Many of the historic buildings around Wells were built with funding from the church. The medieval Vicar’s Close is the most famous street in Wells and is the oldest continuously inhabited street in Europe. The houses that line the Close are still home to the cathedral’s choir as was intended when they were originally built.
History of Wells Cathedral
Wells Cathedral is a beautiful Gothic vaulted building that started to be built around 1180. It has undergone many additions over the years including remodelling of the cloisters, the buildings of crenellated walls to keep the disgruntled townsfolk out (!) and, housing for the choir and cathedral staff. Some Bishops did try to improve conditions for the townsfolk rather than taxing them, such as the building of almshouses for the poor during Bishop Bekynton’s time. The restoration that you will see today is by no means the first. In the 1800s the whole cathedral had to be scraped to remove the whitewash and medieval paint that had been painted on its facade during the sixteenth century.
The Cathedral has not been without its problems. Medieval brasses were sold off during the dissolution of the chantries in 1547, fighting during the Civil War damaged the Cathedral’s stonework, windows and furniture. This was when Walter Raleigh was the dean – the nephew of Sir Walter Raleigh. During Cromwell’s invasion the Cathedral was neglected and thieves stole a variety of its belongings and lead. Restoration is ongoing today to ensure Wells Cathedral’s magnificence is preserved.
Wells Cathedral Architecture
Architectural highlights include the West Front, built between 1209 and 1250, with its intricate Gothic carvings featuring the saints. Three hundred of the original medieval statues have been retained to this day. At one time these were painted in rich colours and gold leaf. Inside your eye is drawn up to the fantastic sweep of the vaulted ceiling. At the top of the columns are carvings of foliage, birds, animals and medieval people going about their everyday business.
Some scenes are humorous including toothache sufferers and a fox making off with a goose. Under the central tower you can see the cathedral’s only true late Gothic fan vaulting and the unusual scissor arches. These were put in a century after the Cathedral was consecrated to stabilise the building when a tower and spire were added which caused some of the supporting pillars to sink! Don’t miss the various sized windows which date from different periods of the building of the Cathedral. The East Window shows the Jesse Tree and is regarded as the finest medieval stained glass of 1340.
The Wells Clock
The Wells Clock is a prized feature of the Cathedral. It is believed to have been put in place in around 1390 and still has its medieval face displaying the Copernican universe with the earth at the centre. When the clock strikes the quarter of an hour knights joust above the clock and the Quarter Jack bangs the time with his heels. Outside, opposite Vicar’s Hall, you will see another clock that was actually connected to the mechanism of the original seventy years later. Here the knights strike the bells with a hammer on the quarter hour.
Wells Cathedral Guided Tours
Wells Cathedral is open every day of the year and you are welcome to wander in for a look around. Obviously services may be on so you do need to respect this. Free tours are available all year round, except on Sundays. Admission to the cathedral is free – donations welcome. Check opening times and services schedules on the Wells Cathedral website prior to your visit to avoid disappointment.
Vicars’ Close Wells
Vicar’s Hall and Close were built in the 14th century and is the oldest continuously inhabited street in Europe. It is just opposite the cathedral on its north side. The houses that line the original cobbled street were built to give the bachelor choir a secure place to live, away from the temptations of the town – so Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury believed! The tall chimneys were raised in the fifteenth century so that smoke from winter fires could be carried off into the sky rather than affect the choir’s voices. It’s incredible to see that little has changed externally in this street since medieval times and that cathedral staff and choir members are still housed here! One of the houses in Vicar’s Close is let as holiday accommodation making an excellent historic base from which to explore Wells and the surrounding Somerset countryside and towns. More information is available from the Cathedral website.