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Praising Winchester: Famous cathedral lives up to its rock star reputation

Robin Robinson.

By Robin Robinson, Toronto Sun

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Winchester Cathedral was on everyone's mind in 1966 -- at least everyone who listened to the radio. But it had nothing to do with religion.

That's when a song about the monumental cathedral and lost love shot to the top of the charts in North America.

I was a kid growing up in Riverdale then. But the song by the New Vaudeville Band, which went on to win a Grammy award, had a campy 1920s style and catchy tune I can still hum today.

In fact, I've been humming that tune off and on since last fall when my travels brought me to the front door of the landmark cathedral in Winchester, the lovely capital city of Hampshire.

Besides possibly being the only Church of England cathedral ever featured in a hit pop song, the magnificent building has many other claims to fame. Among the highlights:

-- Almost 1,000 years old, the cathedral is a tour de force of Norman-Gothic architecture and art. It's England's longest medieval cathedral with flying buttresses, massive vaults, seven chantry chapels, an ornate Great Screen behind the high altar, choir stalls carved of ancient oaks, intricate and colourful stained glass windows designed by pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones, medieval floor tiles, sculptures and wall paintings, and a vaulted crypt, where Sound II -- a sculpture of a solitary man created by contemporary artist Antony Gormley -- resides.

-- Treasures such as the illuminated Winchester Bible (said to be the largest and finest 12th-century English bible in existence), the Tournai Marble Font (carved in the 1150s from a single 1.5-tonne block of stone and transported from Belgium) and the Morley Library, a collection of rare books dating to the 17th century.

-- An eclectic mix of important people have been buried in the cathedral or in the earlier church -- called the Old Minster -- that once stood on the grounds. These include several Saxon kings, St. Swithun (the cathedral's patron saint), diver William Walker (who saved the cathedral from collapse by working underwater for six years to shore up its flooded foundations), Josephine Butler (a 19th-century campaigner against human trafficking) and novelist Jane Austen (who has not one but three memorials there).

The best way to take it all in is on one of the daily tours of the building, the tower and the crypt.

Once the capital of ancient England, Winchester itself has many attractions -- medieval and Georgian buildings, one of England's oldest boys schools, a rare working water-driven corn mill, and a giant replica of King Arthur's round table hanging in the Great Hall, a 13th-century building that is all that remains of Winchester Castle.

Children can try on Edwardian and Anglo-Saxon costumes at City Museum or try their hands at medieval pastimes such as brass-rubbing or suit-up in armour at Westgate. Before becoming a museum, the last remaining city gate was a debtors' prison.

About 100 km southwest of London, Winchester is most of all a nice spot for a relaxed visit of a few days, and makes an excellent base for day trips to nearby attractions.

There are tons of shops -- from popular European-chains to chic boutiques to quirky one-offs -- and markets, including the largest farmers market in the U.K.

Restaurants run from casual pub grub to fine dining. We had excellent meals in atmospheric surroundings at Chesil Rectory and The Green Man.

Chesil Rectory occupies a refurbished 600-year-old house with a storied past. Once owned by Henry VIII, the king bequeathed the house to his daughter, Queen Mary, who was married in Winchester Cathedral. The royal wedding was so lavish it almost bankrupted the town so Queen Mary gave the house to the city as partial payment.

Today, Chesil Rectory is a lovely restaurant owned by a group of friends who share a passion for wine and food. Its menu is heavy on modern British cuisine and fresh local produce.

The Green Man is a city centre establishment with a downstairs gastro-pub serving burgers and build-your-own platters of cured meats and cheeses, and the intimate Edwardian Drawing Room upstairs. It's part of the Little Pub Group, which has several other restaurants in town.

Getting lost in Austen, almost 200 years later

Sense and Sensibility. Pride and Prejudice. Mansfield Park. Emma. Persuasion. Northanger Abbey. Jane Austen was not England's most prolific author.

She completed only six novels before she died in 1817 at age 41, two of those published posthumously.

But almost 200 years after her death, Austen's engaging stories and characters still resonate with readers, moviegoers and TV viewers, and she is widely considered one of England's most important authors.

Literary lovers can follow in Austen's footsteps in Winchester, where she spent her last days, and at Jane Austen's House Museum in nearby Chawton, where she lived with her sister and mother from 1809 to 1817.

Accompanied by her sister and confidante Cassandra, Austen went to Winchester for treatment of what doctors now surmise could have been Addison's Disease, Hodgkin's lymphoma or tuberculosis.

The sisters stayed in rented rooms at 8 College St., which is not open to the public but is marked by a plaque. The yellow brick house is very near Winchester Cathedral, where Austen is buried.

The cathedral has not one but three memorials to Austen. Her tomb in the north aisle makes no mention of her writing. A brass plaque on a wall behind, which mentions her work briefly, and a stained glass window above were added later.

Fans can learn more at Jane Austen's House Museum about 28 km away. The modest late 17th-century brick cottage is furnished with objects -- clothing, letters and other papers, books, jewelry and more -- owned by Austen and her family.

During her years at Chawton, Austen revised her earlier manuscripts, wrote three new ones and started a seventh -- which was never finished -- at a modest little writing desk that is also on display.

-- Jane Austen Regency Week will be held in Hampshire June 20-28. The week-long event features Regency Day in Alton, a Regency dance workshop, ball, concert and supper, plus walks, talks, tours, readings -- including a Persuasion read-a-thon -- cricket match and more.

NEED TO KNOW

-- For travel information, see visitbritain.com, visitwinchester.co.uk and visit-hampshire.co.uk.

-- For the cathedral, see winchester-cathedral.org.uk.

-- For Jane Austen's House Museum, see jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk.

-- For Jane Austen celebrations in Chawton and Alton, see janeaustenregencyweek.co.uk.

AUSTEN TRIVIA

-- Some 50,000 copies of Pride and Prejudice are sold yearly in the U.K.

-- The novel's hero, Mr. Darcy, has been voted women's favourite fictional romantic character. Actors who have played him in films include Laurence Olivier and Colin Firth.

-- Female roles have been played by Kiera Knightly, Gwyneth Paltrow, Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet and more.


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