Monday, October 28, 2013

Wells — Bishop's Palace, Vicars' Close, and the Crown

Wells, England

In both its geographic size and its population, Wells is the second smallest city in England. Only the City of London is smaller. {Ed.'s note: The "City of London" is the 1.12 square mile city within the metropolis of London; it has its own mayor (i.e., the "Lord Mayor of the City of London"), and is the base of most of the financial services industry in metropolitan London.} The denomination "city" in the U.K. is obviously not based on an urban area's size, but instead is a political designation provided first by kings and later by Parliament. In medieval times, being a city came with advantageous privileges and exemptions.

Wells was designated a city in 1205. But settlements go back at least to Roman times, which centered around no surprise here water wells.

Downtown in Wells
Downtown in Wells.

Bishop's Palace

With tourism its main industry, Wells relies not only on its beautiful cathedral but also the Bishop's Palace and Vicars' Close. Most of the Bishop's Palace was created around 1230, but it has had numerous additions. A bishop in the mid-1300s felt the need to add walls and a moat to protect himself, since he raised taxes on the citizens of the city. Now, the palace is guarded by a wall, a moat, and a small army of ducks and swans.

Bishop's Palace surrounded by a moat
Duck flotilla approaches to meet us.
Swans at the Bishop's Palace in Wells
Then the swans arrive.
In a practice going back centuries, at least a few of the swans are trained to beg for food by pulling on strings attached to bells. They are not shy. Fortunately, we had a couple of bagels from Jack's bag to share with the swans and ducks.

Grey cygnet swans
These young grey cygnets will turn white as they mature.

Once you cross the drawbridge over the moat, the Bishop's Palace and its gardens are open for exploring.

Bishop's Palace in Wells
The current bishop lives in a portion of the palace.
Interior of wall of the Bishop's Palace
Interior of the walls that guard the palace and its grounds.
Back side of the Bishop's Palace
Back side of the palace.
The interior of the Bishop's Palace is pleasant, but nothing special. It looks like a lot of other European palaces that were somewhat frozen in time a couple of centuries ago.

Great hall inside the Bishop's Palace
A great hall inside the Bishop's Palace.
Room inside the palace
The acoustics of this room are not good for the piano. I tried it.
Dragon on the staircase banister
I did enjoy decorative touches like this dragon on the staircase banister.
Jumbled stain glass from Wells Cathedral
The Bishop's Palace has a little taste of the jumbled stained glass from the cathedral, as described here.
The best reason to visit the Bishop's Palace is for its 14 acres of gardens. There are both traditional, orderly English gardens, as well as wilder flowers and shrubbery.

Formal gardens at palace
Controlled, orderly, organized.
Flowers in the gardens
Straight-line plantings, tidy borders.
Adam and Eve sculpture
The formal gardens were enlivened by some modern sculpture, like this one of Adam and Eve.
The star of the show is the outer gardens. You cross a bridge enveloped by a weeping willow and venture out to a stream and wilder shrubbery.

Willow tree branches with bridge in Bishop's Palace, Wells, England
The willow branches part for the bridge.
Wells Cathedral lady's chapel from gardens
A glimpse of the cathedral's Lady Chapel.
Benches and paths give you beautiful viewpoints of the east side of the cathedral.

Wells Cathedral from the Bishop's Palace grounds
Eastern exterior of Wells Cathedral from the Bishop's Palace grounds.
A cat in the gardens tried to adopt us. He purred, rubbed, and meowed for attention. Then he followed us on our meandering tour of the gardens, making sure we were always aware of his presence. Jackson was delighted, of course. Ultimately, we asked the staff at the gardens if they knew the cat, and they said he was new but not unique as a feline interloper in the gardens.

Feline interloper
The cat makes his introduction.
Cat in the Bishop's Palace gardens
The cat followed us across the bridge and into the formal gardens. We eluded adoption only because we went into the palace.

Vicar's Close

The Vicars' Close lies on the opposite side of the cathedral from the Bishop's Palace. It is a picturesque straight line of houses, supposedly Europe's oldest purely residential street with all of the original buildings surviving intact. The houses were completed in 1412, about 50 years after construction began. Originally, the houses were approximately 520 square feet, but additions have been added to the rear and some of the houses have been combined inside.

Southern entrance of the Vicar's Close
Southern entrance into the Vicars' Close.
Obviously, many updates have been made over the centuries, but the street front remains uniform in style.

Vicar's Close in Wells, England
Looking north into the Vicars' Close. The close (i.e., an old term for cul-de-sac or alley) is ten feet narrower at the northern end than the southern end, making the street look longer.
As an American, this street looks quintessentially English to me, from the stone to the chimneys to the front gardens.

Front gardens of Vicar's Close
The front gardens were not part of the original plan; they were added in the 1400s.
At the northern end the close was capped by a chapel and library. It is now used by the cathedral school.

Alley at the north end of Vicar's Close
A narrow alley on the right side of the chapel/library allows egress to the north.
Sunflowers in the gardens
Beautiful sunflowers in one of the gardens.
I was quite fond of the sunflowers.
Since the southern end is wider than the northern end, the close looks shorter when viewed from the north.

Looking south down the Vicar's Close in Wells, England
Looking south down the Vicars' Close.
Wells Cathedral rises beyond the Vicars' Close. The southern end of the Close is plugged by a storeroom and barrel-vaulted hall.
The houses in the Vicars' Close are still occupied by church officials. But if you reserve far in advance, one of the homes can be rented out for weeklong vacations for about 500 pounds.

We came across another very friendly cat in the close:

Cat in the Vicar's Close
She had an appropriately serene demeanor.

The Crown at Wells

Wells is sometimes a location for television and movie productions, such as in Doctor Who episodes and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (with Cate Blanchett). I thought the town looked familiar to me when we visited, but didn't know why. Then we stopped in at The Crown at Wells, a pub and hotel established around 1450.

The Crown at Wells
The Crown at Wells has been serving pub grub about twice as long as the U.S. has been in existence.
Interior of the Crown at Wells
Ready to start dinner.
When I looked around at the various photos on the wall, I came across this one showing actors Nick Frost and Simon Pegg:

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost behind the bar at the Crown at Wells
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost behind the bar.
The Crown at Wells, and the entire city of Wells, were locations for Pegg's and Frost's movie Hot Fuzz, a comedy that followed their hit Shaun of the Dead. Kate and I had watched Hot Fuzz on DVD when we were living in Raleigh, perhaps a year before we visited Wells. Wells is the stand-in for the film's fictional town of Sandford. The pub is seen in the film.

Jackson got in the spirit of goofy comedy while we were eating dinner. His exuberance carried through to our stroll after dinner.

Post-dinner antics
Post-dinner antics.
Stomping sideways down the street
Stomping sideways down the street. "Mommy, you do it, too!"
Wells Cathedral, Bishop's Palace, and Vicars' Close were highlights of our trip to southwestern England. We saw them all within a five to six hour period, including feeding ducks/swans, a stop for dinner, some shopping, and a stroll.

Hard to get a better afternoon as a tourist than that.

For more about Wells Cathedral, the first wholly Gothic cathedral in England, see here:

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