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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
@@ N51 W2 @@