Wells: Small City, Big Community

PUBLISHED: 13:05 17 September 2007 | UPDATED: 14:51 20 February 2013

Wells Cathedral from Bishop's Palace

Wells Cathedral from Bishop's Palace

Wander round Wells this October and you'll find a thriving and lively community against the backdrop of some truly ancient buildings. The sight of young people lying on the grass and playing ball games outside Wells Cathedral speaks volumes...

Three wells within the grounds of the Bishop's Palace gave the city its name. In the Middle Ages they were thought to have healing powers and, regardless of whether or not this is true, they have certainly been the life source of the town. Since the 12th century they have provided drinking water, flushed drains and driven mills. Visitors to the Bishop's Palace can watch the water flowing through the grounds and in the Cathedral water still flows under the camery and cloister.

But although it was the springs that gave life to the community, its focal point will always be the Cathedral Church of St Andrew. On a sun-drenched early-autumn evening, teenagers play football and read magazines overlooked by the awe-inspiring West Front. The structure was completed around 1260 and its West Front features 300 medieval statues.

In contrast to the heavily detailed West Front, the central pillars inside the Cathedral are strikingly simple in shape. The inverted arches, or scissor arches, support the central pillars and were designed in the 14th century by master mason William Joy. The decorative red, blue and green details on the white ceiling add colour to the stone interior and in the nave and transepts realistic and imaginary birds, animals and biblical figures are carved into the pillars. It is a staggeringly beautiful building but it is no museum; the clock, which was installed in 1390, strikes every quarter hour - a reminder that life goes on inside and outside the walls. The carved figure of Jack Blandiver kicks his heels to ring the bells and four knights mounted on horseback chase each other round, with one knocked over at each revolution.

The daily battle staged on the Cathedral clock is a humorous display, but war was a reality in the 17th century. During the English Civil War, Parliamentarian troops stabled their horses in the Cathedral and damaged much of the sculpture while practising firing.

Today horses are banned from the building and the sound of the Cathedral Choir replaces the gunfire. In fact the Cathedral's choral tradition is at least as old as the Cathedral building itself. The choir comprises 18 boys and 18 girls and three choral scholars, as well as the nine members of the Vicars Choral. The men of the Cathedral Choir have been known as the Vicars Choral since the 1100s and are all trained singers, who are provided with housing in the historic Vicars Close, thought to be the oldest continuously inhabited street in the world. The Close tapers 10ft (3m) from one end to the other, giving it the illusion of being longer when viewed from the bottom.

The city's architecture is an eclectic mix of black-and-white Tudor-style houses, Georgian Bath stone and more individual buildings such as the pink-walled City Arms, once the city jail

It is easy to forget that the Cathedral is a medieval structure designed for the requirements of the Middle Ages - not the 450,000 people who now visit it each year. The Cathedral Development Project aims to make better use of the space and to make more parts of the Cathedral open to the public. New buildings are being coonstructed on three sites around the Cathedral to provide more storage space and classrooms. The first phase of the development project has been completed but another £700,000 is still needed to finance it.

While the Cathedral is given a facelift, a new face has made an appearance at the Bishop's Palace - 'the most memorable of all Bishop's Palaces in England', according to Nikolaus Pevsner. Archaeologists have discovered fragments of a wall painting between two floors in the Virgin's Tower. Although the public cannot yet see the painting first hand, the Bishop's private Chapel, ruined Great Hall, Gatehouse and 14 acres of immaculate gardens are open to the public and are well worth a visit. In the mid-19th century the gardens around the ruined Great Hall were remodelled in the popular Victorian romantic Gothic style and over the last century a large variety of exotic trees have been planted.

But as visitors flock to the Cathedral and Bishop's Palace, the ball games continue on the Cathedral Green. And on the other side of Penniless Porch from the Cathedral (so-called because the poor would hover under it and beg money from churchgoers) the market is in full force - people are lunching at the Crown at Wells Inn and browsing the kitchenware and sweet shops, boutiques and chain stores that line the High Street. Wells is a town and a community - not just a Cathedral. The city's architecture is an eclectic mix of black-and-white Tudor-style houses, Georgian Bath stone and more individual buildings such as the pink-walled City Arms (once the city jail) and the 18th-century Town Hall. Markets and fairs have taken place in Wells since the 1100s and the town is an important member of the Somerset Guy Fawkes Carnival Circuit.

Wells is a place of historic buildings and sacred sites but it is not wrapped in cotton wool. Those who live there can use and enjoy the Cathedral, the historic buildings and the Green without having to observe from behind a glass screen. The Cathedral remains the focal point of the community - a place where people congregate, for social reasons as well as for worship. But do not fear: the ball games on the Cathedral green are not endangering the historic sculptures on the West Front. The most fragile sculptures, too delicate to return to their original position after restoration, are on display in Wells Museum... safely behind glass screens.


1 Join in Wells Literature Festival

Running from 12-19 October, Wells Festival of Literature is now famous for its wide variety of speakers. Festivities begin in St Cuthbert's Church with a talk by Antonia Fraser and finish in the same venue with the inimitable Libby Purves. For more information call 01749 672552 or visit www.wlitf.co.uk.

2 Climb the stairs to the Chapter House

A magnificent staircase curves up from the heart of the Cathedral to the beautiful octagonal Chapter House above, which was completed in 1306. On the way up you will pass the oldest stained glass in the Cathedral.

3 Visit Bishop's Palace Gardens

Head gardener James Cross has been enhancing the garden with some particularly imaginative planting. The Phelps Garden, laid out in 2005, has added a new dimension to the garden, which includes species of Chinese trees.

4 Drop in to the Church of St Cuthbert

Often mistaken for the Cathedral, the Church of St Cuthbert has an elegant Somerset stone tower and a striking 16th-century ceiling, lavishly decorated with figures of angels, rosettes and shields. The church was originally built in the 13th century but altered in the Perpendicular period (15th century). A visit to the Church is a must on a day out in Wells - even if it is just to admire the ceiling.

5 View the Millennium Tapestry

Wells Millennium Tapestry consists of two panels measuring 229cm by 92cm and depicts scenes of past and present-day Wells, with a border made up of cameos of local life. The tapestry is on display in The Parkes Room at the Town Hall, open Thursdays and Fridays. If you would like to view the tapestries at another time contact the Town Hall on 01749 673091.


Wells Festival of Literature


Tel 01749 672552

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