On a few days’ break in Wells, we visited the Bishop’s Palace for the first time – I can’t think why we didn’t go before. The palace grounds include the springs from which Wells gets its name, and which are the reason for the original settlement there (a notice suggests that, based on the Book of Revelation, Wells seems to be the perfect earthly reflection of the divine city of Heaven). One enters over a drawbridge (after admiring the models of swans outside, and the real swans in the moat),* and enters the remarkable medieval home of the Bishops of Bath and Wells. And as well as the amazing history, it is still in use, which gives the buildings an added interest. It’s the kind of place where you could end up wandering aimlessly, but a map, helpful stewards and numerous notices avoid that, and in a gentle wander around the grounds and the ramparts we felt as though we’d learned a lot about it. For example, who could fail to be delighted by seeing ‘the finest medieval toilet in the south-west’?! (left). It has a vaulted ceiling, no less.
There are some beautiful art exhibits around the grounds as part of their Summer Exhibition, including steel and wire bulrushes by Fiona Campbell, and a beautiful piece called ‘The Water Flows’ by Ian Marlow (left). The works are incorporated into the gardens and coming across each one is a delightful surprise. The buildings are no less interesting: in the Undercroft of the Bishop’s Palace itself is a film, projected onto the floor, of the history of Wells and the Bishop’s Palace – I’ve never seen anything like this before, but as you watch the settlement grow before your eyes, it’s strangely hypnotic as well as a clever way to help you understand the buildings around you.
The Bishop’s Palace is in use still, and consequently some of it has been renovated to modern standards (the conference room, for instance) whilst retaining some ancient features (such as the dragons). The Long Gallery, however, redesigned by Bishop Bagot (1845-54) is pure Victorian Gothic, a style appropriate for the building with its historical ecclesiastical echoes, and is lined with the stern portraits of previous bishops. I was interested – and pleased – to see that there was also a video explaining the hierarchy of the Anglican church and the role of the modern bishop in it. I don’t think I knew that the Bishops of Bath and Wells have always had the role of supporting the monarch at a coronation, and associated with this there is a small display telling of ‘coronation blunders’ – the bishop who trod on a monarch’s robe and nearly pulled him over; the turning over of two pages at once in the coronation service; even forgetting to observe the order of precedence.
There’s a lot to see here, and it makes a change from many of the (secular) historic buildings one visits which are mostly domestic or for the display of personal wealth. While no doubt a certain amount of this goes on with bishops, too, there is a tranquility about the Bishop’s Palace which reminds one of its spiritual roots, and reinforces its historical and contemporary significance.
*There are also some beautiful fluffy toy swans in the gift shop – we took one home for our son, who is enjoying chewing it. I think that may be a criminal offence…