Wells, Somerset – The Smallest City in England

Wells Cathedral sits proud and dominant at the top of the High Street in Wells.  This small city is located at the foot of the Mendip hills just a short distance from the larger cities of Bristol and Bath.  Its size makes it perfect for visiting in a day and the photographic opportunities are everywhere if you know where to look.  

Wells Cathedral seen with a frame of trees

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Unlike other cities in the U.K., Wells feels like a small market town. You are never far from fields and just a few minutes walk will take you from the bustling High Street to a quiet corner with kingfishers buzzing around. The Mendip Hills dominate the skyline and the green of the countryside permeates the city.


Cathedral Green

Seeing as the cathedral is the biggest building in the city it is worth starting here.  From the outside it is spectacular.  The Cathedral Green can be a busy place with visitors enjoying the space and the views.  Visit on a rainy day and the green will be deserted.  Perfect for some large vistas of the Cathedral before heading indoors. The West Front is covered in over 300 hundred statues and this theme continues around the side of the cathedral where more can be seen. Just imagine these covered in gold leaf and painted.  There are two photographic options here – wide vistas and intimate details.  Both will show this 750year old facade off to its best.  The blue lias stone that it is made of shows details really well and is best after rain.

Inside Wells Cathedral

The cathedral is free to visit but donations are very much appreciated.  Once you are past the entry point it is easy to wander and explore various areas.  We have never taken a guided tour but each visit brings new surprises.  You may see reference to a photographers licence being required but that was stopped in 2017 so photography is also free.  There is the request that no photography takes place during services and that no flashes are used in the quire area to protect the needlework.

Nave and Scissor Arches

The main nave of the cathedral is immense with an ornate painted ceiling.  Looking up will show you the stunning arches that form the vaulted ceiling.  At the end of the nave is the main alter and rising behind this is the organ.  The intricate carvings and paintwork are beautiful.  The scissor arches were put in place in 1348 to stop the whole tower from collapsing under the weight of the wooden spire and lead finishes which were too heavy for the foundations.  These stand at the end of the nave and frame the organ perfectly.

Wells Clock

In the north transept is the Wells Clock, an astronomical clock.  This is the second oldest clock in England dating to the late 1300’s and still has its original medieval face.  The dial represents the geocentric view of the universe, with sun and moon revolving round a central fixed earth. As well as showing the time on a 24 hour dial, it also reflects the motion of the sun and the moon, the phases of the moon, and the time since the last new moon. When the clock strikes every quarter, jousting knights move around above the clock and the Quarter Jack bangs the quarter hours with his heels.  This is linked to a second clock outside the cathedral.  They share a mechanism that powers both clocks.  The original mechanisms for these clocks can be seen in the Science Museum in London.

Wells Cathedral Chapter House

Just past the clock is a small door with a very well worn staircase.  This leads to Chapter House. The stairs are fantastic for photography before heading to the unique octagonal chapter house.  This was a later edition to the Cathedral dating back to 1306.  A central pillar supports the vaulted ceiling with seats for the bishops around the outer edge of the room.  This room is really hard to photograph and do it justice.  The light is fantastic but pillars, arches and curves all work against the camera.

Carvings and Corners   

Throughout the remainder of the cathedral are small carvings, headstones made of marble, stained glass windows and small chapels. The most stunning stained glass is in the Jesse Window which is at the far east end of the cathedral in a small chapel.  All have potential for photography, it is just a matter of wandering and seeing where your eyes take you.  There is also Louis the cathedral cat.  He is around and about greeting visitors when he isn’t cooking himself under a radiator.

Cloisters and Camery Garden at Wells Cathedral

From the south transept of the cathedral there is a door that leads to the cloisters.  These are light and airy with a low vaulted ceiling.  To the east of the cloisters is a small garden which gives an alternative view of the cathedral and the chapter house.

Vicar’s Close, Wells

To the north of the cathedral just past the clock is a small arch which the road passes through beyond this is another small archway leading into Vicar’s Close.  This is the oldest inhabited medieval street in Europe.  It was originally built in 1363 for the use of the vicars with two rows of houses and a small chapel at the end. 

It is perfect for photography as the street is still cobbled and their are no yellow lines to restrict parking.  The biggest nightmare is arriving on bin day or when the Wells Cathedral school children are moving between lessons.  Take your time and wait for peace to return to this small close. 

On a winter morning with mist hanging it is beautiful.  The sun moves around the close during the day so it is worth returning at various times to capture the close at its best. It is also a great location for night skies. The hills are behind the Vicar’s Close and so light pollution is minimal allowing the stars to be seen.

Bishop’s Palace and Gardens

The Bishop’s Palace is adjacent to the Cathedral through an archway from the Market Place.  This archway is known as the Bishops Eye and leads to the moat.  It has been the home of the Bishop of Bath and Wells for the last 800 years.  Crossing over the moat on a wooden bridge it is like stepping back into a fairy tale. 

The swans on the moat have learnt to ring a bell and this tradition continues today although the current residents are not that keen to participate in this historical activity.  The moat is also the home to kingfishers as well as the pesky seagulls.  The palace is surrounded by high ramparts with crenellations making it look like a small castle.   

Inside the palace there is a small chapel with intricate carvings and tall windows full of stained glass.  This leads to the palace where the ornate interior is an insight into the life of the Bishops.

Outside are the remains of the Great Wall.  Now in ruin its huge windows and high walls give an impression of its vast size.  These are now part of the gardens and merge with the wild flowers and tended gardens that are found within the palace.  

Tucked behind the palace are the springs which are believed to be the reason for the settlement of Wells forming.  The water is channeled through the town, originally supplying the people of the city with fresh water.  Even today the water runs down the high street most of the year.

Photography at the Bishops Palace is easy.  There is architecture, gardens and everything from buildings to macro wildlife can be photographed in one small location.


Wells City

The rest of Wells flows down the hill from the Cathedral and Bishops Palace.  During the week there is market in the Market Square.  This currently  happens on a Wednesday and Saturday and provides a good opportunity for street photography.

The High Street is like any other high street with small shops and cafes, but take time to wander away from the main road and there are small closes and little streets with old houses.  These are perfect for a wander with a camera.

Keep your eyes open as the spring water from the Bishops Palace run down the side of the road.  In the summer months this is a trickle but in the winter and after rain the ‘stream’ between the road and the pavement can be quite large!

At the far end of the High Street is St Cuthbert’s Church.  This is the largest parish church in Somerset, confusing many people by its size.  Inside this is beautiful and well worth a visit with a camera.

Photography in Wells

Wells provides lots of opportunities for beautiful photographs of a historic city.  As with all photography use what you have.  These photographs have been taken on a mixture of big DSLR, iphone and small point and shoot.  A wide angle lens is ideal for the Cathedral and Bishop’s Palace but at the same time a zoom lens and macro lens for getting details would be good for the tombstones and small carvings.

All of these images were taken handheld, I hate having a tripod when I am out with family or in busy locations.  To ensure there was enough light to keep the shutter speed high, I kept the ISO high and increased the aperture.

Getting to Wells

Wells is quite a hard little city to reach.  It is not on the main motorway or rail network so the easiest way is to drive.  It can be reached on the A39 from Bristol.  This joins the A37 and eventually reaches the M4 north of Bath.  The A39 to the south  joins the A38 just before heading on to the M5 at Bridgwater.   

The nearest train station is at Castle Cary but there is no direct bus route from the train into Wells so a bus would need to be taken to Shepton Mallet before a second bus into Wells.  Buses are good with regular services from Bristol, Bath, Shepton Mallet, Bridgwater and Weston-super-Mare.

Once in Wells parking is easy with a number of public car parks scattered around the town.  We visit on a weekly basis and have never had trouble finding a parking space. All of the car parks are pay and display so make sure you have change. The ticket inspectors are active all the time so don’t take the chance. There is free street parking on the High Street, but check the time limits so you don’t over stay.

Travel Information for Wells

Staying and Eating in Wells

Wells has a number of really lovely hotels and bed and breakfasts.  These range in price and can be as ornate or simple as you want.  There are also a number of AirBnB properties both in the city itself and in the surrounding countryside.

The town also has a number of lovely restaurants and cafes.  Finding somewhere to eat around photography is easy with a number of cafes in the Cathedral, Bishop’s Palace and Market Square.  Our favourite has to be Market Place Cafe.  For snacks and cakes it is the cheapest and best value place to visit.  The Bishop’s Palace also has a lovely cafe for a summers afternoon sat outside watching croquet on the palace lawns with a cream tea.

Other Places Nearby

  • Glastonbury Town and Tor – World famous for its summer music festival, this town has an alternative vibe and is steeped in history
  • Cheddar Gorge – Cheddar Gorge is the deepest gorge in England with caves that extend deep under the Mendip Hills
  • Mendip Hills – The Mendip Hills extend from beyond Shepton Mallet out to the sea at Brean Down. There are numerous walks including the West Mendip Way
  • Somerset Levels – Drained by the Glastonbury monks this flat landscape is now a haven for wildlife and is one of the best places to see starling murmurations in the south of England