Wednesday 13th June by CarpediemEire
The first day of a trip exploring the Somerset and Bath region of the UK.
Flights to Bristol from Dublin leave at a ridiculously early time of 6:40. No consideration for those who are night people. That’s me.Now I concede it panders to business people, but was hard work to get up mid-night. For this trip there was three of us, Nina my daughter joining us.
Positive thing about the early start was arriving in Bristol exceptionally early with a full day to explore. The airport is quite decent in Bristol and car hire is not far outside the terminal building. As we booked a good deal through Rentalcars.com we had to head to the pick up area to be collected. Our company was Green Motion a company dedicated to reducing their carbon footprint so we were off to a good start. I was content to hire a Volkswagen Polo, but they offered me an upgrade. My idea of a free upgrade was rebuked. The offer was a Mercedes A-class for £15 extra per day. I wilted them down to £10. Good deal.
Happy with my motor we made the short drive south into the town of Cheddar. The town which lent its name to the famous choice of cheese, is unashamedly touristic. This owes not only to the products but the town’s location. Sited at the foot of a deep gorge, the largest in the country, a winding road weaves through this gorge. We continued through the town first and out into the gorge. Massive steep walls rise on both sides of the road and its a beautiful drive through to the Mendip Hills. The limestone gorge rises up to 130 metres. We continued on for some miles before turning back in the direction of the town. We paused a few times on the way back, some caves catching our eye, but mostly for the gorges population of Soay Sheep, those dark woolied wild inhabitants of the area. They can be found running everywhere.
We were still a little early to visit the attractions of Cheddar and the town was mostly asleep. We parked the car on the outskirts and walked in (hard to know where to pay for parking, but we got it later with our ticket). We had coffees and croissants in Costa. That give ample time for the ticket office to open. Tickets cost us £55 in total with access to all Cheddar Gorge attractions.
We first explored Gough’s Cave. This cave is famed for the discovery of the full skeletal remains of Cheddar Man, a 9000 year old male. It is the oldest complete remains found in the UK. Since then a mammoth and more human remains dating back to the 15th century BC. Evidence suggests the grizzly fact that these people were cannibals. How macabre. The show cave itself allows you to explore 800 metres of the 3kms, with some nice calcite formations to be seen. Highlights are the mirrored pools of Aladdin’s Cave and the cool storage of some of Cheddars finest produce within.
Having left the cave we took a stroll through the town. It’s a pretty town with the cheddar river running through. To the right and above stands an indomitable rock, and viewed from the right angle, it really does resemble a lion. So aptly called Cheddar Lion. Cox’s Cave is the victim of some bad reviews so we gave it a miss. We briefly called into the museum of prehistory but it wasn’t too interesting. The towns Main Street is short, and is a succession of cheese, craft or tourist shops, buoyed by cafes and restaurants. But we liked it. Generally we having a liking for anything cheese. The Cheddar river which created the gorge before later becoming submerged and creating the towns caves adds to some beautiful backdrops.
We now turned our focus to the gorge itself. Jacob’s Ladder is a stairs leading to the top entry to which is included in your ticket price. It’s a 274 step climb to the top which we found tough going after the early start. Eventually making it to the top, we went for those extra few and up the Lookout Tower. Beautiful views of the local area. The circular walk takes in a three-mile route around the pinnacles, taking in the views down in to the gorge, and over the meadowed fields to the sides. But we never made it. Nina planted herself on a rock, exhausted and unable to continue. Poor thing. So we abandoned the plan, and descended Jacobs Ladder.
If you haven’t come by car, an open top bus runs throughout the day and through the gorge. We didn’t use as we had already driven that route in the morning.
I was intrigued to visit Glastonbury Tor, its hill-top location suggested views across the surrounding counties. En route, Nina exhausted from the early start fell into a slumber. When we arrived at the tower I unexpectedly discovered there was a good hike between the car and the top. For once in my life I turned my back on a tower and drove off.
I had my eyes set on a bigger prize. The city of Wells, Britain’s smallest city lay twenty minutes to the north. GPS directed me to a car park that I couldn’t find, but we found a Waitrose shopping centre and this was perfect for accessing the city. They even had a vending machine selling maps on the way out so I guess we weren’t the only ones to abandon our car here and head into the city.
What a beautiful city Wells is. From first sight lines of terraced houses dating back centuries greeted us. These were the city of Wells almshouses. Most of these are inaccessible. We took a path that led us up Priests Row and by St Cuthberts church. More almshouses were in the vicinity. This took us to High Street.
High Street is awash with tourists and shoppers. A small channel of water constantly runs down the street. Arriving at the Market Place the awesome sight of the Penniless Porch and Bishops Eye Gate stand before you. The Penniless Porch was constructed in 1450 as an entrance into the Cathedral Green. But the bishop who commissioned it also did so to allow beggars somewhere to beg. When I was there a busker plied his trade in so doing maintaining hundreds of years of tradition.
We exited the square is using the amazing Bishops Eye Gate. Also built in 1450 as a pair with the Penniless Porch, this is more photogenic owing to its more centred location. Both were constructed using ashlar stone, it’s colour adding to the beauty.
The first sight that greets you is the moat, walls and entrance tower of the Bishops Palace. These are beautiful and took us away from our destination for a few minutes.
We went first to Vicars Close, the route passing by Wells Cathedral. Aesthetically it is probably Britain’s most beautiful cathedral, our eyes drawn as we walked by and towards the close. Passing under the arches of Vicars Hall and Chain Gate we arrived in the close. The houses are quirky and quaint, a full terrace lining each side of the road. Their elongated chimneys added to their charm. The close was built in the 14th Century and is the oldest surviving fully intact residential street in Europe. The houses were built to provide lodgings for the priests of the cathedrals choir. Clever design makes it seem that the street is longer from the cathedral end looking down. It’s a remarkable construction for the time and wonderful that it has survived all this time. To think of all the souls that have passed along this historical promenade.
We made our way back to visit Wells Cathedral. The cathedral’s west front has one of the highest concentrations of medieval sculpture in the world. Over 300 statues grace the front, with Christ topping all. It’s a beautiful facade and among the more aesthetic I have ever seen. Once inside the building doesn’t stop to amaze. Constructed in the 12th century it contains a series of architectural triumphs.
Entry is free but donations are accepted, as no funding is received to maintain the daily costs. The first room we enter are the cloisters, where white ceiling and gold beams crisscross mesmerisingly. An exhibition recreating the Bayeux tapestry was on during our visit. Off the cloisters the pleasant camery garden and churchyard can be found. But its upon entering the nave that we start to see the cathedrals real beauty.
The church was sinking in the middle ages so a solution was drawn up. Scissor arches were created to disperse the weight of the sinking tower. They have a beautiful design and for me somewhat resemble an owl. Behind the arches the quire runs up the center of the church, light shining on it from the remarkable stainglass Jesse window. More architectural delights can be found in the undercroft, and in the unusual curved stairs that lead up to the chapter house. The chapter house itself has an amazing high ceiling resembling a canopy of trees. If you do one thing in the church make sure you are at the clock on the quarter-hour, as jostling knights circle round. The clock is an unusual one with all 24 hours of the day on the face.
I’ve been to many churches in my time, but I can safely say Wells ranks near the top. Circling every corner presents something another awe-inspiring sight. I will let my photos say their own words.
We backtracked to the Bishops Palace. The palace is an indication of the power and might of the church at the time. Dating from the 13th century, it is the most intact bishops palace in the country, and was the master plan of Bishop Jocelin the owner at the time. Crossing the moat with its swans (who ring a bell at feeding time) and under the magnificent portcullis gatehouse, we enter the lawns with the palace located across. Stand and admire, have a coffee, or buy a ticket for £8.95. Kids are £3.95. It’s worth it. The grounds and gardens within are beautiful.
We started by exploring the ruins of the Great Hall and out onto the rampart walls. Farmers toiled in the fields beyond, and one can catch a glimpse of Glastonbury Tor from here. We made our way into the chapel which is small and from here to the palace. The Palaces lower floors are somewhat uneventful, but the upper floor with its portrait lined Long Gallery are plush. The drawing-room has the huge coronation cape; lets hope coronations didn’t take place on summer days. Great use is made of the adjacent rooms, with local art displayed for sale in the east gallery. Nina enjoyed the chance to dress up in the panelled rooms, and loved the slightly obscure dragons lining the stairs of the house.
Easily missed but totally worth seeking out is the blue door that leads out from the lawns and into the gardens and arboretum. Here lies the famous wells, from which the city got its name and prompted the first settlers to stay. Besides this the gardens are a delight, and photo opportunities abound as the cathedral is reflected in the water. A kids play area is hidden in a corner here, for those of you with children.
Peckish after all our sightseeing we decided to have lunch in The Crown at Wells. We ordered and I ran back to the car park to top up on the parking. Clamping never makes for a good holiday. For an establishment that has been open many centuries the menu was a bit samey and the food a little average. It was cold there too a draught blowing through and we moved table a few times. Nina had sausages and chips and we had their burger.
We couldn’t leave the town without a few further looks at its treasures, and i’m glad we didn’t as the late spring of this year helped me to some more nice photos.
We needed some rest so we drove to Bristol. Our base of operations was the Malago Guesthouse a no frills option. The room was a triple and was good value for what we wanted; simple with car parking and on the outskirts of the city. The breakfast the following morning was continental, as one can often expect in a budget offering. We took some time to chill that evening before dining locally in an Italian restaurant called Mezzalunna. Not particularly hungry but still a long way from the next morning, we were content here to share a few pizzas. It filled us nicely before we called time on what was a long day.