Winchester Cathedral

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Things to do


Date of travel

April, 2019

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We arrived at “Winchester Cathedral”: Cathedral just after opening time of 9.30am so it gave us time to have a quick look at Jane Austen’s tomb before the guided tour at 10am (hourly).
According to the four storyboards, Jane was buried in the Cathedral having come to Winchester a few weeks before, to cure our health. The tomb doesn’t mention her writing as it wasn’t thought a fit occupation for a young woman, but because people kept asking if there was something special about the tomb, a brass plaque was eventually erected followed by a memorial window 30 years later. There were four story boards telling of her life. On the 200th anniversary of her death, Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, revealed the new £10 note featuring Jane, at Winchester Cathedral. Two small posies of flowers had been left by the tomb and although it was lent, when there are no flowers in church, they’d not been removed.

David our guide took our international group of 8 around starting at the large Great West Window which had been made up of glass fragments following the destruction of the original in 1642 by the Roundheads. In contrast, two modern windows were designed depicting the Silver Jubilee of King George V and unveiled by Joseph Kennedy, when ambassador to England in 1938.

The Cathedral, which only took 14 years to build, is one of the few containing many various architectural styles. The original round Romanesque archeswere being transformed to arched Gothic style in the 14th century. Unfortunately, the money ran out before they were all completed, so there are good examples of both.

The Cathedral is famous for its seven chantry chapels, where daily masses were said for the souls of the powerful bishops who built them between the 14th and the 16th centuries. David pointed out pelicans around one of them – the pelican pecks at its own chest to release blood to feed its young and symbolises complete devotion.

It’s also noted for its six mortuary chests high up, which contained the bones of Anglo-Saxon and Danish rulers. The bones had been mixed up over time, but now a university is trying to differentiate the bones using modern technology.

St Swithun, a former Bishop of Winchester, had originally been buried outside the Cathedral but later his remains had been brought inside and although the original tomb had been destroyed, it had been replaced. St Swithun’s day is on 15 July and if it rains on that day, it’s meant to rain for 40 days and an embroidered cloth covered the tomb had rain drops on one side and sunshine on the other. St Swithun was said to have performed only one miracle – making a basket of eggs dropped by a woman near the River Itchen, whole again and this is why broken eggs are incorporated into the design of his tomb.

The Great Screen was plain on one side and adorned with statues on the other. The original statues had been destroyed in the Reformation. The new figures included one of Queen Victoria. On the plain side was a small gothic arch about two-foot high with dirty finger marks around it known as the Holy Hole. This was the entrance to a short tunnel which allowed pilgrims to crawl right under the shrine of St Swithun.

In the North Transept, we saw the Winchester Bible, which was written on carefully cured calf skin: 250 male calves were killed to produce sufficient pages. It was originally in one volume but subsequently rebound into four. One of the volumes is currently on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (the first time it has been out of the UK). We were told how easy it was for the single inscriber to make a mistake as he tired or because of poor light when the page would have to be bleached to remove the offending mistake.

The South Transept is currently undergoing restoration and when finished will open as a museum and house the Winchester Bible.

In the Quire, where evensong is held, we saw the seats of 65 monks. They were all beautifully carved in wood and when upturned like a theatre seat, they had a perching place for the monk when he was meant to stand (rather like a shooing stick). David pointed out one where the carver had placed a face with the tongue poking out: thought to be done deliberately because the monks thought the carvers were taking too long.

William Walker is known as the diver who saved Winchester cathedral from flooding in 1906. His story was told and there was a small statue of him in his diving suit, holding his massive helmet.

Our tour took just over an hour, and although the crypt wasn’t included, David finished by taking those of us interested into it. As it floods, as it was on our visit, it is often out of bounds but we could see the Anthony Gormley statute of a man with his hands cupped in front of him. Water is always in the hands as he’s said to be taking soundings of his soul. Sometimes the statue can have water up to the knees which produces fabulous reflections but sadly on our visit, he was paddling in shallow water.

We took communion in the Epiphany Chapel at 12 noon and I was delighted to see it used the 1662 Book of Common Prayer I’d grown up with. However, in a nod to modernity, the service booklet said gluten free wafers were available on request and that the wine contained alcohol.

After the tour we visited the shop and although we didn’t stop, the glass sided refectory looked lovely with its huge walled garden and lots of outdoor tables and chairs for better weather.

The entrance fee is £8.50 with a reduction of £2 for over 60s (no evidence of age required) and it is valid for a year.

Helen Jackson

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