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  • Richard Hanks

How Best To Use The Bishop's Barn

Updated: Jun 18

Wells Civic Society Monthly Meeting - 10th January 2024


The Bishops Barn was in Debate at the Wells Civic Society Monthly meeting in January. Representatives of the Civic Society and others will work with the City Council towards a sustainable future of the Barn.


The Bishops Barn in Wells
The Bishops Barn in Wells


Immediately prior to the recent local government reorganisation and the formation of Somerset Council, in 2022 Wells City Council willingly accepted the return of ownership from Mendip District Council of the iconic Bishop’s Barn, which is situated in Silver Street and is adjacent to the Recreation Ground. As it is a Scheduled Monument and a Grade 1 listed building, this brings with it a heavy responsibility for the preservation of the barn, which was built in the mid-1400s, and for plans to be made as to how it is to be used in the future. Hence, it was an extremely relevant topic to come under the spotlight of the Wells civic society, as was reflected in the large audience, including a number of city councillors, who attended their January meeting on a very cold night.


Dr Jeremy Ashbee assisted with the debate about the Bishops Barn at the Wells Civic Society
Dr Jeremy Ashbee assisted with the debate about the Bishops Barn.

To assist in the debate and to place the whole issue in a more general context, the society was extremely pleased to welcome Dr. Jeremy Ashbee, Head Properties Curator, English Heritage. After outlining how English Heritage cares for some 400 historically significant places and properties, including the tithe barn at Bradford-on-Avon, Jeremy immediately said that pragmatically English Heritage could not take responsibility for our barn, although one would have to have a heart of stone (an appropriate metaphor for a man whose life is looking at buildings) not emotionally to wish to do so. 


Before thinking of a sustainable use for the barn, there are practical difficulties such as: inadequacies in the kitchen; strong competition from nearby and already established hospitality venues if events such as weddings and receptions were proposed; question marks as to how to accommodate convenient parking. Although Jeremy recognised that the barn might yet have potential to become a vibrant community asset, he could not at present see how it could be staffed and engage volunteers in line with English Heritage models.



The inside of the Bishops Barn
The inside of the Bishops Barn


This places the onus on the local community and so ideas and questions were invited from the floor, and as a result a number of possibilities in principle as well as practical issues were raised from an attentive gathering. In response to a question as to whether Historic England might become involved, Jeremy thought it would be a good idea to ask one of their inspectors of ancient monuments to visit. It was generally agreed that varied use of the building should be considered. The actual situation of the barn was discussed, both in immediate terms with regard to, for instance: the nearby tall trees, possible access from the moat walk, the creation of a sensory garden; to a wider perspective and linking it as an added attraction to those already existing, such as the cathedral, Vicar’s Close, the Bishop’s Palace, whose historical linking the barn shares. Even the future development of the fields of Palace Farm was mentioned as something that might impact on the general setting of the barn. Should, once appropriate work has been carried out, the barn simply be there, accessible, with no staff and no charge for visiting, which is certainly the case with many English Heritage properties or should its antiquity be capitalised upon as an appropriate setting for a modern, interactive, hands-on museum? It was pointed out that there has already been a good deal of thought given locally to the barn and its future and, indeed, some interior work actually is under way. It was also pointed out that major work would need the authorisation of the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.


Jeremy had been very sympathetic to the sentiment engendered because the barn is part of the history of Wells, dating back to when in medieval times it was, indeed, the bishop’s store, and he had offended no one with his message, so charmingly put, that English Heritage was not willing to take responsibility for it. The audience thanked him most appreciatively for his attendance, and probably their overall reaction to the evening could be summed up in a communal, “We value the barn. We do not want to just let it go. We do not want it to subside into neglect”.


The next meeting of the society is on Wednesday, February 14 at 7.pm in the Wells museum, Cathedral Green, when Chris Charles and other recent self-builders in Wells talk about their experience and ask, “Why not build it ourselves?” Drinks will be available beforehand. Please go to chris.f.winter@btinternet.com or www.wellscivicsociety.org.uk  for more details or to learn more about the society in general. 


Richard Hanks

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