Wells, Somerset. A pretty little city on the edge of the Mendip Hills. The smallest city in England, in fact. Little it might be, but Wells delivers beautifully when it comes to lovely things to see and do.

Not to mention, history by the bucketload.

Little old Wells might have city status but with its stone gateways, historic streets and resident swans it has a village feel. Here’s what I got up to…

Vicar’s Close

Things Helen Loves, image of historic houses on Vicar's Close, historic street in Wells Somerset. The stone houses have tall chimneys with carvings in the stone.

This beautiful street is a star attraction for any visitor to Wells and it’s not hard to see why. As well as being endlessly photogenic and an Instagrammers favourite, Vicar’s Close is the most complete example of a medieval street in the UK.

Things Helen Loves, Vicars Close Wells. Medieval houses with tall chimneys stretch into the background

Founded in the 1300’s, the picturesque terraced homes were founded by a Bishop by the name of Ralph to house a vicar each. Prior to this, those serving the cathedral had been free to live out in town. Bishop Ralph wanted them all in one place and he also wanted to ensure they were provided for. In return for living in and serving, residents were housed and kept.

The houses weren’t too shoddy for the time, either. Each original house boasted two floors, a fireplace on each level, washing facilities and a latrine at the back door. By the late 1400’s, each home had water piped in as well as access to two wells. All pretty basic stuff now, but I reckon that was living high on the hog in medieval England.

The priests that served the Cathedral were known as ‘The Vicars Choral’ due to the fact that their duties included chanting their way through a service 8 times a day. 8 times.

Luckily for them, they didn’t have to travel far for all the chanting. Vicar’s Close is accessed from the Wells Cathedral end by an imposing stone archway, the Chain Gate. Running over this is a covered walkway to the Cathedral for the vicar’s convenience, although this wasn’t added until the mid 1400’s.

Of the original 42 homes, 27 remain and every one is Grade 1 listed. Not hard to see why. The old windows, some modest and some elaborate. The carved details on those quirky chimneys, the gateways and gorgeous doors. So much history, so much beauty.

As a point of interest, the carvings on the chimneys are the heraldic shields of various Bishops. A subtle reminder of who was running the show, perhaps?

Vicar’s Close saw some changes in the 16th century when clerical marriage became allowed. Larger houses were needed and if you look closely, you can spot evidence of change. A bricked up doorway here, a subtle change in stone there.

The history and architecture is fascinating, but that’s not all. The Close has one last trick up the sleeve. It is the keeper of a medieval optical illusion.

Look down the street from the South (Cathedral) end and Vicar’s Close looks much longer than it truly is. From the North end the true scale is more apparent, but the view of Wells Cathedral looking over the houses more than compensates.

This false perspective was achieved by gradually widening the street as it moved away from the cathedral. It’s clever and to fully appreciate it you need to pause and view the street from both ends. It was designed to impress those entering from the Cathedral end. And it still does.

Wells Cathedral

Just a quick nod to the heart of the city and the reason Wells has pulled off city status. It’s magnificent. Even if you don’t venture in, a wander up Vicar’s Close and around the exterior is time well spent.

The West Front in particular is jaw dropping, the medieval design involving six tiers of statues. A bit extra, very impressive. These Bishops and whoever was in charge back in the day, they apparently weren’t austere. Looking round Wells, I reckon they were a stylish bunch.

We skipped the interior as The Wolf was having an off day and didn’t meet the criteria of being, ‘on a lead and well-behaved’. For visitors with four legged friends that aren’t being a liability, dogs are allowed.

Water bowls provided and dog biscuits available at the on site Loft Cafe.

The Bishops Palace and the Swans of Wells

A short stroll from Wells Cathedral, The Bishops Palace. Said to be the oldest inhabited building in England, the fortified palace holds within its walls a ruined Great Hall, a private chapel and 14 acres of gardens. All accessed by passing under a great big stone built archway complete with a portcullis, and over a drawbridge that crosses the moat.

The water filled moat that is home to the city’s resident swans. And that’s what I came for.

All swans are beautiful creatures, but these birds? Something special. They’ve learned to ring a bell hung by a tiny window in order to be fed. The story goes that this practice goes back to the 1850’s, when a Bishops daughter taught a pair of swans to ring a bell at the gate.

There are now two swan bells and the palace is keeping tradition alive by offering a home to rescue swans. It’s very sweet and very charming. I managed to capture a quick video.

You don’t need to access the grounds to see the swans, you’ll spot them and their silver bells next to the drawbridge. I’ll be back to explore the dog friendly grounds later in the year when the gardens are blooming and the weather is a bit less bloomin’ unpredictable.

The Bishops Palace can be accessed from Wells market square by passing under yet another imposing stone gateway. These are a feature of Wells, it’s very impressive. Proof that this small city has never been afraid to think big.

Come to think of it… city status, village feel. Bishops of old doing a Grand Designs and crafting streets, a Cathedral with statues galore and a girl in a palace training swans. This place is a story, a visually stunning period drama just waiting to be created. Netflix, call me. We’ll work on this together.

While I wait for Netflix to call- they haven’t yet, they’re probably just busy- tell me; have I convinced you to put Wells on your list of places to see?

Helen x

36 thoughts

  1. Great photos, Wells is beautiful. Happy travels.

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      Thanks Sandra, it was a spur of the moment trip but much enjoyed!

  2. My ex-in-laws used to live in Glastonbury, so of course Wells was on our list of Places to Visit. And much as I liked it, I haven’t seen half the number of places you’ve shown us. Time for a return visit I think!

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      It’s a beautiful little place, get it on the list!

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      Thanks Sheree, it’s a beauty.

  3. Great post and so many wonderful photos. I’ve never been to Wells Somerset, but it looks like a beautiful medieval city to explore, especially for those who love historic buildings and incredible architecture. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      Thank you for taking an interest in my post about Wells, it’s a great destination for anyone who enjoys history.

  4. I had to look this one up on the map to see where it is. (I’ve been to Bristol and Bath, but not closer.)

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      I’ve been in Wiltshire for three years now and only just heard of it, but it was worth the effort to spend a day there. Lots of beauty, music and history.

  5. Wow, what a beautiful place. Those houses are spectacular and what a treat to see the swans. Haven’t seen Bell ringing swans before. 🙂

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      To be honest, I’d been told about them but was in two minds about if they really did it? Guess swans are like dogs, kids and husbands: feed them and they will come!

  6. I love Wells and it was the first place we went to stay when the pandemic restrictions were lifted enough to allow domestic travel. But we missed the swans ringing their bell 🙁 And how did you get such people-free photos of the Vicar’s Close?!

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      I think taking almost 50kg of wolf like dog clears the way quite well? haha, nah. Just luck. I’m loving diving into Somerset, so many lovely places.

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      Thank you, it’s a place that lends itself well to the camera!

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      It would make a great weekend break, definitely one to keep in mind.

  7. So what do you do with Wolf when he’s having an off day 🤔. How bad can he be? Didn’t he terrorise the swans? 🤣 I bet he’s a softie.
    Kicking myself because long years ago I spent a very wet miserable afternoon in Wells and apart from the magnificent frontage I remember very little. Not even the pub 🙄

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      Still take him and apologise a lot! He’s not at all aggressive, although he will herd people away from us given the chance. He’s just so loud and his size makes him intimidating to some. Maybe the pub is the reason you don’t remember? That sounds like it could have been a great day ha!

  8. Lovely photos Helen. You picked a lovely winter day to visit. We also adored visiting Wells and Cheddar Gorge last summer.

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      Thanks Marion, Wells in lovely. I’m hoping to get out exploring some of the Somerset countryside and Gorge walks but when it’s a bit drier!

      1. Yes, I don’t quite think it’s the weather for clambering up Cheddar Gorge right now!

  9. I know i have visited Wells twice (once with my sister and once with John) but other than the cathedral I don’t remember anything you have shown. I would definitely go back if we were travelling south. The bell ringing swans are the absolute icing on the cake!

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      They are fabulous, aren’t they? And they seem very much loved locally. Wells would make a great base if exploring Somerset, so much to see and do in the surrounding area.

  10. You have convinced me Helen. Vicar’s Close is just wonderful, a real sense of the old Britain that is is rapidly disappearing I feel. The shot of you and The Wolf perched in the middle of the street is a keeper. Wells Cathedral: just lovely and so perfectly sculpted. Someone at Netflix should come and take a look.

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      Still waiting on Netflix but I’m sure they’ll get to me! The Wolf would have some sort of starring role, obviously. I loved Wells, any city so well preserved is the closest we can come to time travel. Proper ‘Olde England’.

  11. It’s a long time since I visited Wells but your photos reminded me just how lovely it is. I didn’t know about the swans. I especially like that they are rescue swans! Love the photo of you and The Wolf.

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      Thanks June, never sure about posting pictures of me! Wells is a beautiful and timeless place, I loved it.

  12. Oh Helen, Wells is beautiful. I really enjoyed your post and the photos. I’m definitely going to have to visit 😁

    1. ThingsHelenLoves says:

      I think Wells should be on everyone’s travel list, it is a lovely little city!

  13. What a wonderful little village and I love the photo’s you have taken…absolutely stunning…

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