Big Churches in Little Europe: Winchester Cathedral

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Holy Trinity, St Peter, St Paul, and St Swithun, Winchester

Britain has an amazing ranking table. Actually, the British have lots of ranking tables: schools, poverty, GCSE results, housings crises and the best city to live in. Winchester probably has lovely schools and GCSE (tertiary entrance exam) results. But the crowning glory of ranking is ‘the best place to live in Britain’ and Winchester often tops the table. It is an hour from London, small, with wonderful schools, not too many poor people and it has that most important thing for a great British City, a really old Cathedral.

Anybody who has looked at a map of the south of England may have wondered, while idly speculating about which big church I will pick next, why Wells, Salisbury, Winchester and Rochester all have 1,000 year old cathedrals and are so close together but not particularly close to anything interesting. The answer is the ley lines (if you draw the line between them you also get Cadbury Castle and Stonehenge) or, more usefully, the major inland trade route between the west and the ports to Europe on the eastern seaboard. The route is now known as the Pilgrim's Way but it precedes Christianity. It also explains why the main streets in all of those towns go east/west rather than radiating from London as they do in most towns since the Romans laid out the road system.

So, what about the cathedral? It is probably the first one I spent any time in when I arrived in the UK excluding Southwark (which was about 100 metres from my front door and whose clock tower was my primary time piece until I could afford to buy a clock for myself). From the outside it is very, very long, low and squat. By low I mean the roof may still be 20 metres high but lacks the loftiness of other European churches. The central tower is extraordinarily low which may contribute to the squatness impression.

Inside it is still long but the roof appears to soar up. A curious fact about most of the very old monasteries built in England is that the walls are built as three stories. There are very good reasons to do this, mostly because flat walls made from stone that go very high and which are very long (and which have no internal walls to brace them) tend to flex and fall down. So the chaps who built these places would build a first storey, with a short roof leaning inwards that would rest on an opposing row of internal pillars (essentially a very long but low cowshed of a building). The next storey would be built on the first and more or less repeat it. The top storey would rest on the double storied internal pillars and go all the way up to the roof. This is easier to show in a diagram or in real life so make sure you have this page with you when next visit an ex-monastic English cathedral. This style of building means you get lots of windows and you also get quite a bit of storage space on the middle storey. The clever thing about Winchester Cathedral is that the first storey is double height and there is no second storey, and that gives it more light at the ground level, more height around the edges and the internal pillars are twice as tall.

The foundations are built in the marshes of the River Itchen. At the beginning of the 20th century one lone diver spent years of his life rebuilding the entire deeply submerged stone with brick work that holds up the rest of the building. This is not something you can tell from the outside but it is a result of those years of labour that there is any outside left.

In consequence, the under-croft of the cathedral is regularly flooded, a fact that they use to their advantage with an statue of St Swithun on display that is often spookily half in the water and half out.

Most of the medieval stuff around the building was removed in a fit of early reformist zeal but there are some treats round about. If you have read Barchester Towers/The Warden/Family Parsonage by Anthony Trollop, it is set in Winchester. The little church that occupies the space where the old buildings join together over the road is there. The old hospital for retired sheep shearers (still going) is a walk along the river and it must surely be one of the greatest short walks in Europe, with the river on one side, an eye-wateringly privileged school's playing fields on the other and an old mill and pond half way along.

In many ways, Winchester Cathedral is not so much a building or institution but a complex of cooperating institutions that combine beautifully. The best arts and crafts fair I have ever been to was in the cathedral grounds and even though it was five years ago, it stays fresh in my mind.

The services on a Sunday are pretty lax. The space doesn't lend itself to the friendly approach they take. I understand it is hard to make things work with 200 people in a space that can probably seat 1,800 (or 5,000 standing, which was how they intended it to be used when they built it). Even so, I would do it differently if I were in charge and so it is probably just as well I am not.

The back window of the church is a re-assembled work from the piles of smashed medieval glass that has been recovered from where it was buried centuries ago. It forms a strikingly coherent image made up from tens of thousands of diverse fragments. So if you go to Winchester, don't go just for a single service. Go for a weekend or as many days as you can spare. Visit the school if there is a tour available, drop past for another of the arts days if the Cathedral is hosting one and go to the old Hospital of St John of the Cross, enjoy the walk and have a cup of tea with the pensioners who live there still. For a real thrill, go to the old Guild Hall further up the hill. There you can see the round table of Arthur and his knights (c.f. above, re: ley lines).

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