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Diver William Walker

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Diver William Walker, smiling quietly as he is dressed in his diving suit, which weighed 200lbs.

Earlier today we wrote about a man who used his hands to make women and children safe in Afghanistan.

Years before him, another hero saved a cathedral "with his own two hands" (Citation, Royal Victorian Order). Except for William Walker, Winchester Cathedral would be a ruin.

The Cathedral was built in water meadows and over a spring. Due to this boggy terrain, the cathedral’s foundations were laid on rafts of beech logs when construction began in AD 1079.

Over the centuries, the immersed beech rafts remained sturdy and intact, but as the land around was drained, they began to dry out and rot. As the beech raft disintegrated, the Cathedral began to sink. In 1905, the Cathedral was on the verge of collapse.

Civil engineer Francis Fox and architect Thomas Jackson were brought in to figure out a solution. They decided to prop up the Cathedral using concrete blocks, bricks and cement. (Fortunately for them, in 1824 Joseph Aspdin, a bricklayer and builder, had developed a process for grinding and burning clay and limestone to create Portland cement, a material that hardened when mixed with water.)

To bring blocks and bricks to the foundations, 20-foot-deep trenches were dug, but they immediately filled with water. Someone would have to go down into the pitch-dark water, and lay bags of Portland cement that would prevent any more water from entering. Once that was done, the trenches could be pumped dry, and masons could lay hundreds of thousands of concrete blocks and bricks.

There were not many divers in the country in 1905, but there was one willing to take on the job. William Walker had trained at Portsmouth's naval dockyard, and in the words of cathedral historian Dr John Crook, he was "doggedly determined".

Walker went down alone into the trenches, laying 25,000 "bags of cement concrete", and tugging on the rope around his waist when he had run out of oxygen and was ready to come up. It was 1911 before he was done (Oxford DNB).

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Today the spring continues to bubble under the high altar. In the crypt, the bronze sculpture of a figure stands reflected in the mirror of water that darkens the stone floor, but the Cathedral is safe.

Image: Dr John Crook, Winchester Cathedral

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Winchester Cathedral nave. When I visited, it reminded me of a forest of beech trees.

Image: Dr John Crook, Winchester Cathedral

'Ordinary' people built and saved this Cathedral.

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