A medieval city with a moated palace. The oldest residential street in Europe. And swans that have been trained to ring a bell… This is Wells in Somerset, an ancient town close to the cities of Bath and Bristol but peacefully situated in the Mendip Hills. So what should you see and do when you spend a day in Wells?
Why Visit Wells?
Wells is often called the “smallest city in England”. In fact the City of London is slightly smaller, but Wells is certainly very compact, making it easy to explore in a day. Yet it manages to pack an enormous amount into a small space.
You’ll find a medieval centre, the impressive Bishop’s Palace and Gardens, a large cathedral and a street that’s barely changed since the Middle Ages. There is a twice-weekly market, historic pubs, and peaceful waterside walks.
The Medieval City Of Wells
The first written record of the city dates back to the 12th century, but it is likely that there was an earlier settlement (we do know that a church was built here around 700). Wells was at one time the largest town in Somerset, and a prosperous centre for the cloth-manufacturing and woollen industries.
That so much of the medieval city remains must be largely due to the fact that it is the seat of the Bishop of Bath and Wells: the city is dominated by the cathedral, the Bishop’s Palace, and the Cathedral School. The layout of the city centre, with its small roads and alleys leading from the main street, remains mostly intact, and you’ll find ancient buildings cheek by jowl with more modern ones.
There is more to discover about Wells, its history and its natural environment at the Wells and Mendip Museum on the Cathedral Green.
Historic Buildings… And The Vicars’ Close
Look out for historic alms houses, and for quirks like the “Penniless Porch”, built close to the Cathedral as a place for vagrants to beg for alms. There are some old hostelries: I was particularly intrigued by the City Arms, housed in a 16th century building that was once used as an abattoir and later became a jail!
One of the most famous sights in Wells is Vicars’ Close. This was built in the 14th century for the Vicars Choral (men of the Cathedral Choir), and the houses are still occupied by members of the choir and others associated with the cathedral. The two rows of houses have a chapel at one end and are physically linked to the cathedral via a bridge at the other.
Apart from the addition of the tall chimneys in the 15th century the exterior of these houses has been little changed since they were first built. This makes it the oldest residential street in Europe that is both intact and still used for its original purpose.
The Bishop’s Palace And Gardens
For many tourists the highlight of a day in Wells will be the Bishop’s Palace and Gardens. This has been home to the bishops of Bath and Wells for more than 800 years, and visitors can explore the palace itself, the chapel and the extensive gardens.
The palace is surrounded by a moat, and you enter via a drawbridge and a portcullis. The moat is home to the Bishop’s Swans: although I didn’t witness it myself, I am told that they have been trained to ring a small bell to the right of the gateway whenever they want to be fed.
Gardens And Ramparts
The 14 acres of land around the Bishop’s Palace were laid out as pleasure grounds in the 1820s. The moated area around the palace contains lawns and the formally laid out East Garden. In the South Garden are the remains of the medieval Great Hall.
In the 14th century this area was surrounded by walls and turrets, although it appears that these were more symbolic than defensive. Today you can walk along part of the ramparts and enjoy the views across the former deer park towards the Mendip Hills.
A small gate in the ramparts takes you to a bridge across the moat and into the Outer Gardens. Here you’ll see lots of water, springs and wells: it is these that give the city its name. Part of the garden is known as the “Dragon’s Lair” – a wildlife area for families and picnics. You’ll also find an arboretum, allotments and a modern Quiet Garden.
The Palace And Chapel
Although the palace is where the bishop lives and works, the first two floors are open to visitors. The ground floor is mostly occupied by the large medieval undercroft, once a refectory and now much in demand for private functions. A small passage from the entrance hall takes you to the Bishop’s Chapel, which has been in use since the 13th century.
On the first floor is the magnificent Long Gallery, with panelling, ornate plasterwork, and portraits of several former bishops.
How To Visit The Bishop’s Palace
Allow plenty of time for your visit – there is lots to explore! There are places to sit and you are welcome to picnic in the grounds (there are picnic tables in the Arboretum). Or you can enjoy coffee or lunch in the Bishop’s Table Café.
Tickets allow you to return at any time during the following 12 months. For day trippers this means that you can leave and re-enter at any time during your visit.
Guided tours of the palace and grounds (included with the entrance price) take place every day at 12 noon.
The present cathedral dates from the end of the 12th century. It has several notable features: don’t let the entrance charge deter you from going inside. But before you do so, stop to have a look at the magnificent West Front, described as “one of the largest galleries of medieval sculpture in the world”, with carvings of kings, angels, and biblical figures.
Inside the cathedral look out for some unusual architectural features. These include the scissor arches, an ingenious piece of medieval engineering, and the so-called “sea of steps” that climbs up to the chapter house. Other items of interest include the Astronomical Clock, one of the oldest clocks in the world, and the peaceful cloisters.
Don’t miss the Chained Library, with its collection of rare and valuable books (including a Bible that once belonged to Henry VIII) held down by chains. This is said to be the largest medieval chained library in England.
An added bonus for me was that I was lucky enough to hear students from the Cathedral School rehearsing their music as I walked around.
Round About Wells
If you have a little more time in the city there are several countryside walks you could take, including a short ramble to nearby Wookey Hole. Have a look at these suggestions from Wells Walking Tours.
The historic town of Glastonbury is just 10 km away. Bath is 31 km, and Bristol is 34 km. Wells is also well placed for exploring the Mendip Hills and Cheddar Gorge. If you are thinking of spending more than one day in Wells have a look at the accommodation options on booking.com.
This article is now available as a mobile app. Go to GPSmyCity to download the app for GPS-assisted travel directions to the attractions featured in this article.