What I like about Winchester Cathedral is not just its wonderful architecture, but also the human stories that have accompanied it throughout the centuries.
Architecturally, as soon as you set foot inside the West Door the magnificent perpendicular Nave stretches out in front of you right down to George Gilbert Scott’s ornate choir screen.
It didn’t always look like this though because the original Romanesque Norman church suffered badly from subsidence, and it took alterations from the 14th century onwards, firstly by Bishop Edington and then William of Wykeham, to produce what is my favourite style of church architecture.
If you can avoid the temptation to continue on down the Nave but walk down the North Aisle instead, you’ll soon come to the grave of Jane Austen, the author famous for writing such classics as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey.
It’s not surprising that many people want to see where Jane Austen’s final resting place is, but they would miss a gem if they went straight past the nearby 12th century black Tournai marble Font. It’s not just old, but unusual and interesting as well.
Winchester Cathedral - From the Saxons to the Normans
People who read my pages can be forgiven for thinking that I’m a religious person as I often seem to be writing about cathedrals, abbeys, and churches in general. The truth is that I’m not at all religious, but I am interested in the historical significance and architecture of these fantastic buildings and Winchester Cathedral is a perfect example.
In this article I’m delving into the background of the cathedral from a time when England became Christianized under the Anglo-Saxons to when William the Conqueror needed Winchester to consolidate his hold over the rest of the country.
The Romans initially brought Christianity to these shores, but after their departure in 410 AD the country reverted back to paganism.
In 597 Pope Gregory sent Augustine to England to re-introduce the Roman version of Christianity, but he wasn’t able to convert the whole country on his own of course and it was St Birinus who came to Wessex in 635 and converted Cynegils, King of the West Saxons.
King Cynegils established a cathedral church at Dorchester-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, but soon after his death in 643 his son, Cenwalh, built a minster church in Wintanceaster near the centre of his kingdom.
In the 670s Bishop Haeddi transferred his Cathedra (Bishop’s Throne) from Dorchester-on-Thames making Wintanceaster both the Royal and ecclesiastical centre of Wessex.
If someone were to ask me where to go for that quintessential English experience then Winchester would have to be right up there near the top of my list.
Its location, where the River Itchen flows through the chalk Downs of the Hampshire countryside, helps give this small city of 45,000 people an air of peace and calm that belies its past history and status as Hampshire’s county town.
It was this precise spot, where the river could be forded, that attracted a Celtic tribe from the continent to build a settlement here. The tribe we now call the Belgae arrived around 100BC, but it would appear that their enclosure at Oram’s Arbour and fort at St. Catherine’s Hill had been abandoned by the time the Romans arrived in AD70, who then created a settlement of their own which they called Venta Belgarun (Marketplace of the Belgae).
The river at this point split into two around an island, and although it made for a good crossing point, it was also liable to flooding, and so the Romans diverted the river through a single channel, which not only saved their town from flooding but also gave it an extra line of defence on their eastern flank. The river still flows through this channel and can best be seen on the lovely Weirs Walk.
Cornwall has an unbelievably rich history in communications, and as tempting as it might be to talk about early signal stations, Marconi’s wireless achievements on The Lizard, or even the first Trans-Atlantic television transmission to Goonhilly via Telstar, it’s Porthcurno’s importance as an international hub for cable communications that I’ll be talking about here.
Prior to the invention of the telegraph, communication over long distances was difficult to say the least: In Cornwall early communication signals would have been by beacon or semaphore, but the only real way of getting messages delivered over long distances was by writing a letter which could take weeks if the recipient was overseas.
The word ‘Telegraphy’ comes from the Greek words tele (at a distance) and graphein (to write) meaning ‘to write from a distance’. It was brought into modern usage with the invention of the telegraph in the mid-19th century, which in essence meant being able to send messages in the form of electrical pulses, making connections over long distances much quicker than was previously possible.
The first man to really make his mark in this field was the American, Samuel Morse, who made his first working telegraph instrument in 1837 using his Morse Code. Other people played their part in helping to make the telegraph system work, but Samuel Morse is the person who seems to take most of the credit.
In 1929 some amateur Porthcurno drama enthusiasts put on a performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a local field. It turned out to be a great success and a couple of years later they wanted to try again with The Tempest.
Obviously, a field wasn’t the best venue for a drama company to perform, but one of the production team was a lady called Rowena Cade who lived in Minack House at Minack Point.
Minack is Cornish for ‘Rocky Place’, and this indomitable lady, along with her gardener Billy Rawlings, set about transforming the rocks below her garden into an open-air amphitheatre right on the edge of the cliffs.
During the winter of 1931/32 they moved granite boulders and earth to create a stage and terraces. What’s even more remarkable is that the steps, walkways, seats and pillars were all made out of concrete made with sand from the beach below. Why I say ‘remarkable’ is because anybody who has ever walked up or down the cliff from Minack to the beach will know how steep a climb it is – and yet this lady did this day in and day out carrying buckets of sand to create this quite unbelievable place – and in August 1932 The Tempest was performed at the Minack.
Porthcurno lies in a valley that reaches down to the sea on the south coast of the Penwith Peninsula.
For such a small village it attracts many visitors, some would say too many at times, but it’s understandable why people find Porthcurno such a magnet.
Lying about half way between Lamorna Cove and Land’s End, Porthcurno would be an obvious stopping off point for people walking along this section of the South-West Coast Path without its own attractions.
The white shell beach sits in a small bay that is sometimes called Porthcurno Bay. The colour of the sea depends on the weather, state of the tide and the time of the day, but when the sun’s shining the white sand is reflected by the sun to make the sea a perfect aquamarine colour.
The bay is protected to the east by a headland that is renowned for its ‘Logan Rock’ and to the west by Pedn-men-an-mere, or WirelessPoint as it’s sometimes called.
It gets its name of Wireless Point from the receiving station that was set up here to eavesdrop on Marconi’s successful wireless telegraphy operation which was in direct competition with Porthcurno’s underground and submarine cable communications.