Icon of the West

PUBLISHED: 15:41 21 January 2008 | UPDATED: 15:00 20 February 2013

This beautiful salamander corbel is found in the north transept of the cathedral. By Neville Stanikk

This beautiful salamander corbel is found in the north transept of the cathedral. By Neville Stanikk

Alongside Cheddar Gorge, Stonehenge and the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Wells Cathedral, and in particular the west front, is one of the most significant iconic images of the Westcountry. So it is not surprising that after filming 'Hot Fuzz' in Wel...

Twice as wide as it is high and with more than 300 statues, the west front may look impressive now but once upon a time it might have looked even more spectacular. "In the Middle Ages the west front was coloured; it was all different bright colours," says John Roberts, the administrator of the cathedral. "If you repainted it today in the bright colours it was then I think the modern brain wouldn't be able to cope with it. So I don't think it's something we want to go back to."

The building of the cathedral was started in 1180 and completed around 1239 when it was dedicated; it was the first English gothic cathedral. Since it was never monastic, the church was left untarnished by Henry VIII. Presumably to increase the prestige of the building, the tower was extended in the early 18th century but unfortunately it began to tilt because some of the land was soft - that was when the idea of the famous scissor arches was conceived. "They transfer the weight from the part where it was soft to the stone and succeeded in holding the tower stable," explains John. "It was a hugely successful, brilliant medieval engineering solution but also an architectural one because they're very good looking. The thing that strikes us as very odd is that it was never used anywhere else."

The west front of Wells Cathedral is twice as wide as it is high and has more than 300 statues

By the mid-1800s the church had slipped into a state of disrepair and a major restoration programme was needed. The monuments were removed to the cloisters and the 'great scrape' was initiated - this was the removal of the whitewash from the walls and the eradication of any remaining medieval paint. During the 1980s a conservation, rather than restoration, project took place to preserve the west front.

As I walk down the side aisle in search of the famous Wells clock - brilliant in itself with its original medieval face and jousting knights rushing around on the quarter hour - people are shifting video cameras, while clothes stands with school names on them lie deserted. I have obviously managed to catch a quiet pocket of preparation time in between the bouts of activity. For this is a busy building.

There are, for instance, a minimum of 24 services a week; over the year there are about 50 concerts in the evenings, and another dozen or so at lunchtime. There's a couple of lecture series and numerous prayer pilgrimages; then there are special days like ordinations and appointment ceremonies, and more than 8,000 children will attend specially organised events. Not surprisingly, Christmas is the most hectic time: there are about 30 carol services or concerts in the weeks leading up to Christmas Day, and an extra 35,000 people will come through the doors. Over a full year there are 300,000 visitors and 170,000 worshippers.

To manage all these events, the cathedral has a workforce of about 80, including choristers, organists, office workers, vergers, archivists, and shop and restaurant staff. It even has its own architect and its own archaeologist. Then, of course, there are the invaluable 350 volunteers.

In order to stay open financially the building requires the equivalent of £3,000 a day, a third of which comes from visitor donations.

The cathedral may be busy but it might be about to get busier, for a 12-year, £6-million development project is nearing completion. The first few years were spent in determining objectives and getting planning permission; fundraising started in 2003 and construction two years later.

John says: "There were a lot of objectives, but we've also got a lot of problems because this is a medieval building constructed for medieval use not for 21st-century use or 21st -century legislation or 21st-century expectation. So we have no indoor toilets, no proper practice facilities for children and no education rooms or spaces for these 8,000 children who come - all sorts of problems related to the 21st century."

The solution has been to create modest new buildings in three locations around the cathedral - partly to provide the correct facilities for the 21st century and partly to make it possible to open up areas in the cathedral where previously there has been no access.

The project is expected to be finished by the end of this year, but there is still a further £250,000 to be raised. What it will mean is that the medieval Pilgrim's Porch, the entrance in the 14th century, will be re-opened; the complete three-sided cloister returned to a walkway; four medieval doors unblocked; the cathedral will have suitable education facilities; the beautifully vaulted Undercroft will be opened to the public; interpretation and exhibition space will be created; and the whole of the ground area of the cathedral will be accessible to people with disabilities for the first time.

Presumably there will be no change to the west front exterior, because Wells Cathedral is not just a place of worship, not just a business, not just a living community, not just a theatrical and educational space, but also an icon... painted or not. BY MALCOLM RIGBY. Photos: Reproduced by kind permission of the Chapter Wells Cathedral

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