The City of Wells, the Cathedral and Bishop's Palace, Somerset, UK Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The City of Wells, the Cathedral and Bishop's Palace, Somerset, UK

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Prehistoric animals at a watering hole

The City of Wells nestles in the foot-hills of the Mendips in Somerset, UK. The smallest city in England, at around 2.5 miles long with a population of only 10,000, Wells has an interesting history. Its story, like that of Glastonbury, is a story of cold-water springs.

The Geology

Wells has a varied geological environment, with meadowland at one end and limestone hills at the other. The meadowland at the lower, western end of Wells provides a buffer of dry land between the city and the flood-prone Somerset Levels. The upper, eastern end of the city peters out along the Bath road. Along this road, towards the edge of the city is a footpath leading first to Knapp Hill and then onto Penn Hill, which is the start of the Mendips proper. Running a third of the way down Knapp Hill is a small stream which has carved out a small gorge during its lifetime. The stream disappears down a swallet, the local term for a sink-hole where a stream runs underground. These hills are made of limestone.

Underneath the limestone, a complicated geological history is revealed. At various times in history the Mendips have been part of a delta similar to that of the Nile, part of a mountainous desert region, part of a tropical island chain and on a couple of occasions part of a sea-floor. On top of that, tectonic activity has pulled, squeezed and bundled up the various strata to further confuse matters.

The limestone is composed of the remains of crinoids. The term crinoid encompasses a variety of marine organisms, the most common of which are known as the 'sea lilies'. Imagine a sea-bed covered in meadows of crinoids, stretching for miles in very direction. They are animals, but they look like plants, consisting of a stem crowned with 'petals' constructed of calcite. When these animals died, the petals would accumulate on the sea-bed, year after year, generation after generation, creating layer upon layer of calcium, cemented together with calcium carbonate. When subjected to heat and pressure, these layers form limestone. Many of the houses in the Wells region are built from limestone, and the remains of these creatures are easily identifiable.

The important thing about limestone, in relation to Wells, is that it dissolves quite easily under certain circumstances. You won't be able to watch houses disintegrate whilst waiting for a bus, but over time, and with a constant supply of flowing water, caves form in limestone. The Mendips are famous for their caves. This is in part due to the sheer amount of limestone in the hills, and in part due to the tremendous amount of rain that falls on them. Sedimentary rock, such as limestone, is the store-house for much of the planet's carbon dioxide. When in contact with water, carbon dissolves out of the rocks and forms a weak acid which erodes the limestone. Once this process is started, a flow of water will etch out a cave many times larger than itself. So the crinoids, after many millions of years, finally get wet again. A vast amount of water can reach the water table without ever breaking cover. Some of this water will be forced above ground through springs, which is where Wells comes in.

Prehistoric Wells

Nobody is sure when the springs began to run. The earliest evidence of humans in the area comes from human bones found in other caves on the Mendips, which date back 18,000 years. In those days the springs would have formed a pool or small lake surrounded by swampy ground. There would have been an overflow stream or river which, following the path of least resistance, which would have run down the same hill it runs down today, the High Street. The flora would have been identical to that of today, but the animal life would have been very different. Being a natural watering hole, animals such as woolly mammoths, lions, hyenas, bears, horses, bison, deer and aurochs1 would have come to drink. From their presence on the Mendips we can conclude that the springs must have been a busy and dangerous place. A good place to hunt, a good place to be hunted.

Keeping an eye out for prey and predators must have required a lot of concentration, and a lot of silence. This forced higher perception may be the reason that wells and springs became known as holy places during the Iron Age, and later through history. Perhaps the springs were a natural location in which to reflect on the cycles of life and death...

Evidence of Iron Age occupation is simultaneously incredibly obvious and easy to miss. Maesbury hill-fort is a huge 960ft wide hill-fort on the side of the Mendips overlooking Wells. It has mature trees growing in what would have been the embankments and hovers above the City like a gigantic 'O'. Hill-forts were not permanently manned by a standing army. They were a place to keep your family and livestock safe in times of conflict. The Maesbury hill-fort could be reached on foot in about an hour from Wells. Judging by the size of Maesbury, there must have been a big human population, and a large amount of livestock.

The Cathedral

The church at the Great Spring at Wells was reputedly founded by the Saxon King Ine and Saint Aldhelm in 707 AD, although nothing was recorded until 766 AD. During an archaeological excavation in the late 1970s, an 8th Century Merovingian Dynasty (early kings of France) coin was found on the site of the church, along with shards of blue and green glass near the earliest phase of building.

In the 14th Century Wells had the largest population of any town or city in Somerset with 1500 inhabitants. It was in this century that the 'strainer' or 'scissor' arches were built. Shaped like an 'X', each of the arches abuts three others, to support the central tower. Other supports were constructed like trees, long trunks leading up to the ceiling of the Cathedral, sprouting crowns at the top to support the roof.

Leading off the north side of the Cathedral are the stairs to the Chapter House. This is a most impressive flight of stairs and a most impressive room. The steps rise up to the refectory, and right to the octagonal Chapter House. The Chapter House roof is supported by a slender pillar, topped with a symmetrical crown of 'branches'. The Chapter House was a meeting place for the various community leaders of local areas. Reading the names of the regions that were included gives you an idea of the sway of the Bishop. Some parishes are as much as 40 miles away from the Cathedral. The acoustics have to be heard to be believed. To the left of the stairs to the Chapter House is a 14th Century clock. The face is divided into 24 parts, and every 15 minutes, knights rotate around the top, and knock each-other's heads off (for images of the clock, visit the London Science Museum). Gargoyles abound both inside and out. There are no less than 11 representations of tooth-ache.

The West front of the Cathedral is a homage to masonry. There are 297 surviving statues, with niches for a further 59. In its heyday the West front was brightly painted, as was the interior of the Cathedral itself. The stained glass for the west windows had to be built to withstand the forces of Atlantic gales. Although quite a distance from the sea, there is a distinct lack of geology in the way to buffer winds. Also, damage to the west windows has been received from birds which, we must assume, have great difficulty steering in strong tail-winds.

The Bishop's Palace

Adjoining the Cathedral, the Bishop's Palace is ringed by a fine moat, fed by the wells, which are now ensconced in the Palace's ornamental gardens. The moat is shallow, but quite wide, and runs round three sides of the gardens. Between the gardens and the moat is a high defensive wall, with a fighting platform running the length of the inside. Arrow slits pierce the wall here and there. The slits are cruciform in shape and slightly inset. The cross-beams of the cruciform are subtly off-kilter. This had the effect of altering the perspective of attacking archers and ruining their aim. The defensive wall is constructed of limestone and blocks of Old Red Sandstone, as are large parts of the Palace.

The moat has a huge and thriving population of sticklebacks, one carp, and Kingfishers can be found nearby. The stickleback population suffered during the summer of 2001, due to foot and mouth disease. This may sound peculiar, but it was a knock-on effect. Foot and mouth severely reduced the number of tourists, who normally chuck lots of bread into the water for the resident ducks and swans. So much bread is offered that the birds rarely manage to eat it all, and the surplus is greedily consumed by the sticklebacks. Less bread equals fewer sticklebacks. The carp is a bit of a mystery though. According to one local, there is a boy who goes around catching fish and leaving them in unlikely places. The carp may be one of his donations. The swans are famous for pulling a rope at the draw-bridge gate-house which rings a bell, and alerts an attendant that they are in need of feeding. If you are lucky enough to catch this performance, and the attendant is indeed alert, you may witness a portion of crusty loaf being lobbed out of the little leaded window and into the water. If you faint with excitement at this ceremony, try to fall back against the grass bank, and not forward into the moat as the swans can be quite skittish.

The main Palace building was constructed by Bishop Jocelyn in the 13th Century. He also built the chapel and the great hall, the latter of which sadly is no longer intact. The parts of it that have survived though make the garden a pleasant place to visit. Before the Palace fell into disrepair, huge banquets were held there. According to an information board in the Palace gardens, two Royal Commissioners visited the Palace in 1337, when it was under the auspices of Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury. 268 guests were served up 672 loaves of bread, 86 pipes of wine and 340 pipes of ale. The main dishes included pike, eel, hake, salmon, plaice, bream, pollock, pickerel (young pike), a whole sheep, duck, chicken, and a half a cow. There were also some unspecified dishes. A pipe, as in a pipe of wine or ale, was 105 gallons. At eight pints per gallon that works out at 840 pints per pipe. That works out as 269 pints of wine and 1065 pints of ale per person. At ten pints of ale per night alone, it would have taken the average guest 107 nights just to finish their beer. Something doesn't quite add up. You can only assume that they either spilled a lot, took a lot of it away with them, or that the staff drank a lot too. Otherwise, the banquet would have had to go on for about five months... The whole show cost Bishop Ralph a total of six pounds fifty three pence, in modern sterling.

Now the North wall is about all that's left of the hall. There's a solitary tower too, which indicates where the East and South walls would have met. By the 16th Century the building had fallen into disrepair and the lead and timbers of the roof were sold off to raise funds. Later, Bishop Henry Law (1824-1845) had some of the walls pulled down for repairs elsewhere, and had the gardens landscaped. The present day appearance is principally his work. If you walk through the remains of the hall, passing the tea-room on the left, you enter the rear of the moat, and another ornamental garden. This is where the wells are kept. They still flow into their self-created lake, off down a water-fall and into the moat. There is also an extensive arboretum here, in which you are welcome to picnic. The Palace is open from April to October.

The Town and People

The history of Wells is closely entwined with that of the Cathedral and Palace. It is picturesque2 in the extreme. There's Market Square, with a lively market on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The High Street runs down from Market Square, and some of the overflow from the wells run down the wide stone gutters. The effect is quite pleasant, but it can also be quite hazardous. A highly slippery form of algae grows on the stone floor of the gutters. The pavements are quite narrow, and occasionally people are forced to step into the gutters. This almost invariably results in a spectacular fall and can cause quite an injury. A man was once witnessed stepping into the gutter, only to slip. He threw his arms out in a wild and desperate attempt to steady himself, slapping another man in the eye in the process. The man didn't fall into the gutter, but he nearly received a slap in return. So caution is advised.

The pubs are all fairly decent. The City Arms stands out though, as it used to be a gaol/jail in Tudor times. It serves excellent beer and good food, and has, when in bloom, one of the prettiest courtyards of any pub in England. There is an iron torture implement hanging on one of the walls, and if you have ordered something to eat, it is advisable that you avoid reading the gruesome information notice next to it.

Wells has the highest ratio of charity shops for any town or city in Somerset. According to the government population statistics for Wells, over 28% of the population are OAPs (Old Aged Pensioners). Another 20% are aged between 45 and 70. This may be something to do with the number of charity shops.

Only 16% of the population are aged under 16. These chaps have been waiting for a skate-board park to open. Since 1974. Some of the original campaigners must now be accelerating through the statistic pie-chart wedges at an alarming rate. Unemployment is low. Out of 10,000 residents, only 106 are unemployed.

Summing up, if you want a quiet place to live, move to Wells. Nothing happens there at all. During the Indian floods of early 2001, the front page of the local paper had a large photograph displaying a couple of tiles that had fallen from the roof of a pub and caused the traffic to slow down a bit.

There is a lot more to see in Wells that can be covered in this entry, and a visit is highly recommended.

1A gigantic member of the ox family, standing at six foot at the shoulder. Survived in Poland until 1627.2The word picturesque comes from a Victorian watercolour painting fad. Artists would carry a picture frame around with them, and if they spotted a pretty scene, they would hold up the frame. If the scene was deemed worthy of painting, they would refer to it as 'picturesque'.

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