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The Swan Hotel, Wells

Wells is the smallest city in England; the city status conferred by the beautiful cathedral at its heart, famously one of Britain’s architectural highlights bursting with gothic carvings and a unique scissors vault to uphold the shifting medieval foundations. The city is compact and charming, with much of its historic heritage untouched and a calm and unhurried atmosphere. Home to the Bishops of Bath and Wells, the magnificent 13th century Bishop’s Palace in whose tranquil gardens are the natural springs that gave Wells its name, is on every visitor’s itinerary, as is a walk along Vicar’s Close, the oldest complete street of 14th century houses in Europe.

When you feel exhausted by history, the city’s shops are made for browsing; my favourite is an antique shop that is a sort of working museum with rare and unusual scientific marine and aeronautical instruments for sale and on display. A fitting end to a day’s sightseeing must be to take tea at the 15th century Swan Hotel which overlooks the west front of the Cathedral but as we were celebrating a special anniversary we went one better and stayed for the night in their Cathedral Suite.

Collecting the key from reception, complete with large red tassel, we went upstairs to the first floor and found a panelled door, marked Cathedral Suite. Pushing the door open, we both stood back amazed; I’ve stayed in some hotel suites in my life but never one so enormous that the sitting room can accommodate amongst other furniture an imposing grandfather clock! It really is stunning; the suite comprises three rooms that open onto each other, bathroom, sitting room and bedroom. Each with lofty ceilings and wide windows that give a panoramic view over the Cathedral and its Green, they are decorated in rich silks, purple and gold for the bedroom, rich burgundy red for the sitting room, with antique gilded furniture keeping the classic theme.

The bathroom has a free-standing brass double slipper bath (curved at each end, just made for wallowing and lounging) in the middle of the room, his and hers brass basins set in marble with a floor to ceiling mirror. Bearing in mind the ceiling must have been around 15 ft high you can imagine the scale of the mirror, and not forgetting the double walk in shower. All this was sympathetically lit with ’mood lighting’ twinkling spots of light surrounded the bath at floor level, and circled the mirror. It was definitely time to don the complimentary fluffy bathrobe, fill up the slipper bath, pop in some scented bubble bath thoughtfully provided in the antique pedestal chest beside it (in a former life possibly a teapoy), send for a glass of champagne and lie back in total relaxation, gazing out at the Cathedral in the soft focus of the early evening light. Pure decadence I thought but I’m worth it!

The suite has been decorated and put together with such care, in every corner there is an unusual antique or quirky piece of furniture to take the eye, a vintage gramophone ready and waiting to be wound up, and in the bedroom the television was artfully perched on a stack of Victorian leather luggage. Lounging around in our dressing gowns we felt as though we were in a Noel Coward play, although there was no shortage of state of the art electronic equipment amongst all the antiquity, there being a large flat screen TV in the sitting room and a CD player and radio as well as TV in the bedroom.

Rather reluctantly we decided to get dressed and go down to dinner; I was all for ringing for Baines the Butler to send something up but instead we ordered breakfast to be served in our room next morning (someone creeps in whilst you are at dinner and et voilà the table is laid with a crisp white cloth and all the fine white china necessary for a full breakfast; how nice is that?).

The warm and cosy wood panelled dining room beckoned and we looked through the menu which is extensive enough to have good choice and small enough to be sure that each dish is freshly prepared, using lots of local produce. To start I chose glazed Greens Cheddar cheese rarebit (yes, this can be a starter as well as a savoury) on spelt bread served with warm vine tomato salad and Worcestershire sauce vinaigrette. As I was covering the local produce (Greens cheese is handmade in Glastonbury) my husband felt free to wander abroad to Brixham and order linguine with white Brixham crabmeat, lime cream sauce and chopped red chillies and chives. He ordered a bottle of Syrah Grenache rosé to toast our anniversary and stripped of his dressing gown but still in Noel Coward mode fiddled with an imaginary monocle and wondered if a tortoiseshell cigarette holder would add to his allure. I assured him it wouldn’t and anyway the hotel is totally non-smoking.

Our starters came, the linguine nestling in a large white bowl and definitely enough for two. We enjoyed them both and looked forward to our main courses : roasted citrus crusted Devon coast hake, with warm asparagus and potato salad and pea shoots and spinach pesto (me) and 10 oz sirloin steak on the bone with Blue Vinney Champ and sweet ale jus, accompanied by mustard mash (him). For the uninitiated Blue Vinney Champ is a strong Dorset cheese. The service was first class and we only had to nod to find a bevy of waitresses ready to cater to our every whim, and explain anything we needed to know.

The hake was lovely with a subtle lemon tang and the spinach pesto was a smooth and delightful sauce for the potato salad. There was nothing for it but to mop it up with the walnut bread! My husband reported that the steak was very good and it was his belief that we were unable to eat another thing. He was right and we retired to the lounge with an excellent pot of coffee and homemade chocolates to sit in front of the roaring log fire and admire yet more unusual pieces of furniture dotted about.

In the morning we awoke to a wonderful breakfast, laid out on our table, I had a lovely kipper beautifully grilled and crisped and my husband haddock with two soft and fluffy poached eggs, and again excellent coffee which was a good job as we really needed waking up! We finished with hot toast and marmalade and all this overlooking the magnificent view of the Cathedral. We had a wonderful time and were very reluctant to leave……….

Jacquie Vowles

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