Okay, so we may have lied in our headline: Wells isn’t technically the smallest city in the UK. That title belongs to the City of London if you’re looking at city council boundary areas (Wells is 2.11 sq mi, the City of London is 1.12). But should that count? What Wells actually is, is the smallest free-standing city in the UK. And when it comes to population, it’s the fourth smallest.
Technicalities aside – while Bristol is often described as a small city that feels like a big city, Wells is a small city that feels like a very small city. But it packs a lot in! Standing at the centre of it is the incredible presence of Wells Cathedral, which has provided city status since medieval times. Nearly 850 years old, it’s been described as “the most poetic of the English Cathedrals.”
One of the country’s earliest cathedrals to be built in the Gothic style, Wells Cathedral is also home to one of the largest collections of historic stained glass in the country; the famous Wells Clock, the second oldest clock mechanism in Great Britain; the gorgeous octagonal Chapter House; and one of only four chained libraries in the UK – like the library out of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
It’s not the only breathtaking medieval building in Wells either. The Bishop’s Palace, which you might have guessed is home to the Bishops of Bath and Wells and has been for over 800 years. You can visit the Bishop’s private Chapel and explore the ruined Great Hall, but the highlight has to be The Palace Gardens. 14 acres of waterfalls, springs, trees, flowers and a moat filled with swans.
It’s not all old buildings in Wells – although having started as a Roman settlement, there’s a lot of history here. The city is jam-packed with cafes, restaurants and pubs. Grab a bite to eat at the veg-led eatery Root (yes, it’s the same Root as we have here in Bristol). Or visit the twice-weekly market every Wednesday and Saturday, for food stalls and artisan crafts.
Or, if you’re a fan of Edgar Wright, go for a pint at The Crown – which was used as the local in his action comedy, Hot Fuzz. You could do a whole Hot Fuzz-inspired tour of Wells if you fancy. Like the city’s Market Square for the final shoot-out, The Swan Hotel where Simon Pegg’s Nicholas Angel stays, or the newsagent City News.
Other reasons to visit include Wells’ regular festivals and events, revolving around everything from food to literature to theatre. But the calendar highlight has to be Wells Carnival (November 17, 2023). Which sees thousands of spectators, brightly decorated carnival floats, marching bands and dance acts weaving the medieval streets. Less than an hour’s drive from Bristol, a touch longer if you grab the Mendip Explorer, there’s no reason to visit the smallest city in the UK, Wells.