Since we were in the area already, we wanted to take a quick day-trip to Wells which is the smallest city in England with a population of only 10,000 people (Historically, to be considered a city in the United Kingdom, the town had to have a cathedral). The city gets its name from the water wells located inside the imposing cathedral that completely dominates the skyline of the small city and is visible from miles around. The most unique feature of the 12th-century cathedral is the modern looking scissor arches – which were actually built in the 14th century – that help stabilize the tallest tower in the cathedral.
Wells Cathedral is also purported to be the only cathedral in England that still has a Vicars’ Close and a Bishop’s Palace – the seat of the Bishop of Bath and Wells – still intact. The Vicars’ Close was built in the 13th and 14th centuries and was built to accommodate the chantry priests and other clergy members who served the cathedral. The Close is also said to be the oldest continuously-inhabited street in all of Europe.
Fans of the movie Hot Fuzz (as I am), may be interested to know that the movie was filmed in Wells which I had no idea until luckily noticing the similarities between Wells and Sandford while randomly watching the movie several days later.
After seeing all the sights, we stopped at a little micropub called Just Ales to mingle with some of the extremely friendly locals and have a few pints of “real cider” which is unique to the region. The cider comes straight from the farm that the apples are grown at and, unlike other cider, has no carbonation. Each batch made can vary widely from previous batches meaning you never quite know how it is going to taste. Though not our favorite, I’m glad we were able to sample a few ciders while in the area since they are so distinctive to West England.
Wells is a relatively small city so other than the Cathedral and its surrounding buildings, there is not much to do in the city. However, that is not to say that it is not worth it to visit as the cathedral is beautiful and the city has an incredibly charming small-town feel. Walking down Vicars’ Close was a lot like stepping into a time machine and though I had not actually heard of it until I stepped foot into the city, I am glad I did a little exploring to find it. As a whole, I would definitely see the city if you are nearby and have an hour or two to spare.
Our next stop on our tour through western England was Bath. Bath’s name originated from the famous Roman baths that have been in use there since 60AD which the rest of the city was eventually built around. Most buildings in the city were built in the beautiful Georgian style and were constructed using the unique Bath Stone which is mined nearby, giving the buildings an attractive golden hue that is distinctive to the city. This architectural feature is evident immediately on entrance to the city and gives it a charm unlike any other English city we have been to thus far.
The baths in which Bath is famous for were discovered and utilized around 2000 years ago by the Romans who occupied the city. They were later renovated by the Victorians, sparking the beginning of Bath’s emergence as a tourist destination and led the entire city to eventually become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The baths are fed by three hot springs which produce more than a million liters of water a day and are now considered THE must-see tourist attraction in Bath. Upon visiting, you are able to tour the baths, wandering around the rooms that make them up, which include the changing rooms, the small underground pools, and the open-air “Great Bath,” the whole time learning about the extremely interesting history of the baths and enjoying its unique Roman artifacts. You are unfortunately unable to swim in the Baths due to the lead pipes used by the Romans which are still in use today, however, there is a spa in town that utilizes the same springs as the other baths, allowing you to get the same experience in the baths that the Romans would have 2 millennia ago.
On our visit to Bath, we took a walking tour to see some of the other popular tourist sights in the city. The tour started at the beautiful Bath Abbey which was rebuilt in the 16th century and overlooks the Roman Baths. Though we did not realize it at the time, the public is able to take the stairs to the topmost tower in the abbey to get a panoramic view of the city below. The Abbey is incredible and I would highly recommend stopping by late in the day as it is beautiful when lit up at night and also much less crowded inside.
From there, our tour guide took us around the city to see some of the cities more important architectural buildings including the massive Royal Crescent, a semi-elliptical crescent of houses that is a prime example of the distinct Georgian style that Bath is known for. A museum at 1 Royal Crescent provides visitors with a look inside one of the insanely expensive townhouses which has been redecorated and furnished to look exactly as it would have when the building was built and first occupied in the 18th century.
Another highly photographed site in Bath is the Pulteney Bridge which spans the river Avon and overlooks the impressive Pulteney Weir below. The Bridge was completed in 1773 and is known for being one of only four bridges in the world with shops across its entire length on both sides. The bridge was also the filming site of Javert’s suicide in the 2012 musical/drama Les Miserables of which I am unashamed to say is my favorite musical. If you are a fan of 19th-century literature – which includes the novel from which the musical was inspired by – Bath was also home to famous author Jane Austen in the early 1800s and now houses the Jane Austen Centre, a museum that chronicles the writer’s life and times.
Later, we replaced some of the calories we burned on our two-hour walking tour with a trip to Sally Lunn’s Buns, one of the oldest houses in all of Bath and home to Sally Lunn’s world-famous buns. These sweet buns are a favorite of the citizens of Bath and can be served either sweet or savory. We settled on a delicious sweet bun slathered with cinnamon butter. Sally Lunn’s buns have a long-standing rivalry with the Bath Bun which is more doughy and sweeter and if you have a sweet tooth I would highly recommend having one of each to see which you like better.
Other than Sally Lunn’s buns, my favorite part of Bath was the Komedia, a comedy club located smack-dab in the middle of the city that one night we literally stumbled upon just minutes before a show began. Not knowing what we were in store for, we took a chance and bought some tickets and were by no means disappointed by this shot in the dark. Britain’s particular style of comedy was in full effect as we laughed out loud to some of the best comedians the city has to offer.
Overall, Bath was a very enjoyable stop on our tour through England. Besides its wonderful Georgian architecture, many museums, and delicious Bath buns, the city also lies on the southern edge of the Cotswolds, the widely-renowned area designated an “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”. There are a diverse range of attractions in the city that make the city a more than worthwhile stop if you want a change from the intense hustle and bustle of London. Conveniently, the city is also within an hour drive of several amazing nearby towns, each beautiful in their own right, including Bristol, Bradford on Avon, and Oxford.
- Even though we visited during a non-peak time for tourism in Bath, the Roman Baths were extremely crowded. Be aware of this if visiting in the summer and prepare yourself accordingly.
- If on a short vacation to England in winter, be aware that much of your time will be wet and rainy so expect to want to spend a lot of time indoors.
- Bath’s walking tour is the only place we have been to where the city tour is done by unpaid volunteers that refuse any sort of payment or tip. I would take advantage of this fact, especially if you are on a tight budget.
- Despite there being somebody at the entrance to Bath Abbey to accept donations, Bath Abbey is free to enter, though it may not look that way.