Winchester in the spotlight: the city where Jane Austen died 200 years ago

PD Smith
Winchester Cathedral, where Jane Austen was buried. Photograph: Chris Caldicott/Getty Images/Perspectives

Two hundred years ago on 18 July, one of the world’s most famous authors died in the Hampshire cathedral city of Winchester. Jane Austen was just 41 in 1817 and had been suffering from what is now known as Addison’s disease, a rare disorder of the adrenal glands. Austen had moved to Winchester for medical treatment, leaving her home in Chawton 17 miles away (now an Austen museum), where she wrote novels including Pride and Prejudice.

When she was buried in the north aisle of Winchester Cathedral, the inscription on her tomb made no mention of her novels, perhaps because they were published anonymously. A brass plate was later added which noted rather blandly that she was “known to many by her writings”.

It’s no surprise that today the city of Winchester and indeed the entire county are celebrating Austen’s life and work. Countless readings, events and exhibitions will take place including The Mysterious Miss Austen and Jane’s Winchester: Malady and Medicine, as well as a county-wide sculpture trail, Sitting with Jane, featuring artist-designed benches shaped like an open book, one of which faces the cathedral.

A Jane Austen-inspired bench outside Winchester Cathedral, part of the ‘Sitting with Jane’ art trail. Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA

Literary city

Winchester lies on the western edge of the South Downs National Park. With its historic buildings and tranquil water meadows, the city has always been popular with writers. John Keats stayed in Winchester from August to October 1819 where he wrote Ode to Autumn, and today visitors can follow the poet’s regular walk along the beautiful River Itchen to the nearby Hospital of St Cross, a Norman alms house founded in 1136. Another walk takes you up St Giles Hill with its panoramic views over the city to the Victorian prison where Thomas Hardy’s heroine, Tess, met her terrible fate.

When Sherlock Holmes visited in the 1892 story The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, it took two hours to travel by train from London. Now (engineering works permitting) it takes an hour – one reason for the city’s popularity with families forced out of London due to ever-rising house prices. (Full disclosure: I’m one of these escapees from the Big Smoke.) Unfortunately, this means house prices in Winchester have also risen astronomically, pricing out many locals.

The city in numbers …

39,000 people live in the town of Winchester.

5.6 million visitors flock to the city each year.

556 ft – the length of the cathedral, which is the longest in Europe.

£350,000 – the value of the Winchester Hoard, an exquisite collection of Iron Age jewellery made of exceptionally pure gold, discovered by amateur metal detectorist Kevan Halls in a field near Winchester in 2000.

40 days of rain – the myth of St Swithun’s day that the weather on the 15 July will stay the same for the next five weeks, originated in Winchester. St Swithun, the Anglo-Saxon bishop born around AD 800, asked to be buried outside so that “the feet of ordinary men could pass over him”. But when his bones were moved into the Old Minster on his feast day on 15 July 971, a violent storm broke over the city that lasted for 40 days and nights.

… and pictures

History in 100 words

Surrounded by gentle chalk hills bearing the remains of prehistoric settlements, Winchester was named Venta Belgarum by the Romans who turned it into the fifth-largest town in the country. King Alfred later made Winchester the capital of England; and the city was so significant that William the Conqueror was crowned in both London and Winchester. Its medieval Great Hall is even home to what is reputed to be (but probably isn’t) King Arthur’s Round Table. Founded by William of Wykeham in 1382, Winchester College is one of the oldest public schools in England. Old Wykehamists, as they are known, range from the 17th-century polymath Sir Thomas Browne to banker Rurik Jutting, who made headlines in 2014 after murdering two women in Hong Kong.

Winchester in sound and vision

Filmmakers love Winchester’s historic buildings and largely unspoiled streets. The BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall was filmed in the Hospital of St Cross, the Great Hall and Winchester Cathedral. In 2016, the picturesque Canon Street was turned into a second world war bomb site for the hit Netflix series The Crown. In the same year, the BBC production of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall was filmed in and around Winchester College.

And of course, Colin Firth, who went to school in Winchester, famously played Mr Darcy in the BBC’s 1995 adaption of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

Moving away from the screen, since 2009 the urban-themed music and arts festival Boomtown Fair has taken place close to Winchester, attracting as many people that live in the city itself.

What’s everyone talking about?

One of the biggest controversies in recent years has been the redevelopment of a large area in the centre known as Silver Hill. It was described by the Conservative-run council as “rundown and ugly”, and while most people agree that the area could be improved, that’s where the consensus ends. Permission was granted in 2009 for a £150m project to build 200 homes, shops, public spaces and a new bus station. But in 2015 the High Court ruled the council acted unlawfully in allowing the developer to change the agreed plans, and the following year the council scrapped the entire project. Years of planning and consultations went down the drain at a cost of more than £12m.

An urban design consultant has since been hired to find out what kind of city residents want. One of the most exciting proposals came recently in an open letter to a newspaper calling for a development that celebrates Winchester’s history, rather than soul-destroying, generic shopping malls.

What’s next?

More development: the council has purchased ground on the outskirts of the city for a new leisure centre with a 50-metre swimming pool, a 12-court sports hall and more for an eye-watering £35m.

As if this were not enough building work in a city, there are also plans to redevelop the area around the train station to provide new homes and office space. The £150m plan got off to a rocky start, however, when the first design competition was abruptly scrapped last year. There’s now a competition from RIBA and five architectural practices are due to be shortlisted soon.

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For local news head to the Hampshire Chronicle, reporting on the city since 1772, or independent radio station Heart. If you’re planning a trip to Winchester start at the city’s tourist website Visit Winchester, or follow @King_Alf on Twitter.

  • PD Smith’s most recent book, City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age, is published by Bloomsbury

Do you live in Winchester? What key facts and figures have we missed?

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