UK Trip XIV: Winchester and Chawton

Our final day was a bonus, because we hadn't expected to have all day to drive in.  Our plan was to get from Salisbury to Heathrow by late afternoon, so we could stay at a large motel right by the airport and not have to worry about getting to our flight.  We debated what to do and settled on visiting Winchester and then Chawton.  They were good choices!

Arriving in Winchester, we parked at a teeny little lot fairly close to the cathedral, mostly because of Fiona the sat-nav.  Winchester is quite tricky to drive in and I think we might have passed the large statue of Alfred the Great more than once!  We thought we would just pop into the cathedral and not stay very long, because we had seen at least one church per day and honestly, we were pretty cathedraled out, despite being pretty dedicated fans.  Two hours later, we exited the cathedral, exclaiming over what a fascinating place it is!

Winchester Cathedral was first founded in 642; that old building is known as the Old Minster and was demolished once the current building was dedicated in 1093, only fourteen years after its beginning in 1079.  St. Swithun was buried near the Old Minster and then moved into the new building, and he is its patron saint.  On our way in, we passed a pub called The Bishop on the Bridge, and it's named after a St. Swithun story in which he miraculously fixed a woman's basket of eggs which had been broken.

Jane Austen is buried at Winchester, which I did not know; when she got really ill, her sister Cassandra moved her into town for more attention and she died there.  She is right on the north side (and of course her stone says nothing about her literary work, but there is a display too).  She is quite close to the old Norman font, which looks downright Celtic and features St. Nicholas.

The north transept was particularly exciting; it currently houses the Winchester Bible in a little house of its own--at least, one volume of it.  You can see it open, and there are large photos of particularly beautiful pages on the walls of the little house (one being the Morgan Leaf, a page that was removed and which resides in the Morgan Library).  I didn't know much about this Bible, really--and I still don't; we bought a book I'm going to read--but it was commissioned to be a major work of art, and it is.  It was finished before the new cathedral was begun, by about 1175.  It's also huge!  I was pretty impressed to learn that all of the calligraphy was done by one scribe.  The illumination was by six different people, but one of those artists also did frescoes in a tiny chapel off the north transept, and those still survive.  So we could see his art in the book and on the walls!

This little man kept popping in and out of the Bible's house and around us, talking and explaining all the time.  He was very nice, but it was quite funny to see him; he was a bit like a squirrel.

The crypt is accessible from the north transept, too.  Visitors mostly can't go down into the crypt, because it floods a lot.  It was mid-June, but it hadn't really dried out yet, so we stood on a sort of observation deck and looked at the crypt.  It's empty except for a statue of a person contemplating water held in his cupped hands, which we really liked.

Medieval frescoes by a Bible artist

The damp crypt

There are some very famous people in mortuary chests in the cathedral, but sadly they were not accessible when we visited; I forget why.  I think they are investigating them.  Anyway, King Canute is in there, and William Rufus.  I would have really liked to see King Canute's box; I'm quite fond of him.

We were especially fascinated, though, with the story of Diver Bill.  There is this bust of a diver, and it says that William Walker saved the cathedral "with his own two hands."  This is a fairly surprising statement, I think, and so we asked a docent about it.  He explained that the cathedral was built on peat (!!) and so as soon as it was done, it started sinking and subsiding a bit.  By 1900, there were cracks you could put an arm into--and here he pointed at the walls, showing how they are in fact a little out of true.  They had to build supporting walls, but to do that they would have to drain all the groundwater, which would cause the building to collapse.  So they dug pits in the peat, and Diver Bill went down every day into complete darkness and put in concrete to shore things up so they could eventually pump the water out and build the walls.  It took years of work.

I liked the floor tiles.

Diver Bill, who saved the cathedral

Then we saw the memorial shrine to St. Swithun.  It's right up near the altar, and the floor here is the oldest tiles I'd seen; I think the sign said they were the real medieval thing, whereas mostly we'd seen later replicas.  Swithun's shrine was covered with an embroidered cloth quoting his rhyme, about how if it rains on St. Swithun's day it will rain for another forty days.  The day in question is July 15!  And here we thought it was more like Groundhog Day.

The quire was medieval and in lovely shape, with lots of interesting carving of vines, beasts, and men--and even a green man or so to keep everybody happy.

The quire

The altar screen

A set of icons

Just as we were on our way out, we passed a station with two gentlemen sitting there selling bookmarks and cards and things, and a sign said that this was the cathedral scribe.  One of them really was the guy who does all the calligraphy!  We could pick out a bookmark, and he would write a name and then laminate it.  So we all got beautiful bookmarks with our names written on them.  They were awfully nice and chatted with us quite a bit.

It was a bit rainy, and we visited the shop and put more money in the parking meter before we walked through the high street area to get to the Great Hall.  This is all that is left of the once-large Winchester Castle.  The Hall was an addition by Henry III, who was born at the castle.  It was founded in 1067, as William was consolidating power, and extended by Edward II, but now just the Hall is left.  And it's pretty empty except for a lot of neat painting on the walls and the very famous Round Table.  Of course, it's not King Arthur's Round Table, which is fictional anyway, and we wondered about the history.  Did people think it was real, or not?

"Queen Eleanor's Garden," but it was raining enough that we didn't go out

We found out that the table was constructed by Edward I for a big Arthurian-themed party in the 13th century.  It didn't seem that anyone at the time meant it to be taken for the real thing--Edward really liked to throw Arthur parties and he wasn't the only one--but pretty soon lots of people believed it anyway.  Henry VIII ordered it painted for his own purposes, which explains the massive Tudor rose in the middle.  The portrait of Arthur bears a pretty strong resemblance to the young Henry, too.  It became a propaganda tool to legitimize Tudor rule--look, you can see that Henry must be a descendant of Arthur!

We had fun trying to decipher the knights' names around the table.  Some were easy, and some were impossible, but we spotted Galahad, Lamorak, Kay, Lancelot, Mordred, and Bors.  I was most proud of finding Bedevere, who was very tricky to read.

We got back in the car and drove to the village of Chawton--Jane Austen's last home.  Her brother Edward owned an estate nearby, including the house, and Mrs. Austen, Cassandra, and Jane lived there together for eight years.  They have it set up very nicely to look something as it might have done in those days, though of course mostly with replica furnishings.  Relatives have donated quite a few family items too, so there are many interesting items to see.  The walls are decorated with framed illustrations from the novels, as well as family portraits and letters.

There is a lovely garden too

In the main room, Miss Austen's actual table is preserved; it's a very small twelve-sided table, now quite scarred up since it spent some later years in the kitchen or something.

Upstairs is the bedroom Jane and Cassandra shared.  How they got two beds in is a bit of a mystery to me; there is only one right now.  Other upstairs rooms hold many family items.

Part of the bedroom; it was hard to get pictures.

In a small passage down the hall is a display case with the most precious items: Jane's personal jewelry, the topaz cross and turquoise ring, a beautifully embroidered muslin scarf, and the quilt.  It's currently hung so that you can only see about a fourth of it, but since it is symmetrical both ways, you can tell what it all looks like.  It is so amazing to me that we have a patchwork sewn by Jane Austen; 200-year-old quilts are extremely rare, and ones stitched by genius novelists even rarer!

The quilt is quite a big deal to me, so when we got downstairs I asked if there was anyone who knew a lot about it that I could talk to.  It took a little while to find Sue, but once she was found, we sat down and she talked for about half an hour, telling me all sorts of wonderful details about it.  She has seen the wrong side of it!  (It's not quilted, only backed.)  The project she wants to do next is to catalog all the fabrics used in the patchwork and see if any can be matched to other known samples, which would be quite a job.  So if there are any PhD students around who want to help with that, there should be enough for a few theses in that project.

A fuller view; it was once hung like this.

You should understand, this patchwork is really something.  It's all diamonds with a lattice sashing, and the fabric they used for the sashing must have been an extremely long, narrow piece, because they had to piece the sashing--no bit is more than a couple of inches long, not even as large as a diamond side.  Then, the border is made of a couple thousand tiny diamonds--and every single bit is symmetrical both ways.  The pattern is reflected vertically and horizontally.  Sue told us that it seems to be an original pattern; no other similar patchwork is known, though it's possible they actually produced two and the other was lost.  One mystery is that the piece of chintz in the center doesn't really seem to fit--the picture is too large for its frame.  They wonder if perhaps it was a different piece at first, and then changed later.

I actually made a quilt last year inspired by the Jane Austen patchwork.  It's not exactly the same size, and I didn't do the border of tiny diamonds, but I did try to get the same feeling in my fabric choices, and it's symmetrical too.  Even by machine, it was quite a bit of work!  I'll put a photo at the end of this post so it doesn't get mixed up.  (If you want to sew a Jane Austen quilt, get Linda Franz's Jane Austen Patchwork Mystery, which has exactly the same size diamonds.  It's a funny size of a diamond, and other patterns have changed it; one uses squares.)

We also discovered a funny coincidence.  Sue mentioned that she had been in Bath a few days earlier, on Saturday, for a wedding in the Assembly Rooms.  We exclaimed that we had been there, and had seen them setting up for the wedding.  Sue explained that the bride actually works at the Chawton house a couple of days a week, despite living near Bath, so it made perfect sense to have the wedding at the Rooms.  We thought that was pretty fun.

When we went into the shop after the tour, they had just gotten in some of those stuffed fabric ornaments.  My mom, ever entranced by a naval man, got Captain Wentworth, and my daughter bought Mr. Darcy for her friend who loves him.  (That was a big hit.)

And that was pretty much the end of our trip.  After that it was all driving in the Heathrow complex--which is more like LA than London--returning the car, and hanging out in a giant motel until morning.  (I tell you what, the soundproofing in that building is phenomenal.)  The trickiest bit was catching the shuttle bus; it turned out to cost £5 for anyone over 14, and we had exactly £10 left in our pockets.  Luckily for us, the nice bus driver decided that my daughter must be 14.  Once we got to Heathrow, we turned in our Oyster cards and had £20 to buy lunch with, so we ended richer than we began.

And that's it!  The trip of a lifetime!  I'm so grateful that we got to go.

My Jane Austen quilt, before quilting.


  1. I was entranced with this post, all the amazing history bits and getting to see your own Jane Austen quilt was amazing. I have zero talents, so seeing people's work blows my mind. It's so beautiful! And been able to see Jane Austen's stuff and her own quilt must have been a touching experience. Only seeing them through your pictures, I felt awed. And that cathedral was beautiful as well.

  2. What a beautiful cathedral. I can see why you'd be "cathedraled out" given all the churches you visited, but am glad this one turned out to be so fascinating. Such history there! And what a nice surprise to discover Jane Austen is buried in Winchester! The patchwork is gorgeous!

    Thank you for sharing your trip with us, Jean. I want to visit there now even more than before.

  3. Love it, especially the patchwork -- I did not know about that! Now I really have to go to Chawton.

  4. What a fascinating cathedral -- even after all the other cathedrals. I loved the story of Diver Bill.

    That's so cool that you found someone to provide all that information about Jane Austen's patchwork. And your quilt is beautiful!


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