Talk Report: 2016-03-09

Guiding in the city of Wells by Siobhan Goodwin

A familiar sight in Wells these days is a group of visitors clustered around an animated guide who is merrily telling them humorous stories and revealing facts about the city. The guide’s name may well be Siobhan Goodwin. We were lucky enough to hear her talk about her life as a guide in this fascinating city.

Siobhan described herself as a newcomer to Wells, born and brought up in Lincolnshire but lured to the West Country by her love of the novels of Thomas Hardy. Wanting a mid-life career change from youth and community work she was inspired by the idea of town guiding in Wells, and set about absorbing all the information on which she could lay her hands. Whilst the facts and stories, statistics and legends originally came from documents and books, some of the best have come from helpful locals. Surprisingly often there is a contribution from a member of the group to whom she is talking.

These vary from architects wanting to learn about vernacular buildings to a cheerful group of men calling themselves ‘The Old Gits’ club’, and from groups of young children to costumed members of jolly hen nights. She leads Hot Fuzz enthusiasts around the various sites associated with the cult film. From Easter to October she has a different group each week. These collect outside The Crown on Wednesday mornings.

These huge varieties of age and interest must provide a challenge but Siobhan is obviously not afraid of challenges and her enthusiasm is infectious as she speaks of the city that she has come to love. Did we know that the two ‘pale’ angels in the quatrefoils low on the West Front are carved into limestone not from Doulting as are most of the other statues, but from a quarry at Beer in Devon? This has different, paler qualities and in the interests of authenticity this practice is being echoed in today’s restoration. Did we know that the name of the ubiquitous Cathedral City cheese, the most popular brand of cheese in the United Kingdom, originally came from Wells? One of the people who graded the cheddar lived in a house in Sadler Street backing on to Cathedral Green and must have seen the west front every day of his life. Did we know that on a sunny day one can see tiny fish which have bravely swum along from the nearby moat? They glint in the waters that emerge in the gutter outside The Crown.

Siobhan showed us an image of the 15th century rebus of Bishop Bekynton – a bec (beacon) on top of a tun (barrel) which is carved into Penniless Porch along with several other places in the city. She described the various ‘walks’ which she leads in and around Wells: walks based on film & television locations, Literary walks, Food History walks, Ghost walks and Heritage walks. Self-guided ‘Swan Walks' encourage people to explore farther afield around the city and, armed with specially designed maps available to borrow from the shop at the Bishop's Palace, intrepid tourists can partake in these on their own. The Swan Walks vary from forty-five minutes to two and a half hours and locals and visitors alike can download them free from www.wellssomerset.com or www.wellswalkingtours.co.uk .

If any of us began the morning taking Wells for granted, our speaker’s flow of interesting facts and stories soon reawakened us to the city’s unique character and she was thanked warmly for such an animated talk. As a member of the audience said after the talk “Wells is the better for having Siobhan!”