Here’s what it’s like to live in Winchester
PUBLISHED: 11:38 31 October 2019 | UPDATED: 11:38 31 October 2019
Can happiness be found by living in the ancient capital of Wessex? Emma Caulton wonders and wanders
Lovely and leafy, Winchester sits very comfortably beside the River Itchen at the western end of the South Downs Way.
The ancient capital of Wessex is based on a Saxon street grid with a magnificent Norman cathedral at its heart (where Mary Tudor married and Jane Austen is buried).
The past is tangible - found in the ruins of 12th century Wolvesey Castle and the Great Hall, all that remains of Winchester Castle, one of the finest surviving examples of a 13th century aisled hall with scenes for TV's Wolf Hall filmed here. Winchester City Mill is the country's oldest working watermill. Even the arts venues tell a story. The Everyman cinema (with comfy armchairs and bar) was converted from an old army chapel. The Theatre Royal is the only surviving cine-variety theatre in the country and has a programme that ranges from historian Alice Roberts to the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain. Wander through the water meadows and you are following in the footsteps of Keats, who wrote his ode To Autumn while staying in Winchester 200 years ago.
With all this heritage and loveliness, it was not a huge surprise when, earlier this year, Winchester was judged the happiest place to live in the Royal Mail UK Happiness Index. It was also listed as one of the Best Places to Live by The Times - describing the city as "clever, cultured and convenient". Admittedly others complain that Winchester is smug, even snobby (a regular jibe in online forums). But aren't these views two sides of the same coin? Winchester certainly has a lot to be happy (or smug) about.
Life in Winchester is by and large a bubble of contentment of art, cafés, cocktails and festivals. The latter includes the Hat Fair, a celebration of street theatre, Ginchester Fete and Cocktail Week, established by Winchester's The Cabinet Rooms, and Winchester Wine Festival, founded by locals and TV wine experts Susie Barrie and Peter Richards.
The high street is a good mix of luxe names (such as Jigsaw, L'Occitane and Space NK) and modish independents - the likes of lifestyle store The Hambledon, fashion boutiques Sass & Edge, Liz & Fitz and Eclectic Hound, and elegant Jeremy France Jewellers.
Winchester is already known as a foodie hot spot. The Black Rat is Hampshire's only Michelin-starred restaurant. Good Food Guide-recommended Chesil Rectory serves modern British food in a characterful medieval building. There's Kyoto Kitchen for contemporary Japanese, plus Rick Stein, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Brasserie Blanc have outposts here. Good independent cafés include Bridge Street Patisserie, Chococo, Coffee Lab, and café-bar Cabinet Rooms (coffee in the day, cocktails in the evening). Meanwhile pubs are charming, stylish and eclectic - among them The Old Vine, The Black Boy, Wykeham Arms and Hyde Tavern.
The city is also a creative hub. There's Winchester School of Art, assorted galleries and artwork round every corner from individually painted bollards on The Square to local resident Alice Kettle's massive embroidery panel hanging in the Discovery Centre. A former antiques market has recently been reinvented as The Nutshell for exhibitions, workshops and small-scale productions. This is part of the Central Winchester Regeneration project which aims to deliver, piecemeal fashion, "Winchesterness" (yes, there is such a thing and it has its own name).
Facilities for families include a choice of excellent youth theatre companies, Science Centre and Planetarium, plus new multi-million pound sport and leisure centre currently being built at Bar End - convenient for the M3, which skirts the city to the east and south.
Winchester is already a major draw for families due to its excellent schools. It is home to The Pilgrims' School, boys' prep and Cathedral school; St Swithun's, leading girls' day and boarding school; and Winchester College, boys' public school founded in 1382. However, Winchester's state schools also get top marks. At primary level most schools are 'good' says Ofsted with St Bede, St Faith's and St Peter's judged 'outstanding'. At secondary level, Henry Beaufort and Westgate are both 'good' with Kings' considered 'outstanding', ditto Peter Symonds sixth form college. There's also an expanding university with courses from accounting to anthropology.
So, what are the downsides? The living may be easy, but house prices are high, particularly if you want to be within walking distance of the station (London Waterloo in an hour) in the 'villages' of Hyde, Fulflood and St Cross.
Properties from almost all eras are available from wonky timber-framed through Victorian villas to Grand Designs modern. Leafy addresses include St Giles Hill and Sleepers Hill. Chilbolton Avenue is getting a makeover (with some contemporary takes on Georgian townhouses) and Oliver's Battery (in Kings' catchment) is up and coming with lots of families moving in and doing up.
Overall, Winchester is small enough to feel comfortable, but has big ideas, and mixes countryside with culture, history with space age, festivals with family. If residents feel smug (or should that be happy) it is understandable.
- Route for a Hampshire walk near Fritham - A walk from Fritham, home to one of the New Forest's best-loved pubs