does not have a spire. The tower certainly did fall down shortly after Rufus’s death, but poor workmanship was as likely a cause as anything else. It is thought Rufus’s bones were then moved to one of the funerary chests containing the bones of the Saxon Kings, and, of course, are now all jumbled up with them for the reasons explained above. Bishop Henry de Blois, founder of St Cross Hospital, may have ended up in the black tomb instead.
Before you leave this section, investigate the choir stalls themselves and the marvellous wooden supports under the tip-up seats in each stall. These supports were for monks to lean against while standing during long services: each is amusingly carved with different designs.
Return to the south aisle and walk to the eastern end of the cathedral. Here you find the most wildly slanting part of the south wall. The colourful tiles underfoot are originals from 13th century and form the largest area of decorated medieval floor tiles in a building in England.
Just to your left is the tomb of Cardinal Beaufort, who was bishop from 1404 to 1447. He was even grander than his predecessors, being son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and thus brother to Henry IV. He was present at the trial of Joan of Arc, and in atonement for this, there is a statue of her diagonally opposite, to the left of the Lady Chapel (the centre chapel of the three at this end of the cathedral). It is a Catholic statue, note, as Joan is not a saint in the Anglican church. Just in front of Beaufort's tomb, against the pillar dividing the Lady Chapel from the one to its right, is a small statue of William Walker, the diver who saved the cathedral from collapse (see above).
The Lady Chapel itself itself is also worth a look for its 16th century panels either side of the altar showing miracles performed by the Virgin Mary, some of which are rather amusingly drawn. The panels are actually copies: you can unclip them to see the original wall paintings underneath but you will get told off by the cathedral warders if they catch you.
Coming out of the Lady Chapel, the area ahead of you and behind the Great Screen was once the shrine of St Swithun, a major place of pilgrimage in medieval times. Swithun was a bishop of Winchester in the 9th century, revered for his goodness. After he died he asked to be buried in a simple tomb in the doorway of the Old Minster, as it was then, but due to the popularity of his tomb with visitors he was later moved inside the cathedral. The day on which this happened – 15 July – is now St Swithun’s Day. Tradition says that “If on St Swithun’s Day thou dost rain/for forty days it shall remain” – supposedly a curse on those who moved St Swithun’s tomb, though more likely a wry joke about the English summer. It is worth remembering the second half of the rhyme: “St Swithun’s Day if thou be fair/for forty day’s twill rain na’ mair.” The shrine was destroyed in the Reformation, but you can still see the blackened archway through which pilgrims squeezed to get close to the Saint’s remains.
Return down the north side of the cathedral. At the bottom of the steps to the North Transept you can see on the left-hand side in a niche some remaining medieval wall painting - a reminder that even English cathedrals were once brightly painted. Turning right to face into the transept, you can at last appreciate the austere beauty of the original Norman architecture, giving you an idea of what the whole cathedral must have looked like before it was renovated in the English Perpendicular style in the mid fourteenth century.
Before you leave the transept, don't neglect to go down into the Crypt. The entrance is a wooden door around to the right of the steps you have just come down (if the door is shut, try the handle: it is usually unlocked). The Crypt looks particularly beautiful in winter when it is often part flooded and the Antony Gormley statue in its centre stands surrounded by water.
Carry on down the north aisle of the nave. About halfway down you come to what is allegedly the most visited place in the cathedral, but which for all that is hard to spot unless you keep your eyes peeled or see someone else looking at it. This is the tomb of Jane Austen, the novelist, a black stone slab in the floor, with a brass plaque (added in late Victorian times) on the wall beside it. The inscription (composed by her brother Henry) says nothing about her writing but instead talks about “the benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper and the extraordinary endowments of her mind”.
The real battle of Twyford Down
The insensitive route of the M3 motorway through Twyford Down, the hill behind St Catherine’s Hill, and across the watermeadows on an embankment was a cause celebre in the 1990s. In what was dubbed “The Battle of Twyford Down” protestors chained themselves to bulldozers and made the national news. But in fact the story goes back much further, and the route could have been a lot worse.
The original plan, in the early 1970s, proposed three alternative routes: a westerly one, an easterly one, and one following the route of the Winchester by-pass, a dual carriageway that in those days ran right around the base of St Catherine’s Hill on the town side. The dual carriageway had sharp bends and was mist-prone making it notorious for accidents. It also cut the hill off from easy access from the town.
Had the government chosen to widen the by-pass into the motorway, it would almost certainly have had little opposition, however. Instead, rejecting the better eastern or western alternatives, it proposed to build the motorway between the by-pass and the town, right along the historic watermeadows and past the playing fields of Winchester College.
There was a massive outcry and environmental protestors – now long forgotten – made national headlines by disrupting the public enquiry on the route and refusing to allow it to proceed, arguing that the enquiry was a farce and that the decision on the route had already been taken. There was major national debate about such tactics, but in the end they succeeded. The Department of Transport retired to lick its wounds. The M3 to the north and south of Winchester continued to be built, however, ruling out the more westerly or easterly options.
The next proposal was for the motorway to go in Plague Pits Valley - the valley behind St Catherine’s Hill, with the by-pass being removed from the town side of the hill. This proposal had reasonable support among local people, but environmental studies found rare flowers growing in this valley and the plan was ditched.
It was at this point that the plan was changed to make a huge cutting through Twyford Down – then arable farmland – instead. Most local people supported this as the best compromise available: the M3 had by now been built to the north and south of Winchester anyway, and the traffic from it was being funnelled onto the by-pass, which had therefore become a horrendous bottleneck.
However, some campaigners bought Twyford Down and turned it into open space for the public (thus allowing a national newspaper to state erroneously that Twyford Down “had been a place of recreation for the people of Winchester for generations”). Environmental activists moved in, trying to get the road tunnelled under the Down.
As you can see on this walk, they failed, but the Battle of Twyford Down is credited with having detered other major road building schemes. The building of the motorway did also have one huge benefit for the people of Winchester in that in 1994 the by-pass was closed and removed. The hill was then re-landscaped so that you would never know it had ever been there.
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Out (not a train station)
Back (not a train station)
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Full directions for this walk are in a PDF file (link above) which you can print, or download on to a Kindle, tablet, or smartphone.
This is just the introduction. This walk's detailed directions are in a PDF available from wwww.walkingclub.org.uk