England’s top table city

Costa Rica

England’s ancient capital, and former seat of “The Great One” (King Alfred) - with King Arthur’s round table as a free bonus, is staking its claim as one of the most desirable day out, or weekend away destinations in the South of England. This is my choice of things to do in the pretty Hampshire city. It includes a connoisseur’s cathedral, the perfect riverside walk, streets full of good shopping and a chocoholics’ dream dessert.

Dark star

In the heart of Winchester, CCTV has turned an elusive visitor into a star. Otters, absent for years in much of Britain, are back on the river Itchen, which flows through the city. They appear almost daily in the impressively-restored National-Trust owned water mill on Bridge Street. Normally you wouldn’t have a hope of seeing one. But the cameras roll whenever this sleek aquatic hunter triggers a motion sensor at dead of night, alongside the water wheel in the mill race. You can view the edited highlights. On our visit we saw a sturdy otter haul a huge fish from the rushing water. Another shot showed a family of four passing through. One giant leap for nature, and just a small step from a city centre.

Hall for heroes

Forget the Da Vinci Code (they filmed scenes in the cathedral). Our burning historical mystery is: who was King Arthur? Tantalising hints in the amazing Round Table, fixed to the wall in the Great Hall, all that’s left of Winchester Castle (admission free). The inscription on this “rownde table of kyng Arthur with 24 of his namyde knyattes” was Henry VIII’s take on the nation’s favourite enigmatic hero. (The actual table is even older.)
Even if those heroic names were not written by Merlin in magic gold paint, this is still the most thrilling Arthurian legacy we have. Next door is Queen Eleanor’s garden, a re-creation of a medieval herbarium. This is serenity behind high walls, with bay hedges, camomile lawn, tunnel arbour, and herbs and flowers of the time, under a twinkling fountain.

Mighty minster

Move this Cathedral to London, and visitors would queue right round it, even at £5 a head. There was a wonderful unhurried calm inside thes vast old buidling, with clued-up volunteers on hand to comment on the wonders. The eclectic list includes the graves of Jane Austen and pioneer fisherman Izaak Walton, the caskets holding the bones of the Saxon kings, the statue to the deep sea diver who worked to save the Cathedral from subsidence, some of the best medieval floor tiles in Britain and one of the finest of all decorated Bibles. There are recently completed Russian icons, and 15th century images on the Lady Chapel walls. If you don’t want to pay, search the precincts for the gravestone of the soldier who died after “drinking small beer while hot.” And the tiny and exquisite church of St Swithun's upon Kingsgate, up some steps over an old city gate.

Stroll supreme

Few places in Britain can claim such a pure and perfect river as the Itchen. And because Winchester is so small, you can walk within minutes into stretches of blissfully empty water meadow. We went south, where this city’s equivalent of urban sprawl is the 700 year old Winchester College, Wolvesey Castle and the Bishops Palace. Powering across the river was a water vole – the nationally rare water rat of Wind in the Willows. A dabchick showed off its disappearing at one spot and reappearing 20 yards downstream routine. This exceptional one mile stroll inspired Keats to write Ode to Autumn. It ends at the ancient St Cross Almshouses, where you may claim beer and bread –the original “dole”. Or there’s the Bell Inn next door.

Cress risen

A fashionable “wonder” vegetable binds this corner of Hampshire together. Watercress was rebranded in 2003. Now top chefs and dieticians extol its virtues. Heaps of watercress are Winchester’s twice monthly Sunday Farmers' Market. Its unofficial capital is nearby Alresford. (The 10 mile “Watercress” steam railway runs to Alton.) This is the famous cricket commentator John Arlott’s country. Hambledon is nearby, birthplace of cricket, on Broadha'penny Down. They devised the rules of the game in the Bat and Ball pub. Other easy trips include Jane Austen's House in Chawton. They complete Lottery-funded improvements, including an exhibition of film and television adaptations of her books, in July [2009]. The downland north to Newbury is where Richard Adams set Watership Down. Wickham, in the Meon Valley, is another attractive village. Its two acre medieval square is the second largest in England. 01962 840 500

Select stay

The manager at Lainston House Hotel has noticed people are ringing from London to book afternoon tea. Why not? 58 minutes by train, a 2 mile taxi ride and you are in a very select corner of rural England. This 300-year-old building is surrounded by acres of parkland, speared by a mile long avenue of limes, with epic views deep into Hampshire - further proof that we are world leaders in this type of country house accommodation. Inside it’s a mix of practical detail (underfloor bathroom heating), and easy elegance. The restaurant, blessedly free of muzak, serves lots of local produce, much of it from the kitchen garden’s copious crop of vegetables, herbs and fruit. This year’s big draw is the puddings. Pastry chef Mark Tilling is 2008 UK Chocolate Master. His decadent compilation of chocolate brûlée, mousse and ice cream, concluded our memorable meal.

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