Surrounded by the tourist hotspots of Bath to the north, Dorset to the east and Devon to the west, the English country of Somerset can get a bit overlooked. But it has more than its share of historic market towns, rolling hills, windswept moors and pretty coastline – just with a lot less visitors than its neighbours. Add to that a plentiful supply of local cider and cheese and you’ve got a great spot for a weekend break..
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Between the Mendip Hills and the Somerset Levels you’ll find England’s smallest city – Wells. Or if you’ve seen Hot Fuzz, the comedy-action cop film starring Simon Pegg, then you might know it better as Sandford. The film’s writer and director Edgar Wright grew up in Wells so it got a starring role on screen as a seemingly idyllic town which hides a dark secret and a higher than expected murder rate. Walking around the streets of Wells you can see why they chose it to represent the quintessential English country town. The cobbled streets are lined with medieval buildings, tearooms, pubs and old-fashioned shops.
In real-life Wells, there’s one building that dominates the city which you won’t find in the film – the cathedral. It had to be painstakingly painted out of every shot as it was too impressive a building to belong to a small town. And it’s the cathedral which turns Wells from a town to a city. The current Gothic cathedral was built in the 13th century on the site of an old Roman mausoleum and abbey church. Wells was given city status back in medieval times and it still keeps it now, despite only having just over 10,000 residents – 20 times less than places like Reading and Northampton which are still classed as towns.
The cathedral’s imposing West Front has more than 300 sculptures carved into it, featuring everything from saints and angels to historic kings and queens. Inside there is a huge array of stained-glass windows and a medieval mechanical clock that still strikes on the hour. There’s also an unusual architectural feature in the ‘scissor arches’ across the nave. Their crossover shape was designed to brace against the weight of a tower which was added in the 14th century. You can also climb up to the Chapter House, an octagonal room where the clergy meet to discuss church business. There’s an amazing staircase on the way up that’s been so worn down by hundreds of years of footsteps that the steps now undulate like waves.
The cathedral isn’t the only important religious site in Wells – there’s also the nearby Bishop’s Palace. It’s been the home of the Bishops of Bath and Wells for 800 years. The bishop still lives there today, but other parts of the palace are open to visitors. First you need to cross the moat and drawbridge though. Not the welcome you’d expect from a man of the church, but a 14th-century feud between the bishop and the city meant the palace was fortified to keep out unwelcome guests. Inside you can visit the bishop’s chapel and some of the interior rooms, and outside there’s the remains of the Great Hall, though it fell to ruin after a previous bishop sold off the lead from the roof to make some extra money.
The palace is surrounded by 14 acres of gardens, and in among them is one of the natural springs – or rather wells – which gave the city its name. It’s these wells which were the reason that the Romans originally built a settlement in this area. Water still bubbles up at a rate of 100 litres a second, and it flows out to form the moat around the palace and on into the River Sheppey. The moat is also home to the palace swans. Not your ordinary swans, these have been trained so that they ring a bell every time they want to be fed. It’s a tradition that dates back to a Victorian bishop’s daughter – who obviously had a lot of free time on her hands. Just the sort of quirky story that make this part of the world so interesting.
Wells Cathedral is open from 7am–7pm (until 6pm from October to March) and entry’s free but there is a suggested donation of £6 per person. You can also join a free guided tour every day apart from Sunday. The Bishop’s Palace is open daily from 10am–6pm (until 4pm from November to March). Entry costs £8.95 for adults, £7.95 for students/seniors and £3.95 for children 5–18. And if you’re interested in tracing the Hot Fuzz locations, you can take a guided walking tour around the city or follow this map.