Wells was recently acclaimed by the Sunday Times as one of the top 30 places in the county to live. It’s certainly one of my favorite places to visit for a weekend outing, but in 10 years of Somerset residency I’m ashamed to admit I’d never visited the Bishops’s Palace until last Sunday. Visiting late on an overcast afternoon on the first day of British wintertime probably wasn’t the most obvious time for an exploratory browse but it turned out to be a magical experience. The garden may not have been looking its most colourful (although a collection of episcopal Dahlias were doing their best to liven things up) but such is the setting that this was a minor detail.
The South Lawn is set against the remaining walls of the ruined Great Hall – remodelled (ie semi demolished) by a 19th century Bishop to create a romantic backdrop to his garden. Luckily his strategy worked.
Water is a bit of a theme here – the natural springs that give Wells its name bubble up in the Bishop’s garden, feeding the moat that encircles the Palace and separating the South Lawn from the rest of the garden. In the 15th century Bishop Beckynton gave permission for this abundant supply to be shared with the town. The neat little stone building that can be seen in the garden is no folly – it’s the original 15th century Well House, and the dog that keeps watchful guard on top of the roof is Bishop Beckynton’s hunting dog – a Talbot hound no less.
The newest bit of the garden, the garden of reflection, opened this year . At its centre is a poustinia – a quiet place for prayer and reflection (surely a bit surplus to requirements, given the proximity of one of the country’s most beautiful cathedrals, not to mention the rest of the garden which was pretty peaceful on our visit). The white circular poustinia was all a bit stark and self-consciously ‘contemporary’ to my mind but its placement in a newly planted Scandi-wegian style birch wood was quite effective.
Charmingly the Bishop’s gardens also include some pictureseque allotments – if the Sunday Times were ever to run a feature on allotments with the best view in the country, these would surely come rather higher up the list than number 30. I liked this allotment with home made tree house/apple picking platform.
The gardens also find space to house an aboretum, a community garden and fine ramparts with views over the moat and to Glastonbury Tor. Mature trees pepper the South Lawn (including fine specimens of Handkerchief tree, tulip tree and Indian bean). With so much to see, this is definitely a garden to return to when the afternoons are a little longer, and perhaps a little less grey….
The Bishop’s Palace
Somerset BA5 2PD