Wells, the “jewel in the crown” of Somerset, arguably has more in common with Belgium than you might think.
It is one of the smallest cities in England while Belgium is, of course, one of the EU’s smaller member states. But what both may lack in size is more than compensated for by their shared passion for culture and art – and love of the good life.
For overseas visitors, Somerset is arguably best known for the world famous Glastonbury festival but there’s an awful lot more to this lovely area than pop fans sloshing about in muddy fields.
Wells itself boasts a truly wonderful 13th century cathedral (one of the country’s finest cathedrals and the reason, despite its size, that it can call itself a city), which remains remarkably unspoilt. Admission is free to what is the earliest English cathedral to be built in the Gothic style and there are regular daily tours. It’s a “must see” on any itinerary and, while there, try to catch the cathedral choir which has been at the heart of the cathedral’s worshipping life since 909!
The city also boasts many other historic buildings including the moated Bishop’s Palace and Vicars’ Close, the only completely medieval street left in England.
The history of Wells goes right back to Roman times when it is known that there was a settlement, probably because of the springs that bubble up here. Wells gets its name from these springs which can today be found in the gardens of the Bishop’s Palace.
A great base for exploring this fine city and, indeed, Somerset generally, is the Swan Hotel which is stunningly located in the shadow of Wells Cathedral and steeped in 600 years of history. The hotel, whose former guests include Winston Churchill and parts of which date to 1422, has a unique charm offering guests modern amenities in a beautiful and relaxed setting. It has been sympathetically restored (15 rooms were most recently refurbished in its coach house during the first three months of this year) and extended to ensure every comfort within its 48 bedrooms, luxurious suite and self-contained apartments. The attentive and friendly staff ensure combine to make for a great stay, whatever the duration.
The hotel was, with others, an active participant in Wells’ efforts to become UK City of Culture 2021.
Just over the road, boasting a unique atmosphere and a beautiful historic setting, is the award-winning Rugantinos restaurant, specialising in authentic Italian cuisine. This fine restaurant,part of a 9-room hotel, is part of a family business. The owners’ Italian-born father, Francesco Rossi, launched the business in Wells some 40 years ago. Today, the restaurant’s appearance matches the excellent quality of its food.
With friendly staff and warm, cosy surroundings, the restaurant’s Italian chef is responsible for some great, homemade pizza and pasta, as well as traditional English table d’hôte menus.The restaurant backs directly onto the vast lawn overlooking the cathedral and makes for an ideal spot for a meal or relaxing drink.
Within a relatively short distance of Wells, however, you can visit many other great attractions which include the famous caves at Wookey Hole, Cheddar Gorge and Caves, Glastonbury Tor, the Fleet Air Arm Museum and Haynes International Motor Museum.
Wookey Hole, just outside Wells, is particularly fun for families and (new for this year) includes Chamber 20 – recently blasted tunnels which provide access to an amazing chamber which opens up previously unseen caverns and formations. At the heart of the Mendips, it comprises no less than 20 attractions, including the UK’s largest cave system.
Another great day out is a visit to Cheddar Gorge, including the Museum of Pre-history where visitors will find everything from a replica of Britain’s oldest complete skeleton – Cheddar Man – to evidence of cannibalism. Try climbing the 274 steps up to the Lookout Tower for some great views and the 3-mile Cliff Top Gorge Walk. Gove’s Cave is widely recognised as one of the world’s most beautiful stalactite caverns.
The Air Fleet Arm Museum, a relatively short drive away, is devoted to the history of British naval aviation and its vast hangers are full of over 100 aircraft. This year, “Cold War To Kabul and Beyond”, charts the Fleet Air Arm from the era of the Cold War politics to one dominated by international globalisation.
Meanwhile, the terrific Haynes museum, very close by, has a vast collection of vintage vehicles - great for petrol heads.
Another “must do” pit stop not far away in Glastonbury is a visit to the award-winning Knights fish restaurant where the owners have been making and selling great fish and chips continuously since 1909. Said to be the UK’s oldest established fish and chip restaurant, it offers not only counter service for take-away customers but it’s also a full waitress service.
If you’re looking for travel inspiration for later this year there will be plenty going on in Wells, including the annual festivals of Literature, Food, Contemporary Music and Contemporary Art in October, (the food festival being a wonderful reminder of the richness of the area’s food heritage with particular emphasis on local ciders and famous Cheddar cheese). Another event which is a firm fixture on the Wells sporting calendar is the Wells Most Boat Races which raises money for charity and takes place on the August Bank Holiday.
Wells, said to be the smallest city in England with about 12,000 inhabitants, makes an ideal destination for a short break or even long weekend and has much to see as well as providing an excellent base for exploring the surrounding area.
This medieval city, nestling on the southern side of the Mendip Hills with the mystic Somerset Levels stretching away to the south and west, is rightly described by John Turner, CEO of Visit Somerset, as “one of the jewels in the Somerset crown”.
Accessing Wells and Somerset from Belgium can be easily managed via a cross channel ferry operated by DFDS, Northern Europe’s largest shipping and logistics company. Its busy Calais (or Dunkerque) to Dover routes provide an ideal link to the south of the UK from mainland Europe.
The relaxing crossings from either port run 7 days a week and, onboard, you’ll find bars, restaurants, shops and more, making the journey just as exciting as the destination. For a small charge, you can upgrade to the very comfortable lounge and/or take advantage of the priority boarding option, particularly useful during the exceptional busy summer months.
Glastonbury festival is unlikely to take place next year (it’s a so-called “fallow year” when the farming land is given a much needed chance to recover from the masses that normally descend on it every summer) but, irrespective of that, this is a charming part of the country that is well worth exploring.