Cream Of The Country: Wells, Somerset

Great schools, pretty architecture and a friendly atmosphere make Wells a cut above the rest
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The Independent Online

Wells, named after the natural springs that bubble up through the limestone of the surrounding Mendip Hills and are accredited with curative powers, feels like a market town but is in fact the UK's smallest city. It owes this status to its stunning medieval cathedral, which Daniel Defoe once described as "the most beautiful in England".

Property prices in and around Wells are typically 10 per cent higher than in other Mendip towns such as Glastonbury or Frome. This is at least partly due to the number of good schools in the area, which make it a popular choice for families. Wells Cathedral School is a major presence in the city centre, while Millfield and Downside are both a short drive away. The local state secondary, Blue School, has a fine reputation, too.

The large number of families living in the city has fostered a friendly community spirit. "Outsiders are welcomed and accepted very quickly," says Glenda Ross, who moved to Wells three years ago from Bristol with her husband and two young children. "It's a small, intimate place, and you soon get to recognise faces. Most people are on nodding terms at least.

"There's also a great feeling of security. Crime is virtually unheard of and people watch out for one another. Parents feel safe letting their kids walk home alone from school."

The steady influx of families relocating to the city has also impacted on the local shopping facilities, which are a distinct cut above those of the average market town. Most of the commerce is concentrated around the High Street and Market Place - adjacent to the cathedral quarter but still within the conservation area - where branches of the big chains are supplemented with regular open-air markets, plus a good selection of delicatessens and boutiques. This is also the entertainment hub, and home to the city's better pubs and restaurants.

Much of the architecture within the central conservation area dates from medieval times. The cathedral's western façade is particularly awe-inspiring, with its gallery of hundreds of delicately carved life-sized stone statues. Other highlights include Vicar's Close - said to be the oldest street in Europe - and the Bishop's Palace, a lavishly fortified structure dating back to 1206. Local spring water still pumps out at a rate of 40 gallons per second into a pool in the beautiful palace gardens before being siphoned off into the surrounding moat where the swans have been trained to ring bells when feeding time approaches.

Choice of residential properties in the city centre is mainly limited to two- and three-bedroom stone cottages or similar-sized flats above shops. Many of these are ancient, too, although most have been extensively remodelled over time. Larger properties do sometimes appear on the market around Chamberlain Street and in the streets behind Cathedral Green, but most of the classic Georgian townhouses are owned by the school.

More affordable family housing can be found just outside of the city centre - to the north around Ash Lane or out along Market Street to the west towards St Cuthbert's, which is the largest parish church in the county. The architecture here is more modern - Victorian through to new-build - but prices are significantly lower.

Grander properties on a more lavish scale - country houses with land and cavernous converted farm buildings - are more likely to be found around the outlying villages such as Westbury-sub-Mendip or Priddy.

Terry Schubert, of the local estate agents Cooper & Tanner, reports that the local housing market is relatively stable at the moment, its buoyancy sustained by the number of newcomers moving to the area. "Roughly a third to half of my buyers are people who are relocating here," he says. "They come because of the great schools, the stunning architecture, the lovely surrounding countryside and the friendliness of the people."

Schubert says that he has noticed a particular increase in the number of people moving to Wells from nearby Bristol and Bath. "They are both only about 20 miles away, so people can buy a home here and still commute back to work every day.

"It really makes sense for them because the quality of life in Wells is so much better and house prices are 20 per cent lower."

The lowdown

Cost of living: one-bedroom flats on High Street from £80,000; two-bedroom cottages in conservation area from £165,000; three-bedroom Victorian terraces from £200,000; country houses or converted barns in villages from £500,000; five-bedroom period houses in conservation area, £590,000.

Attractions: 13th-century cathedral; folk-dancing festival; cinema; recreation grounds, leisure centre; great schools; low crime levels.

Downsides: Traffic congestion in the city centre, and not enough parking facilities.

Getting there: Regular 90-minute trains to Paddington from Bath, 20 miles away, or Castle Cary, 14 miles away; 30-minute drive to Bristol airport.