The big idea

Think of a city, not any specific city, just a general, non-specific city – what do you see? An urban sprawl? Skyscrapers? Streets packed with taxis and buses? And then think of Wells, in Somerset: it’s pretty much the exact opposite, but it’s actually our smallest city and literally oozes character, charm and general loveliness. Everything about the place seems idyllic: the compact mediaeval layout, the stunning cathedral, the Bishop’s Palace and Market Square and of course its location in Somerset. So it may not be a city in the ‘usual’ sense, but what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in mediaeval charm.

And like the famous caves in the area, the city is beautifully preserved.

The first Gothic cathedral

What you can’t miss on a trip to Wells is the cathedral: it’s magnificent, all the more so because it is a big-city-sized cathedral in a city the size of a town. Work started on it around 1175 and it was the first English cathedral to be built entirely in the Gothic style. The whole building is outstanding, but the West Front is particularly spectacular and holds one of the largest galleries of mediaeval sculpture in the world. Inside you’ll be captivated by the scissor arches, the stained-glass windows and, well, pretty much everything else, to be honest with you. Going outside again there’s the Cathedral Green, a large, open space in front of the West Front (made for picnics, we’re sure you’ll agree), and Vicars’ Close, a fabulous mediaeval cobbled street that is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited street in England.

The oldest inhabited house in England

Make your way down the cathedral cloisters and you’ll find yourself at the mediaeval Bishop’s Palace, which has been home to the bishops of Bath and Wells for 800 years. It’s a beautiful place, and boasts a still-filled moat; a Gatehouse, portcullis and drawbridge, which is where the famous mute swans ring a bell for food; a private chapel; the ruins of the Great Hall; and the Bishop’s Eye Gate, which leads you back out in to the town. The wells or springs in the city – the original reason for settling in the area – are still visible in the Bishop’s Palace Garden today.

Famous scenery and ancient wonders

It’s fair to say that Wells is surrounded by some of the most famous and awe-inspiring countryside in the land; wherever you go in Somerset, you’ll find ancient wonders, sites of scientific interest and an abundance of myth, legend and spiritualism. Take Cheddar Gorge, a simply breathtaking natural wonder made up of limestone cliffs and caves – it’s also home to Britain’s oldest complete skeleton, thought to be over 9,000 years old (known as the Cheddar Man); Ebbor Gorge, a Site of Special Scientific Interest; and the Mendips, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and home to the National Centre For Caving. And then there’s Wookey Hole, another set of caves, but these come complete with their own spooky legend of the Witch of Wookey Hole. But the most famous name, thanks to some amazing Arthurian legends and a certain annual festival, is Glastonbury.

We can’t however, forget Wells itself, which had its own moment in the spotlight recently when it was used as the location for the 2007 film Hot Fuzz, starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. But why Wells? Simple: its director Edgar Wright grew up here…
 

The essence

Beautifully preserved

Who’s it ideal for/how it can make you feel

Want to step back in time without missing out on all those modern day luxuries such as electricity, plumbing and the internet? Wells is the place for you. It’s a great place to feed the soul, recharge the batteries, feel at one with nature – and do it all in style.
 

The interesting bits in the history:

In an area with a very long history of human occupation, it’s likely that people were moving around what is now Wells in the Iron Age. The Romans were around the Mendips, because of its minerals, and established a small settlement here, on the road to Bristol, and probably temples dedicated to the powerful springs. However, the settlement became more important in 704 when the Anglo-Saxon King Ine founded a minster church. Then in 909 Wells was selected as the church centre for Somerset by King Edward of Anglo-Saxons (ahead of places like Bath). This was hugely significant for the development of Wells as it now had a bishop, and the small church would need to be converted into a cathedral. It also meant an increase in people drawn on estate business, as well as more estates being added to the town.

However, a later Bishop, Bishop John, transferred the seat to Bath, causing friction between the canons at Wells and the monks at Bath; it was ultimately decided when the canons at Wells eventually got the Bishopric changed, by the Pope, to the Diocese of Bath and Wells: all early signs of the level of influence which Wells has shown far in excess of its size.

By the 12th century Wells had become a borough, had been given permission to hold fairs and had been granted a Royal charter. In the late 12th/early 13th century work started on the new gothic style cathedral to the north of the old minster church, and the town was slowly expanding, with a vibrant textile trade. Indeed by the 14th century it was ahead of Bath in terms of wealth; and this facilitated a burst of building activity. The first permanent house in the High Street was built in 1345; and some three years later the Bishop founded a college so the choir singers, the Vicars Choral, could live together communally – as a result a hall was provided and 42 small houses were built to create Vicars Close (now the only completely medieval street in the whole of Britain).

The Bishop’s Eye Gate and Browns Gate were built in the 15th century. And by the 16th century Wells was marked by an absence of merchants with their places being taken by incoming gentry, partly for the social life, but also for careers in the cathedral.

The 18th century continued with the influx of the gentry; manufacturing had settled down and the town specialised in hosiery. By now Wells had been overtaken in size by Bath, Frome and other towns in Somerset.

By the 19th century trades diminished, except for cheese, and there were lots of inns. Three railways arrived in little over a decade, but only minor lines, and an interest in gothic architecture bought lots of tourists; however, the actual population increased very little. The picturesque setting and Georgian architecture made it a nice place to live and visit, especially for commuters. Wells’ city status was confirmed in 1974.

Interesting bits in the history

In an area with a very long history of human occupation, it’s likely that people were moving around what is now Wells in the Iron Age. The Romans were in the Mendips because of its minerals, and established a small settlement here on the road to Bristol - and probably temples dedicated to the powerful springs. However, the settlement became more important in 704 AD when the Anglo-Saxon King Ine founded a minster church. Then, in 909 AD Wells was selected as the church centre for Somerset by King Edward of Anglo-Saxons (ahead of places like Bath). This was hugely significant for the development of Wells as it now had a bishop, and the small church would need to be converted into a cathedral. It also meant an increase in people drawn on estate business, as well as more estates being added to the town.

However, a later Bishop, Bishop John, transferred the seat to Bath, causing friction between the canons at Wells and the monks at Bath. The tug of war over which city would triumph was ultimately decided when the canons at Wells eventually got the Bishopric changed by the Pope to the Diocese of Bath and Wells: all early signs of the level of influence which Wells has shown far in excess of its size.

By the 12th century Wells had become a borough, had been given permission to hold fairs and had been granted a Royal Charter. In the late 12th/early 13th century work started on the new gothic style cathedral to the north of the old minster church, and the town slowly expanded, with the help of a vibrant textile trade. Indeed, by the 14th century Wells was ahead of Bath in terms of wealth, and this facilitated a burst of building activity. The first permanent house in the High Street was built in 1345; and some three years later the Bishop founded a college so the choir singers, the Vicars Choral, could live together communally. As a result of this, a hall was provided and 42 small houses were built to create Vicars’ Close (now the only completely mediaeval street in the whole of Britain).

The Bishop’s Eye Gate and Brown’s Gate were built in the 15th century. And by the 16th century Wells was marked by an absence of merchants, with their places being taken by incoming gentry, partly for the social life, but also for careers at the cathedral.
The 18th century continued with the influx of the gentry; manufacturing had settled down and the town specialised in hosiery. By now Wells had been overtaken in size by Bath, Frome and other towns in Somerset.

By the 19th century trades diminished, except for cheese, and there were lots of inns. Three railways arrived in little over a decade, but only minor lines, and an interest in Gothic architecture bought lots of tourists; however, the actual population increased very little. The picturesque setting and Georgian architecture made it a nice place to live and visit, especially for commuters. Wells’ city status was confirmed in 1974.
 

When to visit

City pics

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