Winchester Heritage Open Days

The Heritage open days run every year in September for a week long celebration of history and culture all across England and with the added bonus of all of the events being free to enter. Luckily for me I live in the City of Winchester, Hampshire and we are blessed with a rich history dating back to Roman times. So I had plenty of opportunities over the week to explore some of the hidden gems right on my doorstep. Some of the events are extremely popular so booking in advance is advised, others you can just turn up to and explore at your leisure.

The first of the venues I visited this year was the Great Hall at the North end of town for the feast and famine historical tour. The Great Hall itself is an imposing and impressive building dating from the 13th century although it was once part of Winchester Castle it is now the only structure of the Castle still standing after Oliver Cromwell ordered its destruction in 1646. Inside the hall is King Arthur’s round table which is mounted high up on the wall, the table itself has been dated back to the 13th century and was repainted during the reign of Henry VIII. The grand stained glass windows on either side of the hall are magnificently decorated in coats of arms, a delight for any fans of heraldry such as myself. Located behind the hall is a recreation of Queen Eleanor’s medieval garden.

Top – King Arthur’s round table. Bottom L-R – Outside the Great Hall, coats of arms in stained glass, family tree

The Hall has hosted many fine celebrations and feasts over the centuries by Kings and Queens. Our guide shared stories of the foods that would have been eaten at such events, some sounded tasty and others not so much. I have been to the Great Hall before but this was the first time with a guide to bring the history of the hall to life a little more and this was an insightful experience.

Next up on my guided tours during the week was Winchester College. Founded in 1382 by William of Wykeham, the Bishop of Winchester and Chancellor of England. He was the advisor to King Richard II and with a royal charter he laid the foundation for the college in Winchester. The original medieval buildings are still in use today and more buildings have been added over the centuries in architectural styles including Tudor and Victorian Gothic.

Winchester College

As a local I have walked by the College on many occasions but it’s not until you enter the gates on College Street that you find yourself being transported back in time. You cannot truly appreciate the history and architecture until you cast your eyes on the various structures inside. It truly is a grand if not slightly understated place. However you do feel like you are standing somewhere very special.

The first tour was of the College archives. We are guided around two of the medieval rooms by the resident archivist. The first room is located up a spiral staircase with narrow walls, this room was built for storage in the 1390s and is still in use today. The flooring is all original, with thick walls that keep the temperature constant all year round. Two large chests hold many of the old documents as do the slightly more modern draws and cabinets around the room. The Foundation Charters and Founder’s Statutes are a few of the documents on show. As a genealogist, the chance to see these documents up close is a real treat.

View of College inside main courtyard.

We were then taken to the Cloisters and standing in the middle is Fromond’s Chantry. It is a two-storey building built in 1426. Up another spiral staircase, this one a little higher and tighter than the first, opens out into a delightful little library. The windows provide wonderful light and once again we are invited to have a look around the room and view the documents on show, old recipe cards and ration books, photographs of students preparing meals for Christmas. All of the books inside are either written about Winchester College or written by former pupils of the school. It is a charming little spot and well worth the visit.

Top – various documents on show. Bottom – Original floor and thick windows.

The final tour of the day was of the War Cloister also at Winchester College.  It was built between 1922-24 and is the largest private memorial in Europe. It started with the vision of the Headmaster Montague Rendall and the roofed quadrangle was designed by the architect Sir Herbert Baker. Initially designed as a memorial to the 500 Wykehamists (the name given to the students) killed during the First World War and their names are engraved on the outer walls. With the names of the Wykehamists who died during World War II on the inner walls.

L-R Main gate, alcoves in stone wall, stone and flint walls inside

Our guide provided us with a fascinating history of the Cloister before we entered the main gate. Above the arch is a carving of the school’s patron, St Mary by Charles Wheeler. There are little alcoves located within the stone wall and every year the school gathers together for something called ‘Illumina’ where they light candles and place them in the holes.

Once inside I was instantly taken aback not only by the beautiful architecture and attention to detail but the calm and peacefulness of my surroundings. The walls are made from Portland stone ashlars and knapped flint, with round-headed arches supported by Tuscan columns. Badges from 120 regiments decorate the walls, corbels and roof beams.

The four corners of the cloister are dedicated to South Africa, Australia, Canada and India. Each corner has a large stone within the floor all made from materials from those countries. Also on the walls of each corner are plaques that represent different regions of that country. The whole experience moved me and I quietly thought about my own ancestors who fought so bravely in both of the Wars. 

A sample of coats of arms and large stone.

I thoroughly enjoyed all my experiences during the Heritage open days but I was particularly moved by the tour of the War Cloister and it was a lovely way to finish off a week of exploring the City of Winchester. I highly recommend putting a note in the diary for next September and treat yourself to some heritage in your hometown.

TheAncestralNomad © 2021

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