Of all the great surprises on my recent trip to Bath, the best has to be Wells..
This tiny town in the middle of the Somerset countryside was exquisitely beautiful. It is England's smallest Cathedral city and is a reminder of a time when English provincial towns were more manageable and cosy. It is very picture-postcard with the twin towers of the magnificent Cathedral looming over the High Street, the pubs serve real ale and are hung with hanging baskets and the idyllic Mendip Hills start at the edge of town. Wells resembles a town in an Anthony Trollope novel - it is straight out of the pages of the 'Barchester Chronicles'.
The jewel in the crown has to be the Cathedral. Even if you are not a great fan of churches you cannot not be bowled over by this amazing structure. Firstly, it's setting is regal enough to set off it's magnificence. It is surrounded by a vast Cathedral Close, echoing cloisters and the superb Bishops Palace. But there is such a sense of spiritual awe about the place. It's a prayer in stone,marble and glass. But also there is a sense of welcome, a sense that real life goes on here and it provides a spiritual need for the people of the town. Wells Cathedral has been a house of god for nearly a thousand years and has to be one of the best sights in this part of England. If you are passing through then do not miss Wells Cathedral.
And it is really a place to pass through. Wells is notoriously hard to get to and there is a sense of isolation there as if the entire town has been bypassed by the 21st Century. There is no train link and by car take the A37 from Bristol and turn off at Shepton Mallet. It is much trickier by public transport but luckily lies on the route to Glastonbury (see other journal) so you can combine the two on a day trip. Bus #173 leaves from Bath bus station at five minutes past each hour, and unfortunately there is only one an hour. It takes another one and a quarter hours to travel to Wells taking in Radstock, Chilcompton and Midsomer Norton which are exceedlingly pretty villages made out of Bath stone. From the bus station you can catch transport to Wookey Hole, Cheddar and the seaside resort of Weston-Super-Mare.
But if you are changing buses you can visit the Cathedral during the gap. To get there turn right out of the bus station and walk uphill. You will soon reach the twee High Street in Wells. This is very pretty, many of the original medieval buildings remain and there are a number of channels trickling down the High street gurgling with water from the springs in the Bishops Palace. These were a gift to the city in the 15th Century from Bishop Bekynton. There are a number of attractive pubs along the High Street as well as cheap restaurants, banks and shops. Wells, itself, is kept immaculately clean, and it's prettiness is enhanced by flower arrangements and hanging baskets. As with most provinical English cities the population is made up of young families, retirees and teenagers who are bored out of their skulls by the slowness of life there.
At the top of the High Street is the entrance to Cathedral Close. A market cross stands on the cobbles with spring water gushing from it's stone and a number of interesting shops surround it. Galleries, souvenir shops and a strore selling reproduction astrology equipment overlook the square which also leads to the Bishops Palace. Through the gates and you are in Cathedral Close. All great Cathedrals need a huge open space in front of their facade so visitors can appreciate the whole scale of the building. The one in Wells is a massive green lawn over a hundred feet in diameter. Deacons, parsons and rectors have their homes in medieval buildings around the edges and kids kick footballs over this immense space. But as you would expect - it is the Cathedral facade which makes your mouth drop open (see photo). It is over 100ft high and 150ft wide and was built between 1209 and 1250. It may contain the greatest amount of medieval sculpture in the world. Row upon row of medieval kings, saints, apostles and bishops stare down as you crane your neck upwards.
There have been temples of worship on this site since Roman times. But this current wonder was started in 1180 and not finished until 1488. It was built in bits and pieces as the churche's fortunes came and went. The recommended voluntary amount to enter the Cathedral is £4.50 and the building is open from 7.00am to 6.00pm. Morning prayers take place at 7.30am and Evensong is at 5.15pm. The first thing you notice is the colossal nave which stretches into a hundred feet into the air and supports a carved ceiling. The real surprise is over the altar, there stone crosses stone in a pair of unique scissor arches. These look very modern but are in fact a way a medieval way to halt sinking tower foundations. In one of the side chapels is a clock dating from 1455 which on every quarter hour strikes and jousting knights appear go round in tournament.
The best part to me was the Chapter House. You climb a set of worn uneven steps and the room at the top is an octagonal chamber where the canons met to transact Cathedral business. A central marble stalk stands in the middle of the room and lattices shoot along the ceiling to spread all over the room - everything decked out in white and grey marble. Back down, behind the altar is the 'Quire' where the choir stalls and enormous organ are situated and are the far back is the last chapel. Not one, but five stained glass windows pour light into this tiny octagonal room to beautiful effect. Lastly is the medieval cloisters that now house a cafeteria and souvenir shop. If you cross the graveyard between the two cloisters will bring you out into the exit for the Bishops Palace. This isn't just a palace but a castle with portcullis, drawbridge and moat. Built in the 12th Century the palace is one of the finest medieval buildings in England and from the drawbridge you can see stone buildings and people playing croquet on the lawn.
In the moat are a family of white swans and mallard ducks. A bell leans off the drawbridge and every time the swans want feeding they have lean't to ring the bell. Like the traditions of Wells, the trick of how to do this is handed down from one generation of swans to the other.