How did we not know about the beautiful city of Wells, Somerset?
We recently spent a weekend in Somerset visiting the caves at Cheddar Gorge and Wookey Hole. On Saturday evening we decided to grab some dinner in nearby Wells as it looked like a pretty place to poke about in for an hour or two.
Neither the husband or I had heard of Wells, which is England’s smallest city. Having visited, we now feel pretty ashamed of ourselves! It turned out we liked Wells so much that we decided we had to go back on Sunday morning to look around some more.
As we already had our tickets for Wookey Hole caves we didn’t have long to spend here, so we tried to pack in as much as possible. And as usual, we over-did it a bit – the poor kids were shattered at the end of the day.
But after spending an evening and the next morning walking around, we think there are three things that you shouldn’t miss out on.
This cathedral is a real stunner; it’s one of the most wonderful cathedrals we’ve been in. Could it be the most beautiful in England? Quite possibly!
The West Front of the honey-coloured outside is adorned with hundreds of individual statues beneath decorative ramparts. It’s the first Gothic-style cathedral to be built in the UK and the oldest parts date from 1175.
While you’re admiring the outside of the cathedral, don’t forget to walk around to the left hand side of the building to see its beautiful clock, which is believed to be the second oldest in Britain. Incredibly, the mechanism is over 600 years old. The oldest part is on the inside of the cathedral.
Once inside, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve walked straight into Hogwarts as a beautifully arched, windowed corridor leads you into the main part of the building.
I’ve never seen anything like the scissor arches inside Wells Cathedral; at first I was convinced that these were new arches as they have a very contemporary look. But no; these intriguing arches are 700 years old and were built to prevent the cathedral’s tower from collapsing.
Make sure you walk all the way to the end of the cathedral as the architecture, especially the carved pillars and ceilings, is unmissable. As are the stunning strained-glass windows which you will see at both ends of the building.
Tickets and entry
We visited on a Sunday; this was badly planned as of course services were going on all morning. The cathedral opened to visitors at around midday (its opening hours are 7am – 6pm in winter and 7pm in summer). The ticket office is in a separate building to the right of the cathedral – if the door is shut you will have to wait!
In the week and on Saturdays there are free guided tours lasting around an hour. It being a Sunday, we missed them which was a shame as they sound worthwhile!
You don’t need a ticket but please make a donation towards the upkeep of the cathedral. Suggested donations are £6 per adult.
To the left of the cathedral, past the Clock and through an archway, you will find Britain’s only complete medieval street. Vicars’ Close won’t take you long to look at, but while it may be small it’s in perfect order.
Pretty stone terraced cottages line the cobbled street. Each home is slightly different and full of quirks; the chimneys especially give the street a distinctive look.
The street is still used to house members of the clergy and the choir today, so don’t expect to be able to go inside any of the homes.
You’ll find Bishop’s Palace through an archway at the top of the main marketplace. Make sure you look for the swans which live in the moat surrounding the Palace – when we visited they had just had cygnets.
Walk over the medieval drawbridge into the courtyard of the Palace and you’ll be greeted with the stunning remains of the Great Hall across a perfectly manicured lawn. Through the Hall’s towering arched windows you can see tantalising glimpses of the gardens and the ramparts.
The Palace and Chapel
We chose to look around the Palace and the Chapel before hitting the gardens. Dating from the early 1200s, the Palace was built to show off the wealth and power of the Bishop of Bath and Wells and to keep the poor, diseased and generally disagreeable members of the public at bay, hence the moat and ramparts. How charming.
Inside the Palace don’t miss the beautiful blue hall with portraits of Bishops throughout the centuries. There are some historical artefacts displayed in the rooms upstairs, but we had to walk through quickly as the children were starting to whinge about going into the gardens.
You can enter the Chapel from the courtyard but we found a little door hidden in the entrance hallway of the Palace. The Chapel has a huge vaulted ceiling and beautiful windows.
The kids had discovered that their low-level whinging wasn’t working and mum was still taking photographs so they decided to up the ante. Their full blown shrieking hurried us out of the Chapel and into the gardens.
Ears ringing, we left the Chapel and turned left into the ruins of the Great Hall. Here we split up for a while as the two kids bolted in two directions. Bee and I walked the ramparts (spot Glastonbury Tor) and explored the manicured gardens. Make sure you find the ancient garderobe in one of the towers for a glimpse into medieval life!
Through a little gate you will find a bridge over the moat, shaded by willow trees, and from here access to the rest of the gardens. These hold an arboretum, allotments and the wells which give the city its name. It’s the perfect place to spend a sunny afternoon.
This is definitely a family friendly place to come as children can let off some stream running through the gardens. Children have their own dedicated play area next to the arboretum; the Dragon’s Lair. Great fun was had with the water pump and wheel here. Family friendly events are held throughout the year so check the Palace website to see if anything’s on when you visit.
Tickets and entry
Tickets for the Palace, Gardens and Chapel are £7.25 per adult (£7.99 Gift Aid for UK residents). Children under 5 go free. You can buy your tickets at the shop next to the cafe in the courtyard of the Palace.
Guided tours of the Palace and the grounds are held daily and are included in your ticket. We didn’t take a tour as the kids wanted to play in the playground instead.
Entry to the first part of the Palace is free so you don’t need to pay if you just want to come to the cafe.
Other things to do in Wells
Even though we hadn’t been to Wells before, its Market Place felt strangely familiar. Some time after our visit, the penny dropped: the beloved-of-ITV2 crime caper Hot Fuzz was filmed here. If you’re a fan of the film you can book a Hot Fuzz tour of the city for a more irreverent take on Wells. Watch out for the swan.
In the local area we would also recommend visiting either Cheddar Gorge, Wookey Hole or both attractions for amazing caves in the limestone Mendip Hills.
And on our list to do on a return visit to Somerset is the spiritual town of Glastonbury and its Tor, only 8 miles away. But this will have to wait for another time!
Where to eat and sleep in Wells
For an evening meal we’d recommend the Greek Taverna restaurant. It’s in the centre of town and they were able to get us a table at 6pm on a Saturday even though we hadn’t booked.
For lunch there’s the cafe in the cathedral or the Bishop’s Table cafe at the Palace. Or bring a picnic and eat it in the lovely Bishop’s Palace gardens.
Otherwise there are plenty of options, with the usual high street chains, pubs and restaurants in the town centre.
We didn’t stay in Wells itself as we’d booked in at the Wookey Hole hotel, a couple of miles out of town. If we were to return we’d probably stay at the Premier Inn for a good family room not far from the centre.
There are a few hotels and plenty of B&Bs in Wells. As always in the UK, it’s best to book in advance.