Days Out » Wells

Chapter one: the old bookshop trap

There is a terrible trap in Wells for anyone who loves books.

There is a terrible trap in Wells for anyone who loves books.

You might say your aim as a visitor is to view the cathedral's scissor arches. You might insist that the Bishop's Palace is the reason for making the journey. Or the Saturday food market, or the pretty little shops. But bibliophiles be warned: Wells is the home of England's largest second-hand book store, and its miles of shelving are likely to prove irresistible.

With more than a million books in stock, the Bookbarn alone makes Charing Cross Road look feeble. Bookbarn's vast collection is housed in two substantial buildings, one on West Street and the other on Broad Street. Try to resist until you've done your culture-vulturing; once you start browsing, an hour or two (or three) can pass virtually unnoticed.

Saving the Bookbarn till last is also sensible because bags of books are a heavy burden to tote, though Wells itself is certainly compact enough to stroll round easily in a day. But if the town itself is compact, the scale of the cathedral more than makes up for it. Although the design is early English Gothic and the first building began in 1180, the pure lines of the scissor arches (correctly known as inverted arches) seem carved yesterday. The unique façade has been much knocked about over the centuries but what survives is a fascinating remnant of medieval life. Look for the striking, if scary, tomb of Bishop Bekynton of the mid-15th century. On top, the Bishop's effigy is as elegant as could be wished, as though he were merely sleeping. But below is a memento mori, all bare bones and agonised grimace– a sharp reminder of the skull beneath the skin.

Part of the cathedral grounds, the Camery Garden over the ruins of ancient foundations, has been set aside as a picnic area. An al fresco lunch is an excellent excuse for a visit to Spencers of Wells, a family-run grocer on Tucker Street. The Spencers have retained many of the Victorian fixtures they inherited with the shop back in 1935. They offer pork pies, hams, cheese and "personal counter service".

If you don't plan to picnic, you're spoilt for choice. We had no complaints about our pub lunch at the City Arms. However, a word of caution about cream teas. We visited a friendly-looking tea shop which served clotted cream in mingypots – enough for half a scone, but thoroughly niggardly for the two whole ones that were served. The low point of a high day.

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