What to do in Wells, the smallest city in England

In all its gothic glory, Wells Cathedral, the most poetic of English cathedrals

In all its gothic glory, Wells Cathedral, the most poetic of English cathedrals - Credit: Archant

Andrea Cowan takes a look at the heritage and cultural highlights that make the city of Wells so unique

Heritage hotspots:

1.Wells Cathedral

Set in the medieval heart of the city, the earliest English Cathedral to be built in the Gothic style has been described as “the most poetic of the English Cathedrals.”

It boasts beautiful inverted arches, or ‘scissor arches’; one of the largest collections of historic stained glass in the country; the famous Wells Clock is considered to be the second oldest clock mechanism in Great Britain and one of only four chained libraries in the UK.

Welcoming thousands of visitors each year, the cathedral holds a great number of events ranging from simple daily acts of worship to large-scale glittering gala concerts, exhibitions, lectures, workshops for children and free daily tours.

2. Vicars’ Close

Adjoining the Cathedral is Vicars’ Close, believed to be the only complete medieval street left in England. The houses were built in the 14th century to provide accommodation for the Vicars Choral, who sing the daily services, and this is still the case today.

Vicars Close next to Wells Cathedral, dating from the 15th century

Vicars Close next to Wells Cathedral, dating from the 15th century - Credit: Archant

3. The Bishop’s Palace

Home to the Bishops of Bath and Wells for over 800 years, the palace is surrounded by a moat, complete with resident swans trained to ring a bell for food. Entering via a gatehouse and drawbridge the palace grounds include 14 acres of landscaped gardens to explore, including the beautiful well pools from which the city takes its name.

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The palace hosts family and community garden activity days, historic re-enactments, concerts, talks, workshops and demonstrations. There is also the popular Summer Outdoor Theatre Season and the Wells Moat Boat Race.

4. The Market Place

This has been a focal point of the city for nearly 900 years, when Wells was granted weekly markets in the city’s first charter. A market is held on Wednesdays and Saturdays; the Wednesday’s Farmers’ Market has previously won a Gold Taste of the West Award.

There are two medieval gateways in the Market Place: The Penniless Porch leads through to Wells Cathedral and the Cathedral Green, whilst the Bishops Eye is a gateway to the Bishop’s Palace.

5. Wells and Mendip Museum

This small museum on the Cathedral Green was founded in 1893 by Herbert Balch, a naturalist, caver and geologist. His collection of local artefacts and memorabilia form the core of the museum’s displays. The museum hosts exhibitions throughout the year, including the four year ‘rolling’ exhibition, ‘Wells Remembers’, focusing on WW1.

6. Cedars Hall

Wells Cathedral School has built a world class performing arts venue designed by leading architect, Eric Parry. It provides the city with a 350-seat recital auditorium, rehearsal rooms, observation and teaching suites and a cutting-edge recording studio. It serves as a hub for a significant community outreach providing music education for the county’s local primary school children, elderly and disability groups, as well as free tickets for under 25s for some concerts.

Cedars Hall, a state-of-the-art performance, teaching and learning centre

Cedars Hall, a state-of-the-art performance, teaching and learning centre - Credit: Archant

7. Wells Hospital Cemetery

This cemetery was the burial ground for the Somerset and Bath Pauper Lunatic Asylum; nearly 3000 former patients and staff were laid to rest between 1874 and 1963. Previously rarely visited by the public, the cemetery and its chapel are now open every Sunday from April to October.

The cemetery is both a nature reserve, full of birds and wild flowers, and a living memorial. Most of those buried here had just a numbered metal marker; these have been grouped and are interspersed with sculptures by the artist, Peter Bolton.

Cultural highlights

In addition to its rich heritage, Wells also enjoys a vibrant cultural scene. Annual festivals include:

1. Wells Festival of Film 

A popular location for film and TV productions, perhaps it is only fitting that Wells should host a film festival. This year’s theme is musicals with viewings of The Rock Horror Picture Show, Mary Poppins and West Side Story at various venues in the city.

2. Wells Comedy Festival 

This brings some of the best comedians in the country to Wells in one jam-packed weekend. This year’s line-up includes: Desiree Burch, Sarah Pascoe, Mark Watson and Nish Kumar.

3. Wells Art Contemporary 

This international visual arts competition has drawn artists from across the globe, working across a wide range of media from painting and sculpture to printmaking and photography.

Wells Food Festival stretches from the Market Place, along the Bishops Palace Moat and into the recr

Wells Food Festival stretches from the Market Place, along the Bishops Palace Moat and into the recreation ground - Credit: Archant

4. Wells Food Festival 

Celebrating the best of Somerset’s produce, this festival is free and family friendly. Highlights include the Artisan Market and Street Food, whilst the Morrisons Children's Zone will keep younger visitors entertained.

5. New Music Wells 

This innovative and free festival is a retrospective of sacred choral and organ music of the previous forty years. Among the various world premiere performances will be a new work by this year’s distinguished Composer-in-Residence, Charlotte Bray.

6. The Festival of Literature 

Last year, the Wells Festival of Literature boasted a high profile line-up of speakers covering a broad range of topics, from Stephen Westaby, one of the world’s leading heart surgeons, whose life-and-death memoir has been attracting widespread five-star reviews, and Joanna Moorhead whose inspiring new book The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington was Radio 4’s Book of the Week in May. The 26th festival promises to include an equally diverse, challenging and inspiring programme in October.

Please note: not all festivals will be able to run in 2021 due to restrictions. Refer to their websites for more details.

This article was updated by Martha Griffiths in June 2021.