Bath and Wells, a Cathedral, an Abbey, a Bishop and lots of water


It is no coincidence that both Bath and Wells have names relating to water. Bath stands on the River Avon, the name deriving from the Welsh word avon meaning water, thus being the River River. Wells owes its existence to the springs surfacing within the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace. One is never far from the rush of water.

Bath Abbey

From the 7th century an Anglo-Saxon church stood at the centre of Bath. Here, Edgar was crowned King of England in 973.

Following the Norman Conquest the old church was pulled and replaced. Work began in 1090 but by the end of the 15th century, the church was in ruins. At this point, the current Bishop of Wells, Oliver King, was inspired by a dream to rebuild it, starting in 1499. The last great Medieval English church, it took 112 years to complete.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries once more saw the church in ruins and so it remained for over 70 years until 1616 when work was again in hand to restore it. In the 19th century a major make-over by Victorian architect George Gilbert Scott resulted in the present familiar outline of Bath Abbey.

In June 1942 Bath was the target of a blitz during which 400 people were killed but apart from some broken windows, the abbey survived.

Wells Cathedral

The cathedral at Wells follows a similar pattern. In the 8th century a Saxon mortuary chapel stood in the centre of Wells, Beneath it were the remains of a Romano-British burial chamber. King Ine of the West Saxons designated it a minster and in 909 when the existing diocese of Sherbone was divided, the church of St Andrew became the new cathedral for the diocese of Wells.

Built a few feet away from the original building, work on the present cathedral started in 1175 and took 80 years to complete. It was the first example of the Gothic style of cathedral in the country. The cloisters stand on the site of the original church while to Bishop Jocelyn, a local man, falls the credit of authorising the great west front.

Wells Cathedral was largely untouched by the Reformation although in the 17th century it was briefly closed, the bright wall decorations were painted over and later the army of the Duke of Monmouth used the cloisters as stables.

In the 1840s an ambitious cleaning project started, known as the “great scrape,” and much of the decoaration was restored to its orignal glory.

Religious Rivalry

In the 10th century St Athelm became the first Bishop of Wells. It was then in the diocese of Sherborne and rivalry grew up between Wells and the monastery at Glastonbury until in 1060 Bishop Gisa obtained grants of land from Edward the Confessor, King Harold and then William 1 increasing the importance of Wells. That supremacy suffered a blow when the next Bishop, John de Villula moved the see to Bath using the abbey church of St Peter and St Paul as the cathedral.

So the tugs of war continued until 1136 when Bishop Robert of Lewis again enhanced the status of Wells. Bath still took precedence but it was decreed that both cities should jointly elect the bishop. The matter was finally settled in 1245 when Pope Innocent IV pronounced that the diocese was to be known as Bath and Wells. Although the bishop’s offices, residence and cathedral are all based in Wells, the joint name remains.

The abbey at Glastonbury, unallied with Bath or Wells, suffered the fate of many monasteries at the time of the Dissolution and is now a magnificent ruin.

Bath and Wells as Tourist Attractions

Bath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site owing its origins to the natural hot springs flowing beneath it. The waters were harnessed by the Romans who built a monumental bath house guarded by stone statues of the gods. They named it Aqua Sulis, Largely intact, it remains one of the most visited places in England.

Bath had a second awakening in the early 19th century when the fashion for taking the waters drew Regency society to the town. Buildings of great elegance fashioned by architects such as Palladio graced the city. The perfect architecture of the Royal Cresent includes the house of the Grand old Duke of York and is open to the public. Museums of photography and costume divert the visitor. Meanwhile, the water from the Avon rushes beneath the elegant Pulteney Bridge and it is possible to take river trips.

Wells Cathedral is unashamedly magnificent. In the early 13th century, Bishop Jocelin commissioned the monumental West Front of the cathedral where some three hundred statues grace the outside of the building. Inside, it houses a rare astrological clock depicting the world as the centre of the universe, believed to be the second oldest clock still working. The 14th century mechanism was replaced in the 19th century but is held in the Science Museum. Knights in armour appear abd the bell is struck every fifteen minutes. The grounds of the Bishop’s Palace are open to the public and the busy water reminds one how the city gots its name.

Both Bath and Wells are small, compact and offer a seamless blend of the old and the new, Modern shopping complexes stand cheek by jowl with historic buildings but the legacy of those ancient builders make both cities essential visiting.