Winchester, home to some 35,000 souls, a modern, comfortable, semi-rural little city set conveniently close to the capital yet with a strong sense of its own identity… But has it always been like this? For a city of its size, some might say it has remarkably grand ideas about itself.
So how did it originally come into being? Imagine two small iron-age communities, set on neighbouring hill tops. One, St. Catherine’s Hill, is situated some three kilometres outside the modern city centre. The other, Oram’s Arbour, now forms part of that centre. Three thousand years ago, inhabitants of that community would walk down the hill to reach the ford over the river Itchen. When you amble down today’s High St, you are following their ancient footsteps.
Let us now fast-forward to the first century AD. The settlements have now been transformed into the town of Venta Belgarum, founded by the Romans. The Itchen has been diverted, a city wall has been constructed and a network of streets has been laid down, a network that in its basic shape survives until this day. It is a time of peace, prosperity and stability that lasts for nearly four hundred years, but at the beginning of the fifth century the Romans leave Britain, in something of a hurry. Like all Roman towns, Venta Belgarum survives for some time before being eventually abandoned.
The Romans go, the Saxons arrive. It is some time during that dark period that the shadowy figure of King Arthur belongs. This mighty king is much beloved of the makers of myth, the creators of pseudo-history and the writers of fiction, but the truth is that nobody knows for sure whether he in fact existed. The famous Round Table that to this day is displayed in Winchester’s Great Hall is a medieval copy, and in any case the historical Arthur, if he existed, was a Celt, not an Anglo-Saxon, and probably never came anywhere near Winchester.
Gradually, Winchester is repopulated and in due course becomes the capital city of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex. A Minster is raised and King Alfred the Great enters the scene. These two kings whose names begin with A are not to be confused. Unlike his shadowy predecessor, Alfred was without a doubt a real historical character. This Anglo-Saxon king protected his realm from the Viking raiders and was a great champion of learning. He still presides over his capital city in the form of a grand Victorian statue and, who knows, through the wonders of DNA profiling it could be that we will soon determine where his body finally came to rest.
Time passes and the Saxons are conquered by the Normans, who demolish the Minster, put up a vast Romanesque cathedral in its place and then promptly move the capital of a now-united England to London.
From that time on Winchester moves out of centre stage. True, a famous school is founded for seventy poor and needy scholars and true, the Bishop of Winchester remains one of the most powerful men in the land. However, apart from these notable facts, Winchester slides imperceptibly into a sleepy obscurity, although it never quite forgets its former glory.
If you visit Modern Winchester you will no doubt take in its pleasant, relaxed atmosphere, visit its many characteristic shops and the large number of attractive historical building and, maybe, order a drink or a traditional meal in one of its medieval pubs. Whatever you do, you will never be far away from its glorious past and may even feel yourself rubbing shoulders with one of the many colourful characters from its history.