The Crypt: What Lies Beneath

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Today: a slight change. If you have three and a half free minutes, you can listen to today’s post instead of reading it. Or, if you are more accustomed to reading, take your time, grab a mug of something nice and make yourself comfortable.

Sibilous. In the nicest possible way, that is the soundtrack of a cathedral: like the gargoyle-demons of old, Β noises lose themselves, and shimmy back and forth against walls, and soar up great pillars and arc in the fan vaulting.

It is a whispering abyss, a great stone tomb of frequencies.

I was sat next to the aisle, cursing myself as I listened to one set of frequencies. A guide, in fact. Never get stuck with the wrong guide. The number of Emergency Evacuation Procedures I have had to carry out, when a guide, whose selectivity and brevity does not match his knowledge and enthusiasm, has you in his clutches. I walk in casing the joint for the escape hatches.

When the group finally got up to leave for the next Point Of Interest I took my camera out and started ostentatiously taking pictures of the font. For a long time. Until the last reluctant captive had shuffled off, inextricably drawn by in the guide’s tractor beam.

And then I slipped off, up the North Aisle of the Nave, on a mission.

Because there is somewhere that has a different sound quality all together, and though I have been coming to this cathedral for 20 years, I have never seen it.

And there is a reason for that.

Winchester Cathedral Crypt is not a vault-ceilinged candled cellar, like those crypts we all know so well. It is not a place where services can be held, or prayers said, other than hasty ones muttered with the inexplicable urge to check over one’s shoulder.

I think I have told you of King Cyneglis, who was baptised a stone’s throw from where I live. But where I live was not where he chose to develop Christianity. Rather, he headed to the great old settlement of Winchester.

Winchester is not built on hard, immoveable rock. The cathedral sits on a flint-and-chalk combination which ultimately sits on a very concentrated peat. When the great place of worship was built, in the second half of the 11th century, it was a very dry time. The builders made a great raft of beech to hold their precious creation. But more than a centuries later, the rains hit again, and the water began to rise.

And the crypt began to fill with water.

It happened so often, that it became routine. Though the whole place was shored up with concrete bags by a heroic diver in the 19th century, the water can still rise right up the steps, lapping at the path to the nave.

I found another guide. A clever, succinct guide who took a small group of us around this extraordinary place. No member of the public can come down without a guide. You have to walk on special matting to avoid damaging the floor. There are two mediaeval wells hiding down there, and the remains of a roman road, and statues of St Swithun propped up against the walls.

There are incredible sculptures by renowned artists. Sound II stands memorably there, a tall, lithe black figure in the main walk, sometimes with dry feet, sometimes up to its waist in water. Starkly beautiful, and eerie in the extreme.

It is a profoundly memorable place. A sacred bank of mans memories stretching back to 1093 and further. A higgledy-piggledy storage place with the effortless grace of the very privileged.

And if you are ever in that neck of the woods, you simply must not dream of missing it.

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43 thoughts on “The Crypt: What Lies Beneath

    1. Malcolm, I was just the same. I have sung at evensong there; I know most of its nooks and crannies, yet it had never occurred to me to seek out the crypt. It is so different fem Canterbury and other places which trumpet their crypts.

  1. Striking, indeed, the figure in that so-often soggy scene. I think you should get more shots when summer rains have put a few inches on the floor – imagine the reflections!
    I enjoyed the narration.

  2. I really enjoyed the audio-tour, Kate. What a wonderful addition! And clever you for finding the right guide! The crypt is fascinating–and Sound II is really a very big surprise! I wouldn’t anticipate such a modern sculpture in this particular setting. You found a treasure down there. I suspect you’ll be back!

  3. I enjoyed listening to your post. The long shot of the man is eerily beautiful. When can we expect your guidebook to be published? Although with all your lovely photographs, it should probably be a coffee table book.

  4. I’m another former visitor who never got down to the crypt, so great to see all those pics, including the Romanesque pillars. Perhaps they should permanently flood the crypt and make it an attraction like the water cisterns in Constantinople! (Only kidding…)

  5. I’m all distracted because your voice makes me think of Emma Thompson, but I love it. I love that you’re playing with your format a little, too. And I am remiss in that I hadn’t been ’round in a while. I’m glad to be here tonight, catching up.

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