Arts and Culture

Shani Gilchrist



Visiting Wells Cathedral and continuing the magic in Columbia

Posted 8/12/2013 10:30:00 PM

A couple of weeks ago my family and I were positively melting in London. England has been enduring its hottest summer since 2006, and possibly the longest sustained heat in its recorded history. Local residents insist that they’re thankful and lucky for the unusually warm weather. They are constantly reminding us that in most cases we would be huddled indoors in jumpers (sweaters), avoiding periods of rain with books and endless cups of tea.

I’m not saying that I haven’t enjoyed our trip to London — it’s been unbelievably wonderful — but we can endure weeks of sun and heat just fine in South Carolina, where air conditioning is a presumptive necessity. Europeans visit South Carolina to take in experiences that are unique to them, such as the combination of space and natural wonder involved in encountering a heron-filled salt flush via kayak.

We Americans venture across the Atlantic with a similar expectation of experiencing something different. Therefore it was startling when the South Carolina heat followed the trail of our airplane to un-air conditioned London. Finally, we broke down and rented a car, largely so that the four of us could sit and bask in the coolness of artificially generated air in an enclosed space.

There was another reason for the car, though. A while back, while traveling home from a business trip to London, my husband was seated next to a fascinating woman who was a vicar with the Church of England. I have a chatty husband, and Joanna is equally so, and they hit it off and kept in touch. The weekend that we rented our four-wheeled oasis, Joanna invited us to the small town where she lives with her husband and nine-month-old baby boy. Her husband, The Rev. Canon Nicholas Jepson-Biddle, is a precentor at Wells Cathedral, which is at the epicenter of much of the city’s activity. Wells is also home to Wells Cathedral School and the Bishop’s Palace.

Wells Cathedral School is known around the world as one of the finest musical schools for children. Having been established around 909 A.D., it is also one of the oldest extant schools in the world. If a musician — especially a church musician — has spent any time at this school, you know that they are quite good. The highest caliber children’s choirs and choristers in the world vie for a chance to study here.

In Columbia, we have one church musician that I know of who has spent time here. Jared Johnson is the Canon for Music at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral. Before bringing his talent to South Carolina, Jared was located in New Haven, Conn., and had the opportunity to spend a week in Wells with the boys choir from his church.

“Malcolm Archer was the choirmaster at that time, and the Connecticut boys spent the week singing side by side with the Wells boys,” Johnson says. “It was an amazing place and experience. I am still dazzled by the scissor arches and the beautiful chapter house, not to mention the houses on the close.”

Since then, Johnson has bolstered Trinity’s music program, bringing it to a level that will surely place its children within the sights of the cathedral school. Since his arrival, the choir has performed at the Vatican, at Canterbury Cathedral in England and the American Cathedral in Paris. The public can hear the choir at various performances throughout the year, as its 2013-2014 music season will kick off this fall.

Our hosts gave us the most wonderful tour of the cathedral grounds and adjoining Bishop’s Palace. The city of Wells was originally settled because of the abundant springs found on the site. The dates of original settlement are unknown, but Stone Age flints and Roman pottery have been found near the ancient water sources. The earliest signs of worship is a Romano-British burial chamber. Above this there is a Saxon mortuary chapel that was built around 705, when King Ine of Wessex gave his permission for a church to be established at the site.

Around 1175 work was begun on the cathedral that is still in use today. Progress continued on the building through 1490, and it is now known as one of the most beautiful cathedrals in England. Around 1210, work was begun on a palace that would be the home of the Bishops of the Diocese of Bath and Wells. At the time of our visit the city was eagerly awaiting the appointment of the newest bishop who will occupy an apartment in the palace. The grounds include magical gardens full of blooms, paths, works of art, and secluded places perfect for sitting with a book on a sunny day.

The weekend with our new friends was the perfect diversion from the heat-soaked concrete of London. This fall, when Trinity’s music season starts up, I’m looking to hearing more of the magical site’s influence when we attend some concerts in South Carolina.