Once on entering a French cathedral the power of the organ overwhelmed me and I had to sit down. It was almost the same in Wells this year. No organ but ethereal, unaccompanied voices ascending into the vaults as that organ had reverberated through the space and almost shook the stones.
“Is that the cathedral choir?” I asked. “They’re called Tenebrae,” I was told. They were giving a concert that evening. All plans changed: we had to attend. If it had needed confirmation, the sound of Allegri’s “Miserere” as we came out of the ambulatory would have done.
That settled, we still had plenty to wonder at in the cathedral. Its scissor-braced chancel is unique; the windows, such as survived the Reformation and the Civil War, have been effectively reconstructed and the new glass is beautiful. There are several spaces of still, bright tranquillity, from the chapter house to the chapel for prayer and contemplation. The exhibition recounting the cathedral’s history is not merely the standard tourist fare but includes artefacts of particular interest. Some of them are emotionally stirring. There is also, as we found at Norwich Cathedral, a small Zen-inspired garden.
Like Norwich also, Wells encourages the visual arts and crafts. There was a Vision of the Apocalypse fabric sequence that isn’t but deserves to be a tapestry.
So to the evening, after a bar meal rather than something more studied. That was the essential uplift after our fish and chips. Tenebrae had chosen an ecletic tour in music, through Europe and through time. There was a first half of Iberian, Italian and Austrian, from the Renaissance to Bruckner, and after the interval the late John Tavener’s “Hymn to the Mother of God” and “Song for Athene” – in an appropriate setting for their almost hypnotic quality. Back a little in time we had Holst, then two composers unfamiliar to us, Alexander L’Estrange and William Harris: enough to say they didn’t suffer by comparison.
The concert had been in aid of Somerset Community Foundation, which supports small local charities with specific project aims. Its most recent grant was to Heads Up, a charity supporting people with mental health issues in Wells and around. Its “Healing Garden” had been threatened with closure for lack of funds until the Community Foundation stepped in while additional funding was secured. Chelsea and other RHS shows have made the healing garden concept recognisable to all in recent years, but this demonstrates how smaller-scale enterprises have the same vital influence. It was heartening to know some at least of our admission fee would have helped such causes.
There was time enough the following morning to buy some herbs to plant at home and some cave-aged Wookey Hole cheddar, still going strong a fortnight later; and of course there was the splendid local stone monument to “the last fighting Tommy” Harry Patch.