King Alfred’s statue stands proprietorially at the gateway to Winchester, a magnet for tourists on the Saxon Heritage Trail. He would be happy to know that Wessex’s ancient capital remains a vibrant community to this day.

An ‘alternative’ tourist guide once noted Winchester’s ‘smugness’, but who could blame it? Winchester makes the UK’s top 10 list for every conceivable ambience and amenity, yet is only 50 minutes from Waterloo and 20 minutes from the Solent and south coast. Locals reckon the Itchen Valley even has its own, favourable microclimate.

‘Winchester is an ideal stepping stone if you’re not completely sure about moving to the country,’ says Kate Oliver, who works in Strutt & Parker’s London head office, but lives in Winchester. ‘It’s all you want from a city: everything in walking distance, no time-consuming school runs, there’s a coffee shop on every corner and green fields five minutes the other way.’

Hampshire Chronicle chief reporter Andrew Napier, who’s covered Winchester for 25 years, adds: ‘Everywhere you turn, there’s history. It also has heritage, with its law courts and now the university a true city feel, but in miniature.’

* Subscribe to Country Life; Get the Ipad edition

Where to buy

Winchester is saturated with medieval timber houses around the High Street, mews on the Minster side and St Cross, and Fulham-esque Victorian properties opposite. However, being picky could mean a long wait-property here sells fast.

In April, a five-bedroom town house in Eastgate, for sale with Knight Frank, was under offer within six days. Fulflood and Hyde are good areas for schools and the station, but more substantial homes are situated in St Cross and pretty Oram’s Arbour.

After 10 years’ bitter opposition, 2,000 houses recently got planning permission at Barton Farm, off the Andover road, the sole remaining green oasis within the city limits. ‘It’s too soon to assess that impact, but Winchester has always grown; it will survive this,’ says Mr Napier.

If you’re looking to buy outside the city, it would be specious to single out individual Hamp-
shire villages; all have chocolatebox charm, although Cheriton is notable for thatch, and Spars-
holt, the Wallops, Crawley, St Mary Bourne and Easton are all popular.

Tom Woods of Knight Frank notes that, when spending £1.4 million or more, buying three miles out can save £200,000 over equivalent accommodation in the town centre.

Schooling

Winchester College, founded in 1382, needs no introduction. For girls, St Swithun’s at Kings Worthy is highly rated. However, says Mr Woods, ‘people are releasing capital by selling up in London, and saving even more by using Winchester’s excellent State schools’. Kings’ School and Westgate pupils are generally a ‘shoo-in’ to Peter Symonds sixth-form college, whose acceptance rate for the 30 most selective universities is 41%-double the national average. Alumni include sailor Sir Ben Ainslie. Sparsholt is a high-achieving agricultural college.

For essentials…

A park-and-ride scheme spares drivers the torment of Winchester’s notorious one-way system. The 95-stall farmer’s market, popular with celebrity chef Rick Stein, takes place every second and last Sunday in Middle Brook (alternating with antiques and art)-produce from the area includes fresh crab. Winchester is extensively pedestrianised and regular street traders include an excellent fruiterer.

…and frivolities

Explore down side streets and hidden alleys for the eclectics. Cadogan (in The Square), a quirky mix of gentlemen’s outfitter and glamorous frocks, made Vogue’s list of the best 100 shops outside London. (Fear not, chaps, Gieves & Haw-kes is just on the corner.) The gunmaker B. E. Chaplin shares Southgate Street with two excellent florists. Parchment Street is great for goldsmiths, horology, contemporary design and delicatessens.

Foodie heaven

The Wykeham Arms at 75, Kingsgate Street has long been a draw and is The Good Pub Guide’s Town Pub of the Year 2013. It’s now rivalled by Michelin-starred The Black Rat at 88, Chesil Street, along with The Black Boy (1, Wharf Hill) and Black Bottle (4, Bridge Street), all run by former Guards officer David Nicholson.

For ambience and superb fare, don’t miss Grade II-listed Chesil Rectory, at 1, Chesil Street, and Lainston House Hotel (in Woodman Lane, Sparsholt). There’s a lively cafe culture around the cathedral (whose own tea room is award-winning), an area that is happily devoid of tourist tat. Customers queue into the street at Ginger Two for Tea (29, St Thomas Street). Baristas still provide newspapers for those who want to dwell over their coffee.

Village gastro-pubs include The Chestnut Horse at Easton, The Fox at Bramdean, The Plough at Sparsholt and The Running Horse at Littleton.

When to be in town

June for the writers’ festival (21-25) and July for music (5-14): both attract artists of world renown. The Hat Fair (July 5-7, named after the coin receptacle, not required headwear) showcases street entertainers. The Guy Fawkes torchlight procession and fireworks display attracts 25,000 visitors every year. At Christmas, there’s an ice-skating rink in the Cathedral’s Inner Close.

Rest and relaxation

You can sail, fish (on the legendary Test), hunt and shoot within 20 minutes of Winchester; novice guns can find help from four-times Olympian Richard Faulds at Owls Lodge Shooting School at Barton Stacey.

The Hampshire Hunt’s country extends down to Winchester and the Hursley Hambledon spans Salisbury to Petersfield-both have stretches of grassland and timber.

The South Downs National Park’s walking routes dip and rise through ancient woodlands and high ridges towards Chaw-ton (home of Jane Austen) and Selborne (Gilbert White). In Winchester itself, there are impressive panoramas from the top of The Westgate, the medieval arch, and St Giles’ Hill. Less demanding walks take in the Itchen-powered, working City Mill (owned by the National Trust) and the Weirs, popular with picnickers.
 

* Follow

Country Life property on

Twitter