These are unusual times, and the state of affairs can change quickly. Please check the latest travel guidance before making your journey. Note that our writer visited pre-pandemic.
Somerset is storied land, often overlooked by travellers rushing through to Devon or Cornwall. Tales waiting to be told include that of King Arthur, King Alfred, medieval bishops and of the “summer people” who first farmed on the marshes. Expect beautiful scenery, moving from the wild coast to moorland, wetlands and rolling countryside. Some rural areas have become chic, cultural hotspots, hiding their vibrancy behind hedgerows thick with cow parsley. Gastronomes will love meeting local producers for a multitude of tasting opportunities, while families can happily combine history with gorge climbing, fossil-hunting, river sports and peaceful walks.
Wonder at medieval Wells
Wells’ compact centre is architecturally splendid. Starting at its Gothic cathedral, note the West Front’s large gallery of medieval sculpture and the Jesse window, a magnificent example of 14th-century stained glass. Nearby is Vicar’s Close, with its photogenic row of houses let to choir members. Finally, 13th-century Bishop’s Palace has 14-acre gardens, a moat and pools filled with water from wells that give the city its name.
Insider’s tip: Surprises at the Bishop’s Palace include the moat’s crafty swans, who you might catch ringing a bell to demand food, and a new Dragon’s Lair playground in the grounds, which children can find via a map. The palace’s first bishop allegedly slayed a dragon.
Climb Cheddar Gorge
Britain’s largest gorge can be explored by driving along its bottom or by walking up public footpaths at each end. A four-mile circular cliff top walk connects both ends and starts from Cufic Lane opposite The Original Cheddar Cheese Company (try their cave-aged cheddar). It is steep and challenging but offers splendid views across to Cheddar Reservoir, sparkling beyond the jutting cliffs.
Insider’s tip: If you can, bag one of the free parking spots at Black Rock, at the eastern end. As the majority of people walk into the gorge from Cheddar village the trails are quieter here, with more chance of spotting goats and Soay sheep.
Find modern art in the country
Tucked into fields outside Bruton, Durslade Farmhouse might seem an incongruous place to view internationally important art. Hauser & Wirth’s exhibitions feel vital though. In the past, the barn-like galleries have featured a giant Louise Bourgeois spider, abstract paintings from Rita Ackermann and neon signage from Martin Creed. Sculptures create focal points outside and there is a flower-filled landscaped meadow, the Oudolf Field, beyond.
Insider’s tip: Factor in time to shop. The gallery shop has a tempting selection of books on art, design and gardening, plus there is also a farm shop opening on site. Durslade Farm Shop offers meat and vegetables from the farm itself as well as products from small, local producers.
Contact: 01 749 81 40 60, hauserwirth.com
Stroll through gardening history
The gardens at Hadspen House have long held a serious draw for the green-fingered. The Newt’s revamp has seen them transformed into a celebration of the apple and of gardening’s history – with baroque, landscape, kitchen and cottage gardens all represented. At its heart, a walled garden contains espaliered apple trees and a maze featuring 267 apple varieties. In woodland, an aerial walkway leads to the Story of Gardening museum.
Insider’s tip: After admiring the planting, take a seat under plane trees at the hotel’s Cyder Bar to try its single variety ciders. The Newt’s cider makers are not afraid to be experimental. Tastings sessions, featuring cheese pairings and high-quality batches made using the Champagne method, are held in the Winter Garden. Booking in advance is recommended.
Contact: 01 963 57 77 77; thenewtinsomerset.com
Price: Adults £17.50, child £7, under 5s free
Get mystical at Glastonbury
Whether you followed ley lines or came searching for the Holy Grail, Glastonbury has something for everyone. Glastonbury Abbey was once the wealthiest monastery in the country – parts of the nave and Lady Chapel remain. Its grounds also contain the Holy Thorn and the legendary burial site of King Arthur. Glastonbury Tor offers far-reaching views, while the Chalice Well garden and cavern of the White Spring encourage quiet contemplation.
Insider’s tip: For a circular route, start at the Chalice Well, climb the steps up Glastonbury Tor then come down the far side. Turn left into Stone Down Lane then take the public footpath on the right and a further footpath through fields to finish in Dodd Lane, near Glastonbury Abbey.
Contact: 01 458 83 22 67, glastonburyabbey.com; 01 278 75 18 74, nationaltrust.org.uk/glastonbury-tor; 01 458 83 11 54, chalicewell.org.uk
Price: Glastonbury Abbey adults £8.50, child £5.15, under 5s free; Chalice Well adults £4.60, child £2.30, under 5s free
Cycle the wide-open Levels
The Somerset Levels and Moors is a peaceful, lowland area of wetland nature reserves, fields and pasture, crisscrossed by reed-fringed rivers and drainage ditches known as rhynes. Unsurprisingly, it’s a region that is easy to explore by bike, with charming villages, birdlife and associations with King Alfred and King Arthur adding to the appeal. Parrett Trail Bikes, in Langport, hires out bicycles from its base on the River Parrett.
Insider’s tip: Interesting cycle routes from Langport include a ride east to Somerton, an hour-long loop south to Muchelney Abbey and a longer loop that continues past Burrow Hill, home of The Somerset Cider Brandy Company; the National Trust’s Barrington Court and the Brown and Forrest smokery.
Contact: 01 458 25 36 26, parretttrailbikes.co.uk; english-heritage.org.uk; 01 460 24 19 38, nationaltrust.org.uk/barrington-court; 01 460 240782, somersetciderbrandy.com; brownandforrest.co.uk
Price: Adult bikes £25 a day, child £17, all £8 per hour, electric bikes £35 a day
Hunt down vintage cheddar
Cheddar cheese originated in Cheddar and is loved across the world. Somerset’s award-winning cheese makers still use traditional methods and foodies can flit between farmyard shops comparing tasting notes. The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company ages its vintage truckles in a gorge cave; Barbers has been making cheddar since 1833 and Westcombe Dairy has a beautiful unpasteurised cheddar, as well as Wild Beer Co craft beer.
Insider’s tip: While there is a Protected Designation of Origin for West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, Somerset’s artisans sometimes adhere further to tradition, using local, unpasteurised milk to make old-recipe cheddar that is savoury, nutty and firm, with the “cheddaring” process done by hand and the cheese bound in cloth to mature.
Sample local scrumpy
Somerset’s cider makers welcome visitors warmly. Thatchers has an onsite pub and sells new batches from the barrel; Sheppy’s has a cafe, museum and harvest-time tours; Burrow Hill is run by the fashion designer Alice Temperley’s family and is home to Glastonbury Festival’s cider bus (open in summer) and The Newt hotel (thenewtinsomerset.com) hosts tastings of its own ciders.
Insider’s tip: To try smaller scale farmhouse cider, grab a flagon of deceptively potent Wilkins from Lands End Farm, down country lanes 10 minutes from Wedmore. Large barrels of sweet, medium and dry cider can be sampled in a cobwell-filled barn, alongside apple chutneys and tasty unpasteurised cheddar.
Walk the wilds of Exmoor
The Exmoor National Park stretches from the west of Somerset into Devon. It is an International Dark Sky Reserve, home to ponies, red deer and otters. Visit Dunster, one of the UK’s most intact medieval villages; take a safari tour with a park ranger, or head off on a walk, perhaps from the ancient Tarr Steps river crossing to pretty Dulverton.
Insider’s tip: Exmoor has a secret, untamed coastline. Bossington Hill affords superb views of Porlock Bay, where shingle beaches meet salt marshes. Explore Porlock Weir’s harbour and nearby storm beaches, then warm up over accomplished Italian cooking at Locanda on the Weir.
Follow in Coleridge’s footsteps
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Romantic poet, used to walk around Nether Stowey, in the Quantock Hills, finding inspiration for his prose. This Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty comprises heathland, ancient wooded valleys and a Jurassic-period coastline. Coleridge’s cottage is now looked after by the National Trust. Popular walks can include part of the Coleridge Way or ammonite fossil hunting on Kilve beach. Pony trekking is also possible.
Insider’s tip: Purple bell heather and yellow gorse is ablaze on the heath from late summer to early autumn, making this a great time to visit. Springtime is lovely too however, with carpets of bluebells on Cothelstone Hill in particular, where you might also spot red deer.