As I look to the publication of my new novel, The Lost Book of the Grail, set in a fictional English cathedral, in a little over two weeks, I continue my series of blogs about my favorite English cathedrals. Today, one which may be less well known, but deserves a visit—Wells.
Where do I even start with Wells Cathedral? First of all, the city of Wells—the smallest cathedral city in England, I believe—is wonderfully charming and preserves many of the aspects of a medieval city. The cobbled marketplace, stone arches, wide green in front of the cathedral, and lovely grounds of the bishop’s palace make it perhaps my favorite cathedral city—and that was before I even saw Hot Fuzz (my favorite Simon Pegg movie, which is partially filmed in Wells). All that and more surrounds you before you even step into the cathedral itself.
My favorite bit of Wells, outside the cathedral, is Vicars’ Close, said to be the oldest continuously inhabited street in Europe. Peeking down the close, built in the fourteenth century to house the adult members of the choir known as the Vicars Choral, one sees two identical rows of charming of chimneyed houses face each other across a stone street. No film set could more precisely recreate the imaginary ideal of a medieval street. St. Martin’s Close in the precincts of my fictional Barchester Cathedral was inspired by Vicars’ Close at Wells.
Inside the cathedral, one’s eye is immediately drawn to a set of three swooping arches in the crossing—essentially buttresses to hold up the central tower of the cathedral. The look like remarkable modern additions to the cathedral, and the first time I visited, I was sure that was what they were—built in the 1960s or 1970s perhaps. In fact, these “scissor arches” were built by master mason William Joy in the 1330s. So I my guess was only off by about 650 years.
My favorite spot inside the cathedral is the steps up to the chapter house, a wide sweep of stone risers worn by centuries of use. Wells is unusual in having a chapter house that is upstairs—my fictional Barchester has the more common arrangement of a chapter house on the ground level just off the cloisters. But walking up those ancient steps to the chapter house feels like entering a secret world. I suppose, at one time, that’s what it was, as only the members of the chapter (the clergy in charge of the cathedral) could have gone there. The same steps also lead to a little indoor bridge that crosses over to Vicars’ Close—so the singers could slip into the cathedral without having to spend too much time in the harsh English weather.
There is a prayer often repeated at Wells by Thomas Ken, who became Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1684. Perhaps best known as the author of the Doxology, Ken was one of eight English bishops who refused to sign the oath of allegiance to William and Mary after the Glorious Revolution. Though he had opposed the Roman Catholic tendencies of James II, he felt that Parliament had overstepped its bounds in placing William and Mary on the throne. The prayer I have heard each time I have been to Wells is one that holds as much meaning today as ever:
O God, make the door of this house wide enough to receive all who need human love and fellowship, and a heavenly Father’s care; and narrow enough to shut out all envy, pride, and hate. Make its threshold smooth enough to be no stumbling block to children, nor to straying feet, but rugged enough to turn back the tempter’s power; make it a gateway to thine eternal kingdom.