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Footloose in Winchester

British Town: The Classic Crossroads of History

February 23, 1986|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Rabey and Beyer are husband-and-wife travel writers based in Santa Monica.

WINCHESTER, England — Noting the historic changes of this lovely old Hampshire town is an exercise along the turbulent timeline of Britain's Celtic-Roman-Anglo-Saxon-Norman past, mixing history with legend, romance with reality, heathen invaders and heroes.

Winchester was the capital of Anglo-Saxon England, established by the fabled King Arthur and his Celtic knights after earlier defeats.

But was the Round Table hanging on the wall of the great hall in Winchester Castle really used at gatherings by Sir Galahad, Lancelot and other noble knights? Was the town of Cadbury west of here really Arthur's Camelot? Historians don't agree about sites of the Arthurian legend.

After marveling at the classic beauty of Winchester's renowned cathedral, visit the nearby tombstone of another warrior who died a millennium later from drinking "small beer" on a hot day. A poet warns us with the inscription:

Here sleeps in peace a Hampshire Grenadier

Who caught his death by drinking cold Small Beer.

Soldiers be wise from his untimely fall

And when ye're hot, drink Strong or none at all.

How long/how much? One full day and evening should do it. Accommodations and dining are high moderate in cost.

A few fast facts: The British pound was recently valued at about $1.40. Winchester is a walkers' town, and a good thing. Getting into the city and settled in a hotel can be a chore for drivers, but there are numerous mid-town parking lots where you can stash the wheels for three hours for $1.40.

Crowds could be heavy from March until November as this year is the 900th anniversary of the Domesday Book, compiled here and to be celebrated with a pageant taking you back to a medieval English town of 1086.

Getting settled in: The Royal Hotel (St. Peter Street; $66.50 double) is a 17th-Century Regency home, later a convent, that has been a hotel for 150 years. The old wing has traditional furnishings in bedrooms, a few with four-posters, while the newer section is modern in every respect. Dine in the sunny conservatory of the old wing, looking out on a long garden with a 300-year-old apple tree that still bears fruit. Most comfortable throughout.

Winton Court (47 Southgate Street; $56 with full English breakfast) is a smaller place on a busy street, mid-town as is the Royal, both with parking yards. Dining room here is newly decorated in regal red, fresh flowers on tables, menu typical English fare. Bedrooms upstairs comfortable, but expect a minimum of charm.

Wessex (Paternoster Row; $77) is right beside the cathedral close. It's also the town's best, with great views of the cathedral's length from dining room and bar. As in the other two hotels, Wessex rooms have coffee and tea-making gear at hand, or, as the English say, "self-catering."

Regional food, drink: Hampshire stuffed haddock and other fish and shellfish are plentiful, thanks to the nearby English Channel, and former royal hunting preserves to the east account for a goodly supply of game in season--venison, pheasant and the like. The museum still keeps old wafer irons once used for making Mothering Sunday wafers, now made by wrapping the simple flour, sugar and cream dough around a wooden spoon handle. Hampshire Drops, little sponge cakes sandwiched together with jam, are another traditional sweet hereabouts.

Moderate-cost dining: The Elizabethan (18 Jewry Street) is the most colorful place in town inside and out. Built around 1460, it boasts an inscription over the fireplace: "Nicholas Wallar writ this sign anno 1509." Now owned and run by Tony and Magda Pitkin, the timbered dining rooms are so authentic that you half expect to see Falstaff come wheeling in for a pint of ale and a chat before the fireplace.

There's a three-course dinner of homemade soup, joint-of-the-day or steak-and-kidney pudding, dessert or cheeses for $9. Haunch of venison with puree of black cherries is the same price: pheasant, hare, partridge or mallard for $10.50. Exquisite place.

Just down the street at No. 4 is Mr. Pitkin's, once owned by the above gentleman. Simple pub downstairs, not much fancier in dining room above, but the sole, plaice, venison and steaks are prepared well.

For your pub lunch choose from among the Guildhall Tavern (57 Colebrook in the town guildhall), Baker's Arms or Royal Oak (both a step off the High Street), the last being England's oldest bar. Typical pub fare at all, with the oxtail soup at Guildhall so rich and thick you may down two bowls.

Going first-class: Lainston House (two miles west of town near village of Sparsholt; $91-$119 double) was developed into a stately 17th-Century manor house in the William and Mary style, although other manors had been on the site for centuries. Lainston is thought to have meant "stone house," to set it apart from the simple wattle-and-daub cottages of the village.

Set in 63 acres of manicured parkland, its 28 bedrooms offer every possible comfort. Yet being two miles from town pins you down a bit, and the dining room is anything but inexpensive.

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