Winchester cathedral – saved by the deep-sea diver.

On a rainy day his silent posture is standing up to his knees in water, firmly staring at his hands, contemplating. Unmoved by hundreds of visitors trying to capture his lonely figure perched in the middle of Winchester Cathedral crypt. The crypt is small, divided into two not equal parts, giving more space to this single figure than to visitors clicking their cameras. He is completely oblivious to the rest of the world.

On the sunny mornings the sculpture is catching sunny beams, ignoring anything apart from coupled hands holding water. But he is not a hero here, he is just a sculpture, erected in 1986 by Antony Gormley, a modern shrine to Saint Swithun. The real hero was diving under 6 meters into complete darkness. Holding bags of concrete and leaving them under water. Building new foundation for the building under the threat.  

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The Winchester cathedral is enormous. It has the longest nave and the greatest overall length of any Gothic cathedral in Europe. Winchester town can be proud of housing such a beautiful building, where Jane Austen founded her resting place at the age of just 41. In 1817 – the year she was buried in the cathedral – her novels were not as popular as they became 55 years later. Not even all of them were published at that time. On her original memorial stone this fact has not been mentioned at all. It was fixed later on by her nephew Edward and you can find a brass plaque erected later on, addressing the omission. Few years later the memorial window has been erected too, increasing the number of mementos to three. Buried at her beloved cathedral, with just only four people attending the funeral, not being able to see a doctor from the newly established Winchester Hospital, oblivious to the disaster slowly lurking around, Jane Austen presence is the one you will not be able to easily forget about.

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More than 80 years later, between 1906 and 1911 the deep-sea diver worked underwater saving cathedral from collapse. In complete darkness and with heavy duty equipment, trying to underpinning the nave and shoring up the walls. The cracks appeared in the early 1900s and any actions undertaken before William Walker chose to put on heavy sea-diver uniform and start placing bags of concrete every day for the next six years, were unsuccessful.

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Why was the cathedral in such a great danger? Unfortunately the place chosen to build it was a peaty soil with an underlying water table – a valley of the River Itchen. For five years, every day, William Walker worked under up to six meters of water, in complete darkness. Feeling his way through mud with his bare hands. He wore huge and heavy diving suit, which was taking ages to put on. To save the time he was having his lunch in the suit, taking only his helmet off. 25.000 bags of concrete, 115.000 of concrete blocks and 900.000 bricks built new foundations. The building was saved.

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You can find a small statue next to a huge helmet at the far end of the cathedral, the same William Walker was working in. His labor was recognized and a special service was held for him in 1912. He met George V and Queen Mary and was later on made a Member of the Royal Victorian Order (MVO). He died at the age of 49 during Spanish flu epidemic in 1918, but his story is inspiring and worth remembering. His passion and sacrifice saved one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe.  

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Practicalities:

Winchester can be found in Hampshire, on the edge of the rolling South Downs. The cathedral sits comfortably in the middle of the town and can be spot quite easily. The ticket you buy on a day will allow you to come back for 12 months free of charge. More information about opening times can be found here.

Winchester Cathedral

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