Thursday, January 17th, 2019

Climbing the spiral staircase: Adventures in the Winchester Cathedral

Martin Conte

Posted on October 09, 2014 in Perspectives
By martinconte

It’s been three weeks since I arrived in Winchester, and yet it took until today for me to sufficiently explore Winchester Cathedral, the skyscraping Anglican church that has sat in the city’s center since 1066 A.D and was made famous by the 1960’s chart-topping song of the same name. Joining a group of students from Uni, and graciously led by two fearless senior guides, I embarked on “the tower climb,” an adventure as dramatic and intriguing as a Game of Thrones episode.

We started with a walk across the length of the cathedral itself, stepping over gravestones set in the floor from the past millennium, including the final resting place of novelist Jane Austen. Somewhere, hidden in the cloisters, the organist diligently practiced, filling the hall with the strains of sacred music. He was accompanied by the rattles and bangs of a construction crew, as the church was currently undergoing a two year, multi-million pound (that’s currency, not weight) project of renovation and reconstruction. After a brief discussion of the origins of the building’s aesthetic, and its history of changing design, the guides ushered the nine of us through a door shorter and almost as thin as me. Up a spiral staircase we walked, on stone steps not wide enough for my entire foot to fit, with orange extension cords leading to small lights every ten yards or so. The staircase was literally so narrow, the most stable way of walking up it was to lean oneself against the center column, and extend a steadying hand to the opposite wall. Up we went, until we entered the first level of our tour: the belltower.

Winchester cathedral boasts sixteen bells, many of them dating back to the 17th century. The bells are rung manually every quarter hour, and some of them weigh nearly six tons. The room we stood in had been rebuilt in the past century, as the weight of the bells combined had begun to cause structural decay. It wasn’t exactly the best news to hear after climbing up a dizzying staircase. When the bells need refurbishing or repair, they are actually lowered through a circular opening in the church’s ceilings to the floor below. Additionally, the bells are engraved with the title of each new monarch, which meant that, during the tumultuous overturn of the crown in 1936, the bells were engraved three times. Edward the VIII’s name, as he had only reigned as king for less than a year before abdicating, was actually crossed out.

We were shepherded further up the staircase, past a few slitted windows, the walls closing smaller and smaller, before a door the height of a crawlspace opened before us into clear air. We had ascended to the height of the Cathedral Tower.

From this viewpoint, I could at last see the whole of the city of Winchester laid out before me. To the south, we could make out the chimneys of a factory town near the shore.  To the east, the rolling hills of “the Downs,” which I’m sure I will describe to you in a later blog post, as soon as I can go hiking through them! To the north and west, the city, made up of rows and rows of slender streets and well-preserved, centuries old houses. Winchester, with a population of just under 40,000, is nevertheless about a tenth of the size of our Portland. Like most of England, its population is condensed and packed into homes literally falling on top of each other, not in a claustrophobic way, but in a comfortable and cozy manner. Unlike Portland, Winchester does not sprawl. It’s city limits are strictly defined by rolling hills and farmlands, cut by a few major roads and the railway. Yet, within its streets, the city is packed with good food, plenty of theatre and artistic involvement and wonderful outdoor markets erected nearly every day.

A bird’s eye view of any location constantly reminds me how much there is yet to explore, and how easily one can overlook such opportunities in one’s own neighborhood. I certainly have seen little of Portland, and don’t know each of its unique and hip streets. While I look forward to seeing more of London, as well as Paris, Berlin, Rome, and Athens during my stay in Europe, I also look forward to seeing the locale. I want to meet the people of Winchester for who they are, not as subjects of the kingdom, or as residents of England, but as people, the people of our beloved Winchester.

Just such an example of the local colour presented it to me later that afternoon, as I sat in a coffee shop and ate dinner. An enormous man, with an sprawling white beard, dressed in hawaiian shorts and an undershirt, came lumbering up the street step by step. As he came closer, I (as well as the other pedestrians he passed) could see that he was barefoot, his heavy feet blackened by the cobblestones. He stepped through the door of the shop where I sat, and bellowed in a voice straight from Dickens, “good evening, darlings!” He was Paul, a local, and apparently a common face at this particular cafe. He was charming, eccentric and vocal. We know these characters exist in Portland too; they’re universal.

Finishing my trip to the cathedral was a fantastic treat. I got the chance to participate in the cathedral’s Evensong, a short, daily ceremony of prayer. Tonight, the celebration was led by a visiting boy’s choir, who filled the church with truly magnificent music. A reminder that, as I have stated before, the U.K is privileged to have a history constantly alive, and carefully preserved, for future generations. I go to sleep with those miracle voices. Until next time.

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