In June of 2019, my wife and I loaded our 7 year old daughter Jane and 15 month daughter Eva onto a non-stop flight to London for 10 days of all things Englandy. It was fabulous and it only took me an entire year to record those events here! [See aforementioned ages of aforementioned children.]
We took one day to explore Winchester, a smaller city south-west of London, and an easy hour-long train ride from Paddington Station.
Upon arrival, we stepped into the quaint train station and followed my pre-printed map down the hill and toward the Great Hall. I was somewhat familiar with Winchester already, having been long in love with Netflix’s series The Last Kingdom and am in general, a history addict. One of the best places to get a sense of England throughout its history is in Winchester, so I was rabidly excited to go.
Back to the Great Hall – this is a beautiful 13th century hall, which has been in municipal use for nearly all of its history. If I’m remembering correctly, criminal courts were still holding session within the Great Hall as recently as the 1970s. At some point in the recent past, all civic and municipal uses were moved to the new brick buildings nearby, and this Hall and its accompanying gardens were dedicated to historical purposes.
As you can see, our family had a fabulous time, especially when the girls dressed in Medieval garb and the Baby pretended to chop off her elder sister’s head. What’s not to love!
If you’re interested in learning more about this history of Winchester (and there’s a lot of fabulous history to learn!), take a look at these sites:
Historic UK – Winchester, Ancient Capital
History Extra – From King Alfred to Jane Austen
Next, we meandered down toward the middle of town, and at the roundabout, we encountered the Westgate Museum. This ancient gate is one of two fortified Medieval gateways to survive in the city, and these are such interesting places to see (and go into if it’s open and you have the time. In 2010, we traveled to York and one of our favorite excursions was exploring all the city’s gates, known as “bars” in that delightful city.) Alas, it was not open at the time we passed by, so after a quick look, we proceeded down the High Street and crossed into the pedestrian zone.
It is here that you can both see and feel Winchester as a medieval town. The buildings are beautifully lopsided, and while they now boast modern shops like a Caffe Nero, Vision Express, L’Occitane, and a West Cornwall Food Co., the buildings themselves are still a treat, as is the statue that appears here, in front of which we enjoyed some Beatles covers from a local musician.
After stopping into the West Cornwall Food Co. for some delightful pasties (which neither of the girls much favored even though one was chock full of mac-n-cheese), we continued our trek toward the real destination of this day’s outing:
At this point in the overall vacation, Sarah was pretty much cathedralled-out, and nothing screams obnoxious American family like shushing two boisterous children in cavernous, echoey cathedrals, so Sarah gladly dropped to the grass, made a pillow out of the day pack, and lounged while the girls ran around, hopping onto the lower-lying headstones dotting the churchyard. For my part, I waved goodbye, pretended I had never seen those obnoxious children being obnoxiously irreverent, and headed toward the cathedral entrance.
Pictures cannot do it justice. This building is not only one of the largest gothic cathedrals in all of Europe, but it is most certainly the longest. The massive size of this building is appreciated both within and without, and while I could go on and on and on about how fabulous this building is, as well as the many nooks, crannies, chapels, and exhibitions, I had come for one thing and one thing only….
To pay my respects to Jane.
As I moved through the space, which was far less crowded inside than out, I quickly discerned a tour group standing around the very object I had come to see. I sat in a pew and overheard a bit of the tour, which gave some of the history of Jane’s demise at just 41 years of age, and how in May of 1817, she and her sister Cassandra drove from their home in nearby Chawton to take up lodgings on a street just beyond the cathedral. At the time, Winchester was the location of the closest and best doctors (in that order) and Jane’s condition had deteriorated beyond the scope of the physicians (probably apothecaries, actually) in her area. More about Jane’s connection to Winchester can be read here:
Jane Austen and Winchester Cathedral
The Guardian on Jane Austen and Winchester Cathedral
Here, I want to share the experience of visiting the gravesite of the person who has been one of the most influential of my life. On the one hand, it was incredibly moving to stand in the place where Jane herself lay just inches below me, and yet at the same time, there was something so commercial to the whole experience: the tour group milling about, the blank stares on the nodding heads that told me many of these people knew Jane in the most cursory way – some dead author from a long time ago whose books keep getting made into movies. There was a voyeurism and exhibitionism that undercut the very real emotion I was feeling…almost feeling?…attempting to feel…? I couldn’t say. In the time I had after they moved off and another tour arrived, I put my hand to her grave. I told her thank you for all she had done for me and for so many (which I know is probably a good many of you reading this), and I stood up and walked away, tucking the real Jane, the one that matters most to me, back where she had always been and would remain – within me, safe in my heart and my mind, wherever I go, not tied or limited to one geographical place, but a constant and enduring friend and mentor.
After, I spent more time reveling in the overall glory that is Winchester Cathedral (fabulous exhibit on illuminated manuscripts and the lives of the monks who had once lived in monasteries throughout this countryside) and then returned outside to gather our family, make the requisite stop at the bathroom (because someone always has to go as soon as you walk far enough away from one to make it onerous to walk back), and turned our gazes toward College Street.
This is where Jane breathed her last. You can imagine her sitting in that bow window, looking out over the small grassy area from where I was myself taking pictures, overhearing the shouts of children from the school attached to this very building, as we could do that very moment.
If you’re interested in more about Jane’s final residence, check out these articles:
The Victorian Web – 8 College Street
Jane’s Austen’s World – Jane Austen’s Death
It was here that I had that moment I was seeking. In the privacy of our small family group, the sun warm on our shoulders, I sat on the curb and gazed at Jane’s final home, at the windows from which she had once gazed out. I imagined her and Cassandra passing their hours, some in health, but most in illness, both of them surely aware that she would not step through that doorway again. And just a few days before her death, she wrote her final words in this poem:
[Written at Winchester on Tuesday the 15th of July 1817]
When Winchester races first took their beginning
It is said the good people forgot their old Saint
Not applying at all for the leave of St. Swithin
And that William of Wykham’s approval was faint.
The races however were fix’d and determin’d
The company met & the weather was charming
The Lords & the Ladies were sattin’d and ermin’d
And nobody saw any future alarming.–
But when the old Saint was inform’d of these doings
He made but one spring from his shrine to the roof
Of the Palace which now lies so sadly in ruins
And then he address’d them all standing aloof.
Oh subjects rebellious, Oh Venta depraved
When once we are buried you think we are dead
But behold me Immortal. – By vice you’re enslaved
You have sinn’d & must suffer. – Then further he said
These races & revels & dissolute measures
With which you’re debasing a neighboring Plain
Let them stand–you shall meet with your curse in your pleasures
Set off for your course, I’ll pursue with my rain.
Ye cannot but know my command in July
Henceforward I’ll triumph in shewing my powers
Shift your race as you will it shall never be dry
The curse upon Venta is July in showers.
As ill as she was, she held onto her humor til the last.
With just a few hours left in this lovely little town, our family found a green path that followed a little stream and/or canal. This led us to a playground, where the girls got a much-needed opportunity to jump and laugh and play, safely overseen by the watchful gaze (and sword) of Alfred the Great.
And then it was back to the High Street, and the trek up the hill to the train station. Do we seem a little tired in the picture below? …We were…good heavens, we were.
But first, a stop into the local Pret for some much needed mass-produced sweets.
All in all, it was a lovely excursion and Winchester is a town I would love to spend more time exploring during a future visit. And Jane (the author, though hopefully also the daughter) will be right with me – the full collection of her books just a swipe away on the bookshelf of my phone – and her biting humor reminding me that neither she nor I should ever take ourselves – or one another – too seriously.
This is such a lovely account of your day in Winchester. Thank you for sharing this! I doubt that I’ll ever get back to England (went once, but didn’t know about Winchester at the time). But this was a fun, vicarious way to experience Winchester!