Archive for August, 2009

Wells Cathedral

August 4, 2009

wells cathedral
Wells is the second-smallest city in the UK (after St Davids, which is apparently a LOT smaller, and also technically it’s bigger than the ‘square mile’ of London too but that’s just a historical mistake, not a city). It’s also in the middle of nowhere, about an hour and twenty minutes bus ride from Bath, through lots of wiggly-windey little roads (the route also takes you through a place called Radstock, which has given me an idea for a music festival). Apparently originally the cathedral for the diocese was in Bath, for a bit, but then this guy Reginald de Bohun decided to build a cathedral in Wells. Even after that though it doesn’t seem like anyone could really make up their minds where to actually have the cathedral for the diocese of Bath and Wells because apparently the bishop’s seat was moved to Glastonbury Abbey for a bit too. But Wells is probably the best place for it, because what it lacks in ease of access Wells more than makes up for in terms of having an ace cathedral.

Wells is the first cathedral built in England in the Gothic style. However its building was interrupted somewhat by the whole of England being excommunicated in 1207 due to King John being a douche. Just check those amazing flat towers. They were built quite a bit after the rest of the cathedral was completed, by William “I remodelled the nave in Winchester” Wynford. Allegedly they wouldn’t have originally been intended to be flat but would probably have had paired pinnacles at each corner and maybe even spires. I don’t know why they didn’t build them if they wanted them though. Maybe they just decided Wells looks better without them. Wells have been described as “the most poetic of English cathedrals” and also “feminine” in its charms. I think this feminine thing is maybe true- Wells is a very clean, neat, and well-maintained cathedral inside, a tribute to the throughness of its Victorian restorers (the inside was all whitewashed and ruined by Protestants for ages). Plus the ceiling in the nave is painted this lacy, pink pattern. Fruity.

west front

My favourite thing about Wells, though, is all the statues on the west front. It’s built in layers- the bottom is the ‘past’ layer and contains scenes from the Old Testament on the south side (your right if you’re standing facing it), and scenes from the New Testament on the north (by process of elimination, your left). The middle is ‘present’, containing busts of kings and bishops and the likes. Then the top is ‘future’. Above, Christ and his angels and such look down from heaven as below, the naked dead rise from their graves. Rapturific. It’s all a joy to behold, but they best thing about it is how apparently when services used to take place in medieval times, choir boys would be standing in the arches (or behind the windows in the arches, I forget which), singing, while from holes pointing out from the ‘heaven’ bit, trumpets would be thrust out, and playing, as people processed towards the cathedral. Religion’s really coming alive, huh? Another cool thing about the west front is that the doors are really small. It’s like the opposite effect to Peterborough, and they are referred to as “mouseholes.” By contrast, the north door is much more impressive. It has stone decorations illustrating the death of Edmund the martyr and everything. But outside it are these weird statues, look:

statues

(no one knows what these are… scary!)

As I enter Wells cathedral (through neither the west nor north sides, instead Wells has this weird ‘new’ entrance bolted onto the side, it’s kind of unsettling) I am struck by the bizarre, haunting organ music humming across my ears and echoing around the place. It sounds strange, foreign, somehow medieval, a bit like Nico on ‘Desertshore’. Later it turns out they’re tuning the organ, and the tour guide apologises.

Unfortunately, Wells is one of those cathedrals that make you purchase a photo pass, so obviously I’m not paying that, so I have no photos of anything inside. So you’ll have to use your imagine. Anyway as you enter Wells looking down the nave the first and most immediately striking thing is its bizarrely modern-looking ‘scissor arches’, an apparently unique feature which were built in 1338-48 to combat sinking tower foundations, and look kind of like an angry owl. Owls are a recurring feature in Wells cathedral- in the Sugar chantry chapel there is, for example, a statue of an owl. The scissor arches are probably best appreciated though by stepping up into them (they support the central tower on all sides) and sort of feeling yourself encased in them, they really are quite genuinely amazing.

The quire is also very impressive, with all this 1930s/50s embroidery on the stalls, all commemorating various bishops of Bath and Wells with cute little motifs like four blowing winds for this bishop who died when two chimney stacks collapsed on him in a big storm. Two of them next to each other later became cardinals- Thomas Wolsey and Adriano Castellesi. Wolsey you know, but Castellesi  was de facto cardinal protector of England under Alexander “I am a notorious pope” VI , who he may possibly have later poisoned maybe. He was later stripped of his cardinalate after being implicated in a plot against Leo X, who had a pet elephant. “A man of doubtful reputation” indeed. There’s also some great stained glass in the quire- the ‘Jesse window’, installed 1340, shows the family tree of Christ springing from Jesse’s hip and is just so sumptuously medieval-coloured and excellent. Apparently they’re soon to pay about £1 million to maintain it. Money well spent imo. Other top-notch stained-glass in Wells includes the familiar post-Civil War mosaicing of wrecked glass in the lady chapel such as previously demonstrated in Winchester (only in this case there is a second level of stained glass that was apparently too high-up for them to bother smashing and so is still there- it has some great heads in it, of various diginataries, one imagines). In the north transept there is some lovely stained-glass with all these kings of Wessex on it, but I neglected to ask when it dates from- it looks relatively modern though, possibly arts and crafts? Who knows. Still, two thumbs up.

Another top feature of Wells is its breezy, octagonal chapter house. This is where the chapter used to (and apparently sometimes still does, although I think now the chapter is much smaller and so would probably just get drowned-out and lost in the chapter house, which gives the impression of wide, agoraphobia-inducing space, particularly when seated). The ceiling has been described as “the finest example of Fan Vaulting architecture in the world,” although that sounds kind of clumsy- I think maybe the author of that quote meant to write “vaulted” (or maybe just lose the ‘architecture’? It’s not really doing much work in that sentence anyway). Also apparently it’s not even really fan vaulting, it’s like some more primitive sort of fan vaulting. Pfft. Whatevs mate, it looks like a fan. Round the side runs a bench, with pillars in blue lais and  happy little faces carved above them, and then little brass plaques with words like “Wilflakington” and “Wedmore V” engraved on them. This has something to do with where people’s money comes from, or something. To get to the chapter house you have to go up these very idiosyncratic stairs, look:

(the extra stairs lead out to a walkway which connects the cathedral to the cathedral close, which was some way of preventing whoever it was lived there from getting laid. PS look at the cathedral close can you believe some people actually get to live here? The rest of the surrounding streets are very pretty took, look at this street sign approaching the Penniless Porch and the medieval-y sewer thing still intact as well!)

cathedral close
cathedral green
sewer

Wow!

Another top Wells attraction that I already knew about before I went here in fact because I have an old postcard of it is the Wells cathedral clock. The second-oldest clock still working in existence (after Salisbury’s), and the oldest with it’s original face, the original mechanism is actually now in the science museum, but just check it out. There’s two faces- one inside, one out, with the inside face the superior of the two. The face reflects of geocentric world view, with the sun and moon revolving round a fixed earth (sun on the circle for the hours, moon for the minutes- hours and minutes are represented seperately, see). When it hits the hour, knights go round above the clock face, and this little character sitting on the wall along from it hits a bell. His name is Jack Blandifers, and he generally looks quite a cheeky little fellow. The paintwork is excellent. I think more clocks nowadays should have figures doing stuff. Like, how did that ever possibly go out of fashion? Did people for a bit suddenly forget how to be delighted at things? Where’s the delight? Look at the clock:

wells clock

Wells is full of amusing little touches. For example the capitols on the pillars about the place have little cartoonish scenes on like this one about grape thieves getting caught (and another one which is just a guy with toothache)- they are meant to represent typical Somserset scenes. The tomb of former bishop John Harewell has him with two hares and a well at his feet- one of the neatest bits of churchman punning since John Islip, look:

john islip

Harwell’s tomb is also very attractively carved-up, as is Rufus of Shrewsbury’s across the cathedral- some excellent effect the graffiti has given them. Another tomb that has been pleasingly ruined is that of William Bytton, who apparently had perfect teeth even though he died very old- therefore people took to touching his teeth to combat dental complaints. As a result his entire lower jaw and neck is now missing. Looks like they exhausted that particular natural resource, huh?

Less amusing is the thoroughly underwhelming Interpretation centre, just sort of a fairly blank museum telling you about stones. Give it a miss.

But don’t give the cathedral a miss, though! It’s ace!

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