Pilgrimage Challenge 3: Wells Cathedral in a Day (Glastonbury to Wells)

By Micah Mackay

To support the Pilgrimage Challenge and to read more about it, please click here.

Picture showing Wells Cathedral
Wells Cathedral

The first thing that struck me about Glastonbury was the music. On street corners buskers competed for attention – the sound of the guitar accompanied us down one street, a saxophone down the next. Having been deprived of live music during lockdown this sudden burst of sound was almost overwhelming (in a very good way!). It seemed natural for our steps to slow or speed up to match the beat of the music accompanying us. It was a joyful start. 

Live music in Glastonbury

Having arrived in Glastonbury quite early we were, unfortunately, unable to get into the so-called burial place of King Arthur, Glastonbury Abbey. Instead, winding our way through the streets and past various bookshops, gemstone shops and herbal tea cafes, we set our sights on the Tor. After all, why not start with the big hill? 

On the way we passed Chalice Well, which sits at the foot of the Tor. This was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was here, however, that Joseph of Arimathea is said to have hidden the Holy Grail. The British Pilgrimage Trust notes that by placing the Holy Grail in the well Joseph supposedly tinged the water with Christ’s blood. This can be compared to other medieval tales concerning water mixed with holy blood, the most famous story being that of the Thomas Becket water at Canterbury. Medieval pilgrims would purchase small vials (ampullae), which would be filled with holy water from these places. The sale of these devotional objects was part of a thriving trade centred on holy relics and the perceived sanctity of a place or person.

An ampulla c.1220 – 1420. This features a representation of Thomas Becket’s martyrdom.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Moving on from the gates of Chalice Well, we started the ascent to the top of the Tor. What had from afar seemed a fairly simple hill soon proved to be rather more of a challenge and we stopped a few times to take in the view. Eventually though, all members of the group made it to the summit and to the remains of St. Michael’s Chapel. It is not unusual to find chapels dedicated to St Michael on top of hills – Mont St Michel in France and St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall being two other famous examples of this. However, the only surviving part of the fourteenth-century stone church on Glastonbury Tor is the tower. It is a striking feature, lonely, roofless and exposed to the elements. On a grey day walking through the arch feels like entering a wind tunnel – your focus is directed at staying upright and you are unable to hear much but the moan of wind. Still there is a special feeling in this place. Something about the isolation of the tower and how it stands guard over the Somerset countryside is touching. One cannot help but think of what the tower has ‘seen’ over the centuries as the landscape around it has developed and changed. It has remained a site of pilgrimage, curiosity and wonder for generation after generation. It is a place of memory and of ghosts. 

Beware of donkeys

From the summit we could see bands of rain sweeping across the countryside. Quickly we donned our wet weather gear and scrambled down the footpath to the base of the Tor. A few miles later we came to a small field where we were greeted by two rather friendly donkeys. Curious about these soggy visitors the donkeys followed us, keeping their distance at first. However, after a while one of them became a bit more confident and approached me, trying to snuffle around in my pocket. What I hadn’t realised was that the other donkey (a more nervous sort) had in the meantime wandered behind me. A few minutes later a sharp pain made me jump, startling the friendly donkey. I had been bitten on the ass by an ass. Things were going well. Somehow Mother Mackay had also managed to take a photo of the moment (after our walk she went so far as to buy me a cushion with two donkeys on it to commemorate the incident). So, for any pilgrim considering walking this path – beware the donkeys. 

Bruised but not beaten our walk continued. I find that the true beauty of these walks is often not only found in the places visited but in the paths trodden. Throughout this route we found ourselves taking overgrown trails, paths that obviously hadn’t been used in months or even years. The routes on this walk were mainly public footpaths but some landowners had obviously tried to discourage or even stop the public from walking in the area. Several times we found ourselves crawling under electric fences. It felt like we were rediscovering paths and bringing new life to these neglected trails. In some places it felt like we were reclaiming the route. This is why I feel these stories belong on this blog – the places I mention might not be anything new but some of the paths between them need to be rediscovered and reclaimed.

From Warminster Down we caught our first glimpse of Wells Cathedral. This seemed to breathe new life into our steps as we continued down the hill and across the fields, wandering through an orchard or two on the way. Wells proudly proclaims itself “England’s smallest city”, although it is also known as “that place where Hot Fuzz was filmed.” The city gets its name from the wells in the garden of the Bishop’s palace and cathedral has been a site of pilgrimage and worship for nearly 850 years. Looking at its imposing structure and extravagant stonework one can see why it continues to be enjoyed by pilgrims to this day.

Before entering the cathedral we stopped off at the Vicars’ Close, the “most complete example of a medieval close in the UK.” Standing here you feel as if you have somehow skipped back 650 or so years. The houses on this street were (and continue to be) the homes of the Vicars Choral. Wells holds an important place in the English choral tradition and has produced generations of fine singers and musicians (one of which, Iestyn Davies, asked me to take a picture of his old abode).

Vicars’ Close

The last time I visited the cathedral I had actually come to sing evensong with my choir. It was strange then to walk into the cathedral and to hear nothing but the sound of my own footsteps. The cathedral was completely empty. No choir, no other visitors, no organ music. The nave had been cleared of all chairs and a single candle stood in the middle of the floor space, a dedication to the essential workers helping to tackle the COVID-19 crisis and a memorial to those who had died during the pandemic. Despite it being rather odd to find myself utterly alone in a silent cathedral, Wells still somehow managed to exude warmth. The numerous candles that lined the socially-distanced pilgrims’ path were a reminder that this space remained full of prayers and intentions. It remained a place of hope for the hopeless and a place of rest for the weary. It had managed COVID social-distancing measures in a way that did not make you feel constantly watched or on-edge. They had integrated these measures in a way that was comfortable, easy-to-follow, and did not detract from the peace or feel of the place itself. Wells is definitely leading the way here.

A single candle in the middle of Wells Cathedral
The scissor arches

Wandering through the cathedral I came to one of my favourite features: the scissor arches. The arches were constructed from 1338-1348 by William Joy and helped to support the tower, which had started to lean and crack. This feat of engineering turned out not only to be ingenious but also very elegant – the sign of a talented master mason. However, it is the lady chapel which really does leave an impression. If you stand in the middle of the chapel and look up at the stained-glass windows your eyes and brain automatically try to make sense of the glass shards. You try to see or arrange them into some sort of coherent pattern. However, this is not possible. The stained-glass windows in the chapel were destroyed during the Reformation and have been painstakingly pieced back together forming abstract patterns. Although these patterns are nonsensical and confusing they remain exceptionally beautiful. Looking at those windows reminded me of the chaos of the world outside of them. We live in a time where not much makes sense. Things are often overwhelming and confusing and we often end up looking for answers or explanations when there are none. Yet somehow with all that chaos going on we make things work. To me these windows were a reminder that things can go on and be pieced back together. Some things just take time and a lot of work. 

It was here that I chose to stop for a while and rest. I lit a few candles, one for each person I had promised to pray for and one for Becca. Then I stopped for a while, switched off my camera and just enjoyed the silence. 

For a 360 degree view of the Lady Chapel please click here.

Candles in Wells Cathedral

To support the Pilgrimage Challenge and to read more about it, please click here.

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