‘Twas the week before christmas….and all things bright and beautiful, shone with festive cheer, bringing blessings of comfort and joy, in the bleak mid-winter!
Today we have been wallowing in the delights of the season – soaking up some most welcome festive spirit in the gloriously ancient yet vibratingly vivid city of Winchester. Nestled at the western end of the South Downs, in the rolling countryside of East Hampshire, Winchester is a vibrant market town and cathedral city, blessed with more than its fair share of quaint streets, historic buildings, and populous trading hubs.
Founded in Roman times, the city began life as a settlement under the name Venta Belgarum, flourishing through the Saxon period and on into the reign of William the Conqueror. By 1086, the population numbered 8000, ranking Winchester as one of the largest towns in the whole of England. Civil War and episodes of the Black Death Plague, cause devastation in the city, halving the population, and the poor fortunes of the city were compounded by Henry VIII’s attitude towards religious centres and the resulting closure of Winchester’s friaries and abbeys in the 1500’s.*
Nonetheless, the people of Winchester must be a resilient lot, and the city’s location on the River Itchen, road routes across the south of the country, and much later the railway, meant that trade, production, religious life and centres of education soon regained momentum and continue to flourish into modern times.
And so it was today, on the last weekend before Christmas. Bright sunshine glared down the narrow side-streets and bathed the wide pedestrianised high-street, rendering the festive illuminations redundant, although it was clear there was a real treat in store for those shoppers who lingered into late afternoon.
I must admit, an admission charge of £8 per adult to enter the cathedral put us off from exploring that particular feature of the city, but there was enough to entertain us outside the ecclesiastical walls. (Note: I understand that funds must be raised for the upkeep of such culturally important buildings, but I object to the principle of being charged to enter any place of religious worship. Just my personal opinion.)
The famous annual Christmas market was in full festive swing, housed in wooden chalets clustered around the foot of the cathedral itself. Mulled wine, fresh doughnuts, hot chocolate, roasted nuts, and a whole array of tempting food stalls filled the cold air with delicious smells, whilst colourful and shiny trinkets glinted and winked from the interior of other stalls. Cosy looking knits, glittering tree decorations, and those unusual gifts you never knew you needed, all looked wonderful in the winter sun, trimmed with a splash of holly and mistletoe. We left the ice rink to the more adventurous folk, but hummed our way through the crowds to the sound of carols and christmas music.
Out in the high-street, the regular Friday market traders were making the most of the influx of seasonal shoppers and sightseers. Above their heads, stars and snowflakes and swirls were strung from the historic rooftops, awaiting sunset to allow them to add their own magical sparkle to proceedings.
We left laden with pieces of cheese and a selection of saucissons, to give our christmas fare a gourmet edge.
We’d used the park and ride buses, (easy, efficient and friendly service, just £3 for a day’s parking and warm comfortable busses; public transport done well) to take us into the city centre, but decided to take the easy 20-minute stroll along the river, via the Viaduct Way cycle path, back to St Catherines park and ride carpark. A good choice, rounding of a lovely day and making the most of the last of the glorious, if cold, sunshine.
The ride home (thank you to my other half for driving) through the countryside of East Hampshire and our home territory of West Sussex provided the final treat: corduroy furrows running in sweeping curves, skeletal hedgerows skittering off over open earsh**, painted clockwork pheasants, wheeling red kites, and that long low winter sunlight…
*I must mention the useful timeline of Winchester’s history, published by Tim Lambert at http://www.localhistories.org/wintime.html which proved most helpful when researching for this part of the blog post.
**’Earsh’ is a stubble field in the old Sussex Dialect