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  • Chris Winter

"Imagining an even more wonderful Wells": Vicars Close

Wells Civic Society Meeting 11th October 2023 talk with Crystal Johnson, Director of Vicars Close Project



Crystal Johnson, Director of Vicars Close Project
Crystal Johnson, Director of Vicars Close Project


What in Wells is significant at a national and international level? What in Wells is quite possibly unique? Vicars Close certainly meets these criteria and the Vicars Close Project, A Medieval Street Singing Through The Centuries, was the subject of the first meeting, following its summer break, of Wells Civic Society in October.


Crystal Johnson, project director, explained that not only is Vicars Close, dating from 1348, arguably the oldest medieval street in Europe being, crucially, still inhabited and largely used for its original purpose, which was of housing adult cathedral choristers, but its particular individuality is apparent when it is viewed as a whole: that is, when not only its houses, but its Chapel, its Treasury, its Chapter Room, its Vicars Hall, and all the accompanying furniture, fittings and objects are considered in their totality, any claim to uniqueness is hard to refute.


But, the buildings are showing their age and there is much serious deterioration, not least caused by water ingress. Repair and conservation are necessary: no small job across, for example, some 30 grade 1 listed buildings, 470 rooms, 353 roof slopes, and 819m of underground pipe work. And, in a project of this significance, literally every window warrants its own individual consideration. Of course, there are strict conservation requirements as to what materials can be used, and all repairs will be subject to both planning and listed building consents.


But conserving these buildings for future generations is by no means all that this project is about. Currently, too many visitors wander up and down the Close, not really knowing what they are looking at or looking for. Now, the aim is greatly to enhance the visitors’ experience. One way that this will be achieved is by two of the houses, numbers 12 and 22, becoming open to the public. Number 22 will be presented as a pre-Reformation sixteenth century house, while number 12 will be post-Reformation; viewed together, they will reflect changing life styles. Of course, to some extent both had gardens. In the case of number 12, this will become a bio diverse garden, whereas number 22 will be much as a medieval physic garden; here, the fact that William Turner’s (Dean of Wells in the mid-1500s) A New Herball is held in the cathedral library will be very informative.


Conveying a sense of the lives of the people who have lived in the Close through the ages, including its musical heritage through the choristers, is a fundamental aim, and this will be achieved by activities, oral histories, interpretation boards and spaces, digital tours, liaison with schools and colleges, volunteering opportunities and community involvement. Thus, this project is about so much more than merely conserving.


The National Lottery Heritage Fund has been very helpful and another application will be submitted shortly: the outcome of this will be known, probably, in June 2024. But, £1.8 million needs to be raised via matched funding by March 2024. This is daunting, but there is real optimism that all moneys will be in place by the middle of 2024, which is when the physical work can really start, with a view to completion by 2028.


Crystal did virtually confirm that the sense of perspective, whereby the Close looks longer than it actually is when viewed from the cathedral end, is deliberate, and that it was not in error that the chapel end has tapered down to being three metres narrower. The evidence for a deliberate plan having been executed is that the houses become progressively narrower and shorter, thus enhancing the optical illusion.


Vicars Close dates from 1348
Vicars Close dates from 1348

Puns are hackneyed devices, but not to be resisted. The Civic Society clearly found the evening’s presentation crystal-clear, as was shown by the number of interesting debating points that were aired in the subsequent discussion.


Please note that the annual meeting on Wednesday, November 8 will start at 6.30pm. This will be immediately followed by an examination of the legacy of slavery in Wells. It will be led by professor James Clark of Exeter University and followed by a panel discussion. As usual, these will take place in the Wells museum, Cathedral Green, with refreshments also being available. For further details, please go to www.wellscivicsociety.org.uk or an e-mail to chris.f.winter@btinternet.com will put you in touch with the chair, Chris Winter.


Richard Hanks

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