Wells, in Somerset, may be England’s smallest city outside the City of London, but the tiny conurbation has enough sights to guarantee a weekend's worth of fun. Without wheels, it's not the easiest place to get to – the closest train station is in Bristol – but it's worth the effort. As the bus winds along Bristol Road into the heart of Somerset, passing through five-house hamlets and farmland dotted with grazing sheep, you'll take a deep breath of country air and feel invigorated.
On the crest of a hill as you wind into Wells, there’s a glimpse of St Michael's Tower, perched on top of Glastonbury Tor in the distance, and to the west, the Mendip Hills Area of Outstanding Beauty lives up to its name. This is an undeniably beautiful part of Britain, with green squares of pastoral land stretching into the distance.
The last recorded population for Wells, back in 2011 was less than 11,000, yet it's been a designated city since medieval times. The reason, and the main drawcard here, is tucked behind a stone archway. The arch leads onto Cathedral Green, where there are often youngsters kicking a football around in front of the magnificent Wells Cathedral. Built between 1175 and 1490, the Gothic structure is considered moderately sized among the medieval cathedrals of England, but with its broad west front stretching into the clouds above, it's breathtaking.
It was built in 1176–1450, replacing an earlier church that had been on the site since 705. The Gothic architecture appears ornate, with pointed arches, carved capitals and 300 sculpted figures on the facade.
The interior is not as the exterior indicates. From the façade, it's easy to anticipate grandeur, but instead, it feels like a reverse tardis – much more intimate on the inside than the out. Rather than feeling overawed and insignificant, it makes me feel welcomed and comforted, despite the vast inverted arches supporting the central tower.
It's a pleasant space in which to wander, soaking up the ambience and reading the tablets, some worn blank by the footsteps of so many visitors. The earliest I found dates back to the 1600s.
The cathedral houses one of the largest collections of historic stained glass in the country – the Jesse Window, a splendid example of 14th-Century stained glass, streams ribbons of colour into the air. There's also the Wells Clock, believed to be the second oldest clock mechanism in Britain, and possibly the world, to survive in original condition and still be in use. The dial represents a view of the universe, with the Sun and Moon revolving round a central fixed Earth. When the clock strikes, jousting knights rush around and the Quarter Jack bangs the quarter hours with his heels.
From the cathedral, the high street is only a few paces away, where it abuts Market Place, where, true to its name, a market is held every Wednesday and Saturday. Stalls stretch along the street selling…well…everything, from freshly cut flowers to books and winter hats. Behind the stalls, boutiques packed with curiosities, coffee shops and eateries wait for the gentle bustle of visitors to make their way inside.
At the far end of Market Place, another archway stands proud, leading to the Bishop’s Palace and grounds. The palace is surrounded by a moat, where swans and ducks bob lazily, watching for the next family to feed them bread. Should the visitors not oblige, the swans have been taught to ring the bell alongside the gatehouse. This summons the Palace Caretakers, who open the window to feed them.
A flagstone drawbridge under the portcullis leads in to the palace, home to the Bishops of Bath and Wells for 800 years. Dating from the early-13th Century, the Bishop’s Palace boasts 14 acres of gardens to explore, including the beautiful Well Pools from which the city takes its name. It’s easy to while away the hours here.
Back in town, there's likely to be a queue at the ever-popular Parsons Bakery, where the Parsons family has been making and baking for the people of the South West for over 100 years. Along with deliciously crusty home baked bread, sweet temptations line the windows of this institution, luring people in. Of course, this is not the only place to dine in town, but it's a fine choice for a quick lunch.
There's another place to stroll on the outskirts of Wells – the Grade II listed garden at Milton Lodge was conceived around 1900 by Mr Charles Tudway, the present owner's great grandfather. During the first ten years of the 20th Century the sloping ground was transformed into the existing series of architectural terraces, designed to capitalise on glorious views of Wells Cathedral and the Vale of Avalon. There is also a seven-acre arboretum associated with the garden.
They love their gardens around here – a short drive away, Stoberry Park Garden may not have the history of Milton Lodge, but it share spectacular views and a lovely ambience. The six-acre family garden planted sympathetically within its landscape, provides a stunning combination of vistas accented with features such as wildlife ponds, sculptures, and a 1½-acre walled garden.
Other attractions in the area include Glastonbury and its magnificent Tor; Cheddar Gorge and Caves (and of course, the scrumptious cave-aged cheese); Stanton Drew Stone Circles for a touch of mysticism; Bristol and its Banksy-generated street art, and the many attractions of Bath, which lies a 45-minute drive away.
All told, the smallest city is more of a large village, but one that makes for a lovely weekend escape within the Somerset countryside.