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, 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.