The Bishop’s Palace Gardens
If you are planning a trip to the Cathedral City of Wells this spring, be sure to leave enough time to visit The Bishop’s Palace and Gardens. Many thousands of people throng to Wells Cathedral every year, yet only a small proportion venture into these enchanting and tranquil gardens.
Within the fortified palace walls, 14 glorious acres are hidden away while beyond the moat lie the peaceful Outer Gardens and a delightful Arboretum.
Over the centuries, many Bishops of Bath and Wells have made their mark on the Palace Gardens, but it was a 19th century Bishop, Bishop George Henry Law, who was responsible for laying out much of what we see today. As you approach the Gardens, you will be struck by the beauty of the mellow stonework and tracery of the ruined 13th century Great Hall. During the Reformation, the timbers and lead were removed from this magnificent building and slowly it fell into decay. Centuries later, Bishop Law, in an ingenious piece of recycling, made it more ruinous by demolishing much of the south and east walls. Using the remaining walls as a picturesque backdrop, he created lawns, borders and walks and planted many specimen trees. Today, it is a very real pleasure to saunter around the ivy-covered tower or stroll on the ramparts surrounded by the warm tones of the ancient walls.
If you can bear to leave this tranquil haven, more delights await in the Outer Garden. Cross the wooden bridge over the moat and notice the small Well House which was built by Bishop Beckynton in 1451. Here, to the north of the Palace, in an area of springs and marsh, Bishop Law created a large pool. The Cathedral, reflected in its glassy surface, has provided perfect photo opportunities for generations of photographers. It’s difficult to believe that beneath the surface, 100 litres of water per second flow from the springs; the very springs that gave the City of Wells its name.
James Cross, Head Gardener here since 2004, works hard to ensure there is plenty of interest for visitors throughout the seasons. Early in the year, the Silver Jubilee Arboretum (planted in 1977 by Bishop John Bickersteth) plays host to a wonderful display of snowdrops. In spring, a mass of primroses covers the steep grassy banks that lead down from the ramparts to the South Lawn. By June the same banks are a carpet of camassias. Four new borders were planted around a central urn in 2005, and a new vibrant hot border was added in 2008. All are now well established and provide plenty of inspiration for keen gardeners.
While there’s plenty to enjoy in this historic garden, there is the promise of more to come. A major development project has been approved and Lottery funds secured. The Bishops Palace team has launched an appeal to raise the last £650,000. Work to improve the facilities for visitors is already underway. There will be a brand new visitor centre and cafe this summer from which we can enjoy the views across the croquet lawn to the Palace. While historic paths are being restored, new spaces are being created too. There will be a community garden encouraging people to get involved with propagation or wildlife gardening, and for those in need of some respite, a contemporary garden of reflection. It is particularly exciting that, for the first time, visitors will be able to meander through the Wells Garden, the site of the historic St Andrew’s spring, an area that had previously been closed to the public. This could be a great year to visit.