Of the 29 Anglican cathedrals in England, the 13th century edifice in Wells, Somerset is intermediate in age and size, but equal to any in terms of beauty and architectural style. Known officially as the Cathedral Church of St Andrew, it dominates the compact city centre, and forms part of a sizeable historic area that also includes Wells Cathedral School, the moated Bishop's Palace, and what is believed to be the oldest residential street in Europe, Vicar's Close.
A much smaller church once stood on the same site, built early in the eighth century; construction of the cathedral begun in 1175 and continued in phases over the next 300 years, since which time the place is largely unaltered. The building is a fine early British example of Gothic architecture, defined by buttresses, pointed arches (rather than semi-circular), decorative spires, intersecting vaults and generally by very ornate facades. Other religious buildings of the same period generally used the older, less decorative Roman style. Wells Cathedral is also notable for the unusually large number of surviving medieval stained-glass windows.
Remnants from the original church include a font, currently in the south transept of the cathedral, and some wall foundations in the graveyard to the southeast. The office of Bishop of Wells dates from 909, but it was nearly 200 years later before construction of the cathedral commenced, partly down to temporary transfers of the diocese management to Bath, and also, briefly, to Glastonbury. The project was initially overseen by Bishop Reginald fitz Jocelyn, and work was typically slow and labour-intensive; not for some 65 years were the central sections complete, and another 65 years had elapsed before the whole place was finished, at which time an extension was already deemed necessary.
Subsequent additions include the lady chapel at the east end, the two towers flanking the western frontage, and the famous scissor arches (also known as strainer arches) that buffer the central tower. In the 500 years since the end of the main construction phase, there been many changes to governance, interior decor and the grounds, but the structure has remained essentially unchanged, with just a few exceptions such as in 1685 when the western facade was damaged during the Monmouth Rebellion, a failed attempt to overthrow King James II.
The cathedral lies to the east side of Wells city centre, adjoining the Bishop's Palace to the south, the graveyard and gardens to the east, and a large grassy area to the west, below the most remarkable part of the exterior, the west front. This was one of the earlier sections to be completed, in the mid thirteenth century, and is a most spectacular edifice, covered by very detailed and elaborate ornamentation. Close by to the north is Vicar's Close, the ancient cobbled street lined by medieval houses. The cathedral is linked to two cloisters on the south side, running either side of a grassy courtyard, with a third corridor along the far edge, and it is into one of these that cloisters visitors arrive today. Like most cathedrals, entry is officially free but a donation is suggested, of £6 per adult or £15 for a family. One point of interest in the courtyard is a short, gated stairway leading down to an opening above an underground stream, originating from one of the springs after which the city is named; the waters emerge a little way west of the cathedral and flow down an open culvert alongside the main street.
The usual tour proceeds along the cloister, entering the cathedral at the west end of the nave, then continuing along the south side of the building, through the south transept, past the choir to the lady chapel, which is ringed by exquisite panels of ancient stained glass. On the far side is the octagonal undercroft which has a fine vaulted ceiling, while above, reached by several flights of wide, well-worn stairs, is the similarly shaped and even more ornate chapter house, its high ceiling supported by complex vaulting that radiates from a single, central column. Next to here is the north transept, the huge wooden doors of the north porch, and then the north side of the nave. The cathedral contains many carvings, embroideries, tombs, memorials, and other relics, plus one unusual feature in the late 14th century astronomical clock, one of a group of such timepieces made in west England at this time. It is believed to be the oldest clock in the world that still functions using its original mechanism. Bells ring every quarter an hour, accompanied by a display of jousting knights. The internal mechanism also controls an external clock on the north face of the cathedral, which was added about 70 years later.