A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.
This September, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.
Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.
In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.
This week, the area south-west of London that includes the counties of Hampshire and Dorset.
Winchester was founded around 70AD as the Roman Venta Belgarum. It was based on the hill fort site of the Celtic Belgae tribe over the River Itchen. There are strong royal connections, harking back to the days of the legendary King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. In the ninth century, King Alfred the Great made it the first capital of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex. King Arthur and King Alfred are commemorated with statues at either end of the town’s main street. In 1086, William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book was compiled here.
Because of the historic nature and architecture of the city, Winchester has appeared as a movie location many times, including the films Da Vinci Code, Elizabeth: The Golden Age and Pride and Prejudice. It is a fine town to visit. Easy to walk around, and lots to see and do. Here are just some of the highlights:
Winchester Cathedral: one of the UK’s oldest cathedrals. Built in 1097, it was sited on a 10th century monastery. The footprint of original monastic church can still be seen in adjacent meadow. If features the Decorated Gothic and the Perpendicular Gothic styles. At 555ft long, it is the longest cathedral in the UK.
An interesting memorial inside is the one to William Walker. Winchester has a high water table and the cathedral is built on peaty soil. Trenches dug to reinforce the foundations filled too quickly with water. It was literally sinking. The cathedral authorities employed William Walker for help. He worked six hours a day for six years in deep-sea diver’s suit replacing and underpinning the foundations. with 900,000 bricks, 115,000 concrete blocks and 26,000 bags of cement. In underwater darkness he worked entirely by touch with his bare hands. He would only take off his helmet to eat his lunch and smoke his pipe. Every Sunday, he made the 150-mile return journey to his Croydon home on a bicycle.
Famous burials include Jane Austen in 1817, and Isaak Walton (author of the Compleat Angler) in 1683. In the meadow at the front is the grave of Thomas Thetcher from 1764. It features a verse explaining how a soldier died from drinking ‘small (mild) beer’. In 1918, the tombstone caught the attention of a young American GI Bill Wilson, who was camped nearby with his unit. In 1939, following a battle with alcoholism, he founded Alcoholics Anonymous. Wilson claimed he had failed to heed the tombstone’s ominous warning and printed first two lines of the verse in the front of his book. However, it appears he missed out the crucial advice about drinking stronger beer!
Winchester College: the oldest public school in England. It was founded in 1382 by William Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester and chancellor to Richard II. Originally it was set up for 600 commoners in 10 boarding houses. Old students include: light-opera impresario Richard D’Oyley Carte, mountaineer George Mallory, Battle of Britain Fighter Command chief Sir Hugh Dowding, newsreader Reginald Bosenquet and comedian, Tim Brooke-Taylor.
The Hospital of St Cross: the oldest charitable organisation in England. It still hands out the ‘Wayfarer’s Dole’ to travellers if claimed – a drink and some food. It was founded in 1132, when Henry de Blois, Bishop of Winchester and grandson of William the Conqueror established an almshouse for 13 poor men, and to feed 100 poor people daily at the gates. In the 1450s, it was extended by Cardinal Beaufort. Today, it still provides accommodation for 25 lay brothers who dress in red and black robes and trencher hats, wearing the Maltese cross. The Porter’s Lodge still hands out the Wayfarer’s Dole if claimed. Once it was a beaker of beer and morsel of bread. Now it’s lemonade and cakes. Mmm! Grade 1 listed, architectural critic Simon Jenkins called it England’s oldest and most perfect almshouse.
Great Hall: in the 13th century, Winchester Castle was built by Henry III who was born in the town. There’s very little left. It was demolished by Oliver Cromwell during the Civil War. Some say it was Arthur’s Camelot. The Round Table visible in the surviving Great Hall was purportedly made by Merlin but actually dates from the reign of Henry III’s son Edward I.
Places recommended for lunch include the Wykeham Arms, Kingsgate Street; La Place Bistro, Great Minster Street; and the Chesil Rectory, Jewry Street.
Winchester is as historic a town as you will find anywhere in the UK.
Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. Another recommendation will appear tomorrow.
For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com
*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:
- Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
- Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
- Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
- Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
- South coast (Hants/Dorset)
- Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
- South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
- Wales (north & south)
- Welsh Borders (Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
- Western Midlands (Brum/Worcs/Warks/Staffs)
- Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland/Hunts)
- Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
- East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
- Yorks (all ridings)
- North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
- North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
- Southern Scotland (Borders/Lowlands)
- Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
- Ireland (Northern/Southern)