Question: What do you do with old military barracks when they are no longer needed to house soldiers and supplies?
It’s an interesting question. Moving about as an army wife and digging into the history of each place we live, I’ve come to realise that the MoD lives in an endless cycle of building military camps, demolishing camps, building new camps and leaving old ones behind.
I’ve seen the old places repurposed in a few different ways. Old barrack blocks converted into schools, whole camps redesigned as arts and culture venues or given over to create temporary housing for asylum seekers. I’ve never seen anything quite like the repurposing of Peninsula Barracks in Winchester.
Given the sheer size and pedigree of the place, it was always going to be a good candidate for something special. Let’s begin with a quick romp through the history of the old place. Ready? Holding on tight? Off we go…
Even before the military arrived and set up permanent camp here, this site was destined to be a place of some status and beauty. Back in the 1600’s, Kings House stood on this land. Designed and built by none other than Sir Christopher Wren, the design of Kings House was based on the Palace of Versailles. Sadly, funds were depleted before the house was completed and the project was abandoned following the death of Charles ll.
Although built with grander things in mind, the Kings House was taken over by the military. It was utilised to house prisoners, as home to troops destined to fight in Napoleonic Wars and as temporary housing to various regiments before being adopted as home base by the Rifles Brigade and the Kings Royal Rifles in the mid 1800s. After years of falling into increasing disrepair, Kings House was destroyed by fire in 1894.
In 1899 the foundation stone for the barracks seen today was laid and in 1904 the ‘new’ barracks were opened. Built using some salvaged parts of and a design that gave a nod to the original Kings House… beginning a tradition that endures, of blending past and present and weaving it into the fabric of the city of Winchester.
In 1914 the barracks played a major role in preparing to send troops to the battlefields of WW1 with 5000 troops being equipped, mobilised and posted to their regiments within five days. A further 30,000 passed through the site by the end of 1914. In WW2 the barracks were pressed into heavy use again, being home to both British troops and U.S soldiers headed to take part in the D-Day Landings.
Post WW2 the barracks were home to, and variously renamed for, a few different regiments including the Green Jackets and the Rifles. In times of peace the place became a centre for recruitment and training, meaning many a military career began here. Probably a great adventure for some, not such a happy experience for others. By the 1990’s the MoD had decided to sell off most of the site for conversion to private residential use although it has retained parts of the complex as home to the Rifles Regimental Headquarters and a couple of military museums.
And that’s what it is today; a successful, sympathetic repurposing of the site creating a mixed use space known as Winchester’s Military Quarter. Usually the idea of such a historical place being sold for development would find me a bit cynical but I’m happy to be proven wrong on this one. It’s a unique blend of history, heritage and modern day functionality. The old parade square, once host to endless drills and Pass Out Parades, is now beautifully landscaped. It makes for one of the most desirable addresses in the city and a gorgeous green space for visitors. With the adjacent military museums and info boards detailing the areas former uses, it creates a timeless tribute to those who have passed through here. Lest We Forget.
nosy curious sort of person, I’d love a peek inside the homes created within the old complex. Barracks tend to be built for function over comfort, so translating them into modern living spaces whilst preserving the fabric of the buildings would have been no small task. Nobody invited us in for a cuppa on the day but via the power of Zoopla I looked up a couple of properties here. Not too shabby and prices starting at around the half a million mark. Wonder what the recruits who started out here on a Privates salary with a life they could fit in a kit bag would make of it all?
From the imposing grandeur of the Peninsula Barracks it’s a short stroll towards the city centre and to the remains of Winchester Castle. There sits another poignant memorial to soldiers who have passed though the city. ‘A Promise Honoured’, a simple stone bench with a soldiers kit set upon it, was carved to honour the many troops who have passed through Winchester. The name and design stems from a promise made by the Mayor of the city in 1919 to find a way to remember the soldiers that passed through. It is touching and understated and worth seeking out.
So in Winchester, the answer to the question of what you do with the barracks when the military moves on would seem to be to take them on, spruce them up, care for them and keep them relevant and in use. Which is the best way I can think of to honour the old walls and everything that’s happened within them.
What can I say…Winchester, I love what you’ve done with the place.