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The Cathedral is host to the celebration of great events in the life of the wider church and nation, as well as the natural place to be for quieter, more reflective or sadder moments...Few remain unmoved by the majesty of this sermon in stone. Ask not only what and when; ask also why. - Richard Lewis, Dean of Wells

One of the smaller Cathedral churches in England, Wells Cathedral is nevertheless a majestic sight as you approach it from the market place, through Penniless Porch, and see the grand west front. In the middle ages, the west front, being the main entrance-way into the cathedral, and decorated with over 300 statues, would have been visible for miles around as a wonderful monument to God, beckoning its congregation with a spectacle of colour and music. Nowadays, the paint gone and many of the figures eroded or beheaded by Cromwell, the rich yellow limestone still imparts a warm, peaceful glow whatever the weather, whatever your religious beliefs.

History

As is the case with many old churches, Wells has its roots in the pre-Christian era. The presence of 3 natural springs in the grounds of what is now the Bishop's Palace would have attracted pagan worshippers and there is evidence of Roman burial grounds nearby.

The first Christian church known to have been on this site was the church of St. Andrew, built in 705 C.E. By 909 the Diocese of Wells was created and the church became the first Cathedral Church of St. Andrew. This state of affairs lasted for nigh on 180 years until a new Bishop decided to move his see to Bath; the old church at Wells was disdained and fell into disrepair.

In 1179 the incumbent Bishop of Bath decided to construct a new church on a fresh site just next to the old cathedral - the beginnings of the church we see today. This church was built to impress becuase it was made in an attempt to woo the Pope into making Wells a Cathedral city once more. Taking over 80 years to complete, it was built in English Gothic style, with pointed arches and ribbed vaults and shafted columns. Externally, the west front was built 100 feet high by 150 feet across and highly decorated, although the two towers and other extensions were added over a hundred years later. Such was the magnificence of the new church the Pope decreed that the Bishop of Bath should now become the Bishop of Bath and Wells, a situation that remains until the present day.

The interior

Like any cathedral built at that time, the building is ornate with columns, carvings and stained glass windows (some of which are the original glass from the 13th C). To describe the whole church would be a mammoth task so I will endeavor to touch on just a few things (my personal favourites) which are peculiar to Wells Cathedral.

  • The nave
    On entering through the doors of the west front, you find yourself looking down the nave towards the heart of the church. The high vaulted ceiling has been beautifully decorated with paintings in a style which is thought to be the original intention of the designer. There are numerous carvings on the capitals of the columns, many of which portray incidents which would have been common in the days when the church was built. There are figure heads, one of which shows a peasant with toothache, plants and animals, and farming scenes as well as depictions of religious scenes, saints and angels.
  • Scissor arches
    Possibly the most stunning part of the cathedral are the famous scissor arches. Built as an emergency measure when the central bell tower started to subside, the architect William Joy designed a criss-cross arched structure to spread the load of the tower over a wider base area. The arches look surprisingly modern despite being built between 1338-48, and do their job remarkably well - the tower remains to this day.
  • The Chapter House
    The Chapter House was built to be the meeting room for the 40 canons who once served the bishop. It is an octagonal building on the north side of the church and is reached by a long stone staircase now very worn by centuries of passing feet. The room itself is stunning. The stained glass windows have mostly been replaced with clear glass, allowing much more light into the room than would have originally been the case. A magnificent central pillar with 32 shafts supports the ceiling, and stone benches line the walls. I find the place incredibly peaceful, but it has to be remembered that when all the staff were present it would have been a place of great debate and argument.
  • The clock
    Wells cathedral, being such an important place of worship, would have had many services going on all through the day at the various chapels and alters. In order for the vicars to be in the right place at the right time a clock was installed in the church in 1392. This elaborate clock, which chimes the hour, half hour and quarter hour, is now the oldest surviving clock face in the world. (The mechanism was replaced in 1880 but is still working in its current position in The Science Museum, London.) The intricate dials show the time of day or night (the face has 24 divisions rather than the usual 12), the phases of the moon, the position of the sun and the days of the month. The clock attracts many onlookers, particularly when it strikes the hour, because a little carved figure of a man strikes a bell with a hammer and 4 knights on horseback chase each other round and round, one poor fellow being knocked down every revolution, of every hour, of every year since the clock was commissioned.
  • Restaurant
    OK, so it's not very religious, but then so many of the visitors to the cathedral are tourists rather than worshippers these days. After a tour of the cathedral, with any luck accompanied by one of the knowledgeable guides, what could be better than a cuppa and a sticky bun? The restaurant, owned by the Chapter of Wells Cathedral, is in part of the original cloisters and serves excellent lunches and afternoon teas - highly recommended!
  • The rest

  • In addition to these features there are side chapels, the beautiful octagonal Lady Chapel, the Quire, Cloisters and a library containing many wonderful books and archives dating from the 10th Century to the present.

Restoration

Preservation and restoration of this beautiful and historic building and place of worship is an ongoing concern. Recent restoration work has uncovered interesting facts (such as that the stone carvings were once brightly painted and guilded), although much damage has probably occurred in the past due to ignorance and haste. Such work does not come cheaply; visitors are asked for a voluntary donation which helps to maintain the building for future generations. The Cathedral Development Project was set up to oversee and administer the task.

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http://www.wellscathedral.org.uk

We're going to take a short tour of Wells Cathedral today. We'll start the tour in the market square located at the end of High Street in Wells, England. We stayed in the Crown Hotel last night (separate rooms, of course) and we're now ready to take a look at the cathedral.

We head north across the square, walk through a beautiful old stone archway in the corner of the square and out along a sidewalk that leads out onto the cathedral Green. The cathedral is only a couple hundred feet away so it's already starting to look pretty big. We're approaching the cathedral at an angle with the front of the cathedral to the left and the side of the cathedral, including the cloisters, to the right. The front of the cathedral, called the West Front as it faces west, has two massive towers, one at each front corner. Between the two towers is the front of the nave:

        |              |
        |              |
        |              |
        |     nave     |
 tower  |              |  tower
   +----+              +----+
   |    |              |    |
   |    |              |    |
   +----+--------------+----+

         The West Front    _
                          |\
                            \ our first view
                             \ of the cathedral
                              \
The result is that the West Front of the cathedral is quite wide. There are six columns(?) of sorts attached to the front of the building. Arranged vertically in the columns and elsewhere along the front of the cathedral are many stone statues of saints and other historical and biblical people. Many of them are quite badly eroded but the effect is still quite impressive. There's a row of twelve statues (the Apostles?) right near the top over the center of the nave. Above this is the largest statue of all, Jesus, with his hand raised in benediction. There are cornices, little spires and other ornamentation all over the place. Although it is all a sandy brown colour today, research during restoration has shown that the entire front of the cathedral would have originally been quite brightly coloured. It would have been quite a sight!

Since one of the functions of a cathedral was to impress the people with the grandeur of God, I'd have to say that this front met the design criteria.

Arriving at the base of the tower on the right, we enter the cathedral via the main (i.e. public) entrance. The entrance fee is £4.50 per adult, £1.50 for children and £3.00 for seniors and a photography permit which allows us to use our cameras is an additional £2. Formalities out the way and guide booklet in hand, we head into the nave. There are tour guides offering free tours of the cathedral but we're going to walk around by ourselves since I've been here before (maybe we'll take a guided tour later on).

We're immediately struck by the high ceilings with their delicate almost filigree style painting, the stone columns, the pointed gothic arches, stained glass windows, and the long views. Walking over so that we can see down the very center of the nave, we get our first good look at the scissor arches that are holding up the tower. The central tower itself is about halfway down the length of the cathedral from where we're standing. The effect of the scissor arches is stunning (I'm sorry but I just can't find the right words to describe it).

Walking slowly down the nave, we frequently find ourselves stopping to look all around in order to try to take in the grazia of the place. The scissor arches just keep getting more and more impressive as we get closer to them. The combination of sweeping curves and the whole scale of the arches is truly amazing They are, without a doubt, the most awe inspring and totally integrated patch that I've ever seen (they were added when the tower's foundations tower started to crack in 1338 while the height of the tower was being increased).

When we get to the bottom of the central tower, we start looking up at the carved stone figures at the tops of the lower columns. One set tells the story of a farmer catching a man and boy stealing fruit. Another poor fellow has a toothache (it looks like it REALLY hurts). Some of the carvings depict other aspects of medieval life while others are just faces (maybe the faces of some of the builders?). One gets the distinct impression that the goal was to leave nothing without ornamentation of some sort.

Eventually, we head off to the left of the tower (as viewed from where we started walking down the nave) and find ourselves looking up at the cathedral's clock. The face of the clock is a square with an astronomical motif. The overall colour is green with lots of gold trim and decorative paintings including angels in the corners and the Sun and Moon near the center. The outer ring marks off the hours (all twenty four of them). The next inner ring is marked off for the minutes of the hour. Next is a ring of thirty markings to count of the days of the lunar month. Within the lunar ring, there's an exquisite painting of the Sun and Moon along with a painting of Phoebe, the moon goddess. At the very center is a ball representing the Earth (when the clock was built, pretty well everybody knew that the Sun, the Moon and all of the heavens revolved around the Earth).

Moving off further north from the central tower, we come across a doorway. Looking through the doorway, we see my favourite set of stairs in the world (a strange concept when one thinks about it). The stairs lead to two different places, the Chapter House and the Chain Bridge to Vicar's Hall. Upon closer examination and after discussions with the cathedral staff, we start to see how this came to be - the original stairs curve up and to the right into the Chapter House (started at the end of the 13th century). When the Chain Bridge to Vicar's Hall was built about 150 years later, the access to the bridge was built via a window which was turned into a doorway. The stairs were modified (another spectacular patch) to continue straight on up to the window while still curving to the right into the Chapter House. Truly amazing!

We walk up the stairs, taking the curve into the Chapter House. The steps for the curved part of the staircase pivot around a single point on the right as they rise into the Chapter House. Each of these steps is basically a wedge that narrows down to nothing at the pivot point and there are few railings so be careful!

The Chapter House itself is yet another masterpiece. It's an octagon with stained glass in the exterior windows and one of the most graceful roof support pillars in the center that you'll ever see. The stonework on the pillar, the ceiling and walls simply must be seen to be believed (sorry).

As we walk out of the Chapter House, we look up a bit and happen to see the oldest surviving stained glass in the cathedral. There are only five rose shaped windows, each about 25cm in diameter, but they've been there for about 800 years!

Sidebar: these five small windows are all that's left of the cathedral's original stained glass. For some reason, Oliver Cromwell's men didn't bother to break them when they destroyed every piece of stained glass that they could reach (in all of the cathedrals and abbeys of England) because they believed that such ornamentation was an affront to God. It's actually rather strange as these windows are only four or five meters off the ground (i.e. easily broken if they'd wanted to).
There's a rope across the entrance to the Chain Bridge so we head back into the cathedral proper. We turn left just before the central tower so that we can walk along the side of the nave. Here we see some tombs along the inner (right) side and grave markers on the floor and walls. Some of the tombs are quite impressive - probably the best one along this side is the tomb of Ralph of Shrewsbury, Bishop in the 14th century and builder of Vicar's Close, the oldest intact medieval street in Europe.

Moving along the side of the nave, we come to the far end of the cathedral where we find even more stained glass windows. Coming up the other side, we come across a simply stunning sight - there's a bishop's tomb here with an effigy of the bishop on top. The effigy is carved from a white stone and depicts the bishop lying with his head on a pillow and wearing a robe. The bishop appears to be sleeping and at the bishop's feet is a resting lion. Sitting serenely with the most precious expressions of adoration imaginable are two child angels watching over the bishop with their hands resting on the bishop's pillow. The sunlight is streaming through the windows across the bishop's face and one of the angels. The tomb itself is of a white marble with dark red veins and is carved with what appear to be biblical scenes.

Sidebar: there are other really impressive tombs and other architectural features in this area that I've not described - apologies.
Eventually, we realize that we're getting a bit hungry so we decide to move on. Passing more tombs, we come to the central tower again. On this side of the central tower, there's an ornate Saxon-era font that is actually from the old cathedral (it takes a while to absorb the notion that we're in the new cathedral . . .).

After taking in some of the other sights on this side of the central tower, we go immediately under the tower and see the entrance of the quire (pronounced like choir) to our right. Above the doorway into the quire, there's a spectacular set of organ pipes. Passing through the doorway, we find ourselves in an area that looks a lot like a smaller chapel right in the center of the cathedral. To our left and right are the stalls that the priests and other clerics would sit and stand in during services. These are each elaborately carved and have colourful embroidered backpieces. The Bishop's Throne off on the right is the largest and grandest of all.

We aren't allowed to take pictures in this area as our flash, if we were to use it, would cause the fabrics to fade. Three wooden stall seat bottoms have been mounted on the wall with their undersides visible. These show off three elaborately carved misericords. Looking around, we realize that each of the many stalls in this area has a hinged seat bottom with one of these treasures almost casually hidden underneath!

Walking out of the quire via one of the side entrances, we head on down the side of the nave and eventually find ourselves at the entrance again. Although we realize that being "done exploring Wells cathedral" is a concept devoid of meaning, it's noon so we have to head back into town to meet some friends for lunch. We're going to have to make sure that we get back to the cathedral this afternoon to check out the cloisters and the foundations of buildings that pre-date the existing cathedral (we're also determined to take a walk all the way around the cathedral so that we can check it out from the outside). There's a lot more to see and, hopefully, there's still time to see it all!


A couple of notes are probably in order:

  • I visited the city of Wells and toured the cathedral twice in 2000 and once again in 2002. It's my favourite British cathedral although I have to admit to having seen only about a half dozen of them so far.
  • This "tour" is somewhat artificial as it skips past many features of the cathedral that simply couldn't be missed in a real tour. The "tour" is real in the sense that if you followed the route specified then you would see the features described. The intention is to take you to some of the highlights of the cathedral. Hopefully, it has been successful.
  • The central tower of the cathedral was intended to be a bell tower. After the tower was struck by lightning shortly after the bells were installed, struck again shortly after the tower and bells were repaired and AGAIN after that repair work was done, the bishop "got the message".
  • I may extend the tour to include the outside of the cathedral including the cloisters. Unfortunately, the Bishop's Palace to the south of the cathedral was closed during both of my 2000 visits and I just didn't have time to see it and the cathedral in my 2002 visit so the tour won't be going there.
  • Wells Cathedral is an incredible place. If you're ever in Britain, you wouldn't make a mistake by putting it on your itinerary.
  • There are some photographs of the cathedral on my web site at http://www.bouletfermat.com/backgrounds/wells_cathedral.html (apologies if anyone considers this to be self-promotion).
I'm also contemplating writing a tour of the city of Wells.


Primary sources:

  • my personal recollections and photographs from my visits to cathedral.
  • The cathedral's web site at http://www.wellscathedral.org.uk (last accessed 2002/10/01).

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