Episode 13: A Day Out To Wells

Wells CAthedral

Last Updated on February 14, 2024 by Marian Jones

Wells is less than an hour’s drive from Bath and also easily reached by bus. It’s England’s smallest city, compact, yet with some standout beauties to visit and so it makes a lovely day out. This post covers the main attractions, including the cathedral and the Bishop’s Palace and brings you lots of fascinating snippets: everything from bell-ringing swans to England’s ‘Last Fighting Tommy’, via a fight in a vineyard, the stabling of horses in the cathedral and a record-breaking Olympic gold medal.

a little history

The city of Wells is named after 3 wells, all dedicated to St Andrew, which were found around where the marketplace is today. It was a Roman site, then an important Christian settlement, especially when the cathedral was begun in the 12th century, on the site of an earlier Saxon church. Today it’s tranquil, but Wells has seen some turbulent moments in its history. These are memorably described in In Wells; A Small City by Tony Scrase and include a feisty May Day stand-off when, in 1602, music and dancing round the maypole by traditional churchgoers enraged the Puritans and a street battle ensued involving a heady mix of ‘drums, fifes and trumpets …. rapiers and daggers.’

During the Civil War (1642-51), Wells was first occupied by Royalists who were then driven out by 2000 Parliamentarians who stabled their horses in the cathedral and used its statues for firing practice. The cathedral was further damaged during the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685, an attempt at deposing King James II. This culminated in the Bloody Assizes, a makeshift court held in the Market Hall in Wells in September that year at which the notorious Judge Jeffries found all but one of 542 men guilty of treason and sentenced 94 to be hanged and most of the rest to be deported. All these stories are told more fully on the podcast.

wells cathedral

The present version of Wells Cathedral was begun in 1175. It’s known for its spectacular front, decorated by 300 medieval statues featuring characters from bible stories, royalty, bishops and saints and, on the top row, the 12 disciples. Try to imagine it as it was when built, when the façade was not honey-coloured stone, but was brightly painted in vivid reds, greens and blues, with highlights of gold leaf. Picture too events like the annual Palm Sunday procession when Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem was re-enacted by a procession into the cathedral from the green outside, all to the fanfare of trumpets played by musicians hidden up behind the holes you will see among the statues if you look up.

Wells was the first English cathedral built entirely in the gothic style, exemplified in the soaring ‘scissor arches’ you’ll see inside. Look out too for the cathedral clock, a 14th century beauty which can be seen both inside and outside. It’s decorated with little models of a tournament on horseback which plays every 15 minutes and with the Latin inscription ‘nequid pereat’ – ‘let nothing perish’. Visit the octagonal chapter house, where the dean and canons used to meet and the quire where Evensong has been held since the 13th century. Wander the cloisters, visit the 15th century library, with its 6000 ancient books, some of which are still ‘chained’ as they were originally and explore the cathedral’s ‘high parts’.

Entry is by donation. To visit some areas you need to go on a tour: more information here.

the bishop’s palace

Walk around the moat outside the Bishop’s Palace to see the swans, some of whom are clever enough to ring the bell at the entrance when they want food! To go inside, cross the little bridge where the original drawbridge was and you’ll find 14 acres of beautiful gardens, including the original well pools, an arboretum, plenty of topiary and some pretty water gardens. Inside, you can see a palace built in the 13th century, visited one Christmas by Edward III with his wife and the baby son who’d grow up to be the Black Prince. Treasures include a coronation cope, a reminder that the Bishop of Bath and Wells has attended every coronation since Richard I’s in 1189.

There’s much more on the podcast, including details of the annual ‘swan blog’, a real soap opera giving updates on the life and adventures of the swans on the moat.

wells museum

Permanent exhibitions at Wells Museum include one on the statuary linked to the cathedral, with originals, copies and lots of information. The story of one frieze, involving theft and violence in a vineyard, is told on the podcast. There’s also a photographic display on Wells in the 19th and 20th centuries and an embalmed swan – the one who first leaned how to ring the bell for food. The life story of local soldier Harry Patch, the ‘Last Fighting Tommy, is told too. He fought at Passchendaele during the First World War and died in 2009 at the age of 111. His story is told more fully on the podcast. A memorial stone to him stands outside the museum.

don’t miss …..

Don’t miss Vicar’s Close, believed to be the last complete medieval street in England. It was built in the 14th century as housing for the clergy, partly to make their attendance at 8 services a day easier and partly, as Bishop Ralph said at the time, so that ‘they would be removed from the temptations of secular life’. Today the houses are occupied by staff and pupils from Wells Cathedral School.

In the Market Place you can see remnants of the old city wall: Penniless Porch leads to the cathedral and The Bishop’s Eye is a gate leading towards the Bishop’s Palace. Look out too for the bronze marker set into the pavement which represents the distance jumped by Olympic Long Jump Champion and local girl, Mary Rand in 1964. Markets have been held here since King John granted permission in 1201 and the Wednesday Farmer’s Market is a highlight for locals and visitors alike. Historic pubs worth seeking out are the Swan Hotel, formerly the Mayor’s Banqueting Hall and an important coaching inn and the City Arms which operated until the 19th century as the city gaol.

Listen to the POdcast

Reading suggestions

Wells A Pictorial History by Tony Scrase
Once Upon a Time in the South West (The Monmouth Rebellion) by Andrew Jackson
The Last Fighting Tommy by Harry Patch

links for this post

Tours of Wells Cathedral
The Bishop’s Palace
Wells Museum
Wells Market Days
The Swan Hotel
The City Arms
Wells Walking Tours

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