Visiting a City of Bells
Written By Susan Lee Hauser (2019)
The train swung round a bend, the blue hills parted like a curtain and the city of Torminster was visible. . . . It seemed a buried city sunk at the bottom of the sea, where no life stirred and no sound was heard but the ringing of bells as the tide surged through forgotten towers and steeples. . . . and out of this sea rose a gray rock with three towers. . . The Cathedral. Chapt. I, ii
In July 2019 I re-visited the most beautiful cathedral city in England, Wells in Somerset, and soon after re-visited A City of Bells, Elizabeth Goudge’s loving tribute to Wells. I was delighted to recognize so much of what I saw and experienced in Wells reflected in her book. Goudge was born and spent her childhood in Wells and wrote Bells in 1935—one of her first books. Come on a tour with me and Miss Goudge!
The water, that welled up no one knew how far down in the earth, was always inky black. . . . There were always pigeons wheeling round the holy well, the reflection of their wings passing over it like light. Chapt. I, iii
The most famous thing about Wells—and the origin of its name—is its ancient springs, which still flow around the Bishop’s Palace and right down the High Street through the market place. (Note that in this novel Miss Goudge has renamed the city “Torminster.”
Although the first church in the area was built in Saxon days (705 AD), there is some evidence that it was a holy place both for early British tribes and, later, for the Romans. The foundations of the Saxon church can be found today in the cemetery inside the cloister. The present cathedral was built from 1175 (under leadership of a Bishop Jocelin!) to the late 1400s, the first entirely Gothic-style cathedral in England.
The water from the wells is abundant around the city center. It flows in the gardens and moat of the Bishop’s Palace; it is home to fish and ducks, dragonflies and swans. (See below for more about the swans!) There is an actual well—Goudge’s “holy well,” above—that has stood in the market place for centuries. In the center of the photograph above you can see the well’s stone cover, and the channel to the right of the street runs with well water.
Between the tall Green Dragon and the equally tall bakery two doors off was wedged a little house only two stories high. . . . There were two gables, with a small window in each . . . and [a] large bow-window was to the right of the door and a smaller one to the left. Chapt. I, iii
The mystery house at the center of “The City of Bells” is still there on the high street at the market. (Both these photos, courtesy Robin McDowell Willis, 2018) The house is now a restaurant on the ground level; it is said that William Penn once spoke from the double windows. The name “Green Dragon” that Miss Goudge gives the tavern may have come from the fellow above, who can be found inside the Bishop’s Palace (see below).
Twice a week the market is full of vendors and shoppers for everything from books to delicious local cheeses or handmade jewelry to crocheted scarves or homemade sausage. But Wells is a busy city any day of the week. Tour buses now come barreling through “downtown” in a reverse of much of the same route Jocelyn took by foot in “Bells”: They completed the circuit of the Market Place and turned to their right up a steep street at a smart pace. Then they turned to their right a second time and passed under a stone archway into the Close. Instantly it seemed that they had come to the very center of peace. Chapt. I, iii
That ”steep street” is Sadler Street, and at its corner with the marketplace there is a pastry shop, much like the sweet shop Goudge often mentions. The “archway” of which Goudge writes is one of the old city gates, Brown’s Gate or The Dean’s Eye (1451). Incidentally, our apartment at 7A Cathedral Green—an apartment you may rent from Rural Retreats—was just two doors down from the gatehouse and several doors up from the Deanery, which is discussed below.
As for “the very center of peace,” that is the cathedral close, or green. It is a huge grassy area, sprinkled with starry daisy-like flowers and buttercups (are they in the aster family, dear reader?). The close may sometimes be the center of peace, but it was the center of football games, picnics, and play rehearsals while we were there (the city was conducting a theatre festival that weekend, with a local production of “As You Like It” set directly in front of the west doors of the cathedral.)
Jocelyn . . . looked across a space of green grass . . . to the . . . mass of the Cathedral. Its towers rose four-square against the sky and the wide expanse of the west front, rising like a precipice, was crowded with sculptured figures. They stood in their ranks, rising higher and higher, kings and queens and saints and angels, remote and still. Chapt. I, iii
Only the carved figures on the west front were still, those kings and queens and saints and angels who had faced a thousand such days and would face a thousand more. Chapt. II, iv
While Goudge describes the cathedral as being made of grey stone, Wells Cathedral is actually a honey color, made of local limestone. The entire western front is covered with some 300 statues, as Goudge says, of “kings and queens and saints and angels.” A good guidebook will help you figure out who’s who, but many of the statues are unrecognizable, having been destroyed in 1685’s Monmouth Rebellion. A handful have been restored recently, due to their actually crumbling. Interestingly, the front was originally painted with bright primary colors (as was much of the interior)!
In the photo above, you can see the audience and cast of “As You Like It,” which was performed on the front terrace that weekend. Inside the cathedral, I saw a new play about Jane Austin, “Austen Sisters,” written by and starring Susannah Harker and her sister Nelly. (Harker played Jane Bennett in the 1995 “Pride and Prejudice.”) It was fabulous!
My favorite carvings on the cathedral are the two seraphim flanking Christ triumphant at the top of the west front. They look like singing sunflowers, fresh from the set of “The Wizard of Oz”! (The bible describes seraphim as having six wings; quite often in art even up in the eighteenth century seraphim are depicted literally with six wings, but with no arms or legs!) Goudge’s favorite carving, as described by Henrietta in Bells, was the infant Christ over the west door:
Henrietta . . . was in too much of a hurry to look up at the carved baby over the west door, as she usually did, always hoping that he would jump and crow in his mother’s arms at the sound of the bell. . . . ‘I do wish He’d laugh,’ said Henrietta, looking up at the Christ Child. ‘If I could I’d pinch his toes and then I’m sure He’d laugh.’ ‘Don’t be so silly,’ said Hugh Anthony. ‘He’s only stone. Come on. Run.’ Chapt. II, iv
To his left, on the opposite side of the road to the Cathedral, was another smaller mass of gray masonry, the Deanery, and in front of him was a second archway. Once through it they were in a discreet road bordered on each side with gracious old houses standing back in walled gardens. Here dwelt the Canons of the Cathedral with their respective wives and families. Chapt. I, iii
The Deanery (photo above, left) is the former home of the Dean of the Cathedral, a magnificent 800-year-old mansion with its own Tudor garden out back. It is on the market for the first time, and rumors are that it may become an art gallery or a hotel. The photo on the right is of the Vicars’ Close, the oldest medieval residential street in Europe (1348). Built for cathedral clergymen, it now houses members of the choir and their families. I once had the good fortune to stay in the house in the far left back corner!
When she got to the Cathedral she turned to her left on to the Green by the west front, for it was possible for pedestrians to get from the Green to the Market Place through a little tunnel that bored through one of the houses. Chapt. II, iv
This “little tunnel” is another bit of medieval construction, known as the “Penniless Porch.” While it was a spot for beggars in earlier centuries, today one may frequently find a street musician playing and hoping for a bit of change. To the right through the opening is, as Goudge describes, the market place.
The interior of Wells Cathedral is nothing short of breathtaking. It beggars belief that the cathedral’s towering pillars and windows were built before the invention of hydraulic lifts and machinery. Some scholars credit the cathedral as being the first completely Gothic cathedral in Europe; certainly there are no Romanesque elements to be found anywhere, as there are in most medieval cathedrals. While the vaulting at the top of each pillar is spectacular, the other feature unique to Wells is the scissor arches at the crossing on all four sides. Absent from the original structure, the arches were added in the mid-14th century to bolster the building after the structure began to sink under its own weight.
From where they stood at the west door it stretched away from their feet into the shadows in the distance so that they could not see where it ended. Great pillars stood in ordered ranks all the way up the nave, so tall that it gave one a crick in the neck to look up to the place where their straightness curved into lovely dim arching shapes that went up and up into the roof and criss-crossed high over your head like the branches of trees in a forest. Chapt. II, iv
Today you can tour the “higher parts” of the cathedral. During the tour you can observe the inner workings of the clock (see below), visit the masons’ drafting room, see a real stencil for the ceiling in the nave, sing through the singing holes in the western front (for the choir in the procession of psalms on Psalm Sunday); and enjoy some spectacular views in and outside the cathedral. This tour is relatively new and well worth the price and the stairs climbed!
Then they . . . planted themselves in front of the clock on the north wall of the Cathedral to watch it strike nine. . . . It was a wonderful clock. A great bell hung between the life-size figures of two gentlemen sitting down. They had bushy hair and square caps on their heads, and held sticks in their hands, and for most of the day they sat perfectly still gazing at each other with every appearance of acute boredom. But at each hour they suddenly came to agitated life and made savage onslaughts on the bell. They struck it with their sticks and kicked it with their feet and made a great deal of noise indeed. Chapt. III, i
The cathedral clock is a marvel. The interior clock face is the oldest in Europe, and it tells the months, days, and the phases of the moon. Above the face three men on horseback rotate in a circle, with one poor fellow constantly being knocked back on his horse and popping up again at every rotation. This performance draws quite a crowd every hour, on the hour!
Another hourly ritual at the cathedral is pausing for prayer. Led by different members of the clergy, visitors are asked to stop whatever they are doing to provide silence for the prayers that are then offered, reminding all present that the magnificent building monuments and carvings were built and are maintained for the glory of God. If you are lucky, you may also hear the organist or choir members rehearsing in the space. At 4:30, vergers rope off the eastern end of the cathedral to prepare for evensong (to which everyone is invited). If you have never been to evensong, do not miss this beautiful and ancient ceremony!
At the far end of the Market Place yet another of the archways in which Torminster abounded led to the great trees and green grass that surrounded the moated Bishop’s Palace. . . . Gray, battlemented walls, with loopholes for arrows, surrounded it and its gardens, completely hiding them from sight, and a wide moat, brimful of water, surrounded the walls. Chapt. VI, iv
The foremost swan turned gracefully towards her . . . and then turning from her with beautiful contempt he pulled with his beak the bell-rope that hung from the Palace wall. He rang it once, imperiously . . . and instantly a human menial showered bread from a window. Chapt. VI, iv
The swans of Bishop’s Palace have been a fixture for centuries. Apparently, Miss Goudge had some less than pleasant encounters with the swans as a child (see quote above), but most visitors are charmed by them. Now and again the swans fly away, but they are soon replaced and newcomers are trained to ring the bell for food as did their predecessors. It is certainly one of the most photogenic spots in a very photogenic city! There are a café and gift shop adjacent to the moat where one can watch the swans and have tea before visiting the spectacular palace ruins and gardens.
Fewer lovelier rooms were to be met with at this time in England than the gallery of the Bishop’s Palace at Torminster. It stretched the whole length of one wing of the Palace. . . . From the walls of the gallery the former Bishops of Torminster looked down upon it from their portraits. Chapt. IX, ii
The bulk of the Bishop’s Palace was destroyed after the dissolution of the monasteries, but its ruins are still quite impressive. The portion of the palace described by Goudge—the gallery, stairwell, chapel, and some drawing rooms—remains for visitors. As you can see, the palace is still decorated for Christmas, recalling the party for the choirboys in City of Bells:
The polished floor shone like dark water.. . . At each end of the gallery a log-fire was blazing, its glow reflected on floor and walls, and in the center was a Christmas-tree, its top reaching to the ceiling and its branches laden with twinkling candles and presents done up in colored paper. Chapt. IX, ii
For fans of Elizabeth Goudge, no trip to Wells would be complete without paying homage to the house where she spent most of her childhood, a house affectionately called “the Rib.” Goudge was born elsewhere, the nearby but difficult to see “Tower House, but moved to this second location the age of three. The Rib can be found adjacent to both the eastern end of the cathedral and the Vicar’s Close. It is still a private home.
It is easy to fill a week or more with a visit to Wells. One can easily spend a couple days touring the cathedral—its carvings and stained glass, its high parts and outside carvings. There is a self-guided walking tour of the city, plenty of shopping (the cathedral also has a fine gift shop), several wonderful restaurants, a museum of the city and the surrounding area (including archaeological finds, as well as native flora and fauna), and nearby caverns and caves.
He saw this pattern now as a series of lovely things hung one behind the other like great curtains closest to him was the life of men with the moving figures of those he must love, an old man and a little girl and a husband and wife whose generosity would make their home his. Then came the city of bells and towers, then the blue hills behind it, then the sky that was now to him a rich o’erhanging firmament. And behind that? He was no imaginative child and his vision of wings and crowns was not as clear as Henrietta’s, but behind the things that are seen he was aware now of the things that are not seen and in his new-made pattern they were the warp.” Chapt. XIV, vii
For more information on Elizabeth Goudge, see this link, https://www.elizabethgoudge.org/index.php/a-short-biography/
All photos by Susan Lee Hauser (2019), unless otherwise noted.