Britannia's Magical History Tour
Stop 5: Wells, Somerset
Known as England's smallest city, Wells, situated at the foot of the
Mendip Hills, has charm, interesting shops, snug hotels, decent restaurants
and St. Cuthbert's Church, a parish church so impressive that it is often
mistaken for a cathedral. Those things, alone, would make Wells worth a
visit. But it has more to offer than just that.
The real jewel of the city is the walled precinct enclosing twelfth century Wells cathedral, the Bishop's Palace, an impressive, moated medieval stronghold which was the residence of the Bishop of the Diocese of Bath and Wells, and Vicar's Close, the residences of the clergy who serve the cathedral.
The cathedral, itself, is notable for several unique features. First of all, its west front, is said to be the finest collection of statuary in Europe, containing 356 individual figures carved out of the cathedral's warm, yellow Doulting stone. Inside, at the east end of the nave, you will see an unusual scissored arch design of striking beauty, which saved the cathedral's central tower from collapse. In 1338, the original construction
was found to be weakening underneath the tower and something had to be done
to support it. About 1340, the Master Mason, William Joy, implemented his
ingenious solution of the inverted arch to redistribute the weight on the
foundations. It has done its job nicely for over 650 years.
On the outside of the building, facing the Canon's houses to the north, is a still-working medieval clock (photo at right), originally intended to remind them of the many services conducted during the day at the cathedral. At the top of the long flight of worn stone stairs), leading out from the north transept is the Chapter House, an octagonal building with a stunning fan-vaulted ceiling (see photo below). It is here that the business of running the cathedral is still done by the members of the Chapter, the cathedral's ruling body.
An enclosed bridge leads from the Chapter House, over the access road, to Vicar's Close, the oldest, intact medieval street in Europe. Wells' only Arthurian connection is here, also. Mr. William Hughes, Chancellor of Wells Cathedral in the early 18th century, was the last-known possessor of the burial cross that was allegedly dug up at Glastonbury Abbey in 1191, and he lived on Vicar's Close.
If your travel schedule permits it, plan to arrive in the cathedral area
on Sunday afternoon, about 2 p.m., when you will be treated to a glorious,
but deafening, hour-long performance of pealing bells. If you should happen
to smell garlic in the air when walking on the lawn in front of the cathedral,
that would be the olfactory emanations from the Ristorante Rugantino. Serving
everything from pasta to the traditional roast beef and Yorkshire pudding,
it affords a good view of the cathedral, and is the perfect spot for Sunday
A few miles out of town on the A371 West is the whimsically-named town of Wookey, and its namesake cavern, Wookey Hole. This is a fun place to go for the whole family, with cavern tours, paper-making demonstrations and picnic areas and gift shops. Be prepared to stay awhile, though, as the cavern tour takes about four hours.
Next stop: Glastonbury, Somerset
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