"Tiny, ancient city....." Top 5 Page for this destination Wells by leics

Wells Travel Guide: 96 reviews and 319 photos

England has many, many wonderful Medieval cathedrals. I have visited many (perhaps most) but have long wanted to visit Wells.

So a short autumn break in the city seemed ideal.

Having a cathedral automatically makes an English settlement into a city, whatever its population. Wells is still pretty small, with a population of only around 11000.

Why 'Wells'? It is because the settlement grew up around reliable freshwater springs..the 'wells'. There are three altogether: two in the grounds of the Bishop's Palace and one in the market place. It is strange to see fresh water running down the gutters of the main street, but that is how Wells has been designed!

There has been a small settlement on site since prehistoric times, and the Romans moved in. But it was under the Saxons that Wells began to grow...King Ine of Wessex founded a minster church there in 704AD.

The wonderful cathedral dates from the 1100s, although the cathedral school goes back even further, to 909AD. The beautiful and intricate west front is a marvel of Medieval architecture, with niches for 500+ statues (300 still survive) but it is the interior which I found truly amazing. Superb scissor arches in the nave support the structure...they look almost modern and really do provide a 'wow' moment when you first see them.

The cathedral, like all English Medieval cathedrals, is full of small carvings......faces and Biblical scenes, 'green men' and monsters. I love looking for these, although they are often quite high up (the lower ones have often been defaced during the Reformation and, later, during the English Civil War)....the master masons carved the faces of people they knew, the local people, so when you look at a carved face you are truly seeing someone who lived during the 1100s.

There's a wonderful Chapter House (1306) attached to the cathedral, with beautiful and intricate fan vaulting and many carved faces. the stone staircase which winds up to the chapter House is so worn that it really brings home how very ancient this building is, and how many millions of feet must have gone up and down that staircase over the centuries.

The cathedral holds many tombs, Medieval and later. Some of the former still hold traces of their original paintwork. Until the Reformation of Henry Vlll all English churches and cathedrals were a riot of colour inside; it is only since that time that our religious buildings have become plain and unadorned. Renovations still sometimes uncover Medieval artwork hidden under layers of plaster or whitewash, and these are now carefully restored and maintained.

The cathedral clock is fascinating. It dates from the late 1300s (probably 1390) and is unique, for it still has its original face showing the universe with the Earth at its centre.

As with all English cathedrals, there are a multitude of associated buildings in the cathedral close. Several ancient gateways into the close survive, including the 'Penniless Porch' which was deliberately built for beggars to ply their trade. The Cathedral school still operates and you can visit 'Vicars' Close', the longest-inhabited Medieval street in Europe. First built in the 1300s, with chimneys added later, it originally provided 44 dwellings with a common hall over the entrance gate. The hall is joined to the cathedral by a bridge over 'Chaingate'...one reason why the steps to the Chapter House are so worn. Now there are 27 dwellings (some having been joined together to make larger spaces).

The Bishop's Palace lies just outside the cathedral close. This splendid, though much renovated, building was started in 1206 and lies in 14 acres of beautiful gardens (worth visiting for the gardens alone). It is surrounded by a moat, created as part of its defences (the bishop was granted 'licence to crenellate' so the ground are surrounded by crenellated walls and watchtowers).

Many of the original Medieval buildings has gone, although some ruins have been left as romantic follies. But you can still enter the lower part of the palace, which dates back to Medieval times. The second story (first floor) is later.

The palace chapel is small, Medieval and remarkably light and airy for its time. Some original carved roof bosses remain (including the Green Man) but recent unsympathetic painting has made them rather garish in my opinion (although as this is a listed building working under very strict rues I am sure the paintwork is historically accurate.....so presumably all Medieval religious buildings were equally garish at one time!).

But is is the gardens which really impress....and the very clever swans on the moat, who ring a bell when they want to be fed! :-)

Apart from the wonderful architecture and history of the cathedral and its associated buildings, Wells makes an excellent base for exploring this part of Somerset (Glastonbury, Cheddar and the rolling Mendip Hills are all very near). It is large enough to have everything one requires in terms of shops, pubs, cafes and restaurants (including several very good ones) whilst remaining small enough to be friendly, safe and comfortable to walk around even late at night.

I liked Wells very much.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Cathedral, architecture, surrounding countryside
  • Cons:Parking can be difficult, town can be very busy.
  • In a nutshell:Wonderful (and tiny) Medieval city.
  • Last visit to Wells: Oct 2010
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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Reviews (12)

Comments (4)

  • King_Golo's Profile Photo
    May 14, 2011 at 7:35 AM

    Very nice Wells page! I've been there in January and enjoyed the city very much - but I still haven't managed to finish my Wells pages...

  • tvor's Profile Photo
    Mar 15, 2011 at 5:02 AM

    Wonderful tips and photos. We're going on a quick stopover in Wells this spring!

  • bugulma's Profile Photo
    Nov 8, 2010 at 3:29 AM

    very beautiful shots of the cathedral and Bishop's Palace are in travelogues

  • hunterV's Profile Photo
    Nov 1, 2010 at 1:40 PM

    I've always enjoyed reading your marvellous travel pages! Thanks! :-)


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