Chamberlain Street, Wells, Somerset BA5
A small church built from designs by Charles Hansom for a Carmelite convent. The slightly later nuns’ choir area was altered in the 1970s after the convent closed. The design of the west front, which the donor stipulated should be worthy of a cathedral city, is based on that of the Slipper chapel at Walsingham.
In 1875, Bishop Clifford invited a Carmelite community from Lanherne in Cornwall to start a mission at Wells. He bought for them a house with large gardens, called The Vista (11 Chamberlain Street) and said the first Mass in the new convent on 16 July 1875. On 19 March 1877, the Bishop laid the cornerstone for a chapel alongside the convent, which was opened on 15 October the same year. The architect for this was Charles Francis Hansom and the contractors F. & G. Brown of Frome. The chapel originally consisted of the nave of the present church but the sanctuary and the nuns’ choir at right angles were part of the original plans. Mr Mercer of Wigan, a relative of one of the nuns, who funded the building work, stipulated that the design should be suitable for a cathedral city. Contemporary accounts in the Wells Journal and The Builder reported that the design of the west elevation was adapted ‘from an interesting example of a small “wayside chapel” in Norfolk’. This has generally been interpreted to refer to the Slipper Chapel at Walsingham, to which the design bears clear similarities (the Slipper Chapel was less well known at this time, and was not restored until the 1890s).
In 1888, the present sanctuary and a nuns’ choir were added, the latter screened from the former by a grille, with three squint windows to an upper floor of the convent. The architect was again Hansom, this time working in partnership with Frederick Bligh Bond (1864-1945). The church was consecrated on 31 July 1890.
The nuns left Wells in 1972 and the convent building was sold and converted to flats. The nuns’ choir was converted into a side aisle or transept with a large arch formed into the sanctuary, as well as an extension providing a sacristy and porch . The extension was blessed and opened by Bishop Alexander on 19 March 1975. The architects were Peter W. H. Lean and D. J. Williams of Wells.
The convent chaplain and later the parish priest lived in a sequence of houses; in 1880, Vista Cottage was built; from 1883, 1 Chamberlain Street was used, succeeded by no. 14A in 1913, no. 4 in 1918, no. 5 in 1925, before the acquisition of the present presbytery (16 Chamberlain Street) in 1965.
The church faces southeast. This description follows conventional liturgical orientation, i.e. as if the altar was at the east.
The materials are rock-faced local stone with dressings of Doulting freestone and tiled roofs with decorative cresting and a small ventilator on the ridge. The plan is L-shaped, comprising a nave and sanctuary, with the former nuns’ choir (now a transept) projecting north of the sanctuary. The west elevation has a projecting stone gabled entrance with panelled soffit and the crest and motto of the Carmelite Order in the gable. Above this is a large three-light window with flamboyant tracery; this, along with the diagonal buttresses and the short diagonally-set turrets on either side of the gable appear to be based on the design of the Slipper chapel at Walsingham. The nave has two-light windows of Perpendicular character. A short side chapel under a cross roof at the southeast has a rose window. Like that at the west, the three-light east window has Perpendicular tracery, above a stepped string course and carved panel depicting the Host and chalice. The side elevation of the former nuns’ choir has two large pointed windows with Y-tracery, inserted in the 1970s when the first floor above the choir was largely removed, and at the back two original rectangular window openings with mullions and transoms.
The nave and sanctuary have panelled waggon roofs. The narthex and gallery at the west end date from the 1970s. Between two side doors in the north wall is a niche under a hoodmould with a statue of the Virgin Mary. The sanctuary retains its stone and marble altar rails, possibly c.1890. The forward altar was originally part of the high altar (figure 1) and is decorated with tiles depicting an angel, the Agnus Dei, and the eagle of St John. The Gothic carved reredos with panels depicting the visions of St Simon Stock and Elijah was described in 1890 as has having been designed by Canon A. J. C. Scoles. There is a small chapel recess off the south side of the sanctuary.
The stained glass in the east window (depicting Our Lady of Mount Carmel with four saints) dates from 1925. Another stained glass window in the south nave wall depicts the Nativity and the Crucifixion. The artists/makers have not been established. The Stations of the Cross were made in 1880 by Powell of Bristol, a relative of the Hardman family in Birmingham. The nave seating consists of benches with a central alley.
A large two-centred arch of the 1970s connects the sanctuary and the former nuns’ choir. This is a plain, ceiled space, carpeted and with individual chairs rather than benches or pews. A first floor room at its far end (the remains of the former full-length first floor) is boxed in and panelled in timber. Below it are two doors on either side of a niche, which formerly led into a confessional, now a small kitchen. The 1970s vestibule has a display case with the ciborium used by Pope John Paul II for Mass at Coventry airport in 1982.
Architect: C. F. Hansom; Hansom & Bond
Original Date: 1877
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Not Listed