If you are in the Mendips region of Somerset you really shouldn’t miss visiting the wonderful Wells Cathedral nor the historic town of Glastonbury, possibly the quirkiest town in England. Steeped in history, myth and the smell of incense, it may not be for everybody.
However, do not let that put you off visiting the beautiful site of Glastonbury Abbey. Since Medieval times, the abbey has held legendary status as the earliest Christian foundation in Britain linked to Joseph of Arimathea and the burial place of King Arthur.
It’s a peaceful place – 36 acres of grounds to explore. Plenty of benches to sit and relax and take in the atmosphere. The remains of the abbey to walk around, which must have been enormous in its day. A medieval herb garden. Views of the Glastonbury Tor.
The abbey was built on the myth that followers of Christ settled here within the 1st century CE and built ‘The Old Church’. Abbot Dunstan remodelled and expanded the abbey and by the time of the coming of the Normans, the abbey was the wealthiest in England.
Our visit to Wells last May would not have been complete without a visit to the cathedral there. One of the many that we have not visited previously and a main reason for choosing to stay in England’s smallest city. Not that either of us is remotely religious, but we can’t help admire the craftsmanship that goes into these beautiful buildings, and even I can appreciate the peacefulness that can be found inside.
Master mason William Joy proposed the Scissor Arches (below) to prevent the collapse of a tower after a lead covered wooden spire was added in 1313. This proved to be too heavy for the foundations. Put in place between 1338 and 1348, they still stand today and are one of the most magnificent architectural features of Wells Cathedral.
The Scissor Arches
The Scissor Arches
The Scissor Arches
The ‘new’ church which was to become the cathedral of the Bishop of Bath & Wells was the first to be built in the Early English Gothic style, during 1175 – c. 1250. It was built on a new site to the north of an old minster church. Over the following three hundred years there was extension and revision, in the Decorated and Perpendicular styles in turn, as architectural fashion dictated.
corbel of the dragon-slaying monk in the chapter house stair.
keep this way…
Clock and figure of Christ risen from the dead is carved in yew by E J Clack and placed here in 1956.
The famous Wells clock is considered to be the second oldest clock mechanism in Britain, and probably in the world, to survive in original condition and still in use. The original works were made about 1390 and the clock face is the oldest surviving original of its kind anywhere. When the clock strikes every quarter, jousting knights rush round above the clock and the Quarter Jack bangs the quarter hours with his heels.
With its intricately painted interior dial depicting the Earth surrounded by the sun, moon and stars, it’s unique in showing a geocentric worldview – when the clock was created in 1390, most people still believed that the Earth was at the centre of the Universe.
The Blue House, next to the town bridge, is Grade 1 listed; it was formerly the Bluecoat School and Almshouses, named after the colour of the school uniforms. Built in 1726 at a cost of £1,401 8s 9d, it replaced an almshouse dating from 1461 and rebuilt in 1621. The Blue House provided a home for twenty widows and schooling for twenty boys.
The front of the building is adorned by two statues, of a man and a woman, indicating the building’s dual purpose. The building’s role as a school came to an end in 1921 and it now provides studio and one-bedroom flats for seventeen elderly residents. Wikipedia
The Italianate building was built as a Literary and Scientific Institute in 1865 for John Sinkins. The architect was J Hine and it was built by the company Carr and Pickford. It is a Grade II listed building. It houses a collection of local history and has a particular important collection of artefacts from the bronze foundry of J.W.Singer. A Cockey lamp is on show, with its art nouveau style; more than 60 can still be seen around the town. (Edward Cockey (1781–1860) was an industrial entrepreneur in Frome, Somerset, England, descended from a local family of metalworkers.) Wikipedia
I have waited four years to write another ‘Just Back From’, it’s not only been the pandemic that has interfered with our lives over the last four years. My middle son has been seriously ill and hospitalised for months at a time (2017 and 2019) and then my mother-in-law needed extra support until her death in late 2018. Fortunately for us we live in a county that is visited by millions of other people each year so we are one of the lucky ones where every day can seem like a holiday.
Our first break away was looked forward to both with anticipation and some degree of trepidation. What was it going to be like ‘out there’ among people, going to restaurants, being in a town/city? We were suffering from social anxiety after over a year of keeping to ourselves.
This trip to Wells, the smallest city in England, was long overdue. I had wanted to go there last spring, but then the pandemic hit. We considered the autumn, but decided to wait. And we are glad that we did. Fully vaccinated and with a birthday to celebrate we chose the week before the half term in the hope that everywhere would be just that bit quieter and when restaurants could open for indoor service again.
It wasn’t the usual May weather: this year May has been very wet and cold, but it was hopeful for a warmer end to the week. Raincoats were duly packed, just in case, and the itinerary was left fluid. There were a few “must sees” – the main being Wells Cathedral – and Glastonbury.
A drive through the north Somerset landscape took us to Chew Valley Lake not far from Bristol airport where we had hoped to have a couple of walks and look for some interesting birdlife, but the walks were inaccessible due to repairs in the car park and the weather turned wet. We drove back via the famous Cheddar Gorge (the B3135) and the village of Cheddar, on the southern edge of the Mendip Hills, but decided against stopping. Climbing up to the top of the gorge is beyond us now and definitely not in the rain. Those who love exploring caves may like to stop at Wookey Hole, again, not for us, but we love the name!
On a drive to Frome we diverted to Nunney where there is a picturesque moated castle that dates from the 1370s. Its builder was Sir John de la Mare, a local knight who was beginning to enjoy royal favour. It is situated in a very pretty little village with a lovely church and grounds.
Frome itself was a huge disappointment. We had considered whether we could move there given it is a market town, but it seems rather downtrodden and the dismal weather didn’t help. I was hoping for nice river walks, but we couldn’t find any.
We spent a day in Wells itself, walking the 20 minutes across fields from our B&B on the outskirts of the city to enjoy the Bishop’s Palace Gardens before going into the Cathedral. The moat around the gardens is impressive and we loved seeing a swan family complete with five cygnets.
Rain arrived in the afternoon whilst photographing Vicar’s Close, so after a well needed coffee sitting in the gardens under an umbrella, we decided to give up and head off back to the B&B. Feet sore and legs tired. Walking all day is not what we usually do.
We took the bus in on the Wednesday morning to visit the open-air market. Now that is well worth visiting. Lots of lovely stalls including a great fresh fishmonger. There are some great restaurants and cafes in Wells and lots of shops. The only downside was that the impressive iconic West Front of the cathedral, featuring 300 medieval carvings, is covered in scaffolding!
Our day in Glastonbury turned out to be one of the best days of the week, bright and sunny and warm. Perhaps a tad too warm for climbing up the tor, but we gave it our best.
It is a unique town “…in Glastonbury history, myth and legend combine in such a way that most visitors cannot fail to feel the “vibes” and powerful atmosphere of the town. For not only is Glastonbury the cradle of Christianity in England but is also reputed to be the burial place of King Arthur. where many of the shops are involved in the sale of mystical objects and artifacts. Glastonbury with its myths, legends and ley lines has become a centre for New Age culture and spiritual healing.” from (The History of Glastonbury)
The abbey and the grounds are lovely and tranquil and we enjoyed wandering around for a couple of hours before driving closer to the tor and stopping to go into the Chalice Wells Gardens for an hour. More will be written about all the gardens on my flower blog in due course.
Whilst in the region we also headed up to Lacock Abbey and Village up north in Wiltshire, near Chippenham.
The whole village is owned almost in its entirety by the National Trust and the unspoilt village has been used in many period dramas such as Cranford and Downton Abbey (and for those who care, apparently some of the Harry Potter films). The abbey located in the centre of the village was founded in the 13th century, but due to covid only a few rooms were open at the time. We had a very enjoyable walk around the Abbey grounds and the cloisters at the abbey and a brief look at the the Fox Talbot Museum, devoted to the pioneering work of William Henry Fox Talbot in the field of photography, before heading to the Red Lion for a leisurely lunch and then a wander around the village. However the charm of the buildings is spoiled by the number of cars parked in the village. It is a shame they don’t have a car park on the outskirts for the villagers and ban parking altogether.
More gardens were visited at the end of the week in sunnier climes, this time heading south to East Lambrook Manor Gardens, the home of plantswoman Margery Fish who famously said “When in doubt, plant a geranium.” And yes I came away with several. A 15 minute drive from there took us to Montecute House (NT) and coffee then we returned for lunch at the Rose and Crown in East Lambrook before finishing the day at Barrington Court (NT) another 15 minutes away down the road. All built out of the lovely local honey-coloured hamstone.
We had a good week away, despite unsettled weather and enjoyed driving through the Somerset countryside and lots of little villages due to some interesting routes provided by Florence (our SatNav). If you are big on shopping then the Clark’s Village (retail outlet) on the outskirts of Street / Glastonbury or Kilver Court in Shepton Mallet, with its designer shops may interest you. We visited Kilver Court, but only to go to the gardens there which have been designed around a viaduct. They are quite interesting with the rock garden and pools and the small nursery attached has some very interesting plants for sale.
Going away in these odd times was different. It felt quite strange to be amongst people on fairly busy streets, though most people respected your space. Masks were worn in every shop and restaurant (until seated), staff wore masks or visors and tables were kept at a distance. You do have to be patient and tolerant with the service though as we found it tended to be very slow in many places. To be expected as businesses had only just opened to indoor service when we visited. Many hospitality venues are struggling for staff too. And it is best to book tables especially at the weekend and check if booking to venues is required.
PS You can tell that we are unused to going away from home. For the first time ever I managed to leave my camera battery charger at home. So many photos were taken using my phone which drained the battery as you can imagine! One way to limit the number of photos taken.