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High parts, no lows! A stunning Wells Cathedral tour

Updated: Jan 20, 2020

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A birdseye view on the High Parts Tour

We rush to get to Wells Cathedral on time for the High Parts Tour - a special 'behind the scenes' look at the upper levels of the Cathedral itself, that lets you walk in the footsteps of the stone masons. I don't know if the masons ever had 'one of those days', but for us, everything seems to be late and frustrating (and yes we get stuck behind a tractor on the way here! ;))

As soon as we step through the Cathedral doors though, all that changes. The calm. The clean, cold air. The spotless stone. The spine-tingling beauty of this magnificent building just works its magic...

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Gothic intricacies, beautifully cared for

... washing the earlier madness of the day away, as we head to a tucked-away spiral staircase to climb the stone steps that lead to the Cathedral's most secret spots!

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A taster of the 250 steps!

On a tour of the upper reaches of a building described as "the first truly Gothic Cathedral in the world", by Art Historian John Harvey, there are about 250 uneven steps to climb! That's during the whole 90 minutes though and you do it in a couple of different stages, so although I'm thinking 'I'll never make it' at the beginning, it's actually manageable for me. The excitement of wanting to discover what's at the top of the steps, takes my mind off not being the fittest person in the world, anyway! :)

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Discoveries at the top that are well worth the climb!

Our first part of the climb takes us to a labyrinth of hidden spaces, galleries and chambers, with our expert guides literally shining a light on things we need to pay special attention to - as well as sharing the history of the Cathedral's lesser seen spaces.

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Beautiful shadows and hidden spaces

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Shining a light on the subject!

There are some very cool things to discover on the tour, as you might expect from a Cathedral built between 1175 and 1490 (replacing an earlier church dating from... wait for it... 705!).

We walk right behind the famous astronomical Cathedral clock - the second oldest surviving clock in England no less! From the outer dial (on the north transept of the building), to the inner face close to the Canons' Vestry, it's a thing of beauty from the 1390's.

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At the striking of the clock, jousting knights appear above the clock face

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The internal dial of the astronomical clock

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Reflecting the movement and phases of the sun and the moon

From high up behind the scenes, we get a precious glimpse of the internal workings - the cabinet-enclosed mechanism, the pulleys and the old wooden handle from days gone by, when the clock used to be wound by hand, at least twice a week. Guess how many turns of the handle a time that took? Only 750!! ;)

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Running like clockwork...

The days of hand-winding are over now though! Three electrical motors have been doing this job since 2010, when local jeweller Paul Fisher retired. His family manually wound the clock for 80 years so standing here, we wistfully imagine the day that all changed... although Paul retired to save his knees from the 50 stair climb twice a week - and presumably, he's got far less muscly forearms now too!! ;)

We also duck down and sneak inside The Tracing Room, to see one of only two surviving medieval upper tracing floors in the country.

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Tracing history...

"What's a tracing floor?" we hear you shout! ;) Well, it's this small space, where master stone masons drew out their detailed designs for each element of the Cathedral, to turn them into templates for building. To put it in to some sort of perspective, the only design tools these guys had were set squares, compasses and a piece of rope (sounds a bit like my GCSE maths class ;)) and from the lightly scratched, chalked or charcoaled designs they made on this plaster of paris floor, the bones of the awe-inspiring building were created. Pretty mind-blowing, right?

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All you need - a floor, a set square, a compass, rope and chalk

Focusing on the floor patterns in the dimly lit chamber, you can almost catch a glimpse of the masons scratching out their plans, hear the sound of metal scraping stone and feel the craftsmanship that originated from this very room, so many moons ago.

Moving on from here, we get to take some fantastic aerial photos of the heart of the Cathedral...

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... and that's not all! We explore the singing gallery - the narrowest of narrow passageways along the west front, where choristers would sing on festival days.

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Turning up the volume on festival days

Acoustically, the sound definitely bounces off the the walls with satisfying volume and reverb. It absolutely carries and we get proof... as our guide breaks into song to test it out!

After a final climb of the remaining stone steps, we pass through the south transept roof space, where we stand around 22 metres above the Cathedral font...

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The font, from ground level...

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Our group, in the roof above!

Learnings about the fire at York Minster in 1984 have definitely been taken on board in this area. We discover that at York, the weight of the water being pumped by the fire brigade collected in vault pockets, which helped the vaults collapse. Our guide shows us the work that's been done here, to make sure that can never happen. Who knew trenches, metal cages, pipes and polystyrene plugs could be so clever...

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Work in the south transept roof

As we move through to the high tower, organ music from the space below drifts through the air and as we look up, I feel the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

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Mesmerising spaces and sounds

As we reach the nave roof, the original wood is a beautiful sight - and scent, with the gentle fragrance of timber encouraging you to breathe in and fill up your senses...

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Beams dating back to between 1212-14

... and in this space, eight open circles on the west side shine like mini stone portholes! If you like your brass sounds, you'll love this story. These holes were used by trumpeters to create a heavenly sound on Palm Sundays. Close your eyes, sprinkle some imagination around and you can definitely hear those trumpets blow!!

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Imagining the trumpeters!

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A window into history

Overall, the tour teaches, challenges and helps us appreciate just some of what went into creating a stunning Cathedral that's at the very heart of this special Somerset city, but I have to say... for all the amazing things we see, the ones I love the most are the tiny little highs! The intricacies. The things that might go unnoticed.

A mason's initials scratched in to the stone...

The left-behind stone masons' templates, hanging like ragdolls...

The light, picking up the shapes and casting shadows that dance across the space...

A family of pigeons nesting in a window in the singing gallery :).

Cathedral cat, Pangur - casually chilling out, listening to choir practice!

And the graffiti. The mini drawings so quickly and carelessly scribbled, that bring genuine smiles to our little group...

My mind flicks back to the inscription on the outer dial of that famous Cathedral clock. Nequid Pereat, it says. Let nothing be lost. Well to us, on this tour, absolutely nothing was.

There's so much joy to be taken from discovering the little details and when we look back at the Cathedral from the outside, it's those tiny pieces that build a story that has definitely won our hearts. This magnificent building, standing proud in the heart of Wells, has given us an unexpected experience that's made lasting memories.

If you haven't been yet, what you waiting for? ;)

To book the High Parts Tour, visit the Wells Cathedral website here. Tickets are £10 per adult and £8 for children (plus a small Eventbrite booking fee), there are family options and tickets with a cream tea afterwards too! I think we missed out there ;).

P.S. Would it be to silly to say that the tour refreshes the high parts other cathedrals can't reach? (she says, showing her obsession with retro adverts!) ;)


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