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A sea of steps

Standing in the north transept of Wells Cathedral, looking up at this great flight of steps pouring down, one finds that the effect is more like a river in spate than a sea - a river that has been joined by a tributary and is now hastening to find some level where it may be at rest. The effect is extraordinarily powerful; it seems almost like a phenomenon of nature. The stairway is separated from the main body of the cathedral by heavy double doors, which must be pushed open; then the viewer is at once astonished by what he sees.

When Frederick Evans (1853-1943) took this picture, the art of photography was still comparatively young and lacked many of the technological advances it has since made; yet no one has ever bettered this particular study.

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Those first photographers accomplished wonders; many of their pictures remain, like this one, unrivaled. With immense patience and a great feeling for light and shadow, they captured the essence of their themes in such a way that they partook of painterly qualities, reaching beyond the outward expression to the inner meaning.

A great stairway is always a highly important architectural feature, often the most memorable and significant of a given building.

Wells's treasure seems of quite another category; the stone is uneven now, worn, pitted; but it makes no difference, it only brings to mind analogies of all those steps mankind must take.

The construction of this cathedral began between 1175 and 1185 and went on for over two centuries without any loss of its essential unity and harmony of style.

It was built of stone from a nearby quarry (at Doulting), which still supplies the material needed for repairs. The general aspect is (as cathedrals go) rather low, the towers having no spires, and plain, because the ornamentation is relatively simple, though bold.

Aside from the stairs leading to the Chapter House, there is another quite unusual feature - the three inverted arches. These were put in after the central tower was raised to its present height (between 1315 and 1322), and it was seen, to the general dismay and alarm, to be tilting to the west. In 1338, cracks were found in the masonry; it was apparent that the foundations would have to be widened, and some support bracing introduced.

The problem was solved by one of those anonymous builders who seem to have abounded in the Middle Ages and who devised these arches, which were to prove perfectly adequate in strengthening the existing structure, and at the same time enhancing the appearance of the church - the ``inverted arches.''

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There are three of these: one over the nave and two over the transepts (the choir screen carries the fourth side). They are high, wide, and plain. After reaching a certain height, they seem to create the image of enormous figure eights. In their bare force they have an oddly modern look, and they have proved successful for over 600 years.

Wells Cathedral has always been secular. Within its estate are the wells that gave it its name; it has a walled castle and the moat where the swans pull a bell rope when they want to be fed; the surrounding town is delightful in its medieval perfections. It lies in the southwest of England; the climate generally cold, windy, and wet, which keeps the grass beautifully green, and today within the enclave there are places where one can revive one's flagging spirits with hot soup and pork pies.

Altogether, it is evident that this architectural triumph performs a role that is imperative in the world of art - it sets the spectator dreaming.

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