Moira Andersen may have the best job title in Britain. “I’m the swan whisperer,” she tells me, “or the mad swan lady of Wells!” More officially, she is a steward of the city’s Bishop’s Palace, but she has developed such a close relationship with her characteristic birds, that they have been written into her job description.
Sitting between the Mendips and Somerset Levels, Wells is England’s smallest city and, according to Which? 2022 magazine poll, best small town for a city break. It was colonized by the Romans, who were attracted by the springs of the same name.
In the 8th century the Anglo-Saxons founded a cathedral there which, in 909 AD, became the seat of the local bishopric. Subsequently, the bishopric moved to Bath, but in 1245 the diocese of Bath & Wells was created, with the then new and rather remarkable Wells Cathedral as its principal seat. Since then the presiding bishop has lived in the city.
“It’s the only bishop’s palace in the UK with the bishop still in residence,” says Moira. (In 2014, when the church commission suggested the bishop could move somewhere less horrendously expensive to maintain, locals practically lynched them.)
It is also the only palace where the resident swans ring a bell for their dinner. They’ve been doing it since the mid-19th century: A bored bishop’s daughter is thought to have taught the adult birds, which passed the trick on to their young. But a few years ago, when a new couple — Grace and Gabriel — were brought in to replace Brynn (who died) and Wynn, who flew away, that job fell to Moira.
“When the swans were near, I rang the bell and threw out the food. Then I started lowering a string and encouraging the swans to play it,” he explains. “That teaching method probably hasn’t changed since 1850. We like a tradition here.
Moira has also been known to chase birds around the small town. If they go off up the nice High Street she will give them a good talk, then lead them back through the old gatehouse of Bishop’s Eye to bring them back to 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 evil Neighborhood Watch Alliance. .
This is no coincidence. Director Wright grew up in Wells – there’s a plaque dedicated to him at the city’s Blue School, where he studied – and shot Hot Fuzz right here.
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 croissants; his Crown Inn is where the cops drink: a police vest, worn in the film, now hangs over the bar. Siobhan Goodwin knows all these places and more.
He started Wells Walking Tours 13 years ago, initially focusing on the city’s highlights but soon adding a film tour. As Siobhan guides cinephiles through the market square and down medieval alleyways, she sometimes even bumps into locals playing extras.
“Wells definitely has some Sandford,” confesses Siobhan. “The local police got involved. The missing swan scene is based on a true story. So is the piece where they have to translate an incomprehensible farmer.
In one sequence of Hot Fuzz, a reporter is impaled by a stone pinnacle who is murderously driven off a roof. It was filmed in St Cuthbert’s, a superb 13th century church with impressive reredos.
However, in a twist that almost mirrors fiction, it was the spire of Wells’ St Thomas’s church across town that exploded quite dramatically during Storm Eunice in February 2022. Luckily no one is been impaled.
That spire was replaced in the summer. But it’s an addition to Wells Cathedral – once dubbed ‘the most poetic in England’ – that is causing the most consternation. This early Gothic building is magnificent, with elegant scissor arches, sumptuous stained glass windows, an ornate octagonal chapter house and a clock with the second oldest mechanism in the country.
The finest is its west front, which was carved out of Somerset limestone in the 13th century and features an astonishing collection of medieval sculpture. About 300 of the original 400 statues remain. And for the past year (through spring 2023), one of those empty niches has housed Doubt, a block and cast work by Anthony Gormley.
“I am very aware of the paradox of placing an object called a Doubt on a building dedicated to belief, but it seems to me that doubting, questioning, questioning, are all part of belief,” said Gormley. One group of cathedral onlookers I heard as they gaped at this momentous facade sounded very dubious: “What the hell would they have thought of this in the Middle Ages?”
What really. This is a small city of great long-standing traditions. And it’s all the bigger for it.
How to do it
Stay at the Swan Hotel (where else?), which offers cathedral views and rooms from around £100.
Wells Walking Tours cost from £7pp (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).