What to Do...
If Kent is the Garden of England, then Somerset is the field behind the wall at the bottom of the garden, just waiting for you to hop over and explore it's fields, lanes and villages, and where the pace of life is kept to a gentle stroll.
In these pages, we have given a taste of what there is to find here. The countryside is all around you, rich in wildlife and easily accessable. No visit to the area would be complete without an adventure into the Caves in Wookey Hole, a climb up to the top of Glastonbury Tor, a visit to the extraordinary scissor arches in Wells Cathedral, kayaking on the river Parret, and all washed down with some local cider at Jim’s cider shack!
The Mendip Hills
For walking, climbing, caving, cycling or just for lunch – The Mendip Hills (commonly called the Mendips) is a range of limestone hills to the south of Bristol and Bath in Somerset. Running east to west between Weston-super-Mare and Frome, the hills overlook the Somerset Levels to the south and the Avon Valley to the north. The hills give their name to the local government district of Mendip, which administers most of the area.
The hills are largely formed from Carboniferous Limestone, which is quarried at several sites. The higher, western part of the hills has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), which gives it a level of protection comparable to a national park. The AONB is 198 km² (76 sq mi). The Mendip Hills AONB and Somerset County Council's outdoor education centre is at the Charterhouse Centre near Blagdon.
A wide range of outdoor sports and leisure activities take place in the Mendips, many based on the particular geology of the area. The hills are recognised as a national centre for caving and cave diving, as well as being popular with climbers, hillwalkers and natural historians.
Craggy limestone outcrops, Limestone scree slopes and lush wooded valleys are on offer in this Mendip reserve. Some 200,000 years ago the huge cavern that formed Ebbor Gorge collapsed and left behind a number of small caves where reindeer, cave bear and wolf remains have been discovered. Artefacts and bones from Neolithic people who sheltered in these caves 5000 years ago are on show at Wells museum. Three trails are available.
The 2km red route takes about 1 hour and includes a strenuous scramble up the gorge. Robust footwear is recommended. The 1km black route takes you along a woodland ramble lush with ferns, mosses and fungi. It takes about half an hour. The easy access blue route takes about 15 minutes and is ideal for wheel chairs and pushchairs.
Cheddar Gorge is a limestone gorge in the Mendip Hills, near the village of Cheddar. The gorge is the site of the Cheddar show caves, where Britain's oldest complete human skeleton, Cheddar Man, estimated to be 9,000 years old, was found in 1903. Older remains from the Upper Late Palaeolithic era (12,000–13,000 years ago) have been found.
The caves, produced by the activity of an underground river, contain stalactites and stalagmites. Cheddar Gorge, including the caves and other attractions, has become a tourist destination.
In a 2005 poll of Radio Times readers, following its appearance on the 2005 television programme Seven Natural Wonders, Cheddar Gorge was named as the second greatest natural wonder in Britain, surpassed only by Dan yr Ogof caves. The gorge attracts about 500,000 visitors per year.
The Somerset Levels
These wonderful wetlands barely reach 8m above sea level and the land was permanently under water just 6,500 years ago. it is thought that the summer grazing land on the levels and moors may have given rise to the name Summerseata –‘land of the summer people’ from which Somerset gets its name. The great flat expanses of land which stretch inland from Bridgwater bay to the Mendip hills in the north and the Quantock hills in the west are often overlooked by visitors but form a vast wildlife haven teeming with rare and endangered species. Otters are best seen at Shapwick heath or Westhay moor but all the watercourses are rich in water voles, fish and insects while lush flower meadows are home to many wild orchids and butterflies.
To the north of the polden hills, the rivers Axe, Sheppey and Brue cross the peat moors and Avalon Marshes while the southern levels including Sedgemoor are crossed by the Parrett (which is tidal up to 17km/ 10miles from the coast) Yeo, Cary and Tone. In most cases the courses of these rivers have been changed to form man made drainage systems which help to control the considerable winter flooding. Ditches, known locally as 'rhynes' criss cross the area acting as wet fences and helping form a unique landscape of farmland, wetland, fens and mires.
In 1685 the Duke of Monmouth’s uprising against King James 11 ended with his defeat at the Battle of Sedgemoor – the last battle fought on English soil.
The Chew Valley
The Chew Valley is an area in North Somerset, England, named after the River Chew, which rises at Chewton Mendip, and joins the River Avon at Keynsham. Technically, the area of the valley is bounded by the water catchment area of the Chew and its tributaries; however, the name Chew Valley is often used less formally to cover other nearby areas, for example, Blagdon Lake and its environs, which by a stricter definition are part of the Yeo Valley. The valley is an area of rich arable and dairy farmland, interspersed with a number of villages.
The landscape consists of the valley of the River Chew and is generally low-lying and undulating. It is bounded by higher ground ranging from Dundry Down to the north, the Lulsgate Plateau to the west, the Mendip Hills to the south and the Hinton Blewett, Marksbury and Newton St Loe plateau areas to the east. The valley's boundary generally follows the top of scarp slopes except at the southwestern and southeastern boundaries where flat upper areas of the Chew Valley grade gently into the Yeo Valley and eastern Mendip Hills respectively.
The River Chew was dammed in the 1950s to create Chew Valley Lake, which provides drinking water for the nearby city of Bristol and surrounding areas. The lake is a prominent landscape feature of the valley, a focus for recreation, and is internationally recognised for its nature conservation interest, because of the bird species, plants and insects.
Part of the area falls within the Mendip Hills AONB. Most of the undeveloped area is within the Bristol/Bath Green Belt. Many of the villages date back to the time of the Domesday Book and there is evidence of human occupation since the Stone Age.
There are hundreds of listed buildings with the churches being Grade I listed.
The main village is Chew Magna but the largest are Pensford, Clutton, Bishop Sutton, High Littleton and Temple Cloud.
Glastonbury is overlooked by the famous Glastonbury Tor and it has been a place of pilgrimage for thousands of years.
The Tor rises 158 metres above sea level and offers spectacular views across the Mendips and somerset levels and is central to the Arthurian myths and legends. Many claim it to be the ancient Isle of Avalon and Glastonbury Abbey to be the final resting place of King Arthur and his wife Guinevere.
The town has lots of small unique shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants. Market day is every Tuesday and there is a farmers market every third Saturday.
There are 3 nature reserves just west of Glastonbury on the Avalon marshes all featuring wildlife unique to the area and home to one of the greatest natural spectacles in Britain; each winter thousands of starlings descend upon the reed beds for their nightly sleep and as they approach the area from all directions they congregate and swarm the sky in flocks of over 4 million, a truly incredible acrobatic display.
The City of Wells
Wells is England’s smallest city because of its magnificent cathedral famed for the magnificent west front, Vicars Close the oldest and continuously inhabited medieval street in Europe.
The Bishop’s Palace and Gardens provides a wealth of historical interest, beautiful architecture, local market and a lovely range of cafe’s, pubs and restaurants – if you’re feeling adventurous Wells lies beneath the southern slopes of the Mendip hills and is just 1.5 miles from Wookey Hole and an easy walk!
The traditional market towns of Castle Cary, Bruton, Langport, Somerton, Martock, Chard and Wincanton offer lots of quirky features and historic features.
Medieval markets weren’t allowed to just spring up anywhere they had to be granted and were subject to many rules and regulations. Market towns needed a combination of thriving agriculture and local industry and their heart was their market square – often not a square at all.
Frome is the Mendips’ largest and most easterly town with cobbled streets, historic buildings and a thriving arts scene.
Once larger than the city of Bath just 12 miles away, Frome offers a good mix of traditional and modern shops, galleries, craft shops, studios and cafes.
Frome festival usually takes place in July and for the foodies there is a busy fortnightly farmers market on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month and a main town market every Wednesday and Saturday.
Street, just south of Glastonbury is the largest village in the Mendip and named after an ancient causeway across the marshes.
Street was historically an agricultural and sheepskin trade village but more recently is famous for its association with Clarkes and the Clarks Village which hosts over 90 discount stores from the designer labels and famous brands and offers up to 60% off rrp prices. Street itself has many other interesting shops and places to eat.
Bath, the city was first established as a spa resort with the Latin name, Aquae Sulis ("the waters of Sulis") by the Romans in AD 43 although verbal tradition suggests that Bath was known before then. They built baths and a temple on the surrounding hills of Bath in the valley of the River Avon around hot springs, which are the only ones naturally occurring in the United Kingdom. Edgar was crowned king of England at Bath Abbey in 973. Much later, it became popular as a spa resort during the Georgian era, which led to a major expansion that left a heritage of exemplary Georgian architecture crafted from Bath Stone.
The City of Bath was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1987. The city has a variety of theatres, museums, and other cultural and sporting venues, which have helped to make it a major centre for tourism, with over one million staying visitors and 3.8 million day visitors to the city each year. The city has two universities and several schools and colleges.
Wookey Hole Caves
Wookey Hole Caves in the village of Wookey Hole is one of Britain’s most spectacular show caves and home to the infamous Witch of Wookey. In addition to the caves you can wander through the prehistoric Valley Of The Dinosaurs and enter the 19th Century Paper Mill, which houses a variety of fascinating attractions including the Victorian Penny Arcades, magical Mirror Maze, cave museum, Pirate Zap Zone, soft play areas and Pirate Crazy Golf. For the more adventurous you can also now book a wild cave experience where you climb, crawl and abseil through the caves.
Clarks Village is a designer outlet shopping complex in Street. The centre includes more than 90 shops. There are also coffee shops, refreshment stalls and a dining area shared by fast food chains, mostly selling goods at a discount to high street prices. Plus a variety of attractions including shoe museum, landscaped walkways, children's play area, and art studio.
Postcode: BA16 0BB (very well signposted)
Distance: 10m, 20minutes drive
Parking: Plenty, Pay & Display
Would Suit: All the family
Typical Visit: Depends how much you like shopping!!
Open: 7 days a week
Haynes International Motor Museum
The prestigious Haynes International Motor Museum, at Sparkford in Somerset is the UK's largest exhibition of the greatest cars from around the world. A living and working museum, with over 400 amazing cars and bikes from nostalgic classics of the 50s and 60s, glorious Bentleys and Rolls Royces to exciting super cars of today, like the Jaguar XJ220 and the Ferrari 360. You can discover the world famous Red Room, 12 huge display halls and one of the UK's largest speedway collections.
Postcode: BA22 7LH (very well signposted)
Distance: 20m, 35minutes drive
Parking: Plenty, free
Would Suit: All the family - if they like cars & bikes!
Typical Visit: Up to half a day
Open: 7 days a week
Cost: Adults £9.95 Children £4.95, Concessions & discounts available
Fleet Air Arm Museum
Welcome to the Fleet Air Arm Museum - representing the flying arm of the Royal Navy. With four exhibition halls, over ninety aircraft and over 2 million records and 30 thousand artefacts the Museum is the world's second largest naval aviation Museum. The Fleet Air Arm Musum's Fly Navy 100 exhibition dramatically presents 100 years of naval aviation from its first air ship 1909, to today's formidable air power from the sea.
The Museum has the first British built Concorde which you can go on-board and visit the cockpit. In addition, you will see the Museum's award winning Aircraft Carrier Experience.
Postcode: BA22 8HZ, RAF Yeovilton (very well signposted)
Distance: 20m, 40minutes drive
Parking: Plenty, free
Would Suit: All the family
Typical Visit: At least half a day
Open: 7 days a week summer, Wed to Sun Winter
Cost: Adults £13 Children £9, Concessions & discounts available
Somerset Rural Life Museum
The magnificent fourteenth-century Abbey Barn is the centrepiece of the Somerset Rural Life Museum. The barn and the farm buildings surrounding the courtyard contain displays illustrating the tools and techniques of farming in Victorian Somerset.
Unusual local activities like willow growing, mud horse fishing, peat digging and cider making are included. In the Abbey Farmhouse the social and domestic life of Victorian Somerset is described in reconstructed rooms and an exhibition which tells the life story of a farm worker, John Hodges, from the cradle to the grave.
Postcode: BA6 8DB, Glastonbury
Distance: 8m, 20minutes drive
Parking: Free Car Park Nearby
Would Suit: All the family
Typical Visit: A couple of hours
Open: Tue to Sat and Bank Holidays
The coast – to the south - The stunning 95 mile stretch of Jurassic coastline is just an hours drive away and is England’s only natural world heritage site. It’s a walk through time covering 185 million years of geological history in amazing surroundings.
To the west – explore the downs and dunes at Brean Down or Burnham on Sea whilst enjoying magnificent views across the Bristol channel.
Center; Glastonbury Tor
Right; Wells Cathedral