Emma Joseph talks to Winchester's own explorer, John Pilkington, about the importance of opening young people's eyes to the city's past, as it takes part in this year's Heritage Open Days

As an explorer, John Pilkington has travelled the world. He was one of the first modern travellers to retrace the Silk Road from Venice to China, and has walked the 1,600-mile Royal Road of the Incas through the Andes of Ecuador and Peru.

But.to him, Hampshire will always be home.

"I'm the luckiest person in the world," smiles John, who's written books about his adventures, spoken to more than a thousand audiences in six countries and made radio and TV programmes.

"I've spent my life travelling the world, but I always come back home. Home is very important to me. When I've been on these long trips writing books and making programmes, I was away for six months or more. It was very important when the going got tough that I could say to myself 'it's okay, I will be home soon'."

Great British Life: Winchester explorer John PilkingtonWinchester explorer John Pilkington

John, who has lived in the same house in Winchester for the last 45 years, says his interest in heritage was first sparked when he worked at Hampshire County Council in the late 1970s. His then boss, a man called Roger Brown, encouraged staff to take unpaid leave and follow their passions. John took three sabbaticals during his time with the council, travelling to South America, the Himalayas and then his trip along the Silk Road.

Rather fittingly, it was in Winchester where his silk journey first began – at Whitchurch Silk Mill.

"The manager at the time was scratching his head about where Whitchurch got its spun silk from," remembers John. "He gave me a project – to go there and find out.

Great British Life: Whitchurch Silk Mill.Whitchurch Silk Mill.

"Roger Brown, the man who made that journey possible, also peaked my interest when he retired. He set himself a project to build a model of Victorian Winchester – it took him nine years. It was accurate to a pin point and it's now in the City Museum in Winchester.

"I did a talk about how the model came to exist in my first Heritage Open Days. It went very well and that's how my association began."

Having been involved in the activities of Winchester Heritage Open Days for several years,, John was recently named a patron of The Hampshire History Trust, which organises the series of events taking place throughout the city every September, as part of the national Heritage Open Days scheme.

He's thrilled that the role gives him even more opportunity to delve into the city's past.

"Winchester is very special for the history there.," he says, "it's full of little corners and unexpected things. Whitchurch Silk Mill is a good example of that, because a lot of people don't seem to know it exists

"Winchester has a city watermill which is owned by the National Trust. They open their doors and have special events on there.

Great British Life: Winchester CathedralWinchester Cathedral

’The cathedral is the very centre of heritage in Winchester and the history of that is well known. Then there's Winchester College, the oldest school in the country. You can go on tours –.they do them for free in Heritage Open Days. Not just the college, but the gardens, which aren't normally open to the public because it's a working school."

A huge range of events take place during September as part of Winchester Heritage Open Days, where people are invited behind usually closed doors to see inside some of the city's historic buildings, or take part in immersive activities aimed at bringing the past to life.


It's this element of history about which John is the most passionate, with his particular favourite spot in the city what appears, at first glance, to be an unassuming residential road.

"Canon Street is just around the corner from where I live," he says. " For last year's Heritage Open Days I did a tour, talking not so much about the buildings but about the people that live in them.

"I had help from a very fine lady who's sadly passed away. She lived in Canon Street. and left behind a memoir of all the people she knew. Some of the stories that she tells in her memoir are really naughty. This is going back 80-100 years - it was the red light district in those days.

"It's something very special to be able to stand outside a house and say to people 'this is where so and so lived, who did this and this and got arrested'. This living history, talking about the people and not just the bricks and mortar is what brings history to life."

Great British Life: Winchester College in College Street Image: Adele BouchardWinchester College in College Street Image: Adele Bouchard

John is especially keen that Heritage Open Days serves to excite the younger generation.

"It's about opening people's eyes to heritage," he enthuses. "We need to remind them that heritage is fun – it's not just great dusty old tomes in libraries.

"These young people will be the custodians of the future. If they have an interest in the history, then everything will proceed in a good way."

Winchester Heritage Open Days takes place from September 8-17. To find out more, visit winchesterheritageopendays.org