Having kicked off Retirement Diaries with pieces on our village of Roydon and then my St. Bartholomew beginnings , I now move on to a series of blogs highlighting our exploration of castles, abbey’s, villages and historical pubs as Julie and I start our journeys and discoveries around Britain.
To add a little more background, our retirement adventures have been on hold since my retirement in 2016 due to an out of the blue diagnosis of tonsillar cancer. This news came on day one of my retirement – not the best start and required emergency surgery and then intensive radiotherapy and some painful and difficult months of recovery. Associated dental issues compounded the whole business but never one for negativity I got on with it and thank my wife, family and amazing friends for their support.
I will return to this matter in a future blog when I will provide a summary of my experiences that if helpful to just one other person unlucky enough to have to face the ordeal, I will feel it will be worth it.
Having made a slow but thankfully pretty good recovery and with Julie reaching her 60th milestone, we decided it would be good to treat ourselves to a joint celebratory year of trips around this Britsin that we both love. We started off at a place we have visited briefly just after my diagnosis and on the way back from a friend’s wedding in Cornwall. We vowed to go back as soon as we were able. Julie was also keen to ascend Glastonbury Tor on her actual birthday and to visit her beloved Chalice Well Gardens – her special place.
You can discover whether we made it up the Tor in my next blog about Glastonbury but for now let’s focus on the medieval city of Wells, Englands smallest city.
Wells – Britain’s smallest Cathedral City
Background Like Cloth Fair covered in an earlier blog, Wells was once known for its cloth production and trade and was also an important place given its proximity to Glastonbury. It is situated to the south of the Mendip Hills with the mystical Somerset Levels stretching away to the south and west. Wells was a Roman settlement chosen no doubt because of the three springwater wells there. One in the Bishops Palace, one in the market square and one in the grounds of the Cathedral.
It originally became an important Anglo Saxon city when King Ine of Wessex founded a monastic church in 704 and 200 years later it became seat of the new bishopric of Wells but this was moved to Bath 80 years later. This caused conflict between the Canons and in 1245 the Bishopric was renamed to incorporate Bath and Wells. When the new magnificent Cathedral was built in Wells this became the principal seat of the diocese.
The city is associated with two major events in the 17th centurty – Firstly The Seige of Wells, during the English civil war (1642-1651), which saw the city surrounded by Parliamentarian troops. The Royalists fled the city and the Cathedral was used to stable the troops horses. Much of the ornate stonework was callously damaged by the rifleman using it for firing practice during their stay.
Secondly, the Cathedral was further abused during the Monmouth Rebellion when lead was stripped from the roof to make bullets, windows were broken and the organ smashed.
The Cathedral was to become the location of the final Bloody Assizes when over 500 were tried and the majority sentenced to death.
Wells has an exceptional number of surviving secular buildings associated with its chapter of secular canons, including the Bishop’s Palace and Vicars’ Close, a residential street that has remained intact since the 15th century and offers amazing opportunities to photographers, artists and anyone who simply loves wonderful buildings
Our chosen hotel for our 3 night stay was The Crown which stands in a most prominent position in the thriving Wednesday market Square. It is immediately adjacent to the gated entrance to the wonderful Bishops Palace, moat and walled gardens and also to the Alms Gateway that leads to the stunning Cathedral.
The Crown Inn
The Crown was built in 1450 originally as three houses commissioned by the then Bishop Beckynton and later converted into an inn.
In 1692, William Penn a Quaker preached to a crowd of 3000 from his upper floor room at The Crown. He was arrested and locked up for inciting the people with his democratic and religious freedom preaching. He was not unused to this having spent several periods locked up in the Tower of London. Some weeks later Penn was released and returned to the pub only to continuing addressing the crowds below before setting sale for America.
Penn was to go on to establish the State of Pennsylvania and, as a foundling father of this new country, was one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence. Penn was one of the good guys famed for his good relations and successful treaties with North American native Indians, specifically the Lenape tribes.
The Inn was then split and called The Penn bar and separately a coaching Inn called the Royal Oak.
In the 1930s, the Crown was refurbished as a 9 bedroom hotel and the rear yard provided stabling for market traders to use for about 60 horses. During WW2, The Crown was used to recouperate wounded troops returning from D-Day Landings and other conflicts.
More recently the exterior of the pub was used for the production of Hot Fuzz directed by local boy Edgar Wright and featuring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Wells has been regularly used for filming backdrops including productions of Poldark 2016 and 2017, Dr Who 2007, Another Mother’s Son 2017, The Huntsman 2015, The Hollow Crow 2014, Jack the Giant Killer 2012, The Golden Age 2007 and Wolf Hall 2014 and many of the stars stayed in The Crown with their photos displayed in the reception.
View over market and the Well from bedroom window
The Bishops Palace
The Palace is found by walking through the ‘Bishops Eye’ from the Market Square (or follow the signs). This wonderful medieval palace has been the home of the Bishops of Bath and Wells for over 800 years incorporating a deer park and immediately to the south of the cathedral. Within the fortified walls, surrounded by a romantic and fish stocked moat, lies the ruins of the Great Hall, the Bishop’s private chapel and 14 acres of gardens, including an arboretum, Community Garden and Garden of Reflection. The palace has an imposing gatehouse with portcullis and flagstoned drawbridge resembling a castle entrance.
Why the drawbridge, moat and ramparts on a Bishop’s Palace I wondered. Lovely, but not exactly welcoming. It seems that the threat of plague, famine and political war were serious issues back in the 13th century and so it was perhaps wise to be cautious – if you could afford it. Bishop Ralph was cautious and rich and the security and grandeur of the Palace also elevated his importance and standing. The pious are just great at taking care of others once they have looked after themselves.
Inside however is very different presenting a beautifully landscaped and tranquil residence with one of the Wells famous Wells and a superbly engineered water system. Water bubbles up within the walled gardens at a rate of 100 litres per second into the pool and then feeds the moat. The view across the pool and landscaped gardens towards the cathedral is simply wonderful. Between the pool and the cathedral is an ancient well dedicated to St Andrew and the well house built in 1451 for Bishop Beckynton. Water is cleverly channelled around to gain maximum benefit from this wonderful natural resource.
An interesting and fun occurance in the moat involves a bell to the left of the moated entrance and it’s rope hanging invitingly just above the water. When the resident swans are hungry they tug at the rope with their beaks which rings the bell. This alerts the on duty swan feeder who is happy to oblige. The swans are fed, passers by gather, their cameras click and they often applaud the enterprise of these graceful creatures. We regretably have not been lucky enough to witnesses this ourselves as yet so retain an excuse to return in June when the gardens are also at their best.
The first mute swan who learned this clever behaviour is no longer with us but has been stuffed and on view in the excellent Wells Museum which overlooks the Cathedral. Another entertainment is the annual moat boat race when the Bishop pits his skills against local competition.
There is a Chapel in the Early English Decorated style if that floats your boat and this is used by the Bishops of Bath and Wells for their private prayer. Nice stone tracery and art. Next to the chapel is the great hall. Apparently it is the 3rd largest secular hall after Canterbury and Westminster.
The Undercroft at the time of our visit was in full swing as a venue for an outside broadcast by Radio Somerset celebrating some kind of broadcasting birthday but a bit of boldness and accomplished mingling ability got me in to peruse sufficient of the space to decide I quiet liked it. I was not allowed near enough to their cake to see if I liked that.
A Jacobean staircase leads to an upper floor suite of rooms and chambers used by the Bishops. Julie loves a dragon and some fine ones adorn this stairwell as do some wonderfully carved wood depicting Wells street scenes.
Look out for the Garderobe, known as the finest Medieval loo in England. Again, the Reformation enforcement officers got stuck in and took the lead from the roof leaving the building to suffer considerable decay and parts of the original building were taken down. The remains provide beautiful attributes to the picturesque gardens and contrast with the various sculptures there. The buildings are wonderful and the gardens delightful – should I win the lottery this would be a piece of real estate I would be interested in. There are other candidates though in this City and I will come to them in my next blog.
Fine wood carvings
Romantic settings everywhere in the Palace gardens
Monk (not a real one) on skate board, how cool
We have both fallen under Wells spell, just like Glastonbury and will keep returning, next time with a better camera. So many things to see, research and share with you.
Next blog will be on Glastonbury and then will return to Wells to feature the Cathedral and Vicars Close but for now, the Govnor’s calling.