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A wander around Wells: What to see in England’s smallest city

Wells cathedral in Somerset

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..

Read more: Six alternative places to visit in England

Wells cathedral in Somerset

The scissor arches and interiors of Wells Cathedral

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.

Wells cathedral in Somerset

The inside of the cathedral

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.

Wells cathedral in Somerset

Wells cathedral and the steps to the Chapter House

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 Bishop's Palace, Wells, Somserset

Crossing the drawbridge to the Bishop’s Palace

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 Bishop's Palace, Wells, Somserset

Inside the Bishop’s Palace

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.

The Bishop's Palace, Wells, Somserset

The original Wells well in the gardens

The details

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.

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Exploring Wells in Somerset, England's smallest city, with what to see and do, from the historic cathedral and Bishop's Palace to locations from the film Hot Fuzz. #Somerset #England #Wells

Nathan Wilkins

Wednesday 6th of March 2019

Stunning photos of the Cathredral! I need to go and visit soon!

Lucy

Sunday 10th of March 2019

Lovely place isn't it!

Kim

Sunday 15th of January 2017

My parents used to do craft fares, selling jewellery and trinket boxes, in Wells town hall so I spent a lot of time there when I was little. Recently my partner and I went to Wells and Cheddar Gorge and spent time looking around the Hot Fuzz filming locations in Wells.

Lucy

Monday 16th of January 2017

Loved looking around for the Hot Fuzz locations too – such a great film!

Tilly Horseman

Thursday 30th of June 2016

It's one of my favourite English cathedrals! They're all beautiful in their own way and all just as awesome and stupendous inside, but the front of Wells is certainly superb! Thanks for a great read! Did you see the row of almshouses while you were there? - I thought they were so pretty!

Lucy

Sunday 3rd of July 2016

Wells is so pretty. The almshouses were fenced off when we were there though for some restoration so we didn't get a proper look – next time maybe!

Fran aka The Speedy Explorer

Thursday 28th of May 2015

I took part in the Wells Moat Boat race last year which basically involved building a boat out of plastic water tanks and then rowing it around the moat of the palace. That was one very wet day!

Lucy

Saturday 30th of May 2015

That sounds brilliant! Love these sort of weird English traditions.

Vlad

Monday 25th of May 2015

Small, but definitely beautiful! That cathedral is gorgeous, I'd love to visit it. :)

Lucy

Tuesday 26th of May 2015

It was really spectacular!