A Day in Wells

Image: Wells Cathedral in the reflecting pool in the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace. Photo by Rodw. CC BY-SA 3.0

                                                                                                                                            Apple Tree Cottage


                                                                                                                                            1 April 1979

It’s All Fools’ Day.  Nothing untoward has happened here yet, thank goodness, and it is now 11.30 and so there is just half an hour to go before midday, which I believe is the deadline for tricks.  Let’s hope the peace lasts.  Nevertheless, I shall feel happier when the church clock strikes 12.

The Vicar planned our second day trip. His mind naturally works on ecclesiastical lines. Berringford is part of the diocese of ‘Bath and Wells’, so his thoughts moved from Bath to Wells automatically. Without hesitation or even consultation, he decided on Wells as our destination and so to Wells we went. 

We were the same four as for the trip to Bath: my uncle, the Vicar, Theresa, and me, but this time Stan was able to join us. I was glad that Theresa came again, and she was in good spirits.  It does us all good to get out of the house, and when we are with other people, we feel better.  She will manage, I think.   

Wells has one of the most beautiful cathedrals in England. In fact, the city is the cathedral and little more.  As you approach from the Mendip Hills you see the enormous church like a mother hen, and the houses of the Liberties and the shops of the High Street seem her little chicks pecking around nearby.   In Wells the cathedral looks down benevolently and tells you that things are going on as they should and that all is well with the world.     

We parked near the cathedral and went in. There is a clock on the wall of the north transept, and we spent some time waiting for it to strike the hour.  It was made in the 1390s, just when Chaucer was writing the Canterbury Tales.  On the hour the knights on horseback go round and round above the clock. The same unfortunate knight is knocked off his horse every hour and has been knocked off for centuries.  The poor man never learns.  Surely one day he will be allowed to win and will manage to stay on his horse.  Still, he never gives up, which is an example to everyone, I suppose.  Every hour he is mounted on his horse and prepared, doomed of course, but ready for battle. Nil desperandum!

Near the clock is a figure sitting in a niche high up in the wall.  His name is Jack Blandiver.  He kicks the bells with his heels to mark the quarter hours and on the hour, he strikes the bell in front of him with his hammer. Over the centuries he has looked down at all the people who are looking up at him. He is dressed soberly but how many changes of fashion must he have seen in the clothes of his audience over the centuries!  

There is another clock over the north door outside.  I remember when it was repainted in bright colours in the early sixties, and the good people of Wells, used to the old, faded greys and the dull browns, complained and called it the dart board.

Skip the next bit if you’re not in the mood for a poem but read it if you have time. Few of us have time for poetry nowadays. In ‘Dorigen’, Roderick the knight, Dorigen’s husband, went:

‘To the city of Wells where the water springs,

Where the great cathedral stands,

The mass of stone already weathering

Through autumn rains and winter winds.

There the old clock ticks away the days

And knights ride round and round

And joust every hour upon the hour

And every hour the same knight falls

Throughout the measured centuries.

Higher up upon the wall,

Jack Blandiver perches in his chair,

His stiff hands ring the bell

And he kicks his heels to ring two more,

As the quarter hours go ticking by.

He tells the people waiting there

That they are later than they thought.’

The north corner of the great West Front is the coldest place in Somerset, perhaps in the west of England.  It is always a windy spot.  It is chilly in summer but in winter it blows a freezing gale.  People rush past head down. They close their umbrellas for fear of losing them, lean into the wind and clutch their raincoats around them.

From the cathedral we went to the Bishop’s Palace, which is just a stone’s throw away. Here the swans swimming in the moat pull on a dangling cord and so ring the bell which is under a small window in the gatehouse. At the peal of the bell, someone opens the window and feeds them. We saw the swans, and we saw the bell but no swan rang it. Perhaps this doesn’t happen anymore.  Who would have the time to sit patiently in the gatehouse room with a plate of crusts from breakfast waiting for the bell to ring?  The palace is more open now than before. In the 50s it seemed to us like an impregnable castle.  The drawbridge was down but the gates were always shut, and we never saw anyone going in or out.  Now we can see into the gardens at least.  Thank goodness we live in more democratic times.

At this point my uncle declared he could not continue without a good cup of tea and as every else felt the same but hadn’t liked to say so we went to some tea rooms in the market square and ordered three pots.  We sat at a round table with a good view of life in the square. Theresa was mother as in Bath and poured the tea. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, like a good cup of tea when you are tired of sightseeing.   

After tea we walked with new energy up Vicars Close. This is a quiet medieval street, still intact. There is an archway which leads to the two rows of houses with their tall chimneys and tiny gardens and then at the top of the street some winding steps by a chapel took us into the Liberties.

In The Liberties north of the cathedral are the old buildings of the Cathedral School. Opposite the cedar trees is Cedars House and behind that is the playing field.  How many 440s have I run there! Uphill to the Wellingtonia tree, then a sharp left and down under the oaks to the finish at the bottom of the field.  No Olympic track this, but a winding course negotiating the old trees on the side of a hill!

I think everyone enjoyed their day.  I visited many memories for I spent ten years at school in Wells.  It is strange to go back to the same places but without the friends and the noise and the bustle.  The visit was my own time machine.