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winchester cathedral VISITOR Centre


winchester, UK writer

Kenneth powell photography

jonathan moore Winchester Cathedral

is one of the most spectacular medieval buildings in England, notable for the extraordinary quality of its architecture, furnishings and monuments. Its splendours are, however, largely internal: in contrast to Durham or York, Canterbury or Ely Cathedrals, Winchester Cathedral makes little impact on the surrounding streets, with only a squat central tower relieving its horizontal mass. Appropriately in this context, the cathedral’s visitor centre is a discreet presence in the historic Close. The project was carried out by ArchitecturePLB in two phases, the first during 1992–93 (under the original practice name of Plincke, Leaman & Browning) and the second in 1998–99. Discreet as it is, the centre has proved to be a remarkable success, an amenity as much for the city as for the cathedral’s ever-growing number of visitors – currently more than 300,000 annually. Until the Reformation, the

cathedral was also the church of a Benedictine monastery. Within half a century or so after the Dissolution, the monastic buildings, including the great cloister, had been demolished.

In contrast to many other cathedrals, no structure which might have been converted to provide visitor facilities existed at Winchester – the idea of a building extending along the south side of the nave was quickly (and rightly) dismissed. The cathedral’s 900th anniversary in 1993 was preceded by a major fundraising campaign, largely to provide for overdue fabric repairs but also funding the visitor centre. The site for the latter, immediately to the west of the cathedral, was that of a medieval cemetery chapel, the remains of which, subsequently incorporated into a coach house for one of the canons’ houses, were Grade I-listed and a scheduled ancient monument. Hidden behind a wall up to 7m high, incorporating remnants of medieval masonry, the largely forgotten site had been used as a burial ground since Saxon times, with Roman remains beneath discovered during archaeological investigations. It soon became clear, given English Heritage’s involvement, that the constraints on any scheme for developing the site would be quite severe. The most significant constraint

was the imperative to leave archaeological remains undisturbed – some of them were little more than a metre below ground level and the alternative was likely to be a comprehensive, costly and time-consuming excavation of the whole site. The competition-winning scheme for the centre had proposed a two-storey timber-framed structure, requiring piled foundations around 3m deep. In consultation with structural engineer Anthony Ward Partnership the scheme was rethought, producing proposals for a single-storey building, with a lightweight steel structure, sitting on a raft foundation floating above the archaeological remains. The new scheme won planning consent, with English Heritage endorsement, late in 1991 and went on site in October 1992, with practical completion 12 months later and

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