Travel Story Towering cathedral a heavenly sight

Photo of William Yeoman

An architectural wonder lies in splendid Somerset.

I wake to the sound of bells, in Wells, in Somerset, England’s smallest city, in a house dating from the 15th century, in a big winter. 

The bells belong to Wells Cathedral, which I can see from my window.

 Begun in 1175, It was the first cathedral in England to be built in the then-cutting-edge  Gothic style.

Visiting later that morning, I am impressed by the majestic west front, with its some 300 medieval statues standing in the niches, starting from Christ at the very top and working down through the apostles to various saints and bishops.

Inside, I am even more impressed by the revolutionary scissor arches, for which the cathedral is famous, and surprised by the centuries-old graffiti, incised by choirboys, on the stone effigies of Saxon bishops — Athelm, Wulfhelm, Sigar, Lyfing, Cyneweard and others.

Then, an even greater curiosity. Thomas Bekynton was bishop of Bath and Wells from 1443 until his death in 1465. His tomb stands within his chantry chapel, and is remarkable for being a two-level transi, or memento mori tomb, featuring an effigy of Bekynton dressed in full regalia on the top and the same bishop as a cadaver below. 

The idea being to remind us we are equal in death.

The bishop ordered the tomb to be made many years before his death, and regularly held services in the chantry chapel next to it. He was very well-liked and a man of deep humility and understanding. Beyond the cathedral is Vicars’ Close, more than six centuries old and built to house the choir.

The houses are extraordinary, nearly identical but with enough variations after centuries of modifications to endlessly delight the eye.

Further beyond the cathedral is the Bishop’s Palace and gardens, a decaying moated residence of the bishops of Bath and Wells. The wells (springs), which give the city its name, can still be seen in the gardens.

I love the tranquillity of the palace’s moat, on which float geese, ducks and white swans; and the gardens and streams, with their golden weeping willows. 

I walk around to the far side of the cathedral’s cloisters, reading the inscriptions on memorial plaques adorning the walls, such as this one:

“In memory of Mary, the beloved wife of Benjamin Andrews, Steward to the Dean and Chapter of this Church Who, to the Graces that adorn a Christian added not only the sincerity of a Friend but also the most affectionate duties, truth and tenderness of the best of wives … she dyed after a most severe illness of two years and three months on the 3rd day of April 1789, in the 44th year of her age.”

Finding an ancient wooden door, I open it and step through. I am in a secluded graveyard, just outside the massive south transept of the cathedral. 

Here are the exposed foundations of the late medieval Lady Chapel, as well as those remnants of Roman, Saxon and early medieval chapels and cemeteries, all excavated in the late 1970s.

The surfaces of most of the tombstones and gravestones are pockmarked by the elements or covered in moss. 

The sky is overcast, but occasionally the sun breaks through, causing the shadows of crosses and trees alike to overlap the ancient foundations.

And everywhere, evidence of the destruction wrought by the English Reformation, the Civil War and other calamities.

That night, I browse the bookshelf in the snug study of my temporary home. Among the titles are two volumes, covering North and South Somerset, of Pevsner’s monumental, multi-volume classic, The Buildings of England.

Of Wells, Pevsner writes: “As for The Bishop’s Palace itself, it is without doubt the most memorable of all bishop’s palaces in England.” 

A new morning brings market day. Stall owners display their wares, the usual purveyors of farm produce beside those offering marshmallows and winter woollies. At first glance, the High Street looks just like any other, with the usual chain stores and cafes. But the Waterstones bookstore has a peculiarly local flavour. 

The Caffe Nero is filled with eccentrics, aged hippies and even older former military men who eye me suspiciously as I sip my coffee while leafing through a weathered copy of Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit.

And everyone greets the Big Issue vendor like an old friend, pressing coins into her gloved hand and talking about last night’s episode of Coronation Street.

Just off the High Street, I eat a hearty lunch at a vegetarian restaurant, by an open fire. Then it’s a muddy, slippery ramble up and down Tor Hill, a mixture of rocks and mud and ice, ash and sycamore and oak trees, leafless but alive with song, thrushes and robins, blackbirds and squirrels darting through the thickets

Through the Palace Fields, back up along Tor Hill Quarry and Strawberry Wood. Through Tor Woods, the city, pretty in the distance. 

Finally, breaking out into green, open fields divided by hedgerows and dotted with cows and the occasional farmhouse as the clouds continue their dignified march through the sky’s canopy, the cathedral rising above Wells below.

Back among buildings, I find a soggy playing card, the Queen of Hearts, stuck to the mossy stone wall outside Vicars’ Close. 

Further on, a stone set into a building bears the words “Black Dog” and a date, “1562”, and an image of a black dog.

 Yet all the dog walkers I encounter smile and say hello.

And now, at day’s end, the bells of Wells are calling worshippers to Evensong. 

Life, it seems, goes on much the same as it has always done.

Fact File

For more information on Wells, visit here 

For more information on Wells Cathedral, visit here 

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