I’m a little ashamed to admit I hadn’t heard of Wells, England’s smallest city, until a couple of months ago when my Bristol-based sister and brother-in-law took my mother there on a day out. My mother came back raving about the place, insisting I had to go as she knew I’d love it.
Fast forward a few weeks ago and my mother announced she was treating me to a day out in Wells for my birthday. Wells may officially have city status because of its cathedral, but in reality, it’s more like a small, traditional English market town. One that also happens to boast a beautiful cathedral, the UK’s only street that’s completely medieval, a partially-ruined Bishop’s Palace surrounded by idyllic gardens and, of course, a series of wells.
Nestled at the foot of the Mendip Hills in Somerset, the city is named after its three wells and has been inhabited since Roman times. We visited the city on a Saturday, and when the bus dropped us off in the city centre, we found a huge outdoor market taking place. The market stretched all over the large central square (the aptly-named Market Place) and was filled with stalls selling everything from candles to ceramics, cacti and local produce, such as cider, jams and honey.
After a quick look around the market and a brief sustenance stop (tea and scones) in the cathedral café, we headed to Vicars’ Close, which my mother had correctly predicted I’d spend ages photographing. The street is said to be the only complete medieval street left in the UK and it’s mindbogglingly attractive.
The entire length of the street is filled with small, picturesque stone cottages, each with a distinctive tall, thin chimney. There’s a tiny chapel at the far end (above) and a covered entrance at the other. Walking up and down it, I felt like I’d stepped into a scene from Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia; it has such an otherworldly feel, it doesn’t seem real.
Built in the 1360s as homes for the cathedral’s choir, the street is still occupied today. And despite looking like a picture-perfect idyll, I can’t imagine it’s much fun to live there. I suspect the steady stream of strange visitors walking up and down the street taking photos of your home must be quite tiresome.
From one medieval masterpiece to another, we made our way to the city’s showstopper – its magnificent 12th century cathedral (above). The cathedral’s facade is unlike any other I’ve seen in the UK as it’s covered with sculptures and boasts one of the largest collections of medieval statues in the world. The sculptures represent a variety of kings, bishops, angels and apostles. There’s also a statue of Jesus.
Inside, the cathedral (and the nave in particular) is just as spectacular boasting unusual architecture and rare features, and is the earliest Gothic-style cathedral in England. The highlights include the unique scissor arch design in the nave (above), which was added in the early 14th century to stop the tower’s foundations from sinking. It’s a tremendous piece of craftsmanship and is so beautiful, not to mention practical, that I’m amazed more cathedrals didn’t follow suit and copy the design.
Just beyond the scissor arches, to the left of the nave, there’s a rickety old staircase that leads up to the mesmerising Chapter House (above). The stunning octagonal chamber dates back to the beginning of the 14th century and is still used today.
At the bottom of the rickety staircase, we stopped for a brief sojourn on a bench opposite the cathedral’s celebrated clock (above). The medieval clock, which dates to around 1390, is said to be one of the oldest in the UK. Every 15 minutes, a series of knights come whirling out onto a ledge above the clock face where they take part in a “jousting contest”.
The knights were amusing to watch and I was impressed that the clock is still in such good working order after more than 600 years. It’s a remarkable piece of machinery. I also enjoyed the little figurine of a man in the top right-hand corner who rings his bell when the knights come out to play.
The rest of the cathedral, which includes a couple of chapels and cloisters, is fairly typical for a medieval English cathedral. The old quire in the centre of the cathedral is pretty, as is its exquisite stained glass Jesse window (above). I really enjoyed looking around the cathedral and Vicars’ Close, and admiring their charming architecture. It’s remarkable that after so many centuries, these incredible pieces of medieval craftsmanship are still in one piece.
After leaving the cathedral, we ambled over to our final destination, the medieval Bishop’s Palace and gardens, which I’ll write about next week – stay tuned for part two of my Wells adventure!
It’s really easy to get to Wells using public transport. The 376, which stops just outside Bristol Temple Meads train station, runs every 30 minutes and takes around an hour to get to Wells. The bus drops you off in the city centre, but on the return journey, you’ll need to go to Wells Bus Station to catch the bus back to Bristol.
Wells Cathedral, Chain Gate, Cathedral Green, Wells BA5 2UE
Open 7am-7pm, daily (April to September); 7am-6pm, daily (October-March)
Free – donations are welcomed