We began our four day break centred around Bath by visiting Wells in Somerset which lies 22 miles to the south west of the city. I’d long wanted to visit Wells, as it’s England’s smallest city, nestled on the edge of the Mendip Hills with its roots dating back to Roman times. The name of Wells is derived from its three wells, one is to be found in the market place whilst the other two are located in the cathedral and Bishop’s Palace.
After finding somewhere to park we began our visit with a stroll through the delightful market place which is lined with a mix of small independent boutiques and quality high street retailers. A twice weekly market takes place each Wednesday and Saturday and although we hadn’t come along on market day the town still seemed lively as Wells is a popular tourist destination.
Wells Cathedral stands proudly at the top of the high street and is free to enter (donations welcome). The cathedral is dedicated to St. Andrew the Apostle and is the seat of the Bishops of Bath and Wells.
It has been described as one of the most beautiful churches of all time and the earliest English cathedral to be constructed in Gothic style, taking around 300 years to build. The exterior is stunning, especially its west façade which contains over 300 sculpted figures on its walls.
We opted for a self guided tour but free guided tours run by volunteers take place at regular intervals. Highlights include its 14th century astronomical clock, the octagonal chapter house and beautiful cloisters.
Leaving there, we took a stroll along Vicar’s Close, a picturesque narrow, cobblestone street lying close to the cathedral. This 140 m (150 yard) lane is the only complete medieval street left in England with all of its buildings intact. The Close contains 27 residences and was built to accommodate the priests of the Vicars Choral.
Moving on, our next destination was to the Bishop’s Palace and Gardens. Standard tickets cost £16 and are valid for 12 months providing access to the medieval palace, ruined great hall, undercroft, chapel and 14 acres of exquisite gardens.
The croquet lawns and Bishop’s Table Cafe are free to visit and definitely worth a look even if you do not have time to explore further.
The Bishop’s Palace has been located adjacent to the cathedral for almost 800 years and is approached by a moat and fortified walls. We crossed the flagstone drawbridge over the moat and walked beneath the portcullis to enter the palace grounds.
The moat has been the home to mute swans since the 1800’s when it is believed that a bishop’s daughter taught a swan to ring a bell at the gatehouse for food. There are now two of these bells, one on each side of the gatehouse with a rope hanging down for the swans to pull.
Our self-guided visit took us through the portrait hall which documents historical details of the palace along its walls and of the bishops who resided there. The Bishop’s Chapel is also lovely to see as it contains an ornate vaulted ceiling.
For us though, the Palace Gardens were the star attraction and with our visit taking place in mid-summer the herbaceous borders were awash with colour. There has been evidence of a garden here since 1220 and over this time there have been many notable changes. In 2016 it became an RHS partner garden awarded for its outstanding high standards of planting and design. Entry to the garden is free to RHS members most Friday’s.
Just as we were returning to the car it began raining heavily but thankfully by the time we had reached Cheddar Gorge, 10 miles from Wells, the inclement weather had passed. Cheddar Gorge lies on the edge of the village of Cheddar and is a dramatic limestone gorge of towering cliffs located in the Mendip Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
A narrow, winding road passes through the centre of the gorge with numerous small pay and display car parks on both sides of the road. The actual gorge is a public road with footpaths which are free to access but I recommend purchasing a Cheddar Gorge and Caves Explorer Ticket (Standard tickets £20.95) which includes admission to two sets of caves, the museum and the lookout tower.
We began our tour by visiting the caves, starting with Gough’s Cave. Tours are self-guided with the aid of audio guides and as the route is clearly signposted there is no danger of getting lost. This cave was excavated in the late 19th century and is the largest of the Cheddar Gorge show caves. Listening to our audio guides and reading the information boards we learnt that the cave began to form over half a million years ago when river water began dissolving the limestone rock. The cave is named after Richard Gough who discovered it in the early 1890’s.
The caverns are vast so unlike most other cave systems we have visited, there is no stooping or negotiating your way along narrow passageways to contend with. Exploring the cave, we looked in awe at the many stalactite and stalagmite formations, the soaring chambers of St. Paul’s and the towering spires of Solomon’s Temple. Not only did we witness these dramatic cave formations but we also saw shelves of the world famous Cheddar cheese which had been placed inside the caves to mature as the year round underground temperature of 11 degrees Celsius is ideal for this process.
In 1903 Cheddar Man, a hunter gatherer who lived around 10,000 years ago was discovered in this cave. This is the oldest complete skeleton ever found in Britain and has been conserved with the original on display in the Natural History Museum in London.
After visiting the spectacular Gough’s Cave we turned our attention to Cox’s Cave close by. Some bending is required in this show cave as it is not quite as accessible as Gough’s. This cave tour is also self-guided but with quite a different style as visitors begin their tour by watching a short video clip entitled Dreamhunters – the adventures of early man. A door then opens into the cave system and as we made our way through the cave, a multi-media experience of sound and light is projected onto the rock face at various points along the route. The experience takes approximately 30 minutes bringing to life the early hunter gatherers on the walls of the caves.
Back above ground we adjusted our eyes to the daylight and crossed the road to visit the Museum of Prehistory. This small museum tells the story of how our ancestors lived through the ice age with displays of flint tools and an assortment of objects that our ancestors would have used in their daily lives. There’s also more detailed information on Cheddar Man with a replica of his skeleton on display. Close to the exit is a discovery room with lots of hands on activities for children led by helpful guides dressed in pre-historic costumes.
Leaving there, it was then time for some exercise as we climbed the 274 wooden steps of Jacob’s Ladder which we accessed from slightly further down the hill. This staircase opened in 1808 and has several passing places where you can pause for a breather if required.
On reaching the top of the ladder there are a further 48 steps up to the top of the 14m high Lookout Tower. This tower, which was originally constructed from wood was first known as the White Tower but was re-built in 1936 in wrought iron.
It was definitely worth the effort to climb to the top of the Lookout Tower as even though it was quite hazy, we had good views across the Mendip plateau to Glastonbury Tor and over the Cheddar reservoir.
After descending the lookout tower, visitors can either retrace their steps back down Jacob’s Ladder or follow the way markers along the cliff-top walk. The path continues uphill to the upper edge of the gorge.
Looking over the rim we enjoyed spectacular views of the gorge and the surrounding countryside. Most people seemed to turn back at this point but we decided to continue.
With hindsight, I would actually recommend doing the same as the path deteriorated and became much steeper and was quite slippery underfoot along the dry river bed. Additionally, after admiring the dramatic views of the gorge there was little else of note to see.
Our walk took around 2 hours as it was slow going in places before reaching the road which we walked along to return to the car. Along there, we spotted numerous wild goats seemingly clinging to the hillside and in other places rock climbing enthusiasts scaling sections of the gorge.
Close to the cave entrances are numerous cafes and gift shops many having local Cheddar cheese and Somerset cider on sale for visitors to take home and savour as reminders of visiting the gorge.
If you’re not up for taking the cliff top walk, views of the gorge can be seen by watching Beyond the view – a virtual tour of Cheddar Gorge which is also included in the explorer ticket. This 15 minute video starts in Cheddar village and then climbs over 450ft to the top of the gorge itself. The screening has seating for up to 30 visitors and is shown throughout the day.
We spent four and a half hours at the gorge and if you also plan to make full use of the explorer ticket I would suggest allowing a similar length of time for your visit as there is so much to see and do. I hope you find my review of Cheddar Gorge useful in planning a visit as this stunning natural phenomenon should be high on your ‘must see’ itinerary if touring the area.
Soon after returning to our car it started to rain again so we had been very lucky to dodge the showers whilst we were outdoors. Our final destination of the day was to the historic city of Bath where we planned to base ourselves for the following three nights. We had booked accommodation at the beautiful Hotel Indigo Bath located in a honey coloured Bath stone terrace on South Parade.
After such a busy day it was lovely to be able to relax in our comfortable room and to enjoy complimentary drinks and snacks from our mini bar. The end of a fabulous day exploring Wells and Cheddar Gorge for the first time.
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