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England’s smallest cathedral city

Wells

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Wells Cathedral and Cathedral Green

We recently spent a few days in the Somerset city of Wells, often described as England’s smallest city. In fact, the City of London is smaller, but doesn’t feel like it, surrounded as it is by all the rest of Greater London!

Wells gets its name from the three wells found here – two in the Bishop’s Palace gardens and one in the market place. Thanks to them the Romans settled here, and after them the Anglo-Saxons. King Ine of Wessex founded a minster church here in 704. Two hundred years later it became the seat of the diocesan bishop, until in 1090 the bishopric was moved to Bath. Arguments ensued between the canons of Wells and the monks of Bath until 1245 when Pope Innocent V resolved the dispute by creating the Diocese of Bath and Wells. The cathedral was built around the same time, cementing Wells’ role as the principal seat of the diocese.

The main sights in the city all centre on its role as the bishop’s seat – the cathedral itself, the cathedral green and nearby Vicars’ Close, and the Bishop’s Palace and Gardens. These all lie within a walled precinct known as the Liberty of St Andrew.

Wells Cathedral

The cathedral is dedicated to St Andrew, as are the city’s three wells. Parts date back to the 10th century but most of it was built during the 13th. As it was never a monastic cathedral it survived the Dissolution of Henry VIII and the Reformation intact. It has been called Europe's first truly Gothic structure.

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The West Front, Wells Cathedral

The west front is broad and is said to have one of the most impressive collections of medieval sculpture in the western world. Almost 300 of the original 400 statues remain. According to the cathedral website, ‘They appear quite differently today to how they looked in the Middle Ages, when much of the Cathedral was painted inside and out in bright colours’. I think I prefer them like this, in the soft yellow local limestone.

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Two of the many statues

Inside, the fan vaulted ceiling is attractively painted, and the central tower supported by striking ‘scissor’ arches. These were added in the mid 14th century to prevent the tower from collapsing. This 1313 addition to the cathedral had been too much for the foundations, causing large cracks to appear in the tower’s structure. This elegant solution to the problem has become one of the building’s most beautiful features.

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The interior, with the famous scissor arches

There is some wonderful stained glass, most famously in the so-called Jesse Window. This dates from 1340-45 and depicts the Tree of Jesse (the family and ancestors of Christ), with the Nativity at its centre. Again from the cathedral website: ‘Dating from about 1340, it is still remarkably intact – it narrowly escaped destruction during the English Civil War and was protected during the Blitz of World War Two – so what we see today is much as the medieval glaziers designed it and as our ancestors viewed it before us.’ Unfortunately, COVID restrictions on access to the smaller areas of the cathedral meant that we were only able to peer at this through a screen at the far end of the choir, but we got some idea from there of its artistry and level of detail.

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The Jesse Window

The Chapter House was also off-limits, but there was plenty to see in the main cathedral building, including the astronomical clock in the north transept - the second oldest surviving clock in England after the one in Salisbury Cathedral. It dates from about 1325 and still has its original medieval face, although the mechanism was replaced in the 19th century with the original being moved to the Science Museum in London, where it still operates. In addition to showing the time on a 24-hour dial, its innermost circle shows the days of the lunar month and the phases of the moon. The astronomical dial presents a pre-Copernican view, with the sun and moon revolving round a central fixed earth.

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Astronomical clock, and one of the Stations of the Cross

I also liked the Stations of the Cross with colours that reminded me of Orthodox icons.

We followed a set route around the building, marked out on the floor to ensure social distancing – a necessary evil at the time of our visit. This led us to explore the tranquil Camery garden, laid out to the east of the cloisters on the site of the 15th century Lady Chapel of which only the foundation stones remain. The rest was dismantled during the 16th century so that timber and lead could be sold to provide much-needed funds to the cathedral. There were some good views of the cathedral tower to be had from here and some pretty late summer flowers to photograph.

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In the Camery Garden

We finished our tour by following the marked route, the ‘Pilgrim’s Footsteps’, around the cloisters. These date mainly from the 15th century and have been quite recently restored. The walls display monuments to illustrious locals, and/or those wealthy enough to afford an ornate cathedral memorial. My eye was caught by one in particular, to a soldier who served under a ‘Great General’ (I assume Wellington) and died in the Battle of Waterloo. Also commemorated is a young boy of the same family who was only five when he died and yet ‘had strong religious impressions’ – not something I feel would be said of today’s five year olds!

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In the cloisters

Vicars’ Close

Just to the north of the cathedral, still within the precinct of the Liberty of St Andrew, is a short street known as Vicars’ Close. Its houses were built in the 14th and early 15th centuries as homes for the group of priests who served in the cathedral, the Vicars Choral. This is said to be the oldest purely residential street in Europe to have its original buildings surviving intact. Unusually it was built with a deliberate narrowing towards the end furthest from the cathedral, to make it look longer than it is (and of course viewed from that far end it looks shorter). There were originally 22 houses on the east side and 20 on the west, but after the Reformation, when clerics were permitted to marry and households consequently became larger, some of the houses were knocked together and there are now 27 in total.

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Vicars' Close

At the north end of the street is the Vicars’ Chapel and Library, while at the south end, as you enter from the cathedral side, is an arched gate cut into the Vicars’ Hall. On the cathedral wall opposite the latter is a second clock face of the cathedral’s famous astronomical clock, driven by the same mechanism.

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Clock on the exterior of the cathedral, and detail on one of the houses in Vicars' Close

The Bishop’s Palace and Gardens

The Bishop’s Palace lies on the south side of the cathedral. It has been the home of the Bishops of the Diocese of Bath and Wells for 800 years and is a Grade I listed building. It is surrounded by a wall and moat intended to provide a defence if needed, although in practice it was never called into use for that purpose. However, the moat also serves to channel the water from the two wells in the grounds (which give the city its name).

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Moat around the Bishop's Palace

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By/in the moat

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The defensive wall from one of the towers

The main part of the palace was built in the 13th century, with additions in the 14th and 15th. Today the great hall is in ruins, and part of the rest of the structure still in use as the bishop’s house, but you can visit some of the rooms in the palace, where displays cover the history of the building and the bishopric. There is also a chapel, but that was closed for restoration when we visited.

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The ruined Great Hall

In any case we were more interested in touring the beautiful gardens, especially as it was a lovely late September afternoon. The area around the great hall is laid out as lawns, including a croquet lawn. Elsewhere there are pretty flower beds surrounding one of the main features, the pools formed by the springs themselves. From here there are lovely views of the cathedral.

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Wells Cathedral from the Bishop's Garden

Nearby is a 15th century well house. A sign explains that in 1451 the then bishop, Bishop Beckynton, granted the town a supply of water from the wells within his garden. A cistern inside the well house collected water which was forced through pipes to the outlet in the marketplace. From here the water ran down gutters at the side of many of the streets, washing away blood and offal from the butchers’ shops. You can still see the water flowing in these gutters as you walk around the city, although I believe today’s butchers are no longer in the habit of using it to dispose of their waste! On the roof of the well house is a statue of the bishop’s favourite hunting dog.

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Dog statue on the well house

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Michaelmas daisies and butterfly

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Seed-head

Gates to the Liberty of St Andrew

There are three ancient entrances to the precinct – the Penniless Porch, The Bishop's Eye and Brown's Gatehouse, which were all built around 1450. The first of these leads to the cathedral green from the market place and is so-called because beggars used to wait there to ask for alms from those attending services.

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The Penniless Porch

The Bishop’s Eye also leads from the market place but towards the Bishop’s Palace. Brown’s Gatehouse lies to the north of these on Sadler Street and has been incorporated into a hotel, The Ancient Gatehouse. We ate dinner in their Italian restaurant one evening and afterwards I took some night shots of the cathedral from just inside the gatehouse.

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Wells Cathedral at night

Posted by ToonSarah 06:19 Archived in England Tagged buildings streets architecture england history houses garden cathedral Comments (13)

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