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Vicar’s Close in Wells is, by far, the most Instagrammable location in England’s smallest city but how much do you really know about it?
Beyond it being a quaint historic cul-de-sac, this gorgeous street has a claim to be Europe’s oldest purely residential street built 650 years ago! Some say, it’s the only entirely medieval street to still exist on the continent.
It was built all the way back in the 14th century and every house in this close remains intact and has changed very little since then!
As its name would suggest, this street used to be home to the Vicar’s Choral of Wells who would study and practice in the nearby cathedral.
Here’s a complete guide to Vicar’s Close Wells with the history, how to visit and what to look out for while you’re here.
What is Vicar’s Close?
Vicar’s Close is a medieval residential street that started being constructed in 1348 by the Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury. Although originally the street was made with 42 residences, this is now 27 houses which are all Grade I listed buildings.
As well as homes, this cul-de-sac has a chapel and library at the north end and a Vicar’s Hall at the south end which is perched on top of an arched gateway. Nearby, there is a stairway that connects the close to Wells Cathedral via the Chain Gate.
The street is 460 feet long (140 metres) and 10 feet (3 metres) wide. However, you may find that it looks different sizes when you stand at either end.
From the cathedral side at the south end, it appears a lot longer than its true size. Then, as you make your way to the north end of the close it appears much shorter. This is due to the cobbled pathway that gradually gets wider as you walk towards the Cathedral – It’s almost like a medieval optical illusion!
The history of Vicar’s Close in Wells
Originally, the land was granted by a canon of Wells Cathedral called Walter de Hulle. He gifted the area to the church with the aim of housing chantry priests in a communal area. Apparently, before the houses were built, Vicar’s were living in amongst the townsfolk and succumbing to all sorts of worldly temptations!
Later, they were called the Vicars Choral as they served the church by singing divine services eight times a day. This ancient tradition from the 1100’s still takes place and is a unique and valued part of the cathedral’s heritage.
The Bishop Ralph of Shrewsbury ordered the construction of the houses in 1348 along with the Vicar’s Dining Hall which was placed at the south end of the street.
Later, the Chained Gate Bridge was created for the close to have convenient access to Wells Cathedral. There is a room here, known as The Chequer, where one of the Vicars would collect rents.
Next door is the Muniment Room which used to store important documents like land leases. Underneath is The Treasury where the Vicars vestments would be kept.
The chimney’s in the close where built in the early 15th century along with the Vicar’s Chapel at the north end. A random fact about this chapel is that it’s eight degrees out of alignment with the rest of the street due to being built on top of an old wall of The Liberty of St Andrew! To compensate, it has a slightly angled roof. The bottom floor has a chapel and the top floor has a library.
Each of the residences in the street were built with Triassic Sandstone which forms part of the Mercia Mudstone Group and belonged to one vicar. They would have two open plan floors with two fireplaces and a washroom with a latrine out the back door!
Who lives in Vicar’s Close Wells now?
Today, Vicar’s Close still houses all twelve men of the Vicars Choral, plus it also provides residence for the organists, students, bellringers and virgers who serve the cathedral. I don’t think this will stop anytime soon either. The Vicars Choral have been serving the cathedral for almost a millennia.
Although, I dare say that the inside of the houses have had some developments since they were first made. Probably some much needed plumbing for an indoor washroom and some central heating beyond a fire?
On my recent visit, I did also see a very sweet fluffy house cat that was chasing some of the magpies around the close. To be fair, they were making a right racket!
What to see in Vicar’s Close
So, what is there to see while you’re in the close? Of course, I totally get that you’re probably going to be busy snapping away at the amazing views. I did when I first got there.
But, don’t forget to look out for these amazing gems hidden inside the cul-de-sac while you’re here..
1. Vicars’ Hall & gateway
The Vicar’s Hall was one of the first buildings to be constructed in the close in 1348. This communal area was built above an arched pedestrian entry gate to the street.
This originally had a store room, kitchen and a bakehouse inside and this is where the Vicars would eat on a daily basis together.
Although you cannot see all the rooms from outside on the close, inside there is the Chequer room, the Muniment and The Treasury.
Apparently, one of the vicars was called The Receiver who would collect rents due from tenants around the city and also other payments due to the Vicars. This was kept in a large chest.
Later, the Chained Gate Bridge was built by Thomas Beckington in 1459. This connected the Vicar’s Hall to Wells Cathedral for their convenience.
2. 27 residential homes with quirky chimneys
Years ago, there were originally 42 houses that were lined up along this street. They were built to align on a quadrangle similar to those at Oxford with 22 houses on one side and 20 on the other.
When they were originally built, they were single households which had one residence per Vicar. However, when clergymen were permitted to marry in the 15th century some of the walls in the houses were knocked down or extended to make room for families.
Originally, the houses were set on two floors with a fire place on each one. There would be a washing facility and latrine outside and water was provided by two wells at either end of the close. Later, lead pipes were built to bring water inside .
The walled gardens were never part of the original plan and were installed a century later as well as were the quirky chimney shafts!
This historic street has also been featured in a number of productions, most famously the 1972 version of The Canterbury Tales by Pier Paolo Pasolini.
3. A medieval optical illusion
I think the most surprising thing for me about visiting this close was the fact that it’s size is almost an illusion… At one end of the close the street looks much shorter than it does at the other!
The road is 460 feet long or 140 metres that has a cobbled stone path running down the middle of the quadrangle.
This pathway is at its widest near the cathedral end but gradually gets narrower as you walk towards the chapel. So, it looks longer if you stand on the cathedral side and looks a lot smaller if you’re standing near the Chapel library!
It’s really trippy, why not try and see it for yourself?
4. Vicars Chapel & Library
The Vicar’s Chapel at the smaller side of the street was built 1424 as a temple dedicated to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Katherine.
The chapel had two functions. On the bottom floor was a temple for worship and then upstairs was a library that could be accessed by a spiralling staircase.
Today, it is still used by the chaplain of Wells Cathedral School and sometimes is opened up for visitors.
5. The gorgeous view of Wells Cathedral!
If you’re wondering where the most Instagrammable place in Wells is then you can find the best photography spot on the chapel end of Vicar’s Close.
As you turn around, you get this incredible view of the Wells Cathedral towering over the street and at the bottom you have this gorgeous row of historic houses beneath!
I would personally suggest visiting this street early morning if you wanted clear shots as the close sees so many tourists who wander through here during the day.
I’d also prepare for the fact that there can sometimes be cars parked inside the close. But, it doesn’t happen very often.
How to visit Vicar’s Close Wells
The oldest residential street in Europe can be accessed in England’s smallest city of Wells in Somerset. It’s really easy to locate once you’re in the city on foot as it can be found adjacent to Wells Cathedral.
From the staggering West Front of the cathedral, head around towards the Chained Gate Bridge. You’ll see it opposite the famous 14th century clock (one of the oldest working clocks in the British Isles FYI). Head under the pedestrian gate and there you’ll find the close!
Vicar’s Close is FREE to visit and open 24 hours a day. As it’s a residential street, always remember to be respectful of those living here.
What else is there to do in Wells?
After you have taken a million photos of this gorgeous street, there are plenty of things to do in this amazing city!
Of course, you’ve probably seen the highlight attraction of Wells Cathedral on your way here. It’s West Front definitely has the ‘WOW’ factor! It was one of the first Gothic cathedrals built in England and the intricate carvings are said to be the finest example in Europe.
There is nothing better than relaxing on the Cathedral Green whilst overlooking this fantastic monument or going inside and exploring whats in its walls. Don’t forget to wait for the Wells Cathedral Clock to ring out where you’ll see jousting knights and a Quarter Jack ring the bell!
Just beyond that through the Paupers Gate, you’ll find the medieval Market Square and you can head on inside the Bishop’s Palace. This is where the Bishop of Wells has lived for over 800 years. You can explore the museum and their impressive gardens overlooking the cathedral.
Even if you don’t wish to go inside, a walk around it’s defensive moat is still impressive and you’ll find the Bishop’s Barn at the Recreational Park. Or, head on over to St Cuthbert’s Church with the Artisan Quarter nearby.
Where is Wells in England and how to get there?
This tiny cathedral city is located in the county of Somerset in the South West of England. It’s around 20 miles from Bath, 22 miles from Bristol and 6 miles from Glastonbury.
The easiest and most convenient way is to drive. You can easily locate Wells from the M5, using the A39 road. Or, the M4 using the A37. However, there are some public transport options as well.
By Train: There are no direct train services to Wells. However, you could get a train to Bristol Temple Meads, Bath Spa or Frome and switch to a bus service from there.
By Bus: Wells has many bus services that connect the city with Bristol, Bath, Weston-Super-Mare, Shepton Mallet and Glastonbury. Click here to plan your journey.
Parking: There are plenty of visitor car parks in Wells that are just a few minutes walk to the cathedral and historic part of the city. I parked on Union Street which is the closest. These are pay and display.
Where to stay in Wells
- Ancient Gatehouse Hotel – As the name would suggest, this historic hotel has been part of the Great West Gate where you can access Wells Cathedral since 1453. It overlooks the West Front and Cathedral Green. Although the hotel has many original features, the rooms are very much new and very cosy. Click here to book.
- The Swan Hotel – The Swan Hotel is over 600 years old and has a stunning view of Wells Cathedral. They even their own private terrace overlooking the Cathedral Green and has outside seating for a drink or dinner. It has recently been sympathetically restored and has 48 boutique rooms. Click to book.
- Beryl Country House – Just a mile out of Wells is this impressive country home that exudes English charm with elegant decor, classic furniture, open fireplaces and porcelain china. It that has several luxury rooms to rent, an award winning breakfast to wake up to and an outdoor pool! Click to enquire.