The weather forecast for our week away at the end of May 2021 (the first in over two years) didn’t bode well. May had been a cold and wet month up until then and it looked likely to continue that way until the end of the week. Never mind. We finally had a change of scenery and another cathedral city to explore. In September 2016 we travelled up the east coast and stopped off to visit the wonderful cathedrals of Norwich, Lincoln and Durham.
Wells in Somerset is an ancient cathedral city in the picturesque district of Mendip, set in the heart of rural Somerset. It is known as England’s smallest city and named after the springs (or wells) which rise within the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace.
Bishop Jocelyn began work on building the Palace c.1220. Over the years the gardens have changed as successive bishops (60) have added their legacy and today these gardens in Somerset have Grade II listed garden status due to their special historic nature. And naturally a garden I was keen to visit.
The Palace is surrounded by a moat though the gardens extend across the moat into an Arboretum, Allotments and a Community Garden, the Quiet Garden and reflections of Wells Cathedral in one of the Well Pools.
When you enter the gardens the first area is the South Garden, once laid out in the style of a formal Dutch garden with parterres, topiary and an L-shaped canal. In the early 19th century it was transformed into a picturesque and gardenesque style (where specimen plants were left to grow into their own unique natural forms), characterised by wide open lawns, specimen trees (such as Mulberry, Tulip and Indian Bean trees), flamboyant climbers, bold and luxuriant planting of shrubs and perennials and with the backdrop of the ruins of the Great Hall and surrounded by the ramparts.
From these ramparts you can take in the views of the surrounding countryside and even the Glastonbury Tor.
The East Garden contains the perennial planting in a formal parterre style. In the centre is the original urn dating from the former parterre laid out in the mid-1800s.
Beneath the oriel window a new knot garden was created in 2019. There are also Irish Yews planted in memory of the twelve ‘Apostle Yews’ which stood sentinel in the 19th century parterre. The dahlia beds feature the wonderful Bishop Dahlias.
Outside the Palace is a small courtyard, but there is no entrance into the Palace here. You need to exit the gardens and enter from opposite the Croquet Lawn.
From the East Garden there is a doorway leading through the walls to a bridge that crosses the moat leading to the wells from which the city gets its name.
Here you find damp-loving plants such as Astilbes and Hostas, giant Gunnera and plants such as Iris, Rheum, Candelabra Primulas and Rodgersias that create dramatic structure.
We were pleased to see a swan family underneath the bridge. The Bishop’s swans learned to ring a bell for food back in the 1870s and the tradition still continues today, though we didn’t have that pleasure.
Behind high yew hedges beyond the well pools and past a colour garden representing the stained glass window in the Lady Chapel of Wells Cathedral (though the tulips were long finished)
you will discover The Garden of Reflection. In contrast to the rest of the Palace gardens this is a modern and contemporary garden. It was opened in 2013, replacing a former derelict space and kitchen gardens, and was the inspiration of Bishop Peter Price and his wife Dee. He wanted to offer people a quiet, calm reflective space embraced by the Palace gardens and the nearby cathedral.
The sweeping curved stone seat is carved with the inscription:
“Wanderer, your footsteps are the path, and nothing more; Wanderer, there is no path, the path is made by walking, by walking one makes the path and upon glancing back one sees the path that will never be trod again. Wanderer, there is no path – Only wakes upon the sea.”
There are 85 silver birch trees planted here underplanted with wildflowers, grasses and perennials.
From here you can see into the Community Gardens and Allotments home to vegetable, fruit and flower beds and a Victorian-style greenhouse that provides a space for volunteers and community groups to come and learn new skills.
As you can see from these photos it was a dull day with the threat of rain hanging over us. We managed to avoid the worst of the weather by heading into the Cathedral itself, but came back to the gardens (the ticket allows you to come and go throughout the day) later on in the afternoon when the sun was finally shining to sit on one of these benches in the South Garden and enjoy a cup of coffee from the Bishop’s Table café.