History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation
What makes a city a city? Technically, the presence of a cathedral makes a town into a city, so that qualifies the quiet Somerset backwater of Wells as a city. Yet thinking of Wells as a city is misleading, for this beautiful home of the Bishops of Bath and Wells has much more of a rural town or very large village about it. With only about 10,000 residents, Wells is the smallest city in England.
The highlight of a visit to Wells is the magnificent cathedral. Wells Cathedral is one of the architectural highlights of Britain, replete with intricate Gothic carvings, a unique scissors vault to brace the building against shifting medieval foundations, and a marvellous chapter house.
Look for the staircase that rises up to the chapter house; its worn steps undulate like rolling waves. Mind your step! The Cathedral also houses one of the very earliest mechanical clocks still in existence in the UK, with clockwork knights who exchange blows every hour. The Cathedral is mostly a product of the 12th - 14th centuries and embodies the very finest Early Gothic architecture.
The west front, seen in the photo above, has an amazing collection of statuary set into over 300 individual niches. Some have been damaged or lost over the years, but a restoration effort is underway to salvage the remaining carvings.
Wells is named for ... wait for it ... wells. In this case, for the freshwater wells that rise up in the gardens of the Bishop's Palace. The wells have been a place of worship for millennia, long before Christianity came to the area. There was a Roman mausoleum on the site, and a 7th-century church built by King Ine.
Wells was one of the most important bishoprics in medieval Britain, but over the years a power struggle developed between Wells and the city of Bath to the north. Both claimed the right to be the Bishop's official seat. Eventually, the issue was resolved by creating the new combined see of Bath and Wells.
The Bishop's Palace is a reminder of this ecclesiastical past. The palace is still the official residence of the Bishop. In the 14th century, a struggle broke out between the bishop and the city. As a result, the palace was fortified and moated, with a drawbridge as the only access. There are volunteer visitor guides in the palace and the chapel, and white swans now swim in the peaceful moat.
Around the corner from the Cathedral is Vicar's Close, the oldest complete street of 14th-century houses in Europe. It was built to provide housing to cathedral vicars. Nearby is the Old Deanery, which dates back to the 12th century.
Just north of the city is Milton Lodge Gardens, a small terraced garden in private hands. The garden is open regularly, but if your tastes are more active, try a tour of Wookey Hole Caves, or a nature walk in Ebbor Gorge Nature Reserve, both within a few miles of Wells.
There is an excellent Tourist Information Centre in the Wells Museum, overlooking the Cathedral Green. The TIC has a series of inexpensive leaflets detailing several fascinating walks in the area, and they can book rooms for you at a number of good B&Bs in the area. If budget isn't as important to you as atmosphere, get a room at the Star, a half-timbered 16th-century coaching inn.
Wells is a treat for visitors, providing ambience without the crowds of larger centres like London. I come back every time I visit England, and I expect that you will too.
Wells Cathedral - A Gothic tour-de-force
Vicars Close - a charming 14th-century street joined to the cathedral
Bishop's Palace - medieval moated home to the Bishop of Bath and Wells
St Cuthbert's parish church
Address: Wells, Somerset Levels, Somerset, England
Attraction Type: Town
OS: ST549 457
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express
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NEARBY HISTORIC ATTRACTIONS
Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low to exceptional) on historic interest
Wells Cathedral - 0.1 miles (Cathedral)
Wells Bishop's Palace - 0.1 miles (Historic Building)
Milton Lodge Gardens - 0.9 miles (Garden)
Burcott Mill - 1.8 miles (Historic Building)
Ebbor Gorge - 1.8 miles (Countryside)
Glastonbury Tor - 5 miles (Countryside)
Emborough, Blessed Virgin Mary Church - 5.1 miles (Historic Church)
Glastonbury Tribunal - 5.2 miles (Museum)
Nearest Accommodation to Wells: