William Walker, a quiet hero

 

william-walker
William Walker

 

Unless you’ve been to Winchester Cathedral, (and unless you’ve been to a particular corner of Winchester Cathedral), you probably won’t have heard of William Walker. He’s one of my quiet heroes.

In 1905 it was discovered that the retrochoir, the space behind the cathedral’s high altar, added to the original structure in the 13th century and built as a shrine for St. Swithun, was gradually sinking into the earth. (And yes, that saint: ‘St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain/ For forty days it will remain’ – water is truly inescapable in all this). The truth of it is that the entire structure of the cathedral, built on a bed of peat and gravel, is sinking, but for now, it remains relatively stable; the retrochoir, however, was on a comparatively uncompressed layer of peat and was sinking faster than the rest. Architects and archaeologists were called in to assess the situation and came up with an ingenious solution. Essentially, trenches, or drifts, 18-20ft in depth, were cut alongside and beneath the sinking walls and foundations, with the idea that the layer of compressing peat  – some four feet thick, and generally encountered at around 16ft – could be pierced, removed and new foundations built upwards from the solid bed of gravel. The main problem was that when the peat was pierced the drift would almost completely fill with water; laying concrete in these conditions was impossible.

Enter one William Walker, an already renowned diver and part of the famous Siebe Gorman Ltd group. Walker’s task was to enter the drift in his 200-pound diving suit, where, working in absolute darkness, he would scrape away the remnants of the layer of peat. The peat was then hoisted to the surface in buckets, and Walker would lay huge bags of concrete on the gravel floor, bags which could be slashed open and left to harden for a 24 hour period. These would seal the hole, the drift could be pumped free of excess water, and more traditional brickies could then enter the hole and complete the laying of new foundations beneath the cathedral.

If that sounds like a huge undertaking, consider that it took Walker, diving almost single-handedly, the best part of five years to complete. Five years of 8-hour days in the darkness, bumping into half revealed coffins (for these were old burial grounds) and wearing a massive encumbrance, the boots alone of which weighed 20 pounds each. And at the end of each working week he’d cycle home – 70 miles to Croydon. If the project was considered a total success, it is of course only a temporary reprieve: the cathedral, built on shifting ground and with an unpredictable water table, will eventually be pulled apart.

In terms of a suitable salute to Walker, this track, recorded by Oli Barrett, performing under his Petrels moniker, is just the thing. It’s from the Haeligewielle album, released in 2011, an album full of tracks broadly related to songs of water, songs of stone, and mostly based in the vaults of Hampshire’s haunted chalk halls. As the drones surge, Walker’s mantra, to hold, to hold, is almost submerged, but not totally. Not just now.

Alone I work, while all around me darkness swirls.
Of sinking stone.
I will not stop until all these walls have found their cause,
To hold.
To hold.

 

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The sunlight on the garden

The sunlight on the garden
Hardens and grows cold,
We cannot cage the minute
Within its nets of gold,
When all is told
We cannot beg for pardon.

Our freedom as free lances
Advances towards its end;
The earth compels, upon it
Sonnets and birds descend;
And soon, my friend,
We shall have no time for dances.

The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying

And not expecting pardon,
Hardened in heart anew,
But glad to have sat under
Thunder and rain with you,
And grateful too
For sunlight on the garden.

Louis MacNeice

No End

I awoke one morning last week, with the wisps of this evaporating in the last breaths of a dream. I was on a beach in the Mediterranean, aAlong which were strung low signs, calling people to come and celebrate leaving the EU. I tried to take a photograph of one of the signs when a wave crashed over me and washed me up the beach. As I came to rest, a woman was singing, gently, eyes on the middle-distance.

Did it really have no meaning?
Well, I never thought I’d hear those words from you
Who needs a meaning anyway?
I’d settle any day for a very fine view.

I think many of us have lost our belief in the power of language in the last few months. It feels epochal as if we’re about to shift (or have shifted) into a new space, a space that floats free of the old bonds.There has been a great, grand cheapening of the truth, the very grounds of meaning usurped by a new clowning mischief, irrevocably disrupted and unmoored. Maybe it’s a necessary corrective, a welcome into the epistemic uncertainty always experienced by those not in the slipstream of the seats of power. Whichever, it’s terrifying, and one finds oneself wanting to retreat into a space of monkish silence. To pick up the leaves, wander in the void of the woods among the simpler truths of those bare, ruined choirs.

I’ve travelled more than forty miles today, I must have grown some wings.
It’s strange how time just seems to fly away, I can’t remember things.
In a world of my own they say and who can blame them, they’re just not the same.
I’ve known about it all along though I thought I was all wrong, and it’s such a shame.

And beyond all of this, a friend and family member is in the reachless fathoms of dementia. He is cared for by the most extraordinary people, in the most extraordinary, selfless ways. He is an erasure, and they, in turn, suffer a kind of erasure themselves. But they continue to search for him and provide the softest, safest space for his gradual and terminal disappearing. Onward he goes, propelled by who knows what mysteries, into the trackless wild. K, as you go, they are there, they are there, and that heat you feel, that is they, brandishing the weight of love’s flaming torches.

Deer

I wrote a poem a while back. Ash Akhtar read it and decided to do something with it. He got the miraculous Christopher Fairbank to read it (yes, that one), wrote some beautiful music and made this short film. It’s a privilege to have been involved.

See more of Ash’s fantastic work, and some of our other collaborations over at the Fervent Arts YouTube channel.