VICARS’ CLOSE IN WELLS
The beautiful city of Wells is only a couple of miles from The Cross. While visitors to ‘England’s smallest city’ are rightly transfixed by the magnificent cathedral, many won’t be aware of the significance of a small side street called Vicars’ Close which is just a few yards away from the Cathedral Green.
As the name suggests, the small, picturesque, terraced houses that sit either side of a cobbled street, were originally built to house a vicar each. They were built by Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury and were occupied as early as 1348. (Some say that Vicars’ Close can lay claim to being the only completely medieval street left in England, others state it’s the oldest continually inhabited residential street in Europe.) Either way, Vicars’ Close in Wells is beautifully preserved.
Back in the 14th century there was housing for 42 Vicars – 22 sets of single chambers on the east side and 20 on the west. As you would expect, the houses were very basic and didn’t have a front garden. (A modern day estate agent would probably describe them as ‘Bijou’!)
Over the centuries minor concessions have been made. In the 15th century, Bishop Bubwith allowed 19 1/2 feet to be walled off in front of each house to be used as a front garden. In the 1660s some of the houses were allowed to be leased by ‘strangers’. According to ‘The Vicars’ Close’ by Hugh Parnell, 12 of the most decayed houses were allowed to be rented by “persons of good and honest reputation as will covenaunt to rebuild and repair them at their owne proper costs and charges.” ‘Strangers’ have been allowed to inhabit Vicars’ Close ever since.
Today, Vicars’ Close is made up of 27 houses, a chapel, a library, treasury and muniment room (a storage room for historical documents). There is also a dining hall which is connected to the Cathedral by a walkway.
VICARS’ CLOSE IS ON TV
If you fancy taking a peek at Vicar’s Close from the comfort of your own settee, then make sure you tune in to ‘The Great Interior Design Challenge’ on BBC2 on 1 March. Three of the properties are undergoing makeovers, which should be a challenge in Grade I listed buildings! It will also be interesting to meet some of the occupants. Apparently, today’s residents of Vicars’ Close include all 12 men of the Vicars Choral, the organists, and virgers.
One thing is for sure. There will be a great deal of pressure on the interior designers. This street was described by Canon Godwin as, “…the most beautiful of its kind to be seen anywhere in England…” and most visitors today wouldn’t disagree.