DANCE ON LOCATION 018: Vicar's Close, Wells, North Somerset, UK

In the cathedral city of Wells, Somerset in the UK, there's a stunning street known as Vicars' Close, originally home to the Vicars Choral of Wells Cathedral in the middle ages. I danced down this beautiful street in the early morning sunshine.

Wells is a city in North Somerset - not a city by size (it is currently home to just 12,000 people and is the smallest city in England) - but by virtue of it's stunning cathedral. This medieval destination lies close to Bath and the Mendip Hills, and whilst it does appear distinctly medieval, the history of the city goes back much further - to a Roman settlement which enjoyed the natural springs that are native to the area. Almost hidden away in Wells, is a gorgeous stretch of stone known as Vicars' Close.

DISCLAIMER: This film was recorded prior to COVID-19 restrictions being tightened in the UK in September 2020.

Vicars' Close is a medieval close attached to Wells Cathedral. It may be the only complete medieval street left in England, and it comes with quite a history. In the entrance to Vicars' Close is a rather gorgeous scripted sign which briefly outlines the street's story. It reads:

"Vicars Choral (originally Deputies of the Canons) have sung in the Cathedral since about 1140. In 1348 they were incorporated as a College of Vicars when the dining hall above this archway came into use. The houses were complete by 1363: the chimneys were raised and crowned about 1470. At the far end is the Chapel, above which was their Library."

Built by Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury, Vicars' Close is still inhabited by the successors of the Vicars Coral. All of the buildings are Grade I listed and although there were originally 42 houses, some of the them have now been combined and so there are 27 residences in the street today. It is a stunning example of English medieval architecture and town planning, and quite astonishing that its buildings and traditions are still intact today.

In this vain, a heritage programme dedicated to the preservation of the close will be managed by Wells Cathedral (according to their website, this is still in development), aiming to engage the public in this unique history and to celebrate the musical heritage which the street embodies.

Behind Vicars' Close, you can see the towers of Wells Cathedral stretching into the sky. On this incredible mid-thirteenth century gothic wonder, there are hundreds of statues. When the cathedral was first built, there would have been 400 statues, but only 300 are left now, made from limestone from Doulting Quarry. The cathedral is still delivering services today, including online services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also nearby is The Bishop's Palace, which has housed the Bishops of Bath and Wells for north of 800 years. It is surrounded by a gorgeous moat and its gardens looked incredibly inviting from our view from the drawbridge. However, we weren't able to go in and have a look because, well... let's just say we arrived in town a little too early...

The Dance

I vividly remember arriving at Vicars' Close, just by Wells Cathedral. It was around 6:50am and the sun hadn't quite finished rising yet. Imprinted upon my mind is the image of the cathedral turrets glowing in the early morning light. We had a long day ahead of us, which was one of the reasons for our early start, but we also arrived in Wells at that rather sleepy time to avoid other bodies in the space and, more importantly... cars.

We had left Wales before 5:30am, and I know I'd fallen asleep again in the passenger seat of the car. I'm not really a morning person, and I honestly can't remember the last time I saw 5:30am. I remember taking a giant swig of my coffee (kept amazingly warm in my Smidge travel cup) before braving it out into the brisk early morning to dance.

My feet felt funny on the uneven cobble stones. We played around with their shifting and sliding before the camera revealed exactly where we were.

There's lots of juxtapositions in this film for me - firstly, my dancing body seems to resist the choral history surrounding me. I equate the choral music of medieval cathedrals with an ethereal, heavenly sound - perhaps translated into movement through a feeling of floating, or of rising up towards the sky. Instead, my body moves in a mix of angles and waves with my arm movements throughout this film. On multiple occasions I found myself crouching, arms reaching out in flowing motions, as if pulling in a never-ending tail of rope. I'd then experiment with lifting alternating legs high in the air, bent at the knee - purposefully not graceful.

As the film progresses, I notice myself executing movements which perhaps represent strength - hands in fists, both punching my arms out and curling my biceps into my body - before allowing my joints to relax once more, creating soft, flowing movements.

I particularly enjoyed dancing in Vicars' Close because there was lots of different elements to play around with - I could lean into the lamppost, my leg in the air, almost unbalanced as I leant my head and torso further towards my toes. Was this a bow to a higher power? A balance?

Something which struck me, watching the film back, is that I think this is the first dance film we've made where the route is a straight line. Usually, routes that take the dance around corners provide areas of visual interest to engage with, but Vicars' Close is one simple track. Instead of anticipating what might come around each corner, thinking about what backdrop I might dance with next, I thought of the gorgeous wooden doors and archways as if they were like the entrances to a series of secret gardens - possibilities of new worlds that lay beyond the path I followed from one end of the street to the other.

Fancy watching some more dance films in historic sites? footSTEPS has documented various castles, abandoned mansions and churches through dance:

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