If someone were to ask me where to go for that quintessential English experience then Winchester would have to be right up there near the top of my list.
Its location, where the River Itchen flows through the chalk Downs of the Hampshire countryside, helps give this small city of 45,000 people an air of peace and calm that belies its past history and status as Hampshire’s county town.
It was this precise spot, where the river could be forded, that attracted a Celtic tribe from the continent to build a settlement here. The tribe we now call the Belgae arrived around 100BC, but it would appear that their enclosure at Oram’s Arbour and fort at St. Catherine’s Hill had been abandoned by the time the Romans arrived in AD70, who then created a settlement of their own which they called Venta Belgarun (Marketplace of the Belgae).
The river at this point split into two around an island, and although it made for a good crossing point, it was also liable to flooding, and so the Romans diverted the river through a single channel, which not only saved their town from flooding but also gave it an extra line of defence on their eastern flank. The river still flows through this channel and can best be seen on the lovely Weirs Walk.
Venta Belgarum became the 5th largest town in Britannia, but after the departure of the Romans around 410AD, Winchester, like the rest of the country, was left abandoned to the native Britons.
Across the North Sea, Jutes, Angles, and Saxons (who came from modern day Denmark, Germany, and The Netherlands) seized the opportunity to fill the void left by the Romans and set up several independent kingdoms, one of which was Wessex (West Saxons).
This Dis-United Kingdom was eventually brought under control during the 9th century when King Alfred arrived on the scene. By defeating the Danes and making Mercia part of his kingdom with the marriage of his daughter to Ethelred, he became the de facto king of all the Anglo-Saxon land, an area which we now call England.
Alfred the Great, as he became known, created his capital at Wintanceaster using the old Roman town as his starting point. In fact, Wintanceaster derives from Venta and Ceaster (fortified town).
You can now see how all this background information proves that Winchester was in fact the very first capital of England.
By the time William the Conqueror defeated King Harold at Hastings Winchester had become the most important city in the country, but instead of destroying the city William built a royal palace and a castle here, but the reality was that he had set his heart on making London his capital, and Winchester’s importance began to fade.
His palace doesn’t exist anymore, but the castle has managed to retain its Great Hall where King Arthur’s ‘Round Table’ has hung for the last 600 years.
I can’t finish talking about the history of Winchester without mentioning its most visited attraction – the Cathedral.
During the Anglo-Saxon period Christianity was brought to these shores, and around 648 King Cenwalh ordered a church to be built at Winchester, making it both the royal and ecclesiastical centre of Wessex.
The Old Minster is long gone, but the Normans started building a new cathedral nine years after the conquest, which just goes to show how important the history of Winchester is and how its importance coincided with the country’s early history.
In 2016 a survey named Winchester as the best place to live in England, and it’s not difficult to see why: Just an hour’s train ride from London, it boasts a higher than average life expectancy, low crime rates, low unemployment and high living standards.
Even if you can’t afford to live here then a visit to one of England’s most interesting and beguiling cities should be on everyone’s list of places to see – and if you’re particularly interested in learning more about England’s early history, then it’s an absolute must.