Reading is situated on two small eminences, whose gentle declivities fall into a pleasant vale, through which the branches of the Kennet flow till they unite with the Thames at the extremity of the town.
This old capital of the British Belgoe, county town of Hampshire, a bishop’s see, and parliamentary borough (two members); stands among round chalk hills, sloping down to the Itchen, on the South Western Railway, 63½ miles from London, and 12¼ from Southampton. The ancient Britons styled it Gwent, a white; which the Romans, who made it one of their head quarters, altered to Venta Belgarium, and the West Saxons, after them, to Wintancestre. Many of the later Saxon kings and their successors down to Henry VIII, occasionally made Winchester a place of residence. The Winchester bushel, the standard of dry-measure, and Henry I.‘s standard yard, are to be seen at the Town Hall in High-street, a modem building.
The County Hall is close to the gate of a castle built by William the Conqueror, and was itself once the castle chapel. The hall is 110 feet long, and contains a curious relic, called Arthur’s Round Table, 13 feet in diameter, on which are portraits of this king of romance and his peerless knights. King Arthur, if he ever existed, was a British, and not Saxon sovereign. At Caer Gwent, now Caerlea, in Monmouthshire, there is an amphitheatre called after him; but from the likeness of names, his memory has taken root here; so much so that Henry VII.‘s eldest son received his name, Arthur, from Winchester being the place of his birth, 1486. The table just mentioned, though restored, is as ancient as the time of King Stephen. Egbert of Wessex was here crowned by the Wittenagemote, Bretwalda, or King of all Angle-land, or England, as it was thenceforth called. Canute made Winchester the capital of England. The body of Rufus was brought hither by a charcoal-burner, after his death from Tyrrel’s arrow in the New Forest. Richard I. was crowned here on his return from Austria, Even as late as the 17th century it was a favourite resort of Charles II., who began a palace of red brick, now used as a barracks, on the Castle Hill, near the County Hall.
Winchester is nearly square, like all Roman towns, and has a main street – High-street, intersected by several narrower streets. In the middle of High-street is the Butter Cross, a beautiful piece of open arches and pinnacled work, in three stories, 45 feet high, of the time of Henry VI. Great inconvenience having been experienced by the citizens in having to purchase their necessaries at different localities, a splendid new Market House, affording accommodation for the sale and purchase of all domestic essentials, was opened in October, 1857. The Corn Exchange was built in 1839, a plain substantial structure.
A little way from this is the Cathedral, more remarkable for its antiquity and length (518 feet) than for its appearance. The west front, however, and the front view of the entrance are imposing. The old parts (except the Saxon crypt), are Bishop Walkelin’s Norman transepts and tower – a low, solid pile 140 feet in height. Domesday Book was kept in the north aisle till a place was found for it at Westminster. In the Lady Chapel, at the east end, Queen Mary was married to Philip of Spain, in 1554. The Gothic nave was built by Bishop Edindon and the famous William of Wykeham, whose statue is placed over the great window. Edindon refused the see of Canterbury, saying, “that though Canterbury was the higher rack, Winchester was the better manger.’ It is still the richest benefice, after London, being worth £10,500. The beautiful screen carved roof, and the choir, is the work of Bishop Fox, the founder of the Corpus Christi College, Oxford. The bones of a dozen Saxon kings were collected by him and placed in this part of the church; but, in the troubles of the civil war, they were dispersed, though several boxes were labelled with their names. There are some monumental chapels and effigies – such as William of Wykeham, Cardinal Beaufort, Bishop Fox, William Rufus, Bishop Hoadley, Izaak Walton, James Wharton, the poet, &c. One of the first organs made in England was placed here by Bishop Elfey, in the year 951; it was a ponderous thing containing 400 pipes, blown by 24 pair of bellows. In the close are remains of the cloisters of St. Swithin’s priory, and of Wolvesley Castle, which was a seat of the bishops, built by King Stephen’s brother, de Blois. The palace was built by Wren.
William of Wykeham’s College, was founded in 1339, and is an ancient Gothic pile, with additions made in the last century. The chapel, hall, and cloisters are beautiful. The scholars here are regularly transferred to New College, Oxford, which, was also founded by this munificent prelate. More than forty bishops have been educated here.
There is a model prison near the Cemetery. St. John the Baptist’s Hospital is a very ancient foundation a part of which is now used as an assembly room. The church of St. John is very old, St. Swithin’s is over King’s Gate postern. There are eleven altogether, formerly they were ninety, of which twenty were burnt in the war of succession between King Stephen and the Empress Maud, and more were destroyed when Cromwell took the city in 1645. West Gate is the only gate remaining in the old walls. The late Dr. Lingard, the Roman Catholic historian, was born here, 1769. Hong Kong was the Chinese seat of the late Mr. Andrews, the great carriage builder at Southampton, and here Kossuth the Hungarian leader was fêted in 1851.
On the road to this town, about three quarters of a mile from Winchester, is the ancient church of St. Cross begun by Bishop Blois in the Norman style, and finished by Wykeham and Cardinal Beaufort, the latter especially, who rebuilt most part of the hospital which is attached. The mastership held by Lord North has gradually dropped into a lucrative sinecure, to the injury of the foundation, but this abuse is now under inquiry. A piece of dry bread and a (dirty) cup of (thin) beer are still given to any wayfarer who asks for refreshments in terms of the founder’s desire. It is a striking instance of the tenacity with which the form of old customs is kept up in England, though the spirit of simple hospitality which the founder inculcated has entirely disappeared.
On St. Catherine’s Hill are traces of a camp; most of the highways from the city are in the direction of the old Roman roads. Among the seats around are the following:– Twyford, down the Itchen, belongs to J. Dampier, Esq. Here was a Roman Catholic School, in which Pope was educated. At Compton is an old church. Hursley, the seat of Sir W. Heathcote, Bart., belonged to Richard Cromwell, who succeeded his father as Protector. When the old house was pulled down in 1746, the great seal of the Commonwealth was found. Worthy Park, up the Itchen, the seat of Mr. Turner, near Headbourne Worthy. The learned Bingham was rector here. Avington was a seat of the Duke of Buckingham. Old Alresford Home, Lord Rodney. The late primate Howley was born at Alresford. Swarraton Grange, Lord Ashburton. Tichboume, Sir E. Doughty, Bart, descended from the Titchbournes who were seated here from the time of Henry II.
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Remains of the church, chapter-house, refectory, &c., exist, all picturesquely wound with ivy or overshadowed with ash and other trees.
Portsmouth, the first naval port in the British Islands, 75 miles, from London by the South Western Line or 95 by way of the Brighton and South Coast Line.