PUBLISHED: 11:23 25 April 2008 | UPDATED: 15:08 20 February 2013

Illustration by David Barwick

Illustration by David Barwick

Somerset prides itself on variety, albeit in miniature. A snippet of coastline here, a pinch of heathland there, and nowhere demonstrates this better perhaps than the pocket-sized city of Wells. Set against the southern slopes of the Mendips, the ...

Powerful prehistoric tribes lived and mined lead in the limestone wilderness. The conquering Romans mined here, too, but preferred to live lower down, founding a settlement by three natural springs.

In 704, the Saxons built the first church, dedicated the springs to St Andrew and created a secular clergy, which has existed more or less to this day. By the time scribes published the Domesday Book of 1086, the settlement had a bishop and the name Welle.

King John granted city status in 1205, and by the 14th century it was the largest settlement in Somerset, but then it stopped growing.

Wells remains England's smallest city, with a population of around 10,400. Its reputation, however, spans the globe, thanks to Wells Cathedral and the Bishop's Palace , whose power to transport the soul heavenward have few equals.

Hit the downtown

The city's peaceful air belies the quiet industry that whirrs away behind immaculate exteriors on Cathedral Green. Here lies the epicentre of Somerset's ecclesiastical authority, home to the county's most senior cleric, the Bishop of Bath and Wells.

The present and 77th incumbent, the Right Reverend Peter Price, administers the upkeep of more than 630 churches and chapels, 184 church schools and a flock nearing one million, spread over approximately 1,600 square miles.

Bishop Peter lives with his wife in the grounds of the Bishop's Palace, along with a chaplain, the head gardener and two caretakers in the gatehouse, who train the swans living in the moat to ring a bell for food.

King John granted land to Bishop Jocelin Trotman, the first Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1219, to build a home and deer park. Four more bishops added further buildings, including the ruined Great Hall. Wander through the grounds to see the famous springs that give the city its name. Watch the stone statues that adorn the West Front turn golden against a setting sun and discover for yourself why Pevsner praised the palace as 'the most memorable... in England' and Alec Clifton-Taylor described Wells Cathedral as 'the most poetic of the English Cathedrals' in his book 'The Cathedrals of England'.

Inside, look out for one of the earliest mechanical clocks still in existence, clockwork knights exchanging blows on the hour. The 14th-century vaulted scissor arches have braced the building against shifting medieval foundations for more than 650 years, and the Cathedral Choir perform Evensong on weekdays at 5.15pm and Sundays at 3pm.

The octagonal Chapter House leads to Vicar's Close, the oldest continuously inhabited street in Europe. Such is its charm that scenes from the 17th-century drama 'The Libertine', starring Johnny Depp and John Malkovich, were shot here.

Running down the High Street from the conduit in Market Place is the freshwater stream that Bishop Bekynton bequeathed to the city in the 15th century.

British comedy 'Hot Fuzz' (2007) was set in Wells. Director Edgar Wright comes from the city. Movie fans can also enjoy the latest film releases at Wells Film Centre , one of most charming cinemas in Somerset.

Eating and sleeping

The city's restaurant district centres around Sadler Street. Dine alfresco in the walled garden at the Swan Hotel, digest the cathedral view and Italian cooking at Rugantino, dive into a seasonal menu at the Old Spot, or decide between the seafood caf and the patisserie at Goodfellows.

A walk across Cathedral Green, past Wells and Mendip Museum, leads to the Fountain Inn & Boxer's Restaurant in St Thomas Street - a popular French-style gastro pub in its 25th year.

Outside the city, The Slab House Inn at West Horrington has local taste buds tingling with the arrival of Ready Steady Cook's Brian Turner.

For atmosphere, nothing beats the Hunters' Lodge Inn on the Wells crossroads, a couple of miles east of Priddy, which serves a filling meal and a well-kept pint for about a fiver.

For those who like proper country hotels with big sofas next to roaring fires, look no further than The Swan Hotel. A new penthouse suite launched in March has magnificent cathedral views and every conceivable luxury known to man, or woman.

Beryl at the top of Hawkers Lane, is proud of its Wolsey Lodge reputation as an upmarket B&B. Benjamin Ferrey (a pupil of architect Augustus Pugin) built the villa in the Gothic Revival style in 1838. The landscaped gardens also include a pool for those hot summer afternoons.

Outside the city, antiques expert Martin Miller has transformed a secret Victorian mansion into an elegant, homely hotel, stuffed with curios, called Miller's at Glencot House , Wookey Hole.

Three things to take home

Black Dog of Wells , Tor Street, produces fired terracotta tiles and ceramic murals, with more than 120 unique designs to choose from.

Flour has been milled on the site of Burcott Mill , Wookey, for the past 1,000 years. The present owners continue the tradition, producing organic stoneground flour on a water-powered mill. They also offer B&B and self-catering.

Sadler Street Gallery sells a range of paintings depicting memorable views of the city and holds regular exhibitions throughout the year.

Explore the area

Wells unlocks the magic of the Mendips, with walks galore across a windswept expanse of pasture, moorland and wood. Ebor Gorge, near Wookey Hole Caves, is less visited than its larger cousin Cheddar Gorge and is all the better for it. Maintained by the National Trust, the gorge invites the walker to wind their way to the top through woodland festooned with wild flowers as Neolithic farmers once did more than 3,000 years before. At the top of the gorge, head left towards Deer Leap for astonishing views across the Somerset Levels.

Priddy Circle, near the Castle of Comfort Inn, is an enigma. Aerial views show three circular earthworks that rival Stonehenge and Avebury in size, evidence of the Mendips' prehistoric importance. Archaeologists have also recorded more than 280 round barrows in the region, which suggests that during the Bronze Age the area was fairly densely populated, probably because of the valuable mineral deposits and lead-mining works.

Most back lanes above Wells eventually lead to the delightful Priddy village green. Popular with folk musicians and sheep traders alike, the village feels high enough above sea level to remain immune from the global pace of the 21st century. BY STEPHEN TATE. PHOTOS BY TONY HOWELL


Until 31 October: Sculptures by Terence Coventry. Bishop's Palace and Gardens, tel 01749 677698

1-3 May: May Fun Fair, Market Place

14 May: Bristol Old Vic Theatre School perform Cider with Rosie. Wells Little Theatre, tel 01749 672280

18 May: Mendip Vintage and Classic Car Tour, with Grey Dogs Jazz Band. Cathedral Green, 4pm, tel 01749 676330

25 May: Wells Fun Run. Wells Town Hall, starts 10.30am. Tel 01749 679272

11-13 July: Priddy Folk Festival. www.priddyfolk.org

23 August: Priddy Sheep Fair. www.priddysheepfair.co.uk

31 August - 7 September: St Cuthbert's Music Festival. St Cuthbert's Church. Tel 01749 673136

17-24 October: Wells Festival of Literature. www.wlitf.co.uk

Further information:

Wells TIC: tel 01749 672552, www.wellstourism.com

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