(it’s not really this slanty irl, it’s just for some reason staring up at the west front of Winchester cathedral hurts your eyes like a bitch, so it’s hard to get a straight view)
I grew up in Winchester, so I’ve already been to Winchester cathedral quite a bit, well at least like three times at this point, I mean the inside, I go to the outside like all the time. Well, when I’m in Winchester. But I think it’s easy to forget just how impressive Winchester cathedral is from the inside, because it’s such an ugly building on a lot of levels. Patchy and long, like most cathedrals perpetually dotted with scaffolds, and the south-east of the cathedral is sinking, too. It was the longest building in medieval Europe though, so I guess that’s something to be proud of. This cathedral book I have says that Winchester cathedral “could be said to fail every aesthetic test that could be devised by tidy, critical minds.” I think this also refers to the inside, too, though, because inside it’s kind of a muddled clash between stunning, pointy-arched William Wykeham gothic in the nave and thick-mortared romanesque in the north and south transepts, where 14th-century renovations were apparently unforthcoming. This also makes the cathedral more interesting imo though, as well as reinforcing the general sense that you get when exploring it and being guided round that this isn’t just a cathedral- this is a big building encompassing and documenting the entire cultural memory of my home city, inside here, and maybe in the King Alfred statue near the bus station, is represented pretty much everything that ever made Winchester an important place to exist.
One thing that quickly becomes apparent when visiting Winchester cathedral is the sheer disproportionate number of people named William associated with it. For example:
- William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, founder of Winchester College and the weirdly-identically-gated New College, Oxford, guy in charge of the gothic renovations and one of the richest and most powerful men in 14th-century England. (an impressive chapel/tomb to him is maintained by the two educational establishments he founded and located on the south-west side of the nave- it’s really tall too so you can’t really miss it)
- William of Edington, Wykeham’s predecessor, who has a slightly less impressive chantry nearby.
- William Walker, the diver who pretty much single-handedly saved the cathedral from actually sinking in the 1900s. There is a small statue of him in the sloping, south-east of the cathedral and another, bigger one near the public toilets outside the cathedral shop.
- William Lampard, long-time captain of the bellringers.
- William Rufus, who is buried there.
- Master mason William Wynford, who actually did the gothic renovations.
- William Morris, Arts and Crafts kingpin who is partly responsible for some utterly lovely stained-glass windows for the chapel in the north transept. (actually designed by Sir Edward Coley ‘William’ Burne-Jones but made in Morris’s workshop)
- Authoress William Austen, whose tomb is located in Winchester cathedral, and whom there is also a memorial plaque too nearby that, unlike the inscription on the tomb, actually mentions her novels.
- Queen ‘Bloody William’ Tudor, who married King Guillermo II of Spain here in 1556.
(there are loads more ACTUAL Williams, too, I just can’t remember all their surnames or what specifically they did, I should have been taking notes)
One thing you should definitely do if you go to Winchester cathedral is visit the William Morley library, which contains two big highlights you’re allowed to walk round and be deferential towards: firstly the Winchester Bible, which is like this amazingly beautiful illuminated velum bible (commissioned by 12th-century Bishop of Winchester Henry de Blois, brother of King Stephen and one of two highly noted royal Henrys associated with Winchester, along with John of Gaunt’s illegitimate issue, Henry Beaufort, whose painted tomb is hanging about in the Retrochoir) with these colours that will make your heart leap out of your chest to get closer to it but then it will be unable to leach the colour out of the manuscript and so your heart will die. Only don’t let that put you off. It would be better if you were allowed to touch it yourself, I guess, but seriously, the colours are marvel enough. Plus it’s huge and was apparently all written by this one monk. The illuminations were done by more than one artist though. They’re only showing two pages from one manuscript in the cases at a time, but apparently they change them every fortnight. So maybe you should donate £6 to get an annual pass to the cathedral and go back all the time to look at them? I mean, if you live in Winchester, it’s probably not worth doing if you don’t. Today one of the pages has a big whole in it- people used to cut out illuminations, apparently. When one got found by this woman who ‘bound’ the Bible in the last century (I dunno what state it was in before) she sewed some back in. That’s pretty cool. I get into a conversation with the woman guiding people around about the inks when she asks if I’m interested in art and I say yes. Then she asks if I’m studying it at university. In hindsight I should have just lied, it would have made a fun lie to be a fine arts student. You can get a book describing how they make the inks, though. Like crushing up red earth for the reds and stuff. I mean, given like a book of information, you can’t take it away, mind. Still.
Arguably just as good, yet undoubtedly just as frustratingly un-touchable, is a pair of these amazingly 17th-century Dutch globes in the room across, one of which is of the actual world, and another of which is of the constellations, only it has pictures of the constellations instead of just dots, so there’s a big pictures of a bear on it and stuff, you can imagine just how stunning this is.
Up the stairs from the library is the Triforium Gallery, which has a scattering of artefacts from the cathedral, like smashed bits of shrine ruined in the reformation and such, it’s OK.
Winchester has a lot of nice little chapels in it- from the one in the north transept with those amazing stained-glass windows to the one opposite with the bits of really old mural uncovered to the ones in the Retrochoir with painted ceilings (one of which is similar to how all the ceiling in the surrounding R-choir would have been, but not the stone-vaulted ceiling in the nave, apparently- I asked). But obviously the best one of all is the Fisherman’s Chapel in the south transept- a shrine that not only contains this really cool modern sculpture that looks like a treetrunk with lots of fish on it, but also because it has stained glass relating to Mr. Izaak ‘Study To Be Quiet’ Walton, author the Compleat Angler, one of the most brilliant books EVER, a veritable Civil War-era Bible of apparently often not-very-useful fishing tips and why otters suck so hard, as told in dialogue between wise old master Piscator and eager-eyed student Venator. The pair stroll around rivers on there way from and back to Tottenham High Cross, establish convincingly why fishing beats all other pursuits, play a bit of shuffleboard, chat up a milkmaid, get up to all sorts really. Me and my girlfriend are going to adapt it for the stage. This probably won’t involve much actual adapting, because it is perfect. It’s hilarious both for all the wrong and all the right reasons, and plus it’s central mantra singing the virtues of quietude and humble leisure is an account of the good life that I can really get on board with (not that I’ve ever been fishing in my life, but consider it a metaphor). It’s really good stained-glass of Walton, too, you should definitely go see it.
Sure, I’d been to Winchester cathedral before, but before yesterday I’d never taken the tower tour. I’m going to start taking more tower tours at cathedrals (Salisbury do one, so defs that, spires) because I’d never actually been on one before, but this one was like, really, really good. I got to see all sorts of things I could only have ever dreamed of seeing before, and all for only £3 extra on the door price. It’s practically the deal of the century. You get to see the inside of the cathedral from high up, and then you get to go to a bell tower, where you can see the bells, and they tell you about bells (and like how one of them- because they’re all inscribed with whoever was king or queen when they were cast, and one of them is inscribed with Edward VIII’s name, but then he abdicated before the bell was put in, so they had to clumsily cross it off and put George VI’s, it’s pretty amusing), and then we were in it and then the bells went off because it was the hour, they were really loud, its was pretty intense. Apparently the floor used to shake when the bells went off so they had to fix it using steel. The steps up to the bell tower are really steep and I thought I was going to slip and injure myself like I did when I went to Old Sarum. But I didn’t. There were then a whole lot more steep steps, so steep I was climbing them like a ladder, on all fours, up to the very top of the tower, but it was worth it, because the top of the tower is AMAZING, you can see all of Winchester from it, and then they point out stuff and tell you fun facts you’d never otherwise know even as a Winchester native, like how St Giles’ Hill used to have a trade fair of international importance on it which merchants from the continent came to, lasted upwards of fourteen days, and during which all other trade in the surrounding area was halted. Only it ended completely about the start of the 19th century after not being that important or big for years and years, and now St Giles’s Hill is covered in trees. Awesome. Plus you can see people and stuff, and hear ambulances and then see them zooming about like this was SimEmergencyservices or something. On clear days apparently you can see to the Isle of Wight. Yesterday was not a clear day, though, so I didn’t.
Then the way they lead you back, takes you through the ringing room (for the bells), and then what’s even better is it takes you through the insides of the stone vaulted ceiling in the nave. The stone vaulted ceiling, by the way, is a mightily impressive sight, staring along the nave looking east, it’s absolutely majestic. And then you see the back and, well, you know it’s not as impressive, because obviously it was never meant to be seen by the general public, but still. It’s really cool, there are polystyrene bungs in it underneath rat cages for if the ceiling ever floods, so they can take them out to prevent damage to the ceiling. Well, the nave will get wet but that’s preferable.
So yeah, take the tower tour.
Other stuff I haven’t mentioned
- One thing that I really like about Winchester cathedral is how the stained glass in the big, west window is all jumbled up because of it being smashed by evil Cromwellians (like how a lot of stuff in cathedrals was smashed/ruined by them), but it’s just been glued back together randomly. It’s especially good how if you go up to the otherwise not-that-interesting treasury you can see the glass from eye level and pick out little bits of it.
- Another cool thing is St Swithun’s shrine, which is a crawl-in. People used to literally crawl into it. I also really like the St Swithun legend, that whole if it rains on St Swithun’s day (July 15th), it will rain for another forty days and forty nights. It’s a good prophesy, because if it rains on a random day in the middle of summer, it probably will be a wet summer. So, the lives of the saints are really coming around in a relevant way for all of us. Also, check the Orthodox-style icons above where the crawlspace is (but no bones are, anymore, cheers Cromwell. Oh wait maybe that was Reformers. Well, anyway, it was someone lame).
- Behind the High altar is this amazing 15th-century stone screen which is filled with 19th-century statues of saints and the likes (as well as, tellingly, Queen Victoria)- the original statues got smashed up, again by lamewads, but the newer ones are pretty cool too, they make it look all grand. Well, it would look grand anyway. But a different sort of grand, a Victorian grand.
- There is a Parcel Force logo in the choir, recently installed as a tribute to one of the city’s favourite musical acts. Underneath it the inscription: “seat ye hear Widely Spread,” another intriguing reference to the Winchester music scene circa 2006-07.
Top Tip: If you should happen to find your way down the crypt, don’t panic- that’s not a real man standing there mysterious, downcast and all alone. It’s actually a statue by ‘English David Cerny on acid!!11!’ Anthony Gormley.
Hot fact: A lot of the pillars used in the ‘Romanesque’ pits aren’t made up of lots of little drums of pillar mortared together like the Normans liked to make them- they’re solid pillars. This means that they’re either from the original Saxon minster that stood on this site before the Norman conquest or else they are Roman in origin! So, it’s not just Roman’esque’- it’s literally ‘Roman’! (maybe)