An Afternoon in Winchester

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My boyfriend finally got a car again, which is exciting to a non-driver like me mainly because it means we can recommence our day trips (and easily go to the German bakery in Ham to get pretzels of a weekend).  The first longish drive we decided to take was to Winchester, in Hampshire.  Although the Round Table was one draw, I think my main reason for going was that Winchester’s Hospital of St. Cross was the closest filming location of Wolf Hall, but we got so caught up in visiting the military museums that I forgot all about it when we were there, so we never even saw the Hospital.  (Ok, I do not like Hilary Mantel, so have never read her books, and I know the whole thing is historically inaccurate, but I’m kind of hooked on the TV series.  It’s boring and confusing simultaneously, and yet I keep watching (though part of that may have something to do with Damian Lewis’s codpiece…I have problems).)

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Although I did visit a number of museums there, rather than break them up into separate posts, I’m just going to give a general overview of everything in one (I’m feeling lazy today) and speak a bit about the city…it has a cathedral, so it technically is a city I think, according to the bizarre rules of the English.  Historically speaking, Winchester was the capital of Wessex, so was a pretty big deal in the Anglo-Saxon world.  One thing I can definitely say about modern Winchester is that they have some interesting sculptures.  They have a buttercross, which is apparently a common thing in English market towns, and is just a large statue in the centre of the town (city?), where people would come to buy butter and eggs and such in olden times.  There’s still a market in the square on Saturdays, though nothing very exciting was for sale (unless you think mystery brand pillows are exciting).  Winchester also boasts some other eclectic statues, including Alfred the Great (in the middle of a busy road), a pig, and a naked man on a horse.  And they have some artistically painted bollards.

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There’s also a rather poignant WWI memorial just outside the Great Hall, and another elaborate commemorative affair next to some nearby castle ruins.  As for the Great Hall itself, it holds the supposed Round Table of King Arthur, as pictured at the start of the post.  Obviously, it did not belong to Arthur (who probably didn’t even exist, and certainly not in the form of the Arthur of legend, even if he was an historical figure), and was instead created for Edward I in the late 13th century.  It was subsequently re-discovered later on, after Malory had popularised the Arthurian legend, and thought to be the mythological Arthur’s table, so Henry VIII had it painted with a Tudor rose and a portrait of Arthur that looked suspiciously like a grey-haired version of Henry (and nothing like Damian Lewis, because even when Henry was young and not yet morbidly obese and disgusting, he still wasn’t anywhere near as attractive as the actors they usually get to play him).

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The Great Hall is free to visit, and also contains a pretty kick-ass sculpture of Queen Victoria, some random gargoyley bits, and a “long gallery” with more information about the history of the Great Hall and Winchester generally (and there’s one of those penny flattening machines in the gift shop, with some excellent choices of design).

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Not far from the Great Hall, you’ll find the old military barracks, which are now split up into five different museums.  An old sign outside the information centre tells you that they’re free, but don’t believe it, as they all charge a relatively modest admission fee (2-5 pounds), which is fine, but can add up if you want to see all of them.  So we just chose the two that sounded the most interesting, and conveniently enough, considering how cold it was that day, were in the same building: The Gurkha Museum, and Horsepower, the Museum of the King’s Royal Hussars (I chose the latter because their brochure specifically promised authentic smells).

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Now, these were proper old school museums, so don’t go in expecting frills and interactive crap, but as old school is exactly the kind of thing I love, I was in heaven.  The Gurkhas were not soldiers I knew a whole lot about (honestly, I didn’t even know they were Nepalese before visiting…I knew they were Asian, but didn’t know from where exactly, which is probably a shameful display of ignorance), so I learned a lot, despite the museum’s rather, er, paternalistic tone.  It was like a flashback to the days of Empire, and was sort of geared to make you feel that colonialism was a great thing, glossing neatly over the many, many, many problems with it, and the reasons why the Gurkhas were fighting in the first place.  Despite these issues, I thoroughly enjoyed myself, particularly liking the mannequin dioramas with motion sensors that triggered light and sound when you walked past. Like I said, proper old school.

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The Horsepower Museum was also lovely, and delivered completely on the brochure’s promises; namely authentic smells, and the chance to sit on a saddle and try on a busby (photographic evidence of this provided above).  Actually, the authentic smells permeated the whole museum, so you could smell them as soon as you walked in, but that just enhanced the experience.  The Royal Hussars took part in the Charge of the Light Brigade, amongst many other wars and battles, so there was some interesting material here.  I also have to mention the volunteers working at both museums, who were very nice and welcoming, especially the gentleman at Horsepower.  If you like old-fashioned museums as much as I do, and can deal with a bit of historical whitewashing, I’d definitely recommending checking out a military museum or two in Winchester.

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Of course, Winchester is probably most famous for its cathedral (below, left).  After I found out Jane Austen was buried there, I was gung-ho to visit…until I realised you had to pay £7.50 to get in.  I’m not sure why I was surprised by this, since Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s charge admission, but most cathedrals I’ve been to operate on a recommended donation basis – as I felt it was too close to closing time to get my money’s worth, I decided we could skip it this time around.  Instead, we headed over to the Winchester City Museum, which was right next door to the cathedral, and was free.

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It was also very close to closing time for the Winchester City Museum, so I opted to skip the top floor, which was just Roman stuff (since I am not that big on the Romans), and head to the Anglo-Saxon one below it.  They had an intriguing selection of medieval face jugs, and a super creepy stone angel that my boyfriend jerkishly claimed had moved, so I had to spend most of my time keeping an eye on it, just in case (anyone else still traumatised by those damn Weeping Angels?!).

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Weirdly, the floor below it seemed to jump from the early Middle Ages to Edwardian Winchester.  Ok, there was a little sign about the 18th century, but no late Middle Ages, or Tudors, or Civil War or anything.  Granted, Winchester was on the decline after the Anglo-Saxon period, but the buttercross and the Round Table and everything date from that missing era, so you’d think they could have said something about it.

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But, they did have a re-creation of a tobaccanist’s shop, and an apothecary, so I can’t complain too much, because that was rad.  Overall, this museum wasn’t overly impressive, but it was free, and was something to do (when I should have been seeing the Hospital of St. Cross if I hadn’t been busy being a total airhead that day). There’s another local museum that’s supposed to have historic weights and measures, but I don’t think it was open for the season yet when we visited.  There’s also a National Trust watermill on the hilariously named River Itchen that looks intriguing, though we missed that as well.  However, I did make a point of eating some cheese straws in Winchester, from a bakery I found recommended online.  It’s a chain with locations throughout Wiltshire and Hampshire called Reeve the Baker, and their cheese straws were still-warm and amazing (and only 50p each!), so if you like cheesy bready things as much as I do, get over to their charming Tudor-esque high street and have yourself one of the little grease-bombs.

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Winchester turned out to be quite a good outing.  I’m surprised I hadn’t been there before, since it’s not really that far away, but now I think I will definitely be back at some point, as I still have to see the Hospital of St. Cross and Winchester Cathedral (and get some more of those cheese straws).  Also, I have never seen so many small dogs wearing hilarious sweaters in my life.  The high street was full of them (and some adorable sweater-less big dogs) and it was great, so I may need to return just to be entertained by the fashionable canine population.   Therefore, I can certainly recommend Winchester to anyone who likes history, cheese-based pastries, statues, and be-clothed dogs.

Oh, and in other news, you may have noticed from the sidebar that I finally got an Instagram account (I had to wait until I got a new phone, because my old one was too old to support it)!  You can follow me @jsajovie and get occasional glimpses of museums I’m going to blog about in the future, books I like to read, and all the other miscellaneous heavily-filtered junk that everyone posts on Instagram.  (And I promise I will be super thrilled if someone actually does follow me, because I only have 12 followers right now and it looks sad.)

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10 comments

  1. I lived in Winchester for a year in my youth, so this was good to see. In my day, you just went into the hall, looked at the table and left – none of that fancy gallery stuff! I don’t remember the museums but frequented the cathedral (free then) – the house Jane died in is just across the road I think. You can’t (couldn’t) visit that but I did visit the home she lived in at Chawton which must be quite near. And I did make it to St Cross!

    1. You’re right, Chawton is not very far from Winchester. I went to Jane Austen’s house a couple of years ago, in what I think was the very first post on this blog, but I combined it with a visit to Gilbert White’s house and the Oates Collection, so I didn’t have time to go to Winchester too then. I liked Winchester a lot; I’ll definitely go back when it warms up a little and see all the things I missed!

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