The Menagerie: Ding-a-ling

  • 26 Aug 2019
  • Article

The swans of the Bishop’s Palace at Wells in Somerset have a unique skill. Ever since 1870, when one of the daughters of the new Bishop, Lord Arthur Hervey, first trained them, they have rung a bell attached to the wall of the thirteenth-century palace whenever they feel peckish. The latest recruits are mute swans Grace and Gabriel, who arrived in May this year and have had not only to learn bell ringing but also to raise a family over the summer.

The swans make their home in the moat which has bounded the Bishop’s Palace since the 1300s when Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury built the enclosing ramparts and gatehouse. The moat is fed from well pools formed by the natural springs which rise in the palace grounds, giving the town both its name and a long association as a holy place. Today it also hosts the annual Moat Boat Race.

The Bishop's Palace, Wells

The Bishop's Palace, Wells

The palace has been home to the Bishops of Bath and Wells for eight hundred years and retains some fine medieval buildings. The Early English gothic chapel was added by Bishop Robert Burnell in 1295, while his Great Hall was turned into a picturesque ruin by his successor, Bishop Law, in 1830. Bishop Law can be forgiven since he also laid out the gardens and probably first introduced the resident swans.

Palace Administrator Moira Anderson explains that, when the palace featured in 2007’s Hot Fuzz, the escaped swan in the hit film was not a member of the bell-ringing squad. With no film roles in the pipeline, Moira is still working with Gabriel (a slow learner) but Grace has already mastered the bell.

The Bishop’s Palace at Wells is free to members of Historic Houses.

Return to listing