The city of Wells, which we now visit, has a romantic situation on the southern slope of the Mendip Hills, twenty miles equi-distant from Bath, Bistol, and Bridgewater. It takes its name from the ancient well dedicated to St. Andrew, which rises within the Episcopal grounds, and runs through the city down the sides of the principal streets in clear, sparkling streams.
There is no place which, taken altogether, pre-serves a more antique air of tranquil seclusion than Wells. In the precincts of Chester Cathedral, and at many other points in England, there broods the same antique calm, but here the whole place is pervaded by this reposeful spirit of the past; and this culminates in the neighborhood of St. Andrew’s Cathedral, the bishop’s palace, the old moat, the conventual buildings, and the three venerable gates, or “eyes,” as they are called, of the cathedral yard. The moat about the bishop’s palace, overhung by a thick curtain of aged elms mingled with ivy, growing like a warrior’s crest upon the high-turreted interior walls, and reflected in deep shadows in the smooth, dark mirror of the water, has a thoroughly feudal look, which is heightened by the drawbridge over the moat, and the frowning castellated gateway. How strange the state of society when a Christian bishop lived in such jealously armed seclusion, behind moated walls and embattled towers ! What a commentary, this very name of “the close” ! One of these old bishops was himself a famous fighting character, who, at the age of sixty-four, commanded the king’s artillery at the battle of Sedgmoor.
The Cathedral of St. Andrew was built upon the site of a still more ancient church founded by Ina, king of the West Saxons in 704. It also goes back to a remote antiquity, for its choir and nave were rebuilt in the middle of the twelfth century. The central tower, which is the noblest and most finished part of the structure, is of the early English style to the roof; the upper part is of the Decorated, with a mixture of the early Perpendicular styles. It has an elegant appearance from its rich pinnacles, and is of a softened and gray tint. Beginning to show signs of sinking, it was raised in the fourteenth century, and was strengthened by the introduction beneath it of inverted buttressing arches, which give to the interior a strange effect. These arches, architecturally considered, are undoubtedly blemishes, but they are on such a vast scale, and so bold in their forms, and yet so simple, that they do not take away from the plain grandeur of the interior. They are quite Oriental or Saracenic. The top of the eastern window is seen bright and glowing over the lower part of the upper arch. The west front, 235 feet in length, has two square towers, with a central screen terminated by minarets, and is divided into distinct compartments of eight projecting buttresses; all of these projections and recessed parts are covered with rich sculpture and statuary, of which there are 153 figures of life-size, and more than 450 smaller figures.
The other most striking features of Wells Cathedral are the Chapter House and the Ladye Chapel. The first of these, on the rear of the church, is an octagonal structure with pinnacled buttresses at each angle. It is approached from the interior by a worn staircase of 20 steps of noble architectural design. Among the grotesque carvings that line the stair-case, I remember in particular one queer old figure with a staff, or rather crutch, thrust in a dragon’s mouth, supporting a column. While thus holding up the cathedral with its head and hand above, and choking a writhing dragon beneath, he looks smiling and unconcerned, as if it were an everyday affair with him, as indeed it is. The whole church abounds in these old sculptures, little demoniac figures with big heads, faces with enormous fish mouths, old men with packs on their backs, and angels with huge armfuls of flowers. They seem to let one into the interior chambers of fancy, the imaginative workings of the human mind in the middle ages. .
Wells Cathedral, on the whole, is distinguished for a dignified but rich simplicity, arising from its plain large surfaces, mingled and edged here and there with fine-cut and elegant ornamentation. The court and buildings of the Wells Theological College have a thoroughly quaint, old-fashioned look, quiet, rigid, and medieval; as if the students reared there could not but be Churchmen of the “Brother Ignatius” stamp, gentlemen, scholars, andpriests. I can not leave Wells without speaking of the two splendid “cedars of Lebanon” standing in the environs of the church. They are not very tall, but they sweep the ground majestically, and grow in a series of broad, heavy masses of foliage, gracefully undulating in their outline.