WHO WENT Becky Carter, 34, who is 29 weeks pregnant and her partner Matt, 37
WHERE WE WENT The original Hotel du Vin in the heart of the ancient city of Winchester
Being a non-driver myself, while Matt is in the car for his job far too much for his liking, we decided to let the train take the strain on this occasion. With teas and newspapers in hand, the journey took a little under an hour from London Waterloo, and we arrived feeling relaxed and rearing to go. However, one look at the steep hill leading down to the heart of this once great Anglo Saxon metropolis (it was the capital of Wessex and the former seat of King Alfred the Great) and we decided to hop in a cab to the hotel. I might be only 29 weeks pregnant, but my bump feels ginormous. I had visions of me rolling down, but less like Jack and Jill, more like Humpty Dumpty!
Pulling up outside Hotel du Vin, we were immediately struck by the stunning Georgian architecture of the Queen Anne-style property. But then again, practically every building in Winchester is an architectural gem, as we were soon to discover. But before any exploring we needed to check in and off load our bags, a task which the smiling receptionist was more than happy to assist us with. The hotel’s interior is undoubtedly opulent, but what makes it so instantly appealing is that it’s also completely devoid of pretension. As a result you immediately feel at ease amid the ornate mirrors, sumptuous furnishings and Farrow & Ball palette. Indeed, the hotel might be part of a chain, but through clever design choices and a sympathetic eye, it’s managed to retain its own unique charm and character. This was also evidenced in our gorgeous room off of the walled garden, which comes complete with a private patio (a tad too chilly for our visit). But as tempting as it was to lie down on the huge bed with its handsprung mattress and take in our luxurious surroundings, we had a schedule that we were determined to adhere to.
Keen to make the most of our visit, we had booked a private tour, and sure enough, waiting in reception upon our return was our lovely guide, Christina, a retired school teacher and keen history buff whose local knowledge would hold us in excellent stead over the next few hours. Walking at a leisurely pace (we had forewarned her of my burgeoning bump and had been assured that the tour would be suitable), she initially familiarized us with the once walled city (in reality the size of a small town), pointing out the two remaining medieval gates, the City Cross and higgledy-piggledy mixture of buildings, spanning hundreds of years, with their cobbled courtyards and narrow, winding pathways that must surely have been inspiration for Harry Potter's Diagon Alley. On our visit, the Great Hall, which houses the legendary Arthurian Round Table, was off limits due to filming, so we made our way to the cathedral, a spectacular architectural feat that’s nearly 1,000 years old and oozes fascinating historical facts and anecdotes at every twist and turn. Perhaps Matt and my favourite, however, is the story of the huge stained glass West Window, which was smashed to smithereens by Oliver Cromwell and his Roundheads, only for devout locals to save all the broken shards of glass, enabling it to be reassembled as a beautiful mosaic once the civil war was over. A quick show of respect at Jane Austin’s tomb on our way out of the cathedral, we then took in the fabulous grounds, before viewing the famed public school, the bishop’s residence and finally, after crossing the River Itchen, the huge bronze statue of King Alfred that dominates the city centre (which more than adequately caters for those visiting for the shopping rather than the sightseeing, with the usual high street staples jostling alongside a healthy number of eclectic independents).
All that walking certainly honed our appetites, so it was just as well that we’d booked a table for lunch at the River Cottage Canteen, the latest addition to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s expanding empire. Housed in the grade II listed Abbey Mill building in the beautiful Abbey Mill Gardens, the restaurant epitomizes its owner’s ethos of being relaxed and informal, but deadly serious about serving quality, sustainable food. Suffice to say our lunch of mackerel with cous cous and fish stew were both superb. That evening, after a lovely siesta and another wander through town, which looked even more enchanting in the setting sunlight, we sat down for dinner in the hotel’s famed Bistro du Vin. The French fare we sampled (onion soup and rack of lamb for me, scallops and rib eye for Matt) was an absolute feast, and one we struggled but just managed to finish. We went off to bed, happy and replete, vowing to only have fresh fruit for breakfast the following morning. After a glorious night’s sleep, however, our appetites had miraculously returned so a full English seemed in order, and jolly nice it was, too.
A night’s stay at the Hotel du Vin, Winchester, with dinner and breakfast, starts from £221. To book call 08447489267 or visit hotelduvin.com. For more info on the River Cottage Canteen visit rivercottage.net. To arrange a private guided tour of the city visit visitwinchester.co.uk