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…
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.
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.
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?