MICHELLE TOMPKINS spends a weekend immersed in Winchester’s Tudor times

AS WE wander through the walled garden at Winchester’s Hospital of St Cross, the twang of a bow string pierces the gentle silence, followed quickly by the thud of an arrow hitting its target.

Turning, I see a striking young woman – resplendent in her velvet gown, feathers in her cap – pouting petulantly at her failure to master her aim and hit the bullseye.

Her entourage (and there are many of them watching on) applaud politely nonetheless. This is the Lady Anne, after all, who has recently caught the King’s eye. And we all know what happens when you get on the wrong side of Henry....

When I say I saw all this I mean I saw it in my mind’s eye, by which I actually mean I remembered it from the telly. You see, the gardens at The Hospital of St Cross were used for some of the filming, notably the archery scenes, in the recent BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning novel Wolf Hall.

And when I say it was Anne Boleyn I saw, I actually mean it was actress Claire Foy brilliantly portraying that most memorable of historical figures; mistress, wife and later enemy of Damien Lewis’s Henry VIII and one-time collaborator with Mark Rylance’s Cromwell.

Winchester’s Tudor history has always been there, of course (well, since the late 1400s anyway) but has come back into the spotlight of late thanks to the filming of the six-part drama. Last month, Visit Winchester revamped the city’s Tudor trail in response to increased enquiries about the series. Now visitors wanting a deeper insight into the Wolf Hall sites can take a Winchester Official Tourist Guide Tudor walking trail, which links the city’s landmarks with the filming locations With his flowing locks and trimmed beard, Mike, our personal guide for the day, looked every inch the Tudor gentleman himself. When, later in the tour, he revealed himself as an actor who once played Thomas Wriothesley in a re-enactment inside Winchester Cathedral we didn’t bat an eyelid – this was a man who seemed born to wear theatrical doublet and hose.

His knowledge of the city’s history knew no bounds either, and it was a tough task to restrict himself to just the relevant Tudor parts. “How can we walk past Jane Austen’s house without stopping?” he asked, before regaling us with the story of her tragically early death in a house on College Street and her subsequent burial in the cathedral.

Not that the Tudor links weren’t plentiful. The Wolf Hall filming took place at three main locations – the cathedral itself, which was used to depict Chapuys House and St George’s Chapel; The Great Hall, which became Westminster Hall for the trial of Sir Thomas More; and the previously-mentioned Grade I buildings at The Hospital of St Cross, which were used for scenes at Hampton Court, Windsor Castle and Grays Inn, no less.

But the true Tudor tales extend far beyond the Wolf Hall storylines. Henry VIII’s daughter with Catherine of Aragon – ‘the B*stard Mary’, as dubbed by Anne Boleyn – was married at Winchester Cathedral to Philip II of Spain in 1554 in a ceremony of great pomp and circumstance. Shortly before the ceremony, the two met for the very first time at the city’s Wolvesey Castle, where one of Philip’s courtiers described Mary as “old, badly dressed and almost toothless”. Charming.

Winchester also saw its fair share of executions under Henry VIII’s reign and had its own gallows. There is still a list of the people executed inside the Jolly Farmer pub on the outskirts of town.

But most interesting of all, for me anyway, was the Great Hall, a fortress built in 1222 and now one of the finest surviving medieval halls in the country. In 1603, the year of Elizabeth I’s death, England’s courts moved here from Westminster to escape the plague blighting London. Later, Sir Walter Raleigh – one-time favourite of the Queen – was tried here and found guilty of plotting with Spain.

According to legend, the giant Round Table which hangs on the wall is the table around which King Arthur and his Knights met in Camelot. In fact, it has been dated to around 1290, and we now know that in the early years of King Henry VIII’s reign the table was ordered to be painted with the Tudor Rose at its centre and a indulgent portrait depicting Henry as King Arthur at its apex, surrounded by 24 places for his knights. Propaganda at its very finest.

It is impossible to see all of Winchester’s history in 24 hours and at the end of a fact-filled day we checked into the Mercure Winchester Wessex hotel.

It’s hard to imagine a better placed hotel for seeing the city’s highlights, slap bang next door to the cathedral and in the middle of the impressive shops and bars. Our enormous super king-sized bed beckoned, but instead it was a quick shower and then out for dinner at nearby No5 Bridge Street.

This swanky bar and restaurant seems to be the in-place to go on a Saturday night and was buzzing with people in the front bar. The open kitchen means it’s not much quieter in the restaurant, with the sizzle and scrape of the chefs in the background of any conversation, but we enjoyed the vibrant atmosphere.

We dined like kings, of course, on steak for my partner and a whole sea bream for me, although stopped short of ripping it apart with our hands, Tudor-style. Dessert was a chocolate delice to share, with the most fantastic coffee ice cream to cut through its richness.

The next morning we were woken by the sound of the bells in the cathedral tower outside our room. In my drowsy state before full wakefulness, I was Anne Boleyn and he Henry, finally being called to our wedding after our tumultuous romance.

Thankfully it was only a dream, or should I say nightmare? We all know how that ended... gulp.

Travel facts

  •  Michelle Tompkins was a guest of Visit Winchester.
     Find out more about visits to the city at http://www.visitwinchester.co.uk/
    or follow @King_Alf on Twittter
  • No5 Bridge Street (right) can be found at – not surprisingly – No 5 Bridge Street, Winchester. See http://www.visitwinchester.co.uk/
    no-5-bridge-street-0 for more details, or call 01962 863838.
  • The Mercure Winchester Wessex hotel (left) can be found at Paternoster Row, Winchester SO23 9LQ.
    Go to http://www.mercure.com/gb/
    or call 01962 312800.
    Room rates start from £79.