A good old time in Winchester

In the 1990s, Frederick Allgood was the 790th mayor of Winchester, England. Allgood, now 74, is a native of Hertfordshire, England, who has lived in Winchester for just over three decades.

Q. Winchester is one of the most famous towns in southern England – isn't it also one of the oldest?

It was a big Roman settlement, and a Celtic town before that. The Romans called it Venta Belgarum; it was an important town for them as it was about 10 miles from Southampton, which was the Roman port. Winchester really came into prominence about the time of (9th-century) King Alfred the Great, when it became the capital of England.

Q. Is your house and neighborhood quite old?

I live in a fairly modern suburb – my house is about 40 years old, that's all – about 15 miles from the city center.

Q. Given Winchester's antiquity, do ancient artifacts still turn up?

All the time. Whenever a new development takes place, the city council insists on an archaeological exploration. Only a few years ago, we developed a part of the city center for a new shopping center and discovered some quite interesting artifacts dating to Roman times. When a new building project is planned, it's placed on hold for six months so our archaeologists have a good chance to see if there's anything valuable underneath.

Q. What does the skyline look like?

It's low because we've tried to protect views of Winchester Cathedral, which is the gem of the city. It's in the heart of the city; there are no high-rise buildings nearby.

Q. I'd imagine that over the years, you've taken many people on show-and-tell tours of your city. Where do you go?

When I was mayor, I received many visitors, especially Americans. I'd entertain them first by showing some of the civic silver we have; they're always interested in a piece made by Paul Revere's silver company; he was quite well-known in America for his work.

But the main place I take people is the cathedral because many want to see the grave of Jane Austen, the famous writer from our area. It's usually at the top of their list. If they're fishermen, they want to see the grave of Izaac Walton, who wrote the famous “The Compleat Angler.”

Also there is the Winchester Bible, considered one of the most celebrated in the world. It's a beautifully illustrated book that goes back 500 to 600 years. It's all hand-written in beautiful script, and each page is well-illustrated. One page is missing, unfortunately, but it's otherwise complete.

Q. How old is the cathedral?

The current cathedral is just over 800 years old. The one it replaced went back to about the year 600. The old one became too small and started falling down.

Q. What's your favorite place there?

I like the crypt, which is underground. It's very quiet and peaceful. It's got some nice sculpture there.

The most amazing thing to me is the fact that just over 100 years ago, the cathedral was sinking! In order to prevent it from collapsing, a man called William Walker went underground to lay bags of cement to prop it up. He was a diver, and he spent six years underwater – five days a week, 50 weeks a year, propping up the cathedral.

Q. The cathedral was built on water?

It was built right by a stream. It used to be an abbey of nuns and monks. They had no refrigeration, so they kept their food and wine cool by keeping it underwater. That's why they built the cathedral there. They didn't think it would come close to falling down.

Q. Where else do you take people?

Another place is the Great Hall. They had a large castle in Winchester that gradually fell apart. One portion still remaining is the Great Hall, which goes back to the 1300s. It contains a large table called King Arthur's Round Table. It's a popular exhibit.

Q. You were the mayor – did you get to actually sit at it?

No, they keep it on a wall. They bring it down every 25 years or so. It's due to come down next year.

Another thing about the Great Hall is that the low courts used to there. The trial of Sir Walter Raleigh was held there.

Q. Where else do you take visitors?

By the river, along Keats' walk. The famous poet John Keats composed many poems walking along the river, including “Ode to Autumn.” It's a popular visit.

I also like to take Americans to Kings Gate. There used to be a wall around Winchester – parts are still there – and there were five gates: North, East, South and West, plus Kings Gate, which was reserved for distinguished visitors. When the American army was here just before D-Day (1944), they tried to drive a tank through Kings Gate. Unfortunately, the tank got stuck. They asked if we could dismantle the gate; we said no. They got the tank out by removing it in pieces. The scar marks from that are still there. I always point the marks out to Americans and ask if they have any idea what caused them!

Q. Given the ancient cathedral, are there any relics?

The main one is St. Swithun, who was considered our patron saint. His day is the 15th of July. He was buried in the old cathedral, and when the new one was built 800 years ago, in 1180, his remains were transferred. That was done on a 15th of July, and it just poured – and continued to rain for 40 consecutive days.

So the myth that built up is that if it rains on St. Swithun's Day, it will rain for 40 days more. When the 15th of July comes around, people still worry.

Q. So, has it rained on July 15?

Yes. Once it rained for about 25 days after. But it never made it to 40 days.

Q. I have to ask: The song “Winchester Cathedral”…

They're aware of it. It's a popular song still. You can buy a record of it in the cathedral office today. It's amazing that the song took off so well.

Q. What else is there to see in Winchester?

The other thing worthwhile is the St. Cross Hospital, a kind of home for the elderly that goes back to the year 1132. It still is a church, and one of the traditions is that you can get the wayfarers' dole: In the old days, when people came to Winchester on horse or foot, they'd be thirsty when they got to the gates of Winchester. Anybody who passed the church could knock on the door, say, “I'm thirsty and hungry,” and would be served bread and a cup of beer. It still happens today. Someone in a long-flowing robe will serve it on a tray.

Q. These are monks who do this?

They're called “brothers,” and are retired ministers of the Church of England who live there.

Q. Do they make the bread and beer there?

They make the beer there, and some of the bread. They make the beer for the sake of tradition; you can't buy it.

Q. Is the beer any good?

The British don't chill beer, so it's a bit too warm for many visitors. Americans are polite about that. The beer has a pleasant taste.