Well I promised you a sneak peak at some of my favorite English cathedrals (and some of the inspirations for The Lost Book of the Grail, which is set in an English cathedral) so here we go. Because my English cottage is in the Cotswolds, there are several great cathedrals that we can reach in an easy day trip. One of these is Winchester, which has special meaning to me. Not only does one of the earliest scenes in The Bookman’s Tale take place in Winchester (at the tomb of Bishop William of Wykeham, pictured below), but one of the final scenes in my novel First Impressions leads to the grave of Jane Austen, just yards away from Wykeham’s tomb at the west end of the nave. So Winchester has literary associations for me and for any Jane Austen fan (she died in a house just outside the cathedral precincts). Also near Austen’s tomb is what I think is one of the most beautiful wall memorials in any cathedral—a lovely mosaic of an angel holding a harp.
The nave that William of Wykeham build is glorious, and although the tower is fairly squat, giving the exterior a truncated look, the west façade is about as good as it gets, with a massive stained glass window. At the west end of the nave, near Austen’s grave, is a little staircase you can climb about thirty feet up to get a spectacular view down the side aisle.
The cathedral place is filled with wonderful spots. The Epiphany Chapel has four of my favorite stained glass windows—all by the Pre-Raphaelite influenced artist Edward Burne-Jones. This chapel was the inspiration for the fictional Epiphany Chapel in Barchester Cathedral in my novel. Not far from that chapel is the entrance into the crypt, which is usually filled with water (a fact alluded to in my novel). The east end of the cathedral sits on soft, wet ground, and was in danger of collapse in the early 20th century, when a diver named William Walker spent hundreds of hours underwater helping to shore up the east walls. There is a memorial to him near the spot where he saved the cathedral.
In the south transept is a different kind of memorial—one to Victorian ostentation. It is the memorial to Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, who famously debated Darwin’s theory of Evolution at Oxford in the 1860s. He died falling off a horse, and this memorial, designed by George Gilbert Scott, while full of lovely detail, is altogether out of proportion to the transept in which it sits, if you ask me. George Gilbert Scott saved and rebuilt countless cathedrals and parish churches during the 19th century, and I think his work is some of the best and the worst that the Victorians had to offer (I have a piece of furniture he designed for Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford in my living room). As a whole, I think this memorial is just too much, but I love this detail of a thurifer swinging his incense.
The town of Winchester is also a wonderful spot. You can walk out to the Hospital of St. Cross (a sort of medieval old folks home that still operates) and ask for your “wayfarer’s dole.” This was a meal offered to pilgrims getting ready to leave on the long road to Canterbury and the shrine of Thomas Becket. Today you will receive a cup of beer and a slice of bread to speed you on your way. From there, hike to the top of St. Catherine’s Hill to walk the ancient turf maze cut into the chalky soil. Back in town you can wander narrow medieval streets and visit the “round table of King Arthur.” But the cathedral will always draw you back. Be sure to stop in for Evensong, and hear the voices of the choir echo on the ancient stones. The music of the great cathedrals was as much an inspiration in my writing as anything, and evensong is the perfect way to end your day at Winchester.