Winchester was originally an iron age oppidum, a fortified town, centred on the grassy park called Oram’s Arbour. Following the Roman invasion, the settlement was developed into Venta Belgarum, which meant The Venta of the Belgae. Venta came from a native British word meaning ‘market’ and the Belgae were the tribes who had crossed the channel from Gaul. Venta Belgarum was the tribal capital – set up as part of Roman policy towards subjugated tribes. After the decline of the Roman empire, Venta Belgarum slowly became the Old English Wintan-ceastre (“Fort Venta”).
The history of Winchester as the market town of a subjugated people has a rather bittersweet irony. It is still a market town, with regular stalls and a weekly market in the pedestrianised high street. This is a popular location for buskers too, who position themselves politely along the length of the street. Their presence lends a further medieval flavour to the bustle of the market amidst the old buildings.
The Gothic cathedral hunkers down in its grounds like some huge steampunk vehicle. It looks as if at any moment it might drive off, enveloped in steam.
There is much to like about Winchester. It is one of the most desirable places to live in the country. But I found it smug and self-satisfied. The pubs, in particular, are the haunts of loud-mouthed bores.
The madness of cars is very clear here too. They stream down the medieval street of North Walls. The pavement is tiny and it is a wonder that there are not more fatalities. There was much local resistance to the building of the motorway, but money and power always overcome these objections. Now the M3 snakes its way around St Catherine’s Hill and through the Itchen valley. The noise of it ruins the pleasure of being there.
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