Story and photos by Bo Zaunders
Royal Oak Public House image courtesy of Manos Angelakis
Winchester – Not Just the Cathedral
Oops! The wine I just poured tilted to one side of the glass. Most odd. Then, looking around, seeing the low, heavily beamed ceiling and taking into account the age of this place – the house was built about six hundred years ago – I realized that, most likely, the floor must be leaning a little.
We were on a three-day visit to Winchester, the ancient capital of England, and were now dining at the Chesil Rectory, the city’s oldest commercial property.
Local Partridge was served to our friend Julie, Rosary Goats Cheese Rotolo to Roxie, and to me, Chesil Bouillabaisse. Though fully enjoying her partridge, Julie jokingly commented that it might have been cooked at the time the house was built. She also took note of an asterisk at the bottom of the menu, with a warning that “Game birds may contain shot.” Seriously, everything was quite satisfactory – cozy, rustic, yet elegant.
Honeyed Set Cream, Sour Blueberries, and Brandy Snap rounded off the meal, complete with the recommended glass of dessert wine, Moscato d’Asti.
We were seated upstairs. Downstairs, on our way out, after we’d passed several intimate rooms with beamed ceilings, I noticed a private dining area, named after one of Winchester’s former residents, Jane Austin.
Which brings to mind a house cocktail called “The King,” after King Alfred, another prominent resident who, back in 828, made Winchester the capital of England. He now stands, sword in hand, as a statue just three or four blocks from the restaurant, close to the city’s medieval East Gate. A Winchester landmark, he is a towering figure, measuring 17 feet from the base to the top of his outstretched arm.
Walking back in a westerly direction, we soon found ourselves on High Street, the city’s main drag. This was my second visit to Winchester and everything looked rather familiar. Here was the Victorian Guild Hall, and there was the Buttercross, a structure from the 15th century, featuring 12 statues. We passed some historic half-timbered buildings, such as the God Begot House, said to have originated in 1001. Then came the High Street clock, jutting out from one of the eaves, and telling us not just the hour but that it was time to turn right for Winchester Royal, our hotel on St. Peter Street.
Roxie and Julie were here for the annual SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) British Isles Conference. As for me, I was free to roam and explore the city.
Oooh, Westchester Cathedral, you’re bringin’ me down
You stood and you watched as my baby left town…
The 1960s hit came to mind as I entered this place of worship. I must have spent an hour or so walking around in its vast interior. Boasting the longest nave and overall length of any Gothic cathedral in Europe and built in successive stages spanning the 11th to the 16th century, it was impressive indeed.
A few minutes walk and I was at another historic landmark, the great Hall of the Winchester Castle where, famously, hangs what is claimed to be King Arthur’s Round Table. Actually, the table dates from the 13th century, which is about seven hundred years after King Arthur is supposed to have been around. The table was originally unpainted wood. Then, in 1522, it was painted for King Henry VIII, with the names of the legendary Knights written around its edge, and with a portrait of King Arthur - which looks suspiciously like King Henry VIII as a young man. Still, the table is of considerable historical interest, and a great tourist attraction. In the Great Hall I also noted a monumental statue of Queen Victoria sitting on her throne, in full regalia, and dimly lit by a stained-glass window.
I found myself doing a lot of strolling up and down High Street. The Christmas market was already in full swing. A woman stirring an big ancient-looking pot offered hot chestnuts; saw a dog with sunglasses; and there on Parchment Street, on my right, yet another Winchester landmark: the bronze figure of a young man joyfully flying a kite whilst walking across a nearly 20-foot high bridge spanning the street.
Other discoveries included a walk up Gile Hill from where you have a scenic view of the city. Also, the Winchester City Mill, a restored water mill dating back to Saxon times, and presumed to be the oldest watermill in the UK.
Our hotel, the Winchester Royal, turned out to have quite a history. A former Bishop’s home and Benedictine convent built in the 16th century; it has some delightful Renaissance period features, such as high ceilings, sash windows, and heavily patterned carpets. It also features a walled garden, which made me wish we had been here in the summer.
Finally a word about The Royal Oak, a delightful pub squeezed into a dark alleyway, a two-minute walk from the hotel. Entering it I noticed plenty of oak paneling and was overwhelmed by how packed it was with happy customers. Apparently this kind of festivity has been going on for a very long time. The place is said to date back to 1002, making this the oldest pub in all of England.
I ordered a pint of Kask Ale, which seemed like the right thing to do.
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