The Abbey Gardens in high summer, Winchester, southern England

Philip Mitchell

WINCHESTER, United Kingdom

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The paths winding through these delightful gardens in the centre of Winchester offer an understandably popular stroll throughout the year, but especially so in summer when the Parks and Gardens department excels itself with such colourful and well-planned formal planting. They have a fascinating history.

Listed as a Grade II* building by English Heritage, Abbey House and Gardens occupy the eastern part of the extensive site where St Mary’s Abbey once stood, on the south side of what is now the Broadway in Winchester. Founded around 900 CE as Nunnaminster by King Alfred’s widow Eahlswith, it grew into one of the largest religious houses in England. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries the property passed to the crown, but it was later given to the City of Winchester by a grateful Queen Mary Tudor after her wedding to King Philip II of Spain in the nearby cathedral in July 1554.

By the early 1700s William Pescod, Recorder of Winchester, had built a substantial town house here, and its front entrance was originally on this side, facing the gardens to the south. Benedictine nuns, fleeing the disturbances of the French Revolution, made their home here for a while in the 1790s. In 1873 the new Guildhall was built on the western part of the old Abbey site, and eventually in 1889 the City Council bought the remaining Abbey House and Gardens “for public purposes”. Since then the grounds have been open for all to enjoy, with the house being made available to the incumbent Mayor of Winchester: there are only four other cities that can boast such an official mayoral residence. In 1982/83, extensive refurbishment in the eighteenth century style restored the house to its original splendour, with furnishings and pictures from the City’s collections.

When Keats visited Winchester in 1819, Abbey House would have looked much as now, but the citizens would not have had the gardens to enjoy.

Artwork Comments

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