Somerset’s countryside could be used to illustrate the dictionary definition of ‘rolling’. The oh-so English sounding hill ranges of the Mendips and the Quantocks provide plenty of undulating, view-filled (but none-too-taxing) walks, while the great wilds of Exmoor offer hikers a little more to get their crampons into. Somerset also does a mean line in craggy. The Mendips’ limestone landscape is riddled with water-cut holes, caves and gorges, including the great rocky gash of Cheddar Gorge. At the centre of the county are the Somerset Levels, an area of low-lying wetlands, whose ancient peoples gave the county its modern name Sumersata, the “land of the summer people”, a fitting description for this most sunny of regions.
Barrington Court three miles north east of Ilminster, is a handsome Tudor mansion of yellow Ham stone with impressive spiral chimneys. The interior was restored in the 1920’s. The National Trust tenant (Colonel A A Lyle, a member of the famous sugar manufacturing family) exercised enormous ingenuity and acquired carved beams from Italy, linenfold panelling from demolished houses and even a 16th-century Norfolk shop front from King’s Lynn, which was converted into a screen. He also recreated an appropriate setting for the house -a beautiful garden (which contains an unusual 10-faced sundial) and a park ornamented with horsechestnut trees.
Bridgwater, now an industrial centre, was a busy port until Bristol overshadowed it. A tidal bore comes up the River Parrett twice a day; the times are posted on the bridge. The 14th-century church of St Mary is noted for its fine Jacobean screenwork, and from its tower the rebel Duke of Monmouth is said to have surveyed the field before the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685.
Bruton is historically a textile town, and one of the first fulling mills in England was built nearby in 1290. The River Brue is crossed here by an ancient and exceptionally narrow packhorse bridge, known locally as Bruton Bow. Near the bridge stands a section of wall which, with the three storey dovecote in a field above the town, is all that remains of the 12th century priory. King’s Grammar School dates from the 16th century and was attended by R D Blackmore, author of Lorna Doone. Hugh Sexey’s Hospital, founded in 1638 by a former stable boy who rose to become auditor to Elizabeth I, has been converted into homes for old people. The mainly 16th-century church has a 12th-century chancel, two towers and a fine tie beam roof.
A 19th-century curate built a lighthouse at Burnham-on-Sea and exacted tolls from passing ships to finance two wells which were to establish the town as a spa. The venture failed, but Burnham, with its 7 miles of sandy beach and its fine views across Bridgwater Bay, became popular with holidaymakers and the wooden ‘lighthouse on legs’ is still a tourist attraction. The medieval church of St Andrew contains a 17thcentury marble reredos designed by Inigo Jones and carved by Grinling Gibbons; originally made for the chapel of Whitehall palace, it passed to Hampton Court and Westminster Abbey before coming to rest here in the 19th century. The tower of the church tilts three feet from the vertical – the subsidence being due to its sandy foundations.
There is a powerful tradition that this was the site of Camelot, King Arthur’s stronghold, but there is no positive proof. The castle, of which only the earthworks survive, crowns a hill above the village of South Cadbury. Excavations have uncovered traces of cultures from Neolithic to Anglo Saxon times. North east of the village, Cadbury House is a fine example of Elizabethan architecture.
The Cheddar Gorge consists of nearly a mile of dramatic limestone cliffs that rise almost vertically to 450ft. The best View from the top is to be had by climbing ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ at the south end. In the gorge itself, two caves, Cox’s and Gough’s, are profuse in stalagmites and stalactites. In the town, there’s a car museum. Cheddar cheese, once a local farm product, is these days made on a commercial scale. The Village of Cheddar has a fine market cross and an interesting church. North of Cheddar is Wrington. Between Cheddar and Wrington is Burrington, where Augustus Montagu Toplady sheltered in the Gorge, and was inspired to write the hymn ‘Rock of Ages, cleft for me’.
A pleasant little town with traditions stretching back to Anglo Saxon times, when it had the right of minting coins. In later centuries, it became associated with the flax-weaving and sail-making industries. The sails for HMS Victory were made here and those for several Americas Cup contenders. The 15th century church has line stained glass. Clapton Court Gardens are 2 and a half miles south west.
In this medieval, timbered Village the Norman castle sits on a wooded, pyramid-shaped hill at one end of the village, and at the other end is Conygar Hill Tower, a noted landmark for Bristol Channel shipping. The former Priory Dovecote, the distinctive eight-sided yarn market and the packhorse bridge across the River Avill provide a cross section of English architectural styles between the 12th and 18th centuries.
The heart of this busy market town is well preserved, its steep and narrow streets rich in medieval, Tudor and 18th-century houses. Cheap Street has a watercourse running down its centre. The Bluecoats School near the bridge dates from 1720. The nearby Village of Nunney is delightful. The castle, built as a fortified house in 1373, is said to have been modelled on the Bastille in Paris. It suffered at the hands of the Roundheads in the Civil War. Its moat is said to be the deepest in England.
The ruined abbey is the central attraction of this market town, the so called ‘cradle of English Christianity’. The abbey is on the site of a 7th century chapel said to have been built by Joseph of Arimathea who had come from the Holy Land to convert the British. According to legend the saint, on arrival in Glastonbury, leant on his staff in prayer, where upon the staff took root indicating that he should found his religious house here. The original thorn bush was destroyed in the Civil War, but a thorn in the Abbot’s kitchen, in the abbey is said to be of the same plant. St Mary’s Chapel has an underground chapel dedicated to St Joseph. There is no sure evidence of the story of Joseph of Arimathea, but Glastonbury probably had a religious foundation as early as the 5th century. The first abbey was founded in AD 668 and the last was begun in the 13th century, but only completed just before the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Glastonbury is also steeped in Arthurian legend; through the ages writers have speculated that this is the site of Avalon, Arthur’s final resting place. The chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper, sought by Arthur’s knights as the Holy Grail, is said to lie beneath the Chalice Spring on Glastonbury Tor, brought here by Joseph of Arimathea. As well as the abbey, the town itself had various interesting churches; the George and Pilgrims Inn is one of few surviving pre Reformation inns. Glastonbury’s key industries are sheepskin and leather. The Abbey Tribunal contains finds from prehistoric lake dwellings nearby.
Although now a quiet little town, Ilchester was an important military station on the Fosse Way in Roman times. A 700-year-old octagonal mace (the oldest of its kind in England) is housed in the town hall. Some 3 miles north east of the town is Lytes Cary, a medieval manor which preserves its 14th-century Chapel and original Great Hall.
A bustling market town at the foot of the Blackdown Hills. The rows of thatched cottages just off the main road are reminiscent of those in Devon and the focal pillared market house is pleasantly surrounded by a Ham stone square. The local high school dates back to 1586, while the church is over a century earlier still. Sir William Wadham, founder of the Oxford college named after him, was the church’s main benefactor. Jordans, a house on the Taunton road, was the residence of John Speke, discoverer of the source of the Nile. Some 3and a half miles north east of Ilminster is Barrington Court.
Until the late 18th century, Minehead used to be quite an important port for herring fishing and for the shipping of wool, hides, cattle and coal. But then the harbour began to silt up, and the herring shoals vanished. Minehead fell upon hard times until, in 1854, the railway came to the rescue and the town opened its doors to tourists. Every May Day, a Hobby Horse festival takes place, similar to that at Padstow.
Montacute (the name comes from the Latin mons acutus, meaning ‘steep hill’) is an ancient and lovely village of golden Ham stone, the show piece of which is the magnificent Tudor mansion, Montacute House. Its superb Long Gallery contains a collection of Tudor and Stuart portraits from the National Portrait Gallery. Wooded St Michael’s Hill, once the site of a Norman castle, is topped by an 18th-century folly. In the 11th century a miracle-working cross was apparently unearthed from the hill and taken to Waltham Abbey. Sir Edward Phelips, for whom Montacute was built, led the prosecution speeches at the trial of Guy Fawkes in 1606.
Set in the heart of ‘Lorna Doone’ country, Oare’ s tiny church was, in the novel, the scene of Lorna’s marriage to John Ridd. All around is some of the most beautiful countryside in Exmoor, and just west of the village a footpath leads up the valley of Badgworthy, Water to Lank and Hoccombe Combes, which were R D Blackmore’s models for Doone Valley.
From the west visitors have a choice of routes into this attractive village, the steep 1 in 4 Porlock Hill or the gentler toll roads. It occupies a beautiful site, caught between Exmoor and the sea, but to get to the pebbly shore, visitors must first go to Porlock Weir, a tiny place clustered around a small harbour. From here, a footpath leads to Culbone Church which is ‘the smallest parish church in England’, and occupies a lovely site beside a stream. Porlock holds a unique place in literature as the home of the anonymous ‘person from Porlock’.
The Visitor Centre for the Quantocks is at Fyne Court, Broomfield, and is worth visiting for information about this lovely range of hills. The slopes are heavily wooded, and the tops are clothed with attractive heathland. Red deer run wild, and there are regular hunts at the appropriate seasons. Crowcombe, East Quantoxhead, Spaxton and Enmore are among the most attractive villages, and there are some beautiful wooded valleys, particularly in the north east.
Sedgemoor moor is an expanse of fenland, much of which was once covered by the sea. Now it provides valuable grazing for cattle, and its pollarded willow trees are used to provide canes for basket-making. Historically, Sedgemoor was the scene of the Duke of Monmouth’s defeat in 1685.
Selworthy is probably the prettiest village in the lovely Vale of Porlock. There are old cottages, a 15th-century tithe barn, and thatched almshouses The mainly 16th-century church has unusually, a white exterior. Selworthy Beacon (1013ft) provides some fine views and Dunkery Beacon stands on the far side of the vale.
Shepton Mallet is an agricultural town and the permanent site of the Bath and West Show. Cider and brewing, glove and shoe-making, the manufacture of agricultural machinery are its industries and it originally derived its prosperity from the medieval wool trade. The church, with its beautifully carved barrel ceiling and fine stone pulpit, dates from this era. Shepton Mallet Museum contains discoveries from the Mendip caves.
Stoke Sub Hamdon
Hamdon Hill (426ft) lies to the south of the village. The Britons fortified it; the Romans began quarrying it. From it comes the yellow Ham stone – from which the village has been built, and which has done much to adorn the rest of the area. The church is Norman; the Priory dates back to the 15th century and was once a chantry (endowed for priests) house. Behind the Fleur-de-Lys Inn is a fives court built about 1756. The idea was to provide an alternative to the church wall for games.
The hub of Somerset, lying between the rolling, wooded Quantocks and the Blackdown Hills, Taunton lies on the River Tone in the Vale of Taunton Deane, and was a major centre of the wool trade for 500 years. Today it is a lively commercial and agricultural centre whose livestock market rivals Exeter’s as the most important in the West Country. Apple orchards thrive in the mild climate and fertile soil of the Vale, and cider-making is an important local industry. It is the headquarters of Somerset’s cricket team, one of the country’s most successful sides. Notable buildings include the castle which dates from Norman times and now houses the Somerset County and Military Museums.
The woollen industry has long flourished in Wellington, and cloths are still exported to all parts of the world. Some fine Georgian houses survive, as do two ancient inns the 400-year-old Squirrel (now converted into a house) and the Three Cups, first recorded in 1694. The Perpendicular church has a mid-side stair turret, a stylistic feature more typical of Devon. It also contains the ornate tomb of Sir John Popham, the Lord Chief Justice who presided at the trials of Sir Walter Raleigh and Guy Fawkes. With his brother George Popham, who was born near Bridgwater, and was instrumental in the early exploration and settlement of the coast of Maine, Popham also established alms-houses in Wellington. 3 miles south west of the town, on the Blackdown Hills, stands the 175ft high Wellington Monument (NT), an obelisk erected in 1817 to commemorate the famous Duke who took his title from here.
On Wellow’s sloping village street stand cottages of gold-coloured stone, ancient farm buildings and a Hne manor house that was once the home of the Hungerford family. It was Sir Thomas Hungerford, the first recorded Speaker of the House of Commons, who rebuilt St Julian’s Church in about 1372; a statue over the south porch shows St Julian the patron saint of ferrymen holding an oar, and fine wall paintings in the north chapel date from the early 16th century. Dr John Bull reputed to be the composer of the National Anthem was born in Weiiow in 1562. Half mile south west of the Village lies Stoney Littleton Long Barrow, a Neolithic burial chamber.
This lovely cathedral city lies at the foot of the Mendip Hills. The cathedral, with its associated buildings, forms England’s largest medieval ecclesiastical precinct and the cathedral itself has a superbly adorned west front. A favourite with visitors is the 14th-century clock, with its moving figures that strike the hours. The moated Bishop’s Palace has interesting state rooms, and the remains of a 13th-century undercroft and banqueting hall. A medieval gateway, the Bishop’s Eye, marks the entrance to the grounds. On the moat are swans that have been trained to ring a bell for food. Wells Museum illustrates the natural history of the Mendips. In North Wootton, at North Town House 3 miles from Wells, a vineyard flourishes in the Mendips. The 9000 vines were imported from the Rhine and Alsace. The old farm buildings house a winery in which a dry white wine is produced and one that does credit to its Continental origins. You can stroll through the vineyards and buy wine from the cellars.
Weston Super Mare
A hundred years ago Weston-Super-Mare was a little fishing village on the Bristol Channel, now it is a popular resort. Holidaymakers are attracted by its splendid sands and good bathing, piers, attractive parks and gardens, 2 mile marine parade and golf course. Worlebury Hill, 1 mile to the north east, is topped by an Iron Age camp and looks over the islands of Steep Holme and Flat Holme to the Welsh coast. Woodspring Museum, set in the old workshops of the Edwardian Gaslight Company, has displays on transport and the wildlife and minerals of the area; it also portrays scenes from Victorian life, the seaside holiday being particularly appropriate. There is a nature reserve at nearby Brean Down.
The River Axe flowing through the heart of the Mendips, has hollowed out the great caves of Wookey Hole, inhabited more than 2000 years ago; the higher caverns are crossed by steel bridges which look down on the rushing torrent below. A small museum displays pottery and coins from the Celtic and Roman British periods. The Mill which made fine paper by hand in the 17th century, has now been restored and visitors can see the old machinery used for its original purpose. The building also houses the store room of Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks, and the disembodied heads of the famous (together with the moulds from which they were made) are on display. Lady Bangor’s Fairground Collection includes some beautifully carved and painted figures from the era of steam driven fairground rides.
Traditionally a market town serving a prosperous agricultural area, Yeovil is now a busy industrial centre, still engaged in the 300 year old craft of glove-making but also known as home of one of the world’s foremost helicopter constructors. Much of the town is built of the honey-coloured Ham limestone which is quarried locally.
The Fleet Air Arm Museum at the Royal Naval air station illustrates the development of aviation at sea from 1903, containing over 50 restored planes and numerous engines, models and photographs. A new exhibition hall housing Concorde 002 follows the progress of passenger supersonic flight.
Somerset and Dorset Railway