Review by Fiona Duncan, published 1st June 2010.
Hotels with memorable views are hardly lacking in Britain, but few can match the sight I'm currently gazing upon from the Best Western Swan Hotel in Wells. If it's church architecture you admire then make a beeline, for as I write, the whole glorious, sunlit, 13th-century West Front of Wells Cathedral – almost as wide as it is high and with nearly 300 statues – fills the huge window of my bedroom. And, for that matter, the huge window of my sitting room. And of my bathroom. But more on my room, as much of a surprise as the view, later.
I knew little about the Swan when I booked but I didn't have high hopes, for several reasons. Old coaching inns are often rambling, cumbersome things, difficult to update; Wells is not noted for its hotels; and the Best Western tag didn't up the ante either.
But the dying Swan has recently been revived, having been purchased by a local businessman who has embarked on clever, ongoing refurbishment. Though it rambles at the back, it has an elegant façade and a gap in the houses opposite allows it that full view of the cathedral. Previously an area of grass, the gap is now a sunny terrace.
Once I'm inside, first impressions, unfortunately, recall all that's worst about old coaching inns, with a deeply dreary sitting room by the front door. Plans for change, however, are afoot, and if the new-look dining room and bedrooms are any indication, the next wave of alterations will be successful.
While some of the old-style bedrooms are perfectly acceptable, all the new ones are fun (No 27 is a crimson dazzler). But the rooms that are truly worth the effort are those – just a handful – facing the cathedral. No 41, recently decorated in duck-egg blue, may be classed as a standard size price-wise, but it's special thanks to the view.
And then there's my Cathedral Suite. The former ballroom has been partitioned into bedroom, sitting room and bathroom, each dramatically furnished and theatrically lit, with huge gilded mirrors, flowing silks and a splendid free-standing brass bath, rare in a three-star hotel.
Which brings me to a slight problem with the Swan. Though it's well on its way to feeling like a four-star, it has three-star status and three-star service. There's a niggling list of little things that don't fit with the luxury of my room: the linen on the bed; the no-frills room service and lack of extras; lack of staff name badges; the workaday reception desk; and the photos of "employee of the month".
It's time to leave. Below my room, the cathedral, the moated Bishop's Palace and Vicars' Close, the oldest continuously inhabited street in Europe, wait for me in the sunshine. Bath is magnificent, of course, but it feels like hard work compared with unsung, intact, extraordinary Wells, Britain's smallest city, just 16 miles away.
- Sadler Street, Wells (01749 836300; www.swanhotelwells.co.uk). Doubles from £136 per night, including breakfast. Access possible for guests with disabilities.