Monday, 1 June 2015

Wells, Somerset and its Cathedral

Monday 25 May 2015. Our last day, Spring Bank Holiday Monday and we say goodbye to Mary, Rod and their family at The White House B&B and head into Wells for a look round before setting off on the long journey back up the motorway to Blackpool.

It is England's smallest city. The Crown Hotel is a 15th century coaching inn. There are several equally imposing and ancient inns in the vicinity. The previous day we had sat in one of them in a cellar that had once been prison cells!

A few of the shops in the cathedral area have the old windows from way back and it reminds me of the shops in Sidmouth that we saw last year.

Two impressive medieval arches lead from the market place. This one leads to Wells Cathedral and is known as the Penniless Porch as it is where beggars traditionally asked for money. They still do, there was one there today...

The other leads to the Bishop's Palace. Built by Bishop Thomas Beckynton in the middle of the 15th century - we'll learn more about him later - it is known as The Bishop's Eye as, from it, the bishop or his agents could keep watch on who entered the city.

The Bishop's Eye leads to a green sward before the moated Bishop's Palace. Complete with drawbridge and portcullis, he was having no pagans coming from Glastonbury, ringing bells and smoking hashish and giving flowers to just anyone!

Under this window a bell hangs. A bishop's daughter trained the swans on the moat to ring the bell and would reward this behaviour with a treat thrown from the window. The swans have throughout recent history lost the knack due to tourists feeding them bits of bread - which is very bad for them anyway - and during the 1980s they learned it again. I presume now they have lost it again as there were signs advertising bags of duck food for sale nearby... I would love someone to tell me they do still ring the bell for a treat!

We would perhaps have had a look at the Bishop's Palace, but we wanted to see the cathedral and we did have a long journey to make later that day! The Bishop's Eye seen from inside.

And so into the cathedral. You have to pay for a license to take photographs inside - this applies whether you have a top range camera or just your phone. It was well worth paying a few pounds to be able to take these memory stretchers!

The tower at the crossing was damaged by an earthquake in the 13th century and 100 years later was found to be sinking into Wells' rather boggy ground. To stop it falling, it was supported by the addition of unusual "scissor" arches on three sides. You either love or hate these but there's no doubt that they do the job they were designed to do!

There is some glorious stonework in the cathedral too. I have a copy of Arthur Mee's excellent King's England book for Somerset and to my chagrin realised I had left it at home when we were halfway to Somerset, so inevitably I missed some of the highlights. Still... that's a good reason to come back sometime! The photo shows a pair of 15th century chantries that face each other in the nave.

The fabulous astronomical clock dates from the late 14th century. We arrived in front of it just five minutes before 11 o'clock and sat expectantly waiting for the hour to strike. Then just a couple of seconds before it did, someone sitting next to me struck up a conversation...

Above and to the right of the clock sits this little figure, known as John Blandifer. He strikes the hour on the bell hanging before him, but rings each quarter hour by kicking his heels back against two smaller bells. This same action causes two knights in armour to strike bells with their battle axes on the outside wall of the cathedral. At the same time four knights charge at each other on horseback above the clock face, the victim flopping back in the saddle! The Victorians replaced the clock mechanism - but sent the original to the Science Museum in London where it is still working!

The tomb of Bishop John Still. He was bishop here when Shakespeare was writing and should be remembered himself for his own penmanship. But few remember his name as they read to their children his nursery rhyme Little Jack Horner...

A rather ornate memorial to Bishop Richard Kidder who died in a great storm in 1703 when the chimney of his house fell onto the good bishop and his wife in bed.

I found this quite sad - though a look around any old cemetery or graveyard will convince you how lucky we are these days in our healthcare... Nathaniell Selleck and his wife Ann were unfortunate enough to lose their their daughter Margaret in 1676 but then two years later had another daughter, naming her Teophila - a Greek name meaning "Loved by God". He loved her so much that He took her also at the tender age of three. On Teophila's tombstone the stonemason misspelt her father's name and had to add the second and final "L" in the little space available.

The first use of an organ in the cathedral was recorded as being in 1310. A subsequent one of 1620 was destroyed by the Roundheads in 1643 and its replacement of 1662 was itself replaced by this one of 1909-10 which incorporates some of the older instrument.

I took so many photos of the interior I can't hope to show them all here. This is the choir. Music plays a large part in the cathedral's life and a lunchtime recital was due to be given that day by a ladies' group.

One of the effigies from the tomb of Thomas Beckynton who was the Private Secretary to King Henry VI, surely one of our most unhappy monarchs. Reigning in the time of the Wars of The Roses he was usurped by the Yorkshire King Edward IV and found life so intolerable he spent months at a time not showing any sign of being aware of any thing, event, or person around him, leaving his unpopular French queen, Queen Margaret of Anjou to defend his throne. Thomas was made Lord Privy Seal from 1433-34 and became Bishop of Wells and Bath in October 1433.

His tomb has two effegies. The one we saw first has him in his bishop's robes whilst, below, he lies as he was to become after death.

He had the tomb built 13 years before his death and so walked the aisles of Wells, being reminded of what he would become. In Victorian times his tomb was opened and he was found to have been buried with no regalia but for his Bishop's Ring, which was removed and placed in a museum.

We are coming to the end of our visit. Leaving the church, we pass again into the cloisters. These are a bit of an anachronism - Wells was never a monastery, but perhaps the cloisters had a function as a processional route.

I left the cloisters and had a quick look around the square court they surrounded. The oldest thing to see here is the oblong stone jutting into the flower bed. It was first used by the Romans.

The west front of the cathedral is stunning. Would that every cathedral in the country had kept as many statues in their niches.

Yet Wells has not escaped totally unscathed. Of almost 500 there are well over 300 statues still here, some whole, some worn and some, including the topmost figure of Jesus above his twelve apostles, damaged by the bullets of Monmouth's rebels in 1685.

We passed back through Penniless Porch into the Market Square. This is the drinking fountain with three sides. Only one side of the three still flows of this fountain, built around 1799 to replace an earlier one that had been pulled down due to its condition in 1756. The earlier one dated from 1451 and was erected at the behest of our old friend and cadaver, Thomas Beckynton.

We made our way back to the car and with a smile for a brilliant weekend spent with good friends and great surroundings, turned northwards towards the M5 and Lancashire.

Somerset Weekend Index

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