My commute to and from my last office took almost an hour and a half, each way, and I was only going from one end of London to the other. I used to tell people that it wasn’t so bad, but now that my commute is shorter (just under an hour), I can confidently say, it was that bad. And now that I think of it, in that time you can get a lot further, and to a lot more interesting places from London if you play your cards right. We’ve already covered the well-worn day trip routes from London like Brighton, Oxford and Cambridge, so on an unusual plan-free weekend, we decided to get a little more creative and somehow ended up in Winchester for the day.
I didn’t think that this quaint, posh little town would be high on the tourist radar but it’s actually got a lot going for it if you’re content with quiet riverside walks, interested in Jane Austen history, and easily smitten by the grandeur of a classic cathedral. We noticed that many busloads of tourists were, and as it transpires… so was I. Particularly when it comes with sunshine, one of England’s most well traded farmers’ markets, and the lure of good food! Some of our most memorable meals have been found in restaurants outside of London, where their neighbours are their suppliers, and they champion this local produce… we were hoping this day out in Winchester would bring more of the same!
Breakfast at Forte Kitchen
It’s worth getting an early train from London so you can have breakfast at Forte Kitchen. This light and airy café found at the top of a narrow staircase, in a skinny little building at the end of a side street, had me smitten at first sight. It reminded me of Wellington cafés we used to whittle away our weekend mornings in; hot chocolates or cups of tea in one hand, while digging into platefuls of pancakes or corn fritters with the other, and the morning paper split between us. We recreated this scene with hot chocolates almost as good as the ones from home, pancakes which were even better, and baked eggs in beans which were hot and hearty.
The dining room was full to the brim with families, couples, and friends at breakfast time, but I suspect they do a steady trade throughout the day as the lunch and dinner menus were rather appealing too. It’s fantastic to see an independent café get so much support from the local community – the people of Winchester clearly know a good thing when they taste it! Speaking of which… after breakfast, take the short walk down to High Street and wander through the Winchester Farmers’ Market. If we had the means, we would have probably taken home a couple of pork pies, some cured salmon, buffalo steaks, and half a kilo of heritage carrots… but alas, a certain someone sensibly pulled me away and reminded me that we still had lunch and dinner ahead!
Lunch at The Black Rat
From High Street we found our way to the ruins of Wolvesey Castle, once a grand home to the Bishops of Winchester, and then strolled along the riverside which conveniently led us to our lunch spot, The Black Rat. What drew us to this Michelin starred restaurant (and actually Winchester in general) was their ethos of using wild and forgotten ingredients; they source their produce locally, they even grow their own or forage for it. Their slightly higgeldy, piggeldy collection of interconnected dining rooms was the perfect extension of this wild and wonderful style and the atmosphere was superbly relaxed. If gin is your thing, then an aperitif from their extensive selection is a must, but otherwise, do as we did and settle for something sparkling… lunch is just as worthy of a toast as afternoon tea or dinner.
We dined on three courses ranging from game terrines to ballotines of rabbit to mugworth parfaits. Some of the ingredients, like the rabbit, weren’t exactly forgotten by us, but others, such as the mugworth, we definitely had to look up. While we weren’t floored by the unusualness of the ingredients, I actually liked how effortlessly they graced the plate – as with other restaurants championing the lesser loved, I think the secret is to make these ingredients approachable and mainstream again to encourage more restaurants to use them. We may have winced at calling it Michelin-quality at lunch time, but for the tastiness of the food and the incredible value for money, it was worth the visit! From here we wandered back into the heart of the city and explored Winchester Cathedral, arguably the highlight of the city, and burnt off some calories before dinner!
Dinner at Chesil Rectory
From one beautiful dining room to another, the charming 600 year old grade II listed Medieval house which is now Chesil Rectory sure gave The Black Rat a run for its historical money. I was sceptical of its claim of being listed, once upon a time, by some national rag as the most romantic restaurant in the country, until I stepped into its dimly lit interior, ventured within its warren of rooms, and ducked under some of their old doorways and wooden beam ceilings. Couples could occupy cosy date night corners, while groups of friends could relax as if they were settling in for a dinner party at home, just minus the cooking or cleaning up. It’s that kind of place. The restaurant oozes warmth, and the food oozes comfort.
Even the canapes were generous, comforting mouthfuls; had we known we might have passed on the starters. Or maybe just shared, because my Isle of Wight tomatoes with bocconcini filled me with a sense of joy with each bite, but the plasticky prawns which a certain someone faced were rather dismal. The mains of middle white pork loin and duck were both well cooked and served alongside small mountains of vegetables and, to my delight, plenty of sauce – my only qualm about the food was that they were a touch heavy handed with the salt pot. That said, those after familiar, crowd-pleasing combinations will undoubtedly love this restaurant and I can assure you that no tweezers were used in the plating of these unapologetically unfussy dishes!
So Make A Move…
- Trains from London Waterloo take just over an hour and cost around £35 when booked in advance.
- Winchester Farmers’ Market is the largest in the UK with 95 stalls, and takes place on the second and final Sunday of each month.
- Winchester Cathedral is open everyday, admission is £8 for adults which gives you access to the Cathedral, Treasury and crypt.
- Forte Kitchen, 78 Parchment St, Winchester SO23 8AT
- The Black Rat, 88 Chesil St, Winchester SO23 0HX
- Chesil Rectory, 1 Chesil St, Winchester SO23 0HU