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The Texts - John Constable

The Holy Hole

The clanging bell was of this world, announcing a Mass to be said at one of the altars in the north aisle. Monks and other Pilgrims were already hurtling across the nave. Brother Godwin smiled, seeming to read his mind:

'To say you've partaken of the Mass, it's enough to have witnessed the Elevation of the Host, which is preceded by the ringing of the bell. Hence the somewhat undignified stampede. I'd like to believe that Our Lord takes more account of the quality than the quantity of our observances. For you, as a lay pilgrim, the one Mass will suffice.'

Benedict nodded, content to keep his place in the shuffling line of pilgrims, all patiently awaiting their communion with St Swithun's relics. For reasons he couldn't fathom, but which seemed to augur well, Brother Godwin had taken him under his wing. He'd come upon Benedict lurking outside the west door, staring uncertainly at the pointing fingers carved in the wall to separate the < PRECI from the AMBULA >

'This way to pray. That way to walk. You look as if you're here for the shrine. Do you need letting in? I'm Godwin.'


'Benedict. "The Blessed". That's what it means, you know. And ours is a Benedictine Order. You'll feel at home here.'

Having escorted him to a side altar to receive the Holy Sacrament, Godwin had joined Benedict in the line that snaked along the south aisle towards St Swithun's shrine. He pointed out the stonemasons high up on the scaffolding.

'They're literally carving a new Gothic cathedral out of the old Minster. See there, those arches cut through the old gallery level - how tall and graceful and slender they are? - that's the new perpendicular style. But it's not just a question of aesthetics. Those arches can bear much more weight than the Roman arches which rely on mass and bulk.'

As he spoke, Benedict became aware of how the Cathedral echoed to the tap-tap-tap of hammers and chisels. He didn't know why, but it put him in mind of a beehive.

'I'm afraid building Cathedrals wasn't the Normans' forte. One of their towers collapsed, and the nave was in danger of subsiding. It used to extend another forty or so feet to the west. The last Bishop removed a couple of towers and bays, and rebuilt the west face with the window. William of Wykeham has carried on the work. This here's his chantry... '

Benedict peered through the barred Gothic arch window, into what looked like a miniature Cathedral, complete with its own fan-vaulting and altar-screen. Bishop Wykeham's marble effigy was laid out as on his death bed, clad in intricately carved and painted robes and mitre, hands clasped in prayer, his crosier tucked under his left arm. His eyes were open, as if in contemplation of Eternity.

'When the Bishop dies, Masses will be sung here, to speed his soul to Paradise. He chose this place himself. Apparently, it's where he first received Mass, when he was taken in here, as a young man of promise. He comes from a poor family - well, not peasants, but educated yeoman-stock - much like yourself, Benedict! Now he's the Bishop of Winchester and Chancellor of all England!'

The line shuffled forward, through the south transept with its rounded Roman arches, then up steps and along past the Quire.

'You should see the carving in the choir-stalls, Benedict! There's a whole enchanted forest in there - lions and monkeys and a Green Man with branches sprouting from his mouth!'

And on, into the Inner Sanctum behind the Quire, the floor aglow with thousands of patterned tiles. Here, the line dissolved into a vast crowd of pilgrims wheeling round and pressing in on the centre of an elaborately carved stone screen. Pushing forward, he saw a child-sized arch, perhaps a yard high by a foot wide, the "holy hole" into the chamber beneath the platform bearing Swithun's bones. The sides of the arch were stained with sweaty palm-prints. One by one, the pilgrims crouched down and disappeared into the hole. A monk guarded the entrance, ensuring that at least one pilgrim re-emerged before the next was allowed in. At last, Benedict felt his own hand on the cold stone, as he squeezed through, into the press of clammy flesh.

We are the Old Guides. We hold

The keys to the Tower and the Crypt.

We put our own gloss on the history.

The young visitors regard us as integral parts

Of the whole inscrutable Mystery.

We say: 'Don't you think the Green Man

Looks a bit like Professor Jimmy

Edwards?' We get blank looks.

In their eyes, we are old as the Holy Hole

Or the names in the Regimental Books.

Remembrance. The bugler

Strafing the packed silence. We spit and polish

A coffin fit to lay the Prince of Wales in.

We are the Old Guard, stiff upper lip

Even when we hammer the nails in.

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