Inside England’s smallest town – where the swans ring the bells for their supper

Vicars Close, Wells Cathedral, Somerset, England – Joe Daniel Price

Moira Andersen might have the best job title in Britain. “I’m the swan whisperer,” she told me, “or the crazy swan lady from Wells!” More officially, she is administrator of the city’s Episcopal Palace, but she has developed such a close relationship with its iconic birds that they have been listed in her job description.

Situated between the Mendips and the Somerset Levels, Wells is England’s smallest city – and, according to which? magazine’s 2022 poll, the best small town for a city break. It was colonized by the Romans, who were attracted by its homonymous springs.

In the 8th century, the Anglo-Saxons founded a cathedral here, which in 909 AD became the seat of the local bishopric. Later the bishopric moved to Bath, but in 1245 the Diocese of Bath & Wells was established, with the then new and quite extraordinary Wells Cathedral as its principal seat. The presiding bishop has lived in the city ever since.

Swans swimming on the moat of the Episcopal Palace - Grumpy Cow Studios

Swans swimming on the moat of the Episcopal Palace – Grumpy Cow Studios

“It is the only Bishop’s Palace in the UK where the Bishop is still in residence,” says Moira. (In 2014, when the church commission suggested the bishop could move somewhere cheaper to maintain, locals practically lynched them.)

It is also the only palace where the resident swans ring a bell for their supper. They’ve been doing it since the mid-19th century: it’s believed that a bored bishop’s daughter taught the adult birds, who passed the trick on to their cygnets. But a few years ago, when a new couple – Grace and Gabriel – were brought in to replace Brynn (deceased) and Wynn, who passed away, that task fell to Moira.

“When the swans were close, I rang the bell and threw food. Then I started lowering a string and encouraging the swans to ring it,” she explains. “This method of teaching probably hasn’t changed since the 1850s. We love a tradition here.

Swan Ringing a Bell - Tina Hares

Swan Ringing a Bell – Tina Hares

Moira is also known for hunting birds in the small town. If they walk down the beautiful High Street, she will speak to them well, then lead them back through the old Bishop’s Eye gatehouse back into the palace moat.

It’s a comedic image, seemingly straight out of Edgar Wright’s 2007 film Hot Fuzz, in which small-town police officers played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost must locate a missing swan – as well as bring down the villain. Neighborhood Watch Alliance.

It is not a coincidence. Director Wright grew up in Wells – a plaque is dedicated to him at the city’s Blue School, where he studied – and he filmed Hot Fuzz right here.

Nick Frost and Simon Pegg in Hot Fuzz - Matt Nettheim

Nick Frost and Simon Pegg in Hot Fuzz – Matt Nettheim

In the film, Wells replaces the fictional Sandford. The town’s 18th-century market cross is where young people scribble graffiti; his City News shop is where Frost buys Cornettos; his Crown Inn is where the cops drink – a police vest, worn in the film, now hangs at the bar. Siobhan Goodwin knows all of these places and more.

She started Wells Walking Tours 13 years ago, initially focusing on city highlights but soon adding a film tour. As Siobhan leads moviegoers through the market square and down medieval lanes, she sometimes even encounters locals who were playing extras.

“Wells definitely has a bit of Sandford about it,” Siobhan confesses. “The local police were involved. The missing swan scene is based on a true story. The same goes for the passage where they have to translate an incomprehensible farmer.

In a Hot Fuzz sequence, a reporter is skewered by a stone finial that is lethally pushed off a roof. It was filmed at St Cuthbert’s, a stunning 13th century church with impressive altarpieces (altarpieces).

However, in a factual, almost fictional twist, it was the spire of St Thomas’ Church in Wells, across town, that blew up quite dramatically during Storm Eunice in February 2022. Thankfully, no one was impaled.

This arrow was replaced in the summer. But it’s an addition to Wells Cathedral – once called ‘the most poetic in England’ – that has caused more consternation. This early Gothic building is stunning, with elegant scissor arches, lavish stained glass windows, an ornate octagonal chapter house, and a clock with the second-oldest mechanism in the country.

The sculpture

Antony Gormley’s “Doubt” sculpture at Wells Cathedral – Finnbarr Webster

The finest is its west front, which was carved from Somerset limestone in the 13th century and features an astonishing collection of medieval sculpture. About 300 of the original 400 statues survive. And for a year (until spring 2023), one of these empty niches has hosted Doubt, a cast iron work by Anthony Gormley.

“I’m very aware of the paradox of placing an object called Doubt on a building dedicated to belief, but it seems to me that doubting, questioning, questioning are all part of belief,” Gormley said. A group of cathedral onlookers whom I overheard admiring this capital facade sounded very dubious: “What would they have thought of that in the Middle Ages?”

What indeed. It is a small town with great, long-standing traditions. And is all the greater.

How to do

Stay at the Swan Hotel (where else?), which has cathedral views and rooms from around £100.

Wells Walking Tours cost from £7 pp (07961 159122; wellswalkingtours.co.uk). Entry to the Bishop’s Palace costs £16 per person and tickets are valid for one year; the palace is currently dressed up for Christmas (01749 988111; bishopspalace.org.uk).

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