Somerset Sidestep – A Day in Wells & Glastonbury

Didn’t I just say in my last post that I was pretending I don’t have to fly home soon? Now that it’s even closer to my flight home, it’s a bit harder to keep pretending I won’t be home soon, especially since my stuff is mostly all packed up now. If I can’t keep up the illusion that my trip isn’t over yet, at least I can keep reliving it through this blog, right? And since yesterday was such a full day, I’ve got a lot to relive!

While I don’t do day trips every time I come to the UK, I do often build them into my itineraries. I debated doing it this time, especially as I’ve hit many of the notable, day trip-suitable locales over the years, but then I realized there’s a place I could revisit that I don’t have strong memories of, since I went so long ago. That place is Glastonbury, in Somerset, which was one of the stops on my very first international trip in 2003. On that trip though, Steve was driving me (plus our friends Zoe and Cory) around, so it was easy to get where we wanted to go. Plus, Glastonbury was just one of the places we hit on a little English driving tour over a few days, so it didn’t necessarily stand out amongst the several places we went to. So why not go again? I knew I wouldn’t be able to spend much more time there on this trip, but I’m a more seasoned traveler now, so I thought I could get more out of it this time. I also knew I could take advantage of being in the area by adding a new-to-me, nearby town, Wells, to my itinerary. With that in mind a month or so ago, I checked train fares and booked my tickets. Easy-peasy!

For better or worse, this day trip involved catching a train around 7 AM from Paddington, which meant I had to be awake by about 6 AM – certainly NOT ideal when on vacation, but we travelers have to make these sacrifices, don’t we? The nice thing about being up and needing to get around London at that time is that the city is fairly quiet, which is something central London definitely isn’t most of the time, so it’s neat to experience. And thankfully, I just had to meander to the station that’s a minute or two from the hotel to catch the tube to Paddington, so it wasn’t a long walk. Once at Paddington, it was easy to follow the signs to the main station, where I quickly found my platform. In a first (for me), I booked specific seats on this trip (rather than just sitting in whatever was available), so I just made right for it when I got to the platform. Just made the travel experience that much easier!

You want to know what DIDN’T make my travel experience easier though? The fact that, upon arrival at Castle Cary (the nearest station to both Wells and Glastonbury, neither of which have their own stations), there was literally NO way for me to leave the station to get to Wells. “But Jeff, how did this happen?!” I hear you asking. Dear reader, it just came down to a combination of bad luck and not knowing enough about the area, I think! While I knew that I would need to get a taxi from Castle Cary to get to Wells, what I DIDN’T know is that I should have pre-booked one. There’s no Uber there, but there are several local taxi companies, most (or all, perhaps?) of which have signs up at the station. I called EVERY one of them (5-6 companies) and none of them could pick me up. I mean, really?! I was shocked! I looked into bus service as well, which seemed to be mediocre at best (there was no bus scheduled to be there for an hour and, even when it arrived, it would have taken another hour and a couple of transfers to get to Wells). I was both surprised and a bit irritated, but these things happen when you travel, so you just have to roll with it. Thankfully, the guy who answered one of my calls said that although he couldn’t get me right when I arrived, he could in about an hour, so I called him back after I ran out of companies to call and he said he’d be happy to get me. That meant that I had to sit on the platform at this little station for an hour, but it could have been worse. I was worried it would rain, but over the hour I was there, the clouds dissipated more and more, so at least there was a silver lining. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait too long – the driver got there when he said he would and then he got me safely to Wells. The next time you need a taxi in Castle Cary, talk to Ian at IT Cars! And, to avoid the need to wait around for a ride, pre-book with him. 🙂

Helllllllo Paddington! I don’t normally use this station, but it’s a big one with lots of rail connections to other parts of England.
Looking happy before the train left London.
Not a ton of people heading towards Castle Cary on a Monday morning!
Station of the Glastonbury Festival AND my home for an hour. Who knew! 🙂

Once my new pal Ian got me to Wells, I hit the ground running to ensure I could see all the things I wanted to (and had already booked). Although only one thing during my day was booked for a specific time (more on that in a bit), I had limited time in both Wells and Glastonbury and having to wait at the station for an hour meant that I didn’t have as much time as I wanted, so I headed straight for The Bishop’s Palace (weird name, I know, since I don’t think of bishops living in palaces), which has been the home of the local Church of England bishops for over 800 years (I guess it’s called Bishop’s rather than Bishops’ because only one bishop lives there at a time?). That’s still true today for some of the space, but the majority of it is used for public functions and, of course, as a place for tourists like me to visit.

To be honest, I was a little surprised at how little there is to see here from a building standpoint – just a chapel, a couple of function rooms on the ground level, and a couple of museum-type display rooms one floor up. Unsurprisingly, there’s no access to the current bishop’s residence (I’m not even sure where it is in relation to the parts I did visit), but thankfully there’s also a ton of garden and outdoor space to explore. The weather played nice, though it did cloud over and threaten to rain at one point (I felt a few sprinkles while I was in the garden), so I got to have a good (if a bit quick) walk around those gardens before moving on to the next place. I will say that, given what you can actually see here, the entry price of £16/$20 USD seems a bit steep, but that price actually gives you a one-year membership to the site, so you can come back as many times as you like in that year. Obviously I’m just going to go one time, but it’s nice that I could come back if I wanted to.

I’ll let my photos tell the visual story!

The entrance looked palace-y enough!
This wall is part of the ruins of the great hall, which was mostly demolished around 1830.
The chapel isn’t very big, is it?
Looking back towards the entrance from the altar.
This long hall is the only space to see on the ground floor (there’s another room to the right, but it was advertised as a function space and was set up with the kind of tables you’d see at a wedding reception).
I liked the dragons sitting atop the stair railings.
An old bishop’s chair.
The original Glastonbury Chair.
Some vestments worn by bishops from the area.
A prayer book from the 1600s. Looks to be in great shape!
The coronation cope worn by the bishop at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
The second museum-ish room has portraits of the various bishops.
Outside, I got my first glimpse at Wells Cathedral.
Strolling through the gardens in what used to be the great hall.
Scroll back up to the photo of the chapel looking towards the altar. This is what’s outside of that.
The gardens here are immaculate!
Lovely little waterfall.
Another view of the cathedral from the gardens.

One of the wells (springs from an underground river) for which the town of Wells is named.

A view of the boundary wall from the gardens (above the little waterfall).
I hope you aren’t sick of seeing the cathedral yet. Lots more to say about it!

The underground river also feeds larger pools like this one. Pretty cool that the moat provides an inbuilt way to deal with water overflow, eh?

These old walls provide a neat way to see the gardens from a higher view.

This is the one part of the day when I felt a few sprinkles, so a black-and-white photo felt appropriate.
A final view of the gardens before moving on to my next destination.

With my time at the palace at an end, it was time to move on to the next item on my itinerary – a guided tour of Wells Cathedral (next door to the Bishop’s Palace). It’s the seat for the local bishop (hence why the bishop lives next door) and was built in the late 13th century, so it’s pretty damn old. I’ve seen plenty of cathedrals and churches on my travels, but this one really stood out from an exterior standpoint, with its Gothic design and lots of interesting nooks and crannies.

I didn’t actually have much time to look around the exterior though as I had to get inside for my tour! This wasn’t just any ol’ tour though – it was the High Parts Tour which, I can say now, is a really unique way to explore any building, but especially one as old and storied as this cathedral. Rather than a standard tour around the building, the High Parts tour focuses on the hidden, behind-the-scenes stuff. We got to go behind the Wells clock to see its workings, we got to stand behind the holes where the choir would have sung on Easter Sunday to welcome the dean and the congregation, we got to walk on top of the nave (not outside the building, but in the space between the top of the nave and the roof), and more. Such a cool experience! It’s one that does require a fair amount of stair climbing (up and down) at times though and some of the spaces are a bit tight, so keep that in mind if you’re considering this tour. If you do it though, you’ll definitely experience 90 minutes of interesting, well-presented information! And at £15/$18 USD, you won’t have to pay a lot for it! I think this tour is fairly popular though, so definitely book early to avoid disappointment. I booked mine probably six weeks before my trip and even at that point, I think there were only 3-4 spots left (there were ten or so people on my tour, which I assume is the maximum).

After the tour, I did walk around the cathedral proper for a few minutes to get a better feel for it and see more of what it had to offer the public (as opposed to what’s available behind the walls). It was just a nickel tour of the place to take some photos, but at least I got to see it all (or most of it, anyway). That’s just more photos I can share with you!

Walking through the Penniless Porch on my way to the cathedral. Built around 1450, it got its name from the beggars who used to….well, beg here.
Welcome indeed!
Lots of green grass in front of the cathedral.
It’s a pretty amazing exterior, isn’t it?
We actually started our High Parts tour outside, on the ground, where our guide talked about the building and its construction, as well as some of the stuff we’d be seeing on the tour. See those eight open holes towards the top, beneath the 12 statues? Those are trumpet holes (which means exactly what you’d think it does). Below those, kind of hidden amongst the smaller statues, are choir holes. Look further down to see both from the inside.
That odd, blocky statue is a piece called DOUBT. It’s made from cast iron and will be in front of the cathedral until February 2023. And you see all those spots where it looks like other statues should be? There were indeed statues there once upon a time, but they were all defaced and destroyed during the Reformation.
Looking at the side of the cathedral, which was ultimately where we entered to start the tour.
More cool, Gothic architecture.

Taking a couple of photos inside the church before we scurried behind the walls.

The aforementioned clock, which is, according to our guide, the most complete, still-working clock in the world. It’s an astronomical clock, which reminded me of the Old Town Astronomical Clock in Prague.
This guy is known as Jack Blandifers and he rings his bell every 15 minutes.
Behind the walls now! Our guide is holding one of the templates that are hung in groups on the wall behind him. Those templates are stone shapes for all the various shapes found in the cathedral. When a new stone is needed, the master mason for the cathedral ensures new stones are cut in the correct shape by using these templates.
This wooden beam dates back to the 1200s, when the cathedral was being built.

Getting back to the clock for a moment, I thought this was really cool. Here, our guide explains the works and how, until the last Keeper of the Clock retired around 2010, each of the three clock sections had to be manually wound by hand (250 winds per section, each done twice/week). You can see the winding mechanism next to the guide in the first photo – it’s big and heavy! To save everyone some manual work though, an electric winding mechanism was installed after the keeper’s retirement.

This may just look like a stone floor, but if you look carefully, you’ll see all kinds of lines carved into it. Those lines are tracings done by the master mason way back in the 1200s. Why? This space was his office and he used the floor to trace out the shapes he needed the hundreds of masons to create as the cathedral was being built. A really neat piece of history!
Reminder those choir holes I mentioned earlier? This is what’s behind them, on a narrow walkway that runs around the perimeter of the church.
The benefit of being high up and partially hidden behind walls is that you can take awesome photos like this one!
I realize this just looks like a stone divot, which it is, but it’s actually in the upper part of the church and it, along with the pipe behind the cage you can see, is what will help prevent the roof from collapsing in the event of a fire. A system like this would prevent (or at least mitigate) the sad devastation that has befallen other churches, like York Minster and, more recently, Notre Dame. Basically, if this space filled with water used on a fire, the pipes would route the water out of this important roof space, thus preventing a roof collapse.
Looking up in the cathedral tower (the green on the ceiling is our guide’s laser pointer).
The highest part of our tour, where we were literally walking on top of the nave (the main part of the church).
And there are those trumpet holes! Our guide said trumpets have never been used in them in the 40 years he’s been attending the church, but he’s hopeful it might happen again someday.
We ended our High Parts tour after the trumpet holes, so that’s when I did my quick spin around the rest of the cathedral. This is the chapter house, which is a really cool space.
I really liked the stained glass in this small side chapel.
These floor tiles in that chapel are original, dating back to the 1200s.
The lady chapel (a chapel dedicated to Mary) once stood on its own, but was incorporated into the rest of the church after the Reformation.
More cool stained glass in another side chapel.
Cool design work!
And a stop in the churchyard before I left.

With my cathedral tour over, I found myself still feeling a bit rushed, even though I didn’t have any other time-sensitive stuff booked. Transparently, I was also feeling a little nervous about the taxi situation, even though Ian had told me that getting a ride from Wells to Glastonbury would be easy as they’re closer to each other than either is to Castle Cary and also because they’re both bigger towns, making taxis more plentiful overall (as I said above, they don’t have Uber, so that wasn’t an option). I knew I would have to move to Glastonbury soon, but I did want to swing by two more places, just to get photos, as you’ll see below.

The entrance to Vicars’ Close, which is claimed to be the “oldest purely residential street with buildings intact” in Europe. A very specific, but cool, claim to fame.

Two views of Vicars’ Close – one looking from the entrance and the other looking back at it (and thus towards the cathedral as well).

The Church of St. Cuthbert.
Literally just popped in for a photo and then popped right back out.
Not a historical site in Wells, but one I was very much looking forward to as it was about 1 PM and I hadn’t yet eaten! I had a good, if slightly pricey, meal at Kings Head.

With sights seen and my hunger satiated, it was finally time to move on to Glastonbury. Hurrah! I asked at the pub about the best place to get a taxi and was told the bus station would have plenty of them, which thankfully turned out to be true. There was a taxi rank there, so I just went to the first driver in line, who happily drove me to Glastonbury, sharing all sorts of into about the area while he did so. Knowing that I had already booked a taxi from Glastonbury back to Castle Cary (I figured I may as well do that while I was sitting at the station in the morning), this was my last transportation-related hurdle to get through, so I was a happy traveler. And I was even happier as the sun kept playing a (mostly) winning battle with the clouds, which I knew would make the photos at my next stop all the better. Speaking of which…

Glastonbury Abbey! As I said at the beginning, this was the first time I’d been back since that 2003 trip, so it felt a little surreal in some ways. Déjà vu, but with good reason because I absolutely had been to this place before! You may be thinking “Another church?!” but this abbey is in total ruins, so it’s more an exploration of what used to be, which I find fascinating. During my first visit, I’d never seen anything so ancient and I know that helped solidify my love of travel and the desire to see other things like it, so it was just cool to be back. There were just a few other people there (benefit of going on a Monday afternoon, I guess), so I really got to look around a lot. There were a few occasions where I was struck with “Oh wow, I totally remember this exact view!”, so that was neat. And the longer I stayed, the more and more sunny it got, which was especially welcome because the forecast looked quite rainy at one point.

As always, I’ll let the photos tell most of the story!

The entrance to the abbey.
St. Patrick’s Chapel is on the grounds of the abbey and dates back to 1517.
It’s pretty tiny inside.
An example of Glastonbury thorn.
Definitely remember this view from my last trip!
It’s both amazing and a bit sad to see just a section of wall like this standing. Amazing because it continues to stand hundreds of years later, but sad because so much of the rest of it is long gone.
I really love how the ruins look against the blue sky.
This is the lower part of the ruins above (there’s a short stairway that leads down to it).

A couple of angles of the lady chapel, which is also part of the ruins above.

If you zoom in on this one, you can see the sign says St. Dunstan’s Chapel used to be on that spot.
The still-standing building was a kitchen.
This is what’s in that small section of ruins in front of the kitchen building. I had a total déjà vu moment when I turned around and saw this because I knew immediately it was where I took this photo on my first trip.
Inside the kitchen building.
I wonder what this looked like when the building was still there?
The main part of the ruins. Kind of majestic, isn’t it?
So of course I took a selfie with it. 🙂
No need to knock at this door!
A more zoomed-out version of this photo from my first trip.
This is at the back of the main ruin.
I tried to take a variety of photos from different angles as it helps me visualize what was once here.
This was set off to the side a bit, but not sure what it was.

Green grass on the ground and bright flowers growing along what was once a ceiling/roof. Nature certainly takes over, doesn’t it?

This was the chapel of St. Thomas the Martyr.
I made sure to walk as far to the back of the ruins as I could to take this photo. Compare it to the cover photo of the blog post about my first trip. Really cool to see the same angle almost 20 years later!

Before my final Glastonbury destination, I walked around the town a bit, snapping a few photos along the way. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular at this point, but did see a few things that caught my eye.

Just some quaint shops. Most of them smelled like patchouli and sold things like mystic crystals and dragons.
The Glastonbury Tribunal is a small museum. Didn’t visit though.
What a neat-looking bookshop!

The church is St. John the Baptist, while the second photo shows the Tercentennial Labyrinth, just in front of the church.

At this point, the sun was shining and it was definitely the warmest part of the day. So what better time to climb the Glastonbury Tor to pay a visit to St. Michael’s Tower? This was once again a repeat of something I did on my first trip, but as I got to the top, I realized it was a new experience because I’m 99.9% certain we took a different path to get to the top of the hill (there are a couple of different ones). So now I can say I walked up that huge hill from two different paths rather than just one. 🙂

Honestly, this is one of experiences that’s much more about the journey than the destination because a) the top of the hill isn’t all that big and b) there isn’t anything there, except for the tower (and the fabulous views, of course). The tower is said to be the remains of a church that once stood on the hill (can you imagine having to walk up a huge hill just to go to church every week??) and today, it seems to be a place where people go to chill, meditate, and enjoy the views (based on the folks I saw there, at least). It’s a healthy climb, to be sure, and it’s ALL uphill to reach the summit (which makes sense since it’s a hill, but I call it out because I felt like I started walking uphill the moment I started heading towards it). Depending on where in Glastonbury you’re coming from, plan for at least 30 minutes of uphill walking to get there. There is a concrete path all the way to the top, but your legs will be feeling it by the time you reach the top. But if you can do it and the weather is nice and clear, I can’t recommend it enough!

The fact that it’s a hill with a tower on it helps orient you to the correct direction to walk in. I took this photo at over 5x zoom and it felt like it was soooo far away.
In case you miss the actual hill, it’s also signed pretty well.

A couple of photos taken on my walk towards the hill.

I made it! Well, I made it to the bottom of the hill, at least.
Getting closer, I think?!
Okay, now I really am just about there!

Look at those views from the top!

Yep, there’s the tower.
No roof!
I most certainly earned this selfie!
I really like this angle of the tower, for some reason. Those steps on the left are part of the path I took to come up on my first trip whereas the path I took on this trip was more behind and to the right.
Speaking of paths, time to go back down. That process felt MUCH easier than going up.

Two very similar messages I saw on my trip to and from the hill. The one on the left was at the base of the hill while the one on the right was at the base of the street I walked to get to the hill.

I would have had time for a quick visit to the Chalice Well, but decided I would rather rest my feet and have a drink. I went there on my first trip anyway, so didn’t totally miss out. I had to walk by it on my way back to the abbey anyway, so at least I got this picture.
Nothing at all to do with the hill, but I took this as I was about to stop at a pub while I waited for my taxi. I’m almost certain my friends and I had some afternoon tea here on our last trip. And then the staff got very confused when we asked for a “doggie bag” for our leftovers (they did find something for us eventually). Just another fun memory!

And that, my friends, finally puts a bow on my day trip to Wells and Somerset! Since I decided to skip the Chalice Well, I had time to enjoy a cold beverage and rest my feet in a pub for about 20 minutes before I met my taxi near the abbey. I had another really friendly driver who shared lots of info about the upcoming Glastonbury Festival. Having experienced Castle Cary for myself, I can only imagine how that little station manages the 250,000 people who come for the festival! Sounds like Glastonbury and the surrounding towns are used to it though, so they know what they’re doing. More power to them!

My train ride back to London went smoothly (not an empty train again, but not totally full either, which was nice). And now, dear reader, I’m actually back home in Minnesota! But don’t think that means I’m done posting about the trip though as I still have a whole day to blog about, so stay tuned for that. 🙂

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About thejeffelston

Based in St. Paul, MN and love to blog about travel. Comment, follow, and join me on my journey!