Your kids will need no persuading to visit Wells, the smallest city in England – it’s full of tales of dragons and witches. The medieval city in Somerset is also home to swans that perform tricks, spectacular caves and one of Britain’s most beautiful cathedrals. It makes the perfect place for an easygoing city break with children: it’s easy to walk around and there’s so much to capture their interest.
You’ll only need a day to see most of the sights but it’s such a lovely location that you’ll want to stay longer and use the city as a base to explore more of the area. Bath, Weston-Super-Mare and Cheddar Gorge are all within easy reach.
Try to catch the swans ringing the bells at the Bishop’s Palace
The medieval Bishops’s Palace in the centre of Wells has been home to the Bishops of Bath and Wells for over 800 years. The swans that live in the moat here are famous for ringing the bell beside the gatehouse when they want to be fed. They were first taught this by a bishop’s daughter in the 1870s and the tradition has been kept up ever since. The nine cygnets born here in early May are already learning the skill.
The Bishop’s Palace is worth a visit in its own right. Set behind an imposing gatehouse with a portcullis and drawbridge, you can walk around some of the palace’s most impressive rooms, dress up in bishop’s clothes from the dressing up box and hunt for dragons on the staircase.
The Bishop’s Palace is open every day from 10am until 4pm, until 6pm from March until October. Adults, from £7.25; children, from £3.05; under 5s, free.
Walk down the oldest medieval street in England
Vicars’ Close is believed to be the only complete medieval street left in England. It was built in the early 14th century to provide housing for the Vicars Choral who sang daily worship in the cathedral and the cathedral choristers and organists still live in the houses today – it’s the oldest street in Europe that is still being used for what it was built for.
You can walk all the way up the street to the chapel at the end. The houses themselves are charming, with roses climbing over the door and cats sleeping on benches in the pretty cottage gardens.
Watch the knights jousting above the cathedral clock
Wells Cathedral is one of the finest Gothic cathedrals in Britain. Its stained-glass windows are some of the most beautiful in Europe. Don’t miss the clock – it’s the second oldest surviving clock face in the world and every 15 minutes the jousting knights gallop around the turret above the clock face. The same poor knight has been knocked down every quarter of an hour for over 600 years.
Wells Cathedral is open every day from 7am until 6pm, until 7pm from April to September. Entrance is free but donations are welcome.
Visit the witch at Wookey Hole
Britain’s most spectacular caves are only two miles outside of Wells. The legend of the Witch of Wookey has fascinated visitors since medieval times when an old woman lived alone in the caves with her dog and some goats. The locals believed she was a witch and everything that went wrong in the village was blamed on her.
The Abbot from nearby Glastonbury Abbey sent a monk, Father Bernard, to exorcise her. He entered the caves armed only with a Bible and a candle. While she screamed curses at him, he sprinkled holy water over her and she turned to stone. You can still find her figure in the cave called The Witch’s Kitchen.
The caves themselves are millions of years old and were lived in by cavemen 50,000 years ago. They’re full of stalactites, stalagmites and stunning waterfalls of crystalline stone.
Wookey Hole has a range of other attractions too, including a Sci-Fi circus show, Valley of the Dinosaurs with 20 life-sized dinosaurs and a wizards’ play barn.
Wookey Hole Caves are open every day from 10am until 5pm. Adults, from £15.73; children, from £11.90.
See the chained library in the cathedral
Ever wondered what the Restricted Section in the library at Hogwarts might look like? Climb up the stone spiral staircase in the cathedral and you’ll find one of only four chained libraries left in the UK. Centuries old leather-bound books are attached to the shelves with heavy chains.
Built in the mid 15th century, it’s the longest medieval library in England and over half of the books are in Latin and Greek. There’s a copy of the first ever world atlas, the first mathematics book published in England in 1522 and Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World, written while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.
Climb a tree in the Bishop’s Garden
The 14-acre gardens in the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace are absolutely delightful and the perfect place for hide and seek. Children are encouraged to climb the trees, walk along the ramparts and play in the new activity area, The Dragon’s Lair.
There’s a sensory trail around the grounds encouraging you to listen to the sounds of the waterfall, smell the flowers and touch the knobbly trunks of the mulberry trees. Wander deeper into the gardens and you’ll find the natural springs that give Wells its name. If you look closely you can sometimes see water bubbling up from the Bottomless Well – the water bubbles up at a rate of 100 litres a second.
Find the dragon mosaic on a walk into the countryside
Myths and legends surround this part of Somerset and there’s a story of a dragon in the 13th century who terrorised the locals by eating children and sheep. It was eventually killed by Bishop Jocelin but before it died it warned the people of Wells that if it was not honoured every 50 years it would come back to life. Local schoolchildren made a mosaic to show the dragon that it had been remembered.
You can find the mosaic by taking a lovely walk into the countryside from the Bishop’s Palace. The 45-minute walk take you through fields and woods, through kissing gates and past pillboxes left over from the Second World War.
You can download a copy of the walk from the Wells Tourist Office website.