The East Prospect of Winchester from the hill
go high enough see further;
the making of England; the long song.
The story in the stones, the lie of the land.
“Winchester from St. Giles’ Hill” from the CD English Electric (Part One)
Words and music by Greg Spawton
As Greg describes it “the song is an historical view of the development of the city and of (as Peter Ackroyd calls it) the ‘long song’ of England.”
One of the (many) things that first made Carol fall in love with Big Big Train was her love of history, and particularly, English history. So many of their songs speak to the stories, great and small, of the people and the landscapes that form that history. And if there is a city that exemplifies the ‘long song of England,’ it is Winchester. Occupied from pre-historic times, evidence still exists of iron-age hillforts, Roman city walls, Saxon street plans, and medieval castles. Most importantly, Winchester is the city of Alfred the Great, the 10th Century King of Wessex, who, yes, defeated the Vikings, but, in the process, laid the social and physical foundations for the country that would become England.
Our visit to Winchester was only a few days, but we made the most of it. A beautiful city, easily walkable, it blends past and present with 14th century houses harmoniously situated next to modern structures. The street layout is still based on Alfred’s design. The River Itchen originally flowed near where the Cathedral is today, but the Romans redirected it to just outside the city walls, reducing flooding and creating a natural moat. It still flows there today. We visited Winchester Cathedral, built starting in 1079, replacing the 7th Century Saxon Cathedral the footprint of which can still be seen. (See below for the incredible of how the Cathedral was saved from collapse in the early 20th century).
We went to the ruins of Wolvesey Castle, former home to the Bishops of Winchester and which played a key role in the 12th century civil war known as the Anarchy. We visited the remains of the 13th century Winchester Castle including the still standing Great Hall where, for you Shakespeare lovers, Henry V received the French Ambassadors and their gift of tennis balls. Going further back in time, we climbed up to Oram’s Arbour, site of one of several iron age hill forts in the area. And, of course, climbed St. Giles’ Hill with its panoramic view of Winchester and the surrounding landscape which inspired the Big Big Train song.
Two worlds apart
The people say their Sunday prayers
Music fills the vaulted space
The organ covers up the hammer falls
But the water’s edge is closer than you think…..
From the CD, “The Underfall Yard.” Words and music by Greg Spawton
“Winchester Diver” tells the incredible story of William Walker who saved the Cathedral from collapse in the early 1900s.
The Cathedral, originally built in the 11th Century and added on to since, was built on a bed of soft peat. In the early 20th Century, cracks began to be noticed in the foundations and it became apparent that the entire structure was sinking slowly into the ground and was in danger of collapse.
Bricklayers were needed to build supporting walls, but the groundwater was too high and needed to be lowered. The danger was that the removal of the groundwater could cause the building to collapse. William Walker, a diver from the Portsmouth Dockyard was called in. Working in complete darkness, under 6 metres of water, Walker placed 25,000 bags of concrete, 115,000 concrete blocks and 900,000 bricks to shore up the walls so that bricklayers could finish the job. It took him six years.
There is a line from the song which goes “He hadn’t much of a story to tell, just how he stopped the walls from falling down.” Walker never thought of himself as a hero. He thought he was just a man doing his job.
There is a small bust of him inside of the Cathedral and another on the Cathedral grounds near the Refectory. The plaque inside the Cathedral reads:
William Walker – diver
1869 – 1918
…who saved the Cathedral with is own hands…
1906 – 1911