I have found the more traditional English experience is outside the busy hum of London. If you are like me and want to really experience something outside of the tourist hot spots, I urge you to take a short train ride in any direction out of London and explore a local town. On my first Saturday living in England I decided to visit Winchester, England’s ancient capital. Winchester is just an hour southwest of London by train. I think this is going to be something I try to do on free weekends to hopefully show you all the beauty that England has to offer.
If you think you can spare a Saturday while you are in London, I highly recommend visiting Winchester on a Saturday. The city is vibrant with locals and students and families from neighboring villages and it really sets the scene for an authentic English experience. There is an outdoor market in the city center with local vendors selling goods from yummy fudge or savory snacks to handmade goods like furniture and other trinkets.
I traveled by train from Waterloo Station as the trains to Winchester leave about every 15 minutes so minimal planning was involved. To make sure I had plenty of time to explore, I caught an early train to arrive in Winchester by 10am. Once I arrived in Winchester, I exited the train station and headed down the hill. I knew I needed to find my way to the city center, where the Buttercross is, which is a beautiful and intricate monument. Now, I didn’t have a map with me so I simply followed the early morning buzz. It’s not far from the train station at all, I found. There is something in the atmosphere on a Saturday morning in Winchester that will draw you to the market. Follow that buzz…it leads to magic!
Your first stop must be an Americano (which is just fresh brewed coffee) accompanied by a traditional cornish pastry from West Cornwall Pastry Co. It is right next to the Buttercross, smack dap in the center of all the fuss. Take your savory pastry and coffee upstairs and sit by the window. There is sure to be an exciting display below as the vendors ready their tents for the day’s patrons. Also, if you are as fortunate as I was, there will be a group of students from the university right outside the doors playing instruments and singing popular hits from the likes of Johnny Cash, Old Crow Medicine Show, and The Lumineers. It was almost as if Winchester knew I was a long way from home and needed that bit of musical therapy to start my day.
Once you’ve had your fill of yummy coffee and cornish pastry (which is a breakfast game changer for those of us who love savory goodies), take in the sights, sounds, and wonderful smells that are the Winchester weekend market. Take your time strolling up and down the stone streets and alley ways that weave throughout the city. There is no shortage of local shops and cafés to visit.
Winchester Cathedral is absolutely stunning. As one of the oldest Cathedrals in Europe and the longest in length in Europe, it is something magical to see. If you have time, take a tour with one of the lovely tour guides. They are on a walk in basis, so no need to schedule an appointment. I was lucky enough to get a free tour from my friend’s mother who has been giving tours of the Cathedral for over 30 years. She is brilliant. Jane Austen is the last famous person to be buried in the Cathedral which is quite interesting. There are so many other interesting facts about the Cathedral that you’ll learn if you take a guided tour. I’ve been in quite a few Cathedrals throughout my travels, and this one is quite special.
After touring the Cathedral, be sure to pop in to the Refectory and have afternoon tea and a pastry in the garden. It is a lovely place to sit and relax and reflect on the events of the day so far. Their cakes and pastries are delightfully sweet. You don’t want to miss out.
After regaining my energy over yummy tea and sweet treats, I was ready for the next item on my to do list; climb St. Catherine’s Hill. It is a short walk from the Cathedral, right past Jane Austen’s house. You can ask a local how to get to the path that leads to the trail head, just outside the city. Everyone is so kind and friendly, someone will surely point you in the right direction. Once at the trail head, you’ll notice plenty of people walking up the big hill. There are actually quite a few ways to get up the hill. Some are more difficult than others if you are feeling ambitious. I accidentally chose the most strenuous route which revealed just how out of shape I am judging by my hyperventilating only halfway up the short steep climb. Note to self: start running, Ryan. Either way you chose to go, it’s a beautiful walk (or in my case, it was a beautiful climb).
Once I reached the top, I was taken by surprise the most wonderful views of the English countryside below me. You can see the whole of Winchester at the bottom of the hill. If you come prepared (which I didn’t), pack a picnic and a blanket and truly allow yourself the time to enjoy it. It really is a beautifully peaceful sight, even with the cows freely roaming around. That’s another thing…make sure you watch where you put the blanket down if you picnic. Cow pies are hard to miss, but accidents happen.
After spending time wandering around the top of the hill, I decided to head back down, this time a different way than I came up. There are a set of steps on the back side of the hill that are still steep, but way better going down than coming up I imagine. The steps lead to a valley that you can walk back around to the paved path that goes along a creek back to the trailhead. You’re sure to pass plenty of kind local faces out for their afternoon walk. People in Winchester are so friendly. Just in the way they carry themselves, you can tell there is a certain kindness about them.
The paved path took me back to the gravel parking lot at the trail head. To get back to the city center, I took the path that led through the water meadows. It is another beautiful walk along the river where swans are leisurely floating by. It is a scene straight out of a Disney movie. The trail will take you right back to the Cathedral.
On my way back into town, I passed a corner pub called the Wykeham Arms. If I were to imagine a classic English pub, this would be it. Old carpet, old wood walls, beer steins hanging on the walls for every young local lad who has earned his right to have a pint legally, and dogs! Yes, dogs in the pub. In America, dogs are mostly just allowed on patios but in England it is common for dogs to be inside local pubs. I absolutely love it! Have a pint and sit back and take in the joyful roar of old friends catching up and natives meeting for their daily pre-supper libation. Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with someone and learn a bit more about the place.
When visiting a big city, such as London, don’t be afraid to venture outside the comforts of the city limits and explore one of the many hidden gems that surround the hustle and bustle. You won’t be disappointed. Which town should I visit next? I’m thinking the location of one of my favorite films, The Holiday, is in my near future. I’ll see you soon Surrey!