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

Winter is icumen in…

Icumen in
Icumen in

I’ve wangled my way into the Winter volume of this set of lovely anthologies – edited by the fabulous Melissa Harrison and out on Eliott and Thompson books. It’s off the back of some stuff I’ve been doing over at Some Small Corner and I couldn’t be happier. It’s only short, and it’s weird being alongside Coleridge, Gilbert White and Kathleen Jamie, but damn I’ll take it! Buy ten copies. Or one.

The Voices of Anne Briggs.

ab

We all dream of escaping. If not in our waking lives, then subsumed, interred – to reappear in our dreamlives, in the whorls and ditches of landscapes where we run in the howling wind and hide. Hide. But imagine escaping as Anne Briggs did?

She was, by all accounts, a difficult creature, seemingly always already in the act of escaping: into unconsciousness, into the wreck of nature, into the sea. By 1973, leaving behind a small raft of recordings, she escaped fully – into the Hebridean blue, taking all that frail talent and running with it, into that same wind, into the far reaches of the north, deciding best to keep it buried: invisible, totemic – a Hadean lodestone for the curious, those seeking exaltation, beatitude.

Otheworldly is a horribly overused word, but in her recordings, and in this brief documentary it is how she comes across – a stranger, an eidolon, stripped bare by the gaze of the world. But the voice, the voice: that siteless, mapless expanse – there, there she is present, laughing into the void.