AS one of the most well-known authors of the last 30 years you wouldn’t expect him to be easily humbled.
But a mere mention of the word “cathedral” and you can’t help but smile at the excitement in his voice.
Marking the 25th anniversary of one of his most talked-about books, The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett shared his inner-most thoughts about what he loved about Winchester cathedral and why, after all these years, he wouldn’t change a thing.
“The cathedral was built in the 12th century when Winchester was the most important town in England, largely because the King’s treasury was here, so it had to play a big role,” he said. “It’s very important to me that you can still see the medieval layout of Winchester; you can walk around and visualise the sights and sounds that were there before.
“The interesting thing about cathedrals is why they are there. We know they were very difficult and expensive to build and we know that many people were extremely poor and had crude tools and did not have the tools to build such an important building. Why were these people so prepared to risk everything to build this?”
His book, still popular after a quarter-of-a-century, has prompted cathedral officials to ask him to present a talk entitled Why Cathedrals? as part of a tour around some of the country’s most iconic cathedrals.
“I still take the same pleasure in cathedrals that allowed me to write the book in the first place and to be asked back to give a presentation is absolutely marvellous. Just visiting these places renews my admiration.
“I’m very pleased that people are still reading this book,” he said. “Most novels come and go and are forgotten after a few years and the fact that people are still talking about it is very pleasing. It’s tremendously gratifying to still have readers come and ask me questions. I wanted to write something that would stay with people. If I had to do it all again I wouldn’t dare tinker with it.
“By contrast, these magnificent buildings were built by people who slept on the floor. The lives they led were so basic and yet the churches they built are so beautiful. It’s a very difficult task to do but they are so gorgeous to look at; it’s all to do with the architecture with the windows and the arches. It’s that contrast that I find so interesting. Human beings have this tremendous urge to rise up above their circumstances and build something beautiful.
“Winchester is built in several different styles; lots of bits have been renewed over the years. That’s the great charm of them – they are a mish-mash of different styles.”
His research took him into the depths of Winchester history which he said has not changed dramatically since he was last here studying for a book that his publishers didn’t think would succeed.
“I discovered in my research that tanning was an important process in this city and the trade required gallons of water,” he said. “The river was diverted so that tanners had plenty of water to hand. That’s the kind of thing that’s still evident in Winchester today that helped me to visualise the Winchester of the Middle Ages.
When asked what he enjoyed most about his research there’s almost a fondness in his tone.
He said: “Regardless of whether you’re religious or not there’s something spiritual that happens when you enter a cathedral. There’s a spiritual calm that falls over you, with the cold air, and part of that is because these places have been here for so many years. I’m looking forward to feeling that again.”
The Pillars of the Earth is available to buy from most bookshops for £9.99 rrp.