Winchester, UK (Day 2: June 12, 2022)

Our last meal was yesterday afternoon, so we dug into our traditional English breakfasts (eggs, potatoes, mushrooms, pork and beans, broiled tomato half, bangers [sausage], and the best bacon ever) this morning like champs and then walked downtown to catch the Visitor Center’s 11:00 walking tour. Our guide was wonderfully informative and fun. Hoping for the same with the afternoon tour, we took a break for a cuppa and took our chances. The afternoon guide had us all to himself and must have found us delightful because he gave us an extra 45 minutes of his time.

History, history, and more history, all wrapped around, in no particular order, the Iron Age, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, saints, the Dark Ages, powerful bishops, Normans, the woolen industry, immigration, monasteries, Christianity, civil war, the plague, London’s development, and the political and religious ups and downs over 3,000 years. Our little jet lagged brains were close to bursting when we called it a day and headed back to the hotel for dinner with Dan’s coworkers.

We learned the importance of a cathedral way back when: no cathedral, no city charter. Winchester was the second town to get a city charter which meant it did not have to go to the king for decisions large and small. The imposing cathedral, with the longest medieval nave in Europe, contains the remains of numerous influencers of centuries past as well as Jane Austen and ancient monarchs of Wessex and Winchester.

Fun story: part of the cathedral was built on rafts floating on a peat marsh. For 800 years the rafts were able to bare the weight, but by the 19th century the cathedral was in danger of collapse. Solution: hire a deep water diver, in this case William Walker, to shore it up. He worked in his diving suit (in the dark with 280 pounds of diving equipment) for six straight years and used an estimated 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks, and 900,000 bricks to accomplish this astonishing task. Sadly he died of the Spanish fly in 1918.

Thomas Thetcher’s gravestone was pointed out to us before we left the cathedral grounds. A soldier, he died at 26 from drinking bad beer, which is stated on the stone. The guide explained that when Bill Wilson, a founding member of Alcoholics Anonymous, served in the first world war he spent some time in Winchester. While here he visited the cathedral, was enthralled with the light that came through the stained glass, and noticed this particular stone. The combination of these things played heavily in his success in starting AA. Our guide said members of AA and their families come from around the world asking to visit this particular grave.

A complete sidebar but related to cathedrals: our afternoon tour guide is an actual bell ringer! He shivered when I admitted I thought all the bells I’d heard were from a recording. He said lots of church bells around the world are still rung proudly by hand with up to 14 ringers working at one time! My ‘come again’ look inspired him to show us some pictures. He has even had the honor of ringing the bells at the National Cathedral in Washington DC.

We strolled by Winchester College, a boarding school founded in 1382 for the sons of the influential. It is touted as the oldest continuously running school in the country. Its student body of around 700 still uses the original medieval buildings. Shocking fact: the very first women will be admitted this coming academic year!

All that remains of Winchester Castle is William the Conqueror’s Great Hall, a treasure from the 13th century. It’s long and narrow with a stone floor and magnificent wood ceiling. Hanging on the wall at one end is the greatest symbol of medieval mythology, King Arthur’s round table. The reality of a real King Arthur is still debated, but the issue of the table being his has finally been laid to rest. If Arthur existed, he lived in the 700s. Modern technology dates the table to 1290. It is beautifully painted with a likeness of Henry VIII and a Tudor rose.

Our stroll from place to place took us through beautiful small parks and gardens and the house where Jane Austin died. We learned about handkerchief trees, so named because their flowers look like white handkerchiefs hanging from the branches. We passed buildings, walls, and gates made of flint and learned this brownish colored stone was a) obviously plentiful in the day and b) made millennia ago of countless petrified sea sponges. We did not see that coming. We heard the sad story of an innocent lady as we stood in front of a centuries old timbered building. She went on trial on trumped up charges as a sort of revenge move to get back at her wayward but powerful husband. The jury found her innocent. The judge said try again. They found her innocent a second and third time and the judge said try again with the caveat that if they did not get it right this time they would all go to prison. Sure enough, she was finally found guilty and beheaded in front of the building where we stood. The judge wanted her burned to death but the king insisted that some mercy be shown.

Bishops were The Man way back when and wielded tremendous power both in the church and in national politics. They were also enormously wealthy. We walked through the ruins of the palace complex of the bishops and could not imagine how sumptuous and intimidating the complex would have been in its heyday.

Our last stop was at a small gate to the city, one of two that remain. Made of flint, it is two stories high with a small chapel upstairs. Travel was dangerous, so it was customary to stop at what is today a 14-bench chapel to ask for God’s blessing as you ventured forth. Upon your safe return prayers of thanksgiving were given. This simple chapel is still used today.

Our day was a complete success. Partly cloudy and 70 degrees. We were hungry, but mainly with six miles under our belts, we were glad to get back to the hotel and put our feet up before dinner.

For What It’s Worth

Literature bears out that IF there was a King Arthur, Winchester was Camelot.

Nothing indicates that Thomas Thether was an alcoholic.
Since water carried too many diseases, beer and ale were standard.

In 1966 when we were in high school the novelty song Winchester Cathedral by The New Vaudeville Band hit the charts. It rose to #1 in the USA and to #10 in the UK.

Had our visit been two weeks from now we could have enjoyed Britain’s longest running
festival of street theatre: the Winchester Hat Fair.
We, with 30,000 others, would have overtaken the streets to watch a mix of circus, clowning, and outlandish performances rounded out with craft stalls, workshops, and music.
It’s free but apparently lots of hats are passed around for donations.


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