Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Days 20 and 21 – Visiting Wells Cathedral

On Saturday, I got up hideously early in order to catch a coach from Victoria Station to Bristol, then another to Wells, which I had heard was a lovely place to visit. Due to an ominous weather forecast and having frozen the previous Saturday, I was bundled up and braced for the worst but my timing was perfect - as I arrived in England’s smallest city, the sun came out after what they told me had been a deluge.
Goudge’s Cathedral trilogy, A City of Bells, Towers in the Mist, and The Dean's Watch is partially set in a town based on Wells, and although I haven’t read them for many years, I do recall their whimsical style and vivid setting. These days, Goudge is best remembered for The Child from the Sea, her book about Charles II’s mistress, Lucy Walter, and for The Little White Horse, a great orphan story that I enjoyed and which J.K. Rowling said was one of her favorites growing up. However, all the local tour guide types seemed never to have heard of her, which is a pity.
The Bishop's Swans
My hotel was just a few yards from where the bus dropped me off (although it took me quite a while to figure this out) and I left my luggage and laptop. A friendly young woman in a Flapjack store told me the best place for lunch was the café at the Bishop’s Garden so I headed that way and was soon seated outside with tea, lemon sponge cake, and a great view of 14 acres of beautifully tended gardens. The Bishop's Palace is adjacent to Wells Cathedral and has been the home of the Bishops of the Diocese of Bath and Wells for 800 years. The Bishop’s Palace dates from the early-thirteenth century when then Bishop Jocelin, an advisor to Bad King John who is mentioned in the Magna Carta, received a crown license to build a residence and deer park on land to the south of the Cathedral of St Andrew. There is a moat around the Palace where everyone was admiring two swans and their six cygnets, which had just been named in a contest. The tradition of swans at the Bishop’s Palace is thought to go back to the 1850s when a Bishop’s daughter first taught the swans to ring a bell at the Gatehouse for food. Someone feeding the swans pointed out two swan bells, both with a rope hanging down for the swans to pull.
On the steps behind the Bishop's Chapel
I paid to enter the Palace and was just in time for a tour. My guide was a dour fellow named Nick Carter who ignored any questions that disrupted his usual flow of information but he was still entertaining and the Palace itself was impressive. The Bishop had his own chapel that is still used today and a long gallery has portraits of all the former bishops. A new bishop is coming from Hereford – when I asked whether that was considered a promotion, I was told that the Bishop of Wells and Bath has 569 churches reporting in to him and gets to live in the Palace! I was surprised to learn that Thomas Wolsey, better known for failing to get Henry VIII the annulment he sought, was Bishop of Wells and Bath from 1518-23, although my guide said disapprovingly that he barely spent any time there because busy advising Henry on matters of state (or renovating Hampton Court, which Henry eventually appropriated). He died in 1530 from natural causes, just before Henry could impose a worse fate.
The Bishop's Palace
The second tour was of the garden and grounds with the same guide (who unbent in a smaller group), a retired couple, and me. The husband was friendly and wanted to know where I was from and it turned out he had earned his PhD in History at Cornell. When I told him I was a hockey fan and had been to Cornell, he said Cornell’s hockey team had been very good when he was there and won the Ivy League Championship. “They had an extremely talented goaltender, although I don’t recall his name,” he reminisced to me. “Was it Ken Dryden?” I asked and he looked at me in amazement. I explained that Dryden had gone on to NHL stardom and I could not name every Cornell goalie.
The Palace gardens
Eventually, I went back to the Ancient Gatehouse to get my key and see my room. It was up a narrow staircase and small but a lot bigger than my dorm room! And it had the most amazing view of the Cathedral and because it stays light so late here, I was able to enjoy the view until well past 9 pm. The aroma from the restaurant seeped up to my room enticingly so I made a reservation for 8 pm and went off to Mass around the corner at St. Joseph & St. Teresa's Church. It is a small church that was originally built in the late 19th century for a Carmelite convent and was adapted in the 1970s when the convent closed. I imagine it is kind of depressing to be a small church just two blocks from a stupendous Cathedral usurped by Henry VIII et al. The priest was a visiting missionary. I had a delicious dinner at Rugantino Restaurant, run by the same family as the hotel, then sat in my room by the window gazing at the Cathedral until it was dark. It was nice to have a deep, soft mattress instead of the brick in the dorm.
Behind the Cathedral from the gardens
Wells Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of St. Andrew, was built from around 1175 to replace an earlier church on the site since 705, under the impetus of Bishop Jocelin, and is considered the first gothic cathedral. Bishop Jocelin is also responsible for establishing the choristers' school, which continues to this day. Subsequent bishops added towers or other improvements. During the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, Puritan soldiers damaged the church, tore lead from the roof to make bullets, broke the windows, smashed the organ, and stabled their horses in the nave.
Goudge's father was the Dean
of the Cathedral
I went to the Cathedral on Sunday morning to hear the magnificent choir and heard the same gospel as the Catholics. Then I headed for the bus stop. There was a German couple waiting for the bus to Bristol whose 18-year-old daughter is a boarding student at the Well Cathedral School, “trying to make music her career,” they told me, somewhat worriedly. They had flown in for a concert the previous evening at the Cathedral which I had been tempted to attend but decided dinner was more important.
This was the view from my hotel room!!
Although I had been planning to explore Bristol on Sunday afternoon, when I got there it was raining and I decided to jump on the next bus to London instead. Apologies to Margaret Evans Porter who gave me some good suggestions about what to do in Bristol. Overall, I really enjoyed Wells and was glad I made the effort to travel there.  The railways were on strike on Saturday but there is no train service to Wells anyway.  And, fortunately, the bus service in the UK is much more extensive, not to mention nicer than at home.
Weren't expecting him, were we?
Saturday: walked 3.9 miles
Books acquired: Bought 2 at the Wells market; donated the one I read on the bus to a charity shop
Really like these vaulted ceilings!
Sunday: walked 2.2 miles


Cath said...

Oh gosh, I love Wells. We don't go all that often considering how close we are but it's a delightful city. Actually I think the last time I was there was in 2016 when a friend from Memphis was visiting and because she loves churches and cathedrals we took her there. We also took her to Buckfast Abbey here in Devon which is one for another visit if you're ever staying with us again. I love the way people talk to you. Be prepared to chat a lot over the weekend! LOL

Lory said...

I just reread A City of Bells and loved this post, your photos brought back all that atmosphere, so wonderfully evoked in the book. How sad that the tour guides had not heard of Goudge! She's fallen out of popularity although there are some of us fans still left. BTW though there are three books set in Torminster (based on Wells), the others are Henrietta's House (aka The Blue Hills) and Daughter of the Angels. Towers in the Mist is set in Oxford and The Dean's Watch in Ely, all of them places where Goudge had lived with her clergyman father and known well.

LyzzyBee said...

That double arch is amazing, isn't it. I have played in a concert in Wells Cathedral in the wind band I was in while at school. All our twiddly pieces got lost in the massive echo but the slow one that ended with a BANG came out wonderfully!

CLM said...

Performing in a cathedral sounds delightful, Liz! I wondered about the acoustics in the Cathedral - it worked well for the choir but I can see that some music might get absorbed. I was quite happy just sitting and listening - and interested to see girl choristers.

Cath, I felt there were a lot of people visiting for the day or weekend, and it seemed very slow paced and relaxed compared to Bath; not touristy, perhaps because hard to get to without a car. Yes, I am looking forward to seeing you, especially because I am tired of people forcing themselves to listen patiently when I mention a book. Ha, of course, you don't have to listen patiently either - interrupt away!

Lory, I read all of Goudge at one point but I really only remember the two children's books and A Child From the Sea well. But I did go to Ely with my mother on my last trip, partly because of her and partly because of a friend who loved it.

Katrina said...

Thanks so much for this post. We are hoping to go to Bath later this year when we do a bit of a road trip, we'll definitely make time to go to Wells too. I've been amazed at how much you are fitting in to your trip, and have been quite envious!

Yvonne @ Fiction Books Reviews said...

We live really close to Wells, so this is one of our regular haunts for a relaxed half day excursion. It also has the rather dubious honour of being the main film location for "Hot Fuzz', which is something of a cult movie here in the UK, and as hubby has watched the film goodness knows how many times and still laughs with every viewing, he enjoys double the satisfaction from our visits!


CLM said...

I haven't heard of that movie, Yvonne, but now I am curious!

Katrina, you and Jack would definitely like Wells and one day is the right amount of time there, although the hotels were less expensive than Bath and Bristol so that is worth keeping in mind. If I'd been driving, I would also have stopped in Glastonbury although it is probably too touristy. Cath is not that far away - she might be able to come meet you!