Wells is a cathedral city and civil parish in the Mendip district of Somerset, on the southern edge of the Mendip Hills. Although the population recorded in the 2011 census was only 10,536, and with a built-up area of just 3.245 square kilometres, Wells has had city status since medieval times, because of the presence of Wells Cathedral.
Often described as England’s smallest city, it is actually second smallest to the City of London in area and population, but unlike London, it is not part of a larger urban agglomeration. Wells is named from three wells dedicated to Saint Andrew, one in the market place and two within the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace and cathedral.
A small Roman settlement surrounded them, which grew in importance and size under the Anglo-Saxons when King Ine of Wessex founded a minster church there in 704. The community became a trading center based on cloth making and Wells is notable for its 17th-century involvement in both the English Civil War and Monmouth Rebellion.
So-called for natural springs in the cathedral grounds, Wells became a bishopric in the 10th century, and since the 13th century has shared a diocese with Bath.
The walled ecclesiastical precinct, made up of the glorious cathedral, moated Bishop’s Palace and residences for clergy, is wonderfully preserved, and even has a street barely changed since the 14th century.
The Mendip Hills are in an Area of Outstanding Beauty, and up in the foothills, you can visit gardens with sweeping views of the city and its cathedral.
If you’ve seen the Simon Pegg movie, Hot Fuzz, you’ll know landmarks like the Market Place and St Cuthbert’s Church from the fictional town of Sandford.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Wells:
1. Wells Cathedral
The first cathedral in Europe designed solely in the Gothic style, Wells Cathedral was begun in 1176, and work would continue for the next 300 years.
It is hailed as one of the country’s finest, and the prevailing style is Early English, evident in the fluted piers, pointed arcades, and capitals with foliate designs.
The cathedral’s beguiling west facade measures 46 meters across and has more than 300 sculpted figures.
In the crossing, the ingenious scissor arches from 1338 provide extra support for the tower with no equivalent in Medieval architecture.
Wells Cathedral is also endowed with an unmatched amount of Medieval stained glass, epitomized by the Tree of Jesse at the east end of the choir, fitted in the 1340s and using the newly developed silver staining technique.
2. Bishop’s Palace
Started after the 13th-century Bishop of Bath, Jocelin of Wells received royal permission to build a residence and deer park, the Bishop’s Palace remains the seat of the Bishops of Bath and Wells.
The palace is out of the ordinary for an ecclesiastical building as it is defended by a moat and fortified walls.
After passing under the gatehouse you’ll arrive at an immaculate croquet lawn.
This is bounded by the chapel and the ruins of the 13th-century great hall, allowed to fall into ruin after the roof lead was sold off in the 16th century.
You can explore these vestiges, as well as the vaulted undercroft and the bishop’s private chapel from the same period.
There are also 14 acres of themed gardens hiding within the moat and ramparts, with roses, herbaceous borders and an arboretum.
You can spend a little longer in this rarefied scene at the Bishop’s Table restaurant.
3. Vicars’ Close
Europe’s oldest Medieval planned street, the phenomenal Vicars’ Close was plotted in the middle of the 14th century.
The street was built to provide homes for the priests serving the cathedral, known as the Vicars Choral.
Most of the houses you can see were constructed by 1361, while the remainder was completed by 1412. At that time the cathedral had 42 vicars, and each one had his own house.
A charter by Elizabeth I reduced that count to 20, and today there are 12 vicars on the close.
The Reformation in the 16th century allowed clerical marriage, which is why a few pairs of houses have been combined into one property to accommodate larger families.
The houses’ distinctive tall chimney shafts came later in the 15th century when coal replaced wood as the main domestic fuel.
Each one is adorned with coats of arms for the Bishop and canons of the day.
4. Wells Market Place
The center of life for more than 800 years, Wells’ handsome Market Place has a hook shape, turning at an acute angle on its east end where you’ll be confronted by the solemn Georgian town Hall (1779). Also on the east side are two gateways to the walled ecclesiastical precinct, both of which are Grade I listed buildings.
To the south is the Bishop’s Eye, dating from 1450 and capped with four turrets.
The west facade has traceried windows, statue niches and coats of arms above the portal.
And next to the Bishop’s Eye is the Penniless Porch, built around the same time and taking its name from the beggars who would ask for alms at this spot.
See the fine vegetal moldings over the arch, and the coat of arms above created by an angel.
5. Wells and Mendip Museum
This concise but well-curated regional museum is in the historic Chancellors’ House, which dates mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries, but has elements going back 200 years earlier.
Most of the artefacts come from the Mendip Hills, inhabited since prehistory.
There are Stone Age tools and pieces of Iron Age pottery in the Balch Room, as well as the Medieval bones of a woman, described as the “Witch of Wookey”. More on her later.
The Mendip Hills are also the main source of the collections in the Geology Room, and you can examine Carboniferous ferns and Jurassic ammonites and fish.
Most impressive is the Jurasssic fossilized skeleton of an ichthyosaur on display in the entrance lobby.
The Netherworld of Mendip has accounts of speleological expeditions into the range’s caves, while the Wells City Gallery has everyday artifacts revealing local life in the 1700s and 1800s.
6. St Cuthbert’s Church
Somerset’s largest parish church is so grand that people sometimes mistake it for Wells Cathedral.
Replacing a Saxon church, this Grade I-listed monument was first built in the Early English Gothic style in the 1200s and then reworked in the 1400s, leaving it with sublime Perpendicular architecture.
There’s a fragment of the Early English design in the nave’s arcade pillars.
Go in to gaze up at the 15th-century paneled ceiling, which had been hidden by plaster for 200 years up to the 1960s.
Also see the pulpit, carved in 1636 and featuring the coats of arms of Charles I and Charles II. On the east wall is a fragment of a 13th-century reredos, uncovered in 1848, while there’s another stunning altarpiece representing the Tree of Jesse in the south transept and fashioned in 1470. If you know the movie Hot Fuzz, you’ll recognize St Cuthbert’s as Sandford’s church, and it features most in the scene when the local journalist is killed by a falling pinnacle.
7. The Old Deanery
Long the residence for the head of the Chapter of Wells Cathedral, this castellated building on Cathedral Green has more recently been occupied by diocesan offices.
The earliest architecture at the Grade I-listed Old Deanery dates to the 12th century, and the building was enlarged in the 15th and 17th century.
In summer 2018 it was announced that the site was up for sale to raise funds for new diocesan offices on the edge of the city.
But in August 2018 it was still possible to visit the Tudor-style garden, hiding behind the complex’s dominant stone wall.
This opens on Wednesday mornings and has the same species planted by the Dean and early naturalist William Turner in the mid-16th century.
8. Bishop’s Barn
On Silver Street, you can make a stop to see a 15th-century tithe barn that was donated to the city by Bishop Lord Arthur Hervey in 1887. The Bishop’s Barn is built from local limestone and has ashlar window and door dressings quarried at Doulting in the Mendip Hills.
As a tithe barn, it would have stored grain paid as tax to the church.
In the 1970s the Bishop’s Barn was used as a live music venue, and bands like Slade and Status Quo played here, to crowds as big as 1,500. Today the building is rented out as a private events venue, traced by lawns and a bandstand.
9. Mendip Hills
Wells is under the southern ridge of Carboniferous Limestone hills that are conserved as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
You don’t have to travel far to appreciate the splendor of the Mendip Hills, as immediately outside Wells there are stirring vistas back over the town and the Vale of Avalon.
The countryside in the range is very picturesque, with pasture delineated by dry-stone walls, while Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age monuments like barrows and forts create an air of mystery.
There are lots for families to do near Wells at gorges and caves.
You’re also 10 minutes by car from the second highest point, Pen Hill, 305 meters above sea level.
Pick a clear day and the scenery up here is amazing.
There’s a spectacular view over Wells and the Somerset Levels, but on the horizon, you can make out the various ranges of Somerset like the Blackdown, Quantock and Brendon Hills.
10. Wookey Hole Caves
One of the first ports of call in the Mendip Hills is this set of caves cut from the limestone by the acidic groundwater.
There’s a peculiar stalagmite in the first chamber, which spawned a legend about a Medieval witch turned to stone after being splashed with holy water by a monk.
The caves have atmospheric lighting and a chilly constant temperature of 11°C, which is just right for maturing cheddar cheese, as you’ll see.
On the surface is a Victorian paper mill where you can find out how the paper was once made by hand from cotton.
For families, there’s a display of life-sized dinosaur models, a theatre for circus performers and a nine-hole adventure golf course.
11. Ebbor Gorge
Another worthwhile excursion in the Mendip Hills is this limestone gorge owned by the National Trust since 1967. The Ebbor Gorge was hewn from the Carboniferous Clifton Down Limestone by meltwater during the Pleistocene Epoch.
You could easily lose a whole summer’s day paddling in streams, venturing through the woodland and admiring the unusual vegetation that flourishes in this humid environment.
The caves along the gorge were inhabited for tens of thousands of years: Neolithic flint tools, Bronze Age pottery and human remains have been discovered, along with Arctic animal bones from the Last Ice Age, including Arctic lemmings, Norway lemmings, reindeer and steppe pikas.
12. Stoberry Park Garden
Some of the magic of this six-acre garden outside Wells comes from its enchanting scenery.
Stoberry Garden sits on high ground overlooking the Vale of Avalon.
Paired with the naturalistic landscape of wildlife ponds, borders, potager, sunken garden, walled and lime walk there are beautiful vistas of Wells Cathedral and over the Vale of Avalon to Glastonbury Tor in the distance.
You’ll find sculptures in unexpected places and a riot of colour from spring to autumn, as bulbs, irises, wildflowers, roses, and salvias bloom in sequence.
13. Milton Lodge Gardens
If you’ve fallen in love with the views of Wells from the Mendip Hills there’s another garden with majestic panoramas taking in the cathedral and Vale of Avalon.
Laid out in terraces on a gradient, Milton Lodge Gardens is in the Arts and Crafts style, dating back to the beginning of the 20th century.
It was landscaped by the current owner’s great-grandfather specifically to make the most of those inspiring views, and has four terraces, along with a combe (little valley) and a lily pond.
The gardens are on the grounds of an 18th-century house, and also have access to an arboretum planted when the house was built.
Visit Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays from Easter to the end of October.
14. Mendip Hospital Cemetery
Closed since 1991 Mendip Hospital was founded in 1848 as the “Somerset and Bath Pauper Lunatic Asylum”. In 1873 the hospital bought a patch of land off the Bath Road in Wells to use as a cemetery, and this has been preserved by volunteers as a nature reserve.
Some 2.900 people, most people with psychological impairments, were buried here in anonymous graves, the last taking place more than 50 years ago.
The cemetery opens regularly and has a restored chapel with a small, poignant exhibition about the history of the asylum.
15. Wells Outdoor Market
The historic Market Place is still used for outdoor trading on Wednesdays and Saturdays all year round.
Shop here for specialty foods, fruit, and vegetables, books, clothing, fabrics, games, accessories and also an inspiration for gifts at Christmas time.
Wells’ right to hold markets goes back to the time of Bishop Robert in the 12th century, and part of that tradition is the Charter Fair, with fairground rides and amusements set up in the Market Place in May and then again in November for the Carnival Fair.