There’s so much that’s fascinating about Wells. From the famous swans who ring the bells of the palace gatehouse to ask for a snack, to the knights who joust on the cathedral clock. As there’s no physical festival his year, here’s a virtual history tour of Britain’s smallest city. Wells’s history goes back so far that you’re best to take our dates with a pinch of salt.
Wells began as a tiny Roman settlement, which grew when King Ine of Wessex founded a church on the southern edge of the Mendip Hills in 704. Wells appears in the Domesday Book as Welle, meaning a hole dug for water. It takes this name from the city’s three wells that were dedicated to Saint Andrew, and which still survive today: one in the market place, and two within the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace and cathedral.
Set in the medieval heart of England’s smallest city, Wells Cathedral was the first in England to be built in the Gothic style. The building is famous for its beautiful scissor arches which, surprisingly enough, were built for practical reasons.
When cracks began to appear in the building in the 1300s after a heavy spire was added to the cathedral, master mason William Joy created the scissor arches as a way to strengthen the tower’s structure.
The Bishop’s Palace is home to the Bishop of Bath and Wells, and has been for over 800 years. It’s also the residence of Somerset’s most famous swans, who like to hang out on the moat that surrounds the palace.
The swans, whose names include Captain Tom and Rainbow, are famous for ringing the bells at the gatehouse when they want food – a tradition that dates back to the 1850s.
Vicars Close is thought to be the oldest residential street in Europe. The beautiful cul-de-sac was originally built as accommodation for the choristers, known collectively as the Vicars Choral, who still sing every day at the cathedral.
Originally there were 42 houses (one per vicar, conveniently), but some were later combined when vicars were allowed to marry. The Vicars Choral have remained a big part of life at Wells Cathedral and are now recognised as a world-class choir.
The wonderful astronomical clock at Wells Cathedral is thought to be the second oldest mechanism in the world to survive in its original condition and still be in use today.
Every quarter of an hour, jousting knights chase each other above the clock and a mysterious figure, known as Jack Blandifers, hits one bell with a hammer and two bells with his heels. It’s as impressive as it sounds.
None of us could have imagined that what started as the Great Somerset Sunday Lunch, with just a handful of stalls, would become, in the words of The Daily Telegraph, one of Europe’s best food festivals. Last year we welcomed 15,000 visitors, which we thought was pretty good. But this year, because we’ve taken the festival online, we’re hoping to go even larger. And by visiting today, you’re helping this local food festival go global. So, a huge thank you for your support.