There is more to Somerset than the annual mud fest at Glastonbury. Take the majestic heights of Exmoor, the Quantocks and the Blackdown Hills. Add in the enigma of the Somerset Levels, and the drama of Cheddar and Ebbor Gorges. Top it off with a string of seaside resorts, the tiny cathedral city of Wells, all that cheese and cider, villages called Nempnett Thrubwell and Wyke Champflower, and you have one of England’s most fascinating counties. Gareth Huw Davies gives his choice of things to do. Photo – Somerset County Council.
Why dawdle in a jam on the M5 or the M4 when you could let the train take the
strain to Somerset? The non-stop 110 mile stretch between Reading and Taunton is my pick of the most scenic railway journey in southern England. It’s amazing that such serene and empty countryside survives in built-up Britain. We glided for 90 minutes through the Vale of Pewsey, and past long, lazy stretches of the Kennet and Avon Canal and enticing, distant glimpses of Salisbury Plain. And on into Somerset, past place names reflecting the peace of deepest rural England – such as Charlton Mackrell, Wyke Champflower, Cuckoo Hill, Upton Noble, and Cheverell Magna. If this was Canada, they would put us in a glass-walled observation car and serve champagne.
Wells, no more than a large village in size, becomes the smallest city in England, courtesy of its sumptuous cathedral with its splendid Early English façade. Its many glories include one of our biggest collections of medieval stained glass. Contrast this living cathedral with the stark beauty of the empty, abandoned Glastonbury Abbey, one of Shakespeare’s “Bare ruin”d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.” The “discovery” of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere”s grave here in 1191 made the Abbey one of our earliest tourist sites. (A sign marks the spot where they were reburied, allegedly.) If you can manage it, do climb to the top of the eery and astonishing Glastonbury Tor, with the ruined church of St Michael, for the best view in the west.
I thought the beloved old paddle steamers that plied across the Bristol Channel in my youth had all been retired to serve as floating gin palaces in Hong Kong. What a delight to find they are still running, on what must be the best channel crossing in Britain. It’s a perfect summer day trip, on the valiant old Waverley, one of the last sea-going paddle-steamers, and the Balmoral. They hop over from Clevedon Pier and Weston – to Penarth, Swansea or Porthcawl.
On the return leg to what the Welsh poetically call Gwlad yr Haf – ‘Land of Summer’ – take in that terrific view of the great, looming bulk of Exmoor, rising to its highest point at Dunkery Beacon, 1,704 feet. Many different Bristol Channel trips available. . A new daily ferry is planned from Swansea to Ilfracombe.
Minehead is a big bold resort full of traditional seaside fun on Somerset’s diverse north-facing coastline, with a smart new promenade and big beach. Steam trains run in on the preserved West Somerset Railway from Taunton. The 630 mile South West Coast Path starts here. Its spectacular opening sequence skirts towering sea cliffs, lofty headlands and beautiful sandy coves studded with rock pools. The smaller resorts, Watchet, Burnham-on-Sea, Portishead, all close to the M5, are worth a stop. My favourite is Victorian-era Clevedon, a sedate and genteel seaside town with the bonus of one of Britain’s oldest cinemas, the Curzon. Its first show, in 1912, raised money for Titanic victims. Clevedon Court (National Trust) a rare surviving C14th manorial hall.
Somerset shares Exmoor with Devon, but keeps the Quantocks to itself. This sudden slab of high ground, topped with some of the best heather moorland in the South and a red deer population, is just north of the M5. It must have intrigued many, hurrying down to Devon and Cornwall. My advice is: call in next time for a cup of tea in West Quantoxhead or Bicknoller. Better still, stay in one of the welcoming little bed and breakfasts, and see what inspired romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a resient here for three years. He wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner after visiting the port of Watchet. The 36 mile Coleridge Walk leads from his now National Trust-owned house in Nether Stowey, to wander west across the quiet Quantocks. The opening nine mile stretch takes about a day.
The Somerset levels is a stretch of flat land barely above sea level, drained by a maze of rivers, with such remote names as the Axe, Brue, Tone and Yeo. Until recently the sea flooded it, up to 20 miles inland. The enigma of this strange and silent place was summed up for me one spring night when I stood on the River Parrett, as masses of elvers, tiny eels from the Sargasso Sea, 4000 miles west, wriggled deep inland on the Atlantic tide. They spend ten years maturing into eels in local streams before returning to their ocean birthplace. Now eel passes (and cameras) have been fitted at Oath Lock on the Parrett and at Greylake (visit the RSPB reserve here) to protect them. Recently 10,000 elvers were counted in a single night. Don’t miss the Peat Moors Centre, for the facsimile of the 6000 year old wooden Sweet Track, and the story of traditional willow growing and weaving.
See also http://www.directoryofdestinations.com/six-things.asp?Auto_ID=197