Christmas Markets and Day-Trips from London

December 7, 2011 by

Day Trips, Europe, Festivals & Events

The markets at Winchester,

At this time of year the three great cathedral cities of England‘s south east, Canterbury, Chichester and Winchester, all within about 60 miles of London, offer a particularly attractive alternative to the often glacial demeanour of the average shopping mall. They also provide the visitor with the added attraction of getting down with some culture while sidling up to an endless supply of the big retail names plus an abundance of classy independents.

Christmas Markets

Each city and its cathedral has an individual, intrinsic, human dimension which is a part of its very fabric and is rooted in the history of welcoming visitors going back over centuries.  Market trading became a part of European life in the middle ages when freed serfs took to the road to sell their produce, and the tradition continues with the festive season particularly providing an enchanting scene with a true international mix. All of these cities are opening Christmas Markets.

Canterbury

Thomas Beckett, the “turbulent priest” who so incensed King Henry II, was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral 29th December 1170. Within 2 years he was canonised and so started the steady flow of pilgrims to the tomb of St Thomas which quickly became one of Europe’s most important religious sites. Today Canterbury is the home of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

The great nave at Canterbury Cathedral

To visit the cathedral is essential. There is a monstrous majesty to the nave. Intimidating but engrossing. Religous belief at its most self-confident. It is one of the largest of its style anywhere and is the apogee of Norman and Gothic architecture.

The walls are awash with memories of Britain’s imperial past. One plaque poignantly remembers some 300 soldiers dead in the mid-19th century at a place that “is a corner of a foreign field which is forever –England”.  150 years ago that field was in Afghanistan and it is a moving and thought-provoking  tribute.

The pilgrims to Canterbury and their escapades en route from Southwark in London inspired Geoffrey Chaucer’s exuberant, satirical and bawdy Canterbury Tales which today form a vital foundation to the history of English Literature and have helped make Canterbury what it is today. An elegant, cultured city of narrow streets, timbered buildings, it is a lively 21st century destination.

The new uncompromisingly modernist Marlowe Theatre opened in October 2011 makes a bold 21st century statement in this medieval town and sends out a great cultural message to residents and visitors alike.

My tip for a well priced imaginative meal or snack in what appears to be a student haunt in this university city is Canteen Fresh on Sun Street. From the window of the loo there is a great view of the Cathedral’s Norman towers!

The Christmas Market can be found in Whitefriars Square until 24 December.

Chichester

Lying close to the sea, Chichester was once a vital Roman city en route to London. At nearby Fishbourne, some of Britain’s finest Roman mosaics can be seen. In more recent times the city has been at the epicentre of Reformation England, and to get a keen impression of this uncertain time one needs to make a short journey to “Catholic” Arundel.

The city centre is built around the  15th century Market Cross, precisely on a Roman cruciform to the four points of the compass. Which is not particularly helpful unless you happen to be carrying a compass, as the smaller streets are as labyrinthine as in any medieval city. But look out for The Pallant House Gallery, devoted mainly to modern art, as it is one of Britain’s finest smaller galleries

Daniel Defoe made a slightly disparaging comment about the size of this elegant city’s cathedral congregation but this has not shaken anyone’s confidence in pursuing  imaginative creative concepts. It has engaged the interest of diverse musical tastes from Leonard Bernstein to Pink Floyd,  the latter getting together for a farewell performance at the funeral of their former manager Steve O’Rourke. Gustave Holst’s ashes are interred here.

The Arundel Tomb that inspired Larkin to write his poem to an enduring love deserves respect!

Creatively, the Cathedral is particularly associated with the integration of modern art into a traditional cathedral environment thanks to a past Dean, Walter Hussey. Tapestry, sculptures and paintings are among the exciting and vibrant recent contributions. Marc Chagall’s vivid glass is a stunning modern interpretation of an ancient art. But Graham Sutherland’s 1960 painting of Christ and Mary Magdalene, Noli me Tangere (Don’t Touch Me), seems the most provocative and sensual for such a setting.

The Christmas Market will be at North Street and East Street from 5-13 December.

You can also find Park Tavern at 11 Priory Road. It is an excellent welcoming pub in a lovely location, minutes from the Cathedral and with very good home made pies!

Winchester

Jane Austen is buried at Winchester

Once the capital city of England and in some people’s folklore believed to be the site of Camelot, Winchester has everything going for it both factually and fancifully. The legendary Round Table of King Arthur is here, although it is now well known to have been created in the 13th century and re-painted for Henry VIII some 200 years later. Henry wasn’t shy and had his image placed at the focal point of the refurbished work.

Alfred the Great is immortalised in bronze in the town centre. He was the man who virtually created the Kingdom of England in between fighting Danes and burning pastries. Clustered close to the Cathedral is the historic Winchester College dating from the 14th Century and its junior neighbour, The Pilgrim’s School, which is a world-renowned cathedral choir school.

Going inside the cathedral one does draw breath at seeing the longest nave of its kind anywhere. It is awesome!  Within this magnificence is so much to take in, such as the 12th font and the very importantly and unmissable 13th century illuminated Winchester Bible. Imagine being the lone monk who was awoken one morning to learn that he had been chosen to write in Latin the entire bible, by hand, with a four year deadline. Luckily he had artists assisting with the illumination in gold and lapis lazuli, which is as intense today as it was 800 years ago.

Quite unexpectedly the ubiquitous work of sculptor Antony Gormley pops up in the crypt. Stealthily and almost spectrally the figure stands, and sometimes moves (possibly), evidently reading in a thoroughly contemplative, monastic mood.

Sedately among all this greatness lies one of the English language’s finest novelists, Jane Austen. Here she is buried beneath a simply inscribed marble slab, and this is clearly a place of pilgrimage for her legions of followers. She is truly a woman of Hampshire having spent the last years of her life at Chawton where she wrote and saw published Emma, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility.

There can be no city quite so earnestly English.

“The English Capital of Christmas Markets” is how Winchester describes itself at this time of year.
Find them within the cathedral precinct from Nov. 19-Dec. 22.

Get some exquisitely prepared coffee, tea and pastries at Ginger Two Cafe, 29 St Thomas St.

Whatever your beliefs you will receive a warm welcome in all these great cathedral cities, and if the shopping bags are getting heavy drop into one of those marvelous buildings and have a good think – maybe about Sense and Sensibility.

– Martin Mitchell

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