Wednesday, September 7th 2011
Today is my birthday and so we want to go somewhere that will provide us with a special day out. We hope that Wells will fulfil that hope.
We started our explorations at the market. It is an ancient market and some of its valuable features, such as a water conduit, were provided by Bishop Thomas Bekynton in 1451.
The conduit, a supply of clean water, which would have been very valuable in the 16th century, also feeds a fountain. The original was part of the works provided by Bishop Bekynton but was demolished in 1797 and replaced by this one, built by the City Corporation.
We met this enthusiastic gentleman, holder of the ancient office of Town Crier. Tigger had a chat with him and he explained that he loved the job.
Unfortunately, there is not enough work for a full-time appointment so the Crier has to moonlight with another, more mundane job. He performs this traditional role with gusto and evident enjoyment. Long may he continue to do so.
In one corner of the Market Place stands this archway. Named Penniless Porch because of the beggars who used to come here to beg for alms, it leads to Cathedral Green.
Cathedral Green, as the name suggests, is a broad green space in front of the Cathedral. It is limited on one side by the Cathedral and on the other by the road and the other buildings within the Cathedral precinct.
Wells Cathedral was begun in the late 1100s in the then new and revolutionary Gothic style imported from France. The first building phase took 80 years but then additions were made. We did not visit the inside of the Cathedral on this trip.
The precinct is enclosed by walls and buildings such as the Old Deanery. originally built in the 12th century but reworked in the 15th and 17th. Today is provides office space for church administration.
Incorporated too is this charming medieval street now known as Vicars’ Close. It was founded in 1348 so that the male choristers could live communally but each have his own house. The front gardens were added in the 15th century.
We returned again to the Market Place to resume our wanderings and here found the inn called The Crown at Wells. This 15th century inn is famed for its connection with William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania. Having become a Quaker, Penn found his religious views to be at variance with the authorities. In 1685 he preached to a large crowd from a window of the Crown and was arrested but later released.
The sky, which had been making threatening gestures, began to rain on us, so we thought to take shelter by having lunch. This restaurant, called Beah, happened to be nearby and to offer several vegetarian choices. We enjoyed a good lunch there.
On resuming our exploration, we passed by this pink building. The shape suggests that it is quite old, despite the rather fanciful colour applied to it. Today it is a pub called the City Arms but a board on the side tells us that it was once the City Jail, dating from1549, and that some of its ancient structure remains, “including original barred windows locks and chains and a solitary cell”.
We came to St Cuthbert’s Church which was first built in the 15th century and went into the grounds for a look.
At the back of the church, continuous with the the churchyard, are some very pretty almshouses. I think there are three sets here, of which the façade shown belongs to those known as Still’s, founded in 1615.
At the edge of church property, on Priest Row, we found the second set of almshouses, called the Llewellyn’s and Charles’ Almshouses. According to an inscription on the gate, they were founded in 1614 (the board nearby says 1636) while these houses were built in 1887.
We passed the sweet shop which, despite its cheesy faux-Old English (or should that be “Olde-Englisshe”?) name, has some pretty glass panels and a stylish “73”, and arrived at Priory Road.
You would think that a road called Priory Road would have been there for centuries, especially as there was indeed a priory nearby. In fact, the road was not built until 1840 as a new road into the town. Before then, St John Street performed that role and that was where the Priory of the Hospital of St John the Baptist stood, reasonably enough.
The priory, comprising a prior and 10 brothers, was dedicated to the care of the poor, the sick and the disabled. In 1539, the Priory suffered the same fate as the other religious houses, being dissolved by Henry VIII. The buildings survived until 1859 and were then demolished to make way for a school. The pictured house, called the Priory, is thought to have been the house of the Prior. Though altered, it includes remains of its medieval past.
Through here runs an important watercourse called St Andrew’s Stream, important in the sense that it sustained several mills. Opposite the Priory at what was known as St John’s Bridge, the brothers ran a mill. A wall prevents us viewing the stream but I attempted to take a photo through a hole in the wall. None too successfully… (Don’t say I never show you my failures!) Whether the stonework visible in the photo is a bridge or remains of the mill, I cannot say.
We turned down Broad Street towards the town centre once more and as we did so, I caught sight of a flock of pigeons flying round and round over the rooftops as they sometimes do. Even if pigeons are our commonest bird, this group movement can be impressive, especially under today’s dramatic skies.
Further on we spied another street-dweller, this time a human one. With only a blanket for an outer garment he was sheltering from the rain in the doorway of a cafe but they had at least given him a cup of coffee.
Thence to Sadler Street where the Swan Hotel is to be found. It was built before 1422, the date of the first known mention of it. It became an important coaching inn and was rebuilt in 1769 by Charles Tudway, Mayor and MP for Wells, and still seems to be going strong.
Sadler Street runs along the western boundary of the Cathedral precinct and includes a gateway, called Brown’s Gate, set in the mid-14th century wall. Bishop Bekynton built the gate in about 1450 and, remarkably, it continued in use for traffic until around 1970 when it was final closed to vehicles.
As well as affording pedestrian access to Cathedral Green, the gateway provides a decorative frame for striking views of the Cathedral.
The name of this club may suggest where we went next. Having toured Wells, we thought to take the bus to a town associated in many people’s minds with King Arthur and his Knights. I mean of course the ancient town of Glastonbury. (The Avalon is the local Rotary Club, in case you are wondering.)
Glastonbury is known for its abbey or, rather, for the ruins of one. Founded in the 7th century and destroyed by fire in 1184, it was rebuilt and became one of the richest and most powerful in England. Its history came to an end in 1539 with the dissolution of the monasteries and the hanging, drawing and quartering of its abbot, Richard Whiting. (That Henry VIII was not a very nice man…) The ruins can be visited but were closed when we arrived so we had to content ourselves with photos over the car park wall.
We did a quick tour of the town and saw the market cross, Victorian this one, and another cattle trough for my collection.
The trough has no inscriptions and is of conventional design, so it’s hard to guess its age. It’s in good condition and has no wheel fenders.
There is a modest and handsome Post Office dating from 1938 and still operating. (How long before they close it down, eh?)
This cat, perched demurely behind blue railings reminded me of Freya waiting patiently (or probably not so patiently) back in London. I do not know whether it is there for decoration or has some deeper purpose.
Glastonbury has a number of fine buildings of historical importance, apart from the Abbey, and this is one of them. It is called the Glastonbury Tribunal though it was in fact no such thing. It was thought to have been the Abbey’s tribunal but was really a 15th century town house. In the latter role it is still of great interest.
Glastonbury suffers from a particular affliction, that of being considered an important site for alternative religious beliefs. Whether it is ‘magik’, crystals, aromas, Tarot, fortune telling, witchcraft or any other sort of stultifying New Age nonsense, it is represented here in rows of retail outlets. Then again, I suppose it provides revenue for the town through business rates.
Glastonbury is not a big town and I think we saw most of it. The weather was still dull and threatening rain so we decided to return back to Bristol. It had been a good day out and Wells and Glastonbury had been worth visiting despite the weather, and yes, it had been a special day for my birthday.