Wells: A Medieval Cathedral and Palace and the Oldest Street in Europe
The medieval city of wells is located two hours outside of London by train. That makes it a lovely day trip from the British capital. Visitors come to explore its magnificent cathedral, moated bishop’s palace, and the oldest street in Europe.
Officially the Church of St. Andrew, Wells Cathedral was built between 1175 and 1490 and is the seat of the Bishop of Bath and Wells. The church is most famous for its glorious facade featuring over 300 life-sized sculptured figures, including Old Testament prophets and patriarchs, early Christian missionaries to Britain, bishops and abbots, kings and princes, angels, and the twelve apostles. All of these sculptures were designed to help the illiterate parishioners learn stories from the Bible. For example, a series of small niches under the upper course depicts a scene of the dead rising from their graves at the Last Judgement, and, above the central portal, the Virgin Mary is shown being crowned Queen of Heaven. Wells Cathedral was the first English cathedral to be built entirely in the Gothic style which had developed on the European continent.
The cathedral is also known for its Chapter House, which is considered by many to be most beautiful in England. Like other chapter houses, it was designed to be a place where the chapter, or group, of clerics would meet to advise the bishop or to lead the diocese in his absence. The staircase, seen in this picture, was built from 1265 and 1280, while the attached octagonal Chapter House was constructed between 1286 and 1306. One branch of the stairs leads to the Chapter House, while the other brings one to Chain Gate, a two story structure which connects the cathedral to Vicar’s Close, located across the road from the cathedral.
Vicar’s Close, located next to Wells Cathedral, is believed to be the most intact, continuously inhabited, medieval residential street in all of Europe. The 27 residences were built over 650 years ago to accommodate the members of the church’s choir, who could lived in this small community apart from the temptations present in the town of Wells. In addition to the vicar’s houses, the close included a common hall, kitchen, bake house, chapel, and library. Originally there were 44 residences built around a quadrangle, but in 1582, a charter granted by Queen Elizabeth I reduced the number to the current 27 and converted the quadrangle into a close, or dead end street. Today, nine vicars choral and three choral scholars live on Vicar’s Close, and along with boy and girl choristers, provide all of the choral music for Wells Cathedral.
Heading back to the center of town, you can get a bite to eat at one of many cute cafes and pubs or stop into browse in some of the quaint shops. Next, head on over to the medieval Bishop’s Palace, which has been the residence of the Bishops of Bath and Wells for over 800 years. Cross the flagstone drawbridge to explore the historic site. It may be a tranquil site now, but in the 1300’s, this gatehouse and moat were designed to protect the bishop in times of war and disease and to project an air of authority and power. Explore the original bishop’s palace, the 13th century chapel, and the ruined Great Hall, which was once the largest medieval hall in England, after Canterbury and Westminster Hall in London. The site also includes the current bishop’s home and offices (located in the north range and tower) and over 14 acres of gardens, including beautiful pools which are fed from natural springs, or wells, for which the city is named. Each of these man-made pools flow into the swan-filled moat surrounding the palace. How dreamy!
Wells makes an interesting day trip from London, Bristol, or Bath. Click on the map below for driving or rail directions.