From 1811 until 1816,
Jane Austen unleashed a barrage of novels - Sense and Sensibility (1811),
Pride and Prejudice (1813),
Mansfield Park (1814) and
Emma (1816). She wrote two additional novels,
Northanger Abbey and
Persuasion, both published posthumously in 1818. A third, Sanditon, was started but she but died here in Winchester before completing it.
Austen at age 41, lived on College Street for the last few weeks of her life, dying July 18 from Addison's Disease; her funeral was held in stunning
Winchester Cathedral, listed in the top ten most beautiful cathedrals of the world. She was buried in the north aisle. As with her novels published anonymously, the inscription on her tomb makes no mention of her literary talent. Fortunately, a brass tablet was added later which reads: Jane Austen. Known to many by her writings, endeared to her family by the varied charms of her character and ennobled by her Christian faith and piety was born at Steventon in the County of Hants, December 16 1775 and buried in the Cathedral July 18 1817. "She openeth her mouth with wisdom and in her tongue is the law of kindness."
Only one hour west of London in the county of Hampshire, Winchester is noted for another kind of book, the Domesday Book compiled here late in the reign of
William the Conqueror. It's the record of a survey completed in 1086 of much of England and parts of Wales. William the Conqueror wanted to determine who owned what and therefore what taxes were liable under Edward the Confessor. The judgment of the Domesday assessors was final with no appeal. Hence, it's called 'the Book of Judgment,' because its decisions, like those of the Last Judgment, were final.
Inside the Cathedral, one is amazed to view the longest cathedral in Europe, originally built in 1079 with incredible architecture that spans the 11-16th centuries. The soaring Great Screen behind the altar is replete with myriad sculptured figures surrounding a central cross contrasted by the long and beautiful Gothic nave which seems to ramble on forever. Besides novelist Jane Austen, it`s also the place of interment of numerous Bishops of Winchester as well as Anglo-Saxon monarchs. Winchester was once an important pilgrimage centre;
the ancient Pilgrims' Way which travels to Canterbury begins at Winchester.
Music buffs may recall that the popular song "Winchester Cathedral" released in late 1966; it first occupied Canada's No. 1 spot on the national singles charts and shortly thereafter the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart and it featured The New Vaudeville Band, with a Rudy Vallée-like John Carter singing through his hands to imitate a megaphone. The song was covered by many singers including Petula Clark and Frank Sinatra.
Winchester is actually the former capital city of England and home to the
University of Winchester and the famous public school,
Winchester College. Sometime after the
Norman Conquest, the capital was moved to London.
Winchester survived World War II intact, but about thirty percent of the Old Town was demolished to make way for modern office buildings.
The Great Hall, the only remaining part of Winchester Castle, built in the 12th century, is supposedly famous for housing
King Arthur's Round Table, hung in the hall from 1463 beside a stained glass window decorated by brightly painted heraldic crests. Winchester was first identified as the Camelot of legend by Sir Thomas Malory in his
"Le Morte D'Arthur," printed in 1485. Alas, the table actually dates from the 13th century, and is not a contemporary of Arthur. This doesn't seem to dispel the multitude of tourists who are busy taking photos. Actually, it was painted for
King Henry VIII in 1522, and the names of the legendary Knights of the Round Table are written around its edge, surmounted by serene King Arthur on his throne.
There are several UK locations attributed to
Camelot and regardless of whether it's fiction or not, the castle ruins are a great place to explore; down below in the crypt, get your camera ready for the neat metal statue of a solitary figure appearing to read a book. It's called
"Sound II" by British sculptor Anthony Gormley, best known for his lone metal figures that even when installed in groups, they retain their sense of solitude and reflection. Gormley describes his work as 'an attempt to materialize the place at the other side of appearance where we all live.' Many of his works are based on moulds taken from his own body.
Another Winchester statue of note is a magnificent bronze creation by
Hamo Thornycroft marking the millennium of King Aelfred's death, erected in 1901. It is 2.5 times life size, 4.57 m high, and weighs 5 tons. The base is of Cornish Granite, and the entire structure stands 40 ft high. The right hand grasps a cross-hilted sword, the symbol of Christianity to combat the power of heathenism. A Saxon helmet crowns the head, and the left hand rests lightly upon a Saxon circular shield. The cloak, thrown back over the right shoulder, shelters the King and invites viewers to walk around the statue to view it face on. The granite pedestal bears one word - AELFRED.
A few other worthwhile places to visit are: Winchester College, believed to be the oldest continuously running school in the country; City Museum: where you may explore the past; the Westgate: a fortified medieval debtors' prison for 150 years; the City Mill: perched over the fast-flowing River Itchen; Winchester's Military Museums: five museums; Wolvesey Castle: extensive ruins and Abbey House and Gardens, the mayor's residence, located next to the newly refurbished Guildhall.
Winchester has hosted the annual
Hat Fair, a celebration of street theatre combined with circus that includes performances, workshops, and gatherings at several venues around the city. It also hosts one of the UK's largest and most successful farmers' markets with over 100 stalls each second and last Sunday of the month in the town centre.
In a 2006 TV program, The Best and Worst Places to Live in the UK, Winchester was celebrated as number one. However, a year later, it slipped to second place, behind Edinburgh. Nevertheless, crammed with historic buildings, museums, family attractions and tranquil green spaces waiting to be explored, one should certainly add it to the list of places to see in the UK!
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.