Somerset is a boredom-free zone
If you can bear to tear yourself away from your hut, you’ll find no shortage of things to discover and enjoy in the local area – most people head straight past Somerset on the M5 and don’t know what they’re missing!
A short walk from the hut, on the hilltop behind you. It’s an Iron Age hill fort that’s 950ft above sea level. The Somerset Levels, at the foot of the hill, are marginally below sea level, so the views south and west are spectacular – they include Glastonbury Tor, the Quantock Hills, Brent Knoll and the Bristol Channel beyond. The views to the north and east are pretty special too. That’s because it was a boundary fort between the Romano-British Celts and West Saxons during the period 577- 652 AD, and they needed to see who was coming their way along the two Roman roads, one heading east-west and the other north-south, that intersect nearby (the former runs within a few hundred yards of the ramparts).
England’s smallest cathedral city is just five miles away. The name derives from the three wells dedicated to St Andrew, one is in the Market Place where an outdoor market takes place on Wednesdays and Saturdays (it was first established in 1136 AD!), and two are in the grounds of the moated Bishop’s Palace and the magnificent Wells Cathedral.
The Cathedral has a strong claim to be the most beautiful in all England with a wonderful West Front featuring about 300 medieval statues and its unique scissor arches supporting the main tower. The Vicar’s Close, originally built to house members of the still famous choir, is the only complete medieval street in England.
Being so picturesque means that Wells is a popular location for shooting movies, most notably “The Canterbury Tales”, “The Golden Age” with Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I, “The Libertine” with Jonny Depp as the notorious rake the Earl of Rochester, and “Hot Fuzz” with Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. The city has a wealth of cafes, boutiques and independent shops, plus three supermarkets (including a Waitrose for special picnic treats). There are plenty of pubs, excellent restaurants, a nightclub, cinema and leisure centre. Wells also hosts one of the UK’s best illuminated carnivals, held in November.
Conveniently situated within east reach of Mendip Golf Course and only 3 miles away from Wells Golf Course, this would make an ideal base for golfers too.
13 Miles away and almost certainly the most eccentric and alternative town in England, if not the world – nowhere else has more myths, legends, ley lines, hippies, wholefoods, new age bookshops and crystal emporia per square foot. If you love history, heritage and all things New Age then you’ll feel very at home!
From around the 7th Century BC, up until relatively recent times, the Somerset Levels were flooded for most, if not all, of the year, leaving the area around the distinctive Tor as an isolated island surrounded by marsh. Various tribes lived in lake villages, connected by wooden walkways. These began to be rediscovered in the 1970s and despite being 6000 years old, have been well preserved by the peat. Carbon dating of the tree rings shows of the Sweet Track (named after the peat digger who unearthed it) was built in 3807 or 3806 BC!
In Saxon times the town became a trading centre, and an abbey and monastery were established in the 7th century AD. From at least the 12th century the Glastonbury area was frequently associated with the legend of King Arthur, a connection vigorously promoted by medieval monks keen to encourage pilgrims to visit. They asserted that Glastonbury was the Isle of Avalon and in 1191 claimed to have uncovered the tomb of Arthur and his Queen Guinevere.
Christian legends have also claimed that the abbey was founded by Joseph of Arimathea in the 1st century. Joseph is supposed to have captured Jesus’ blood in a cup, the “Holy Grail”, then brought this cup to Britain. He is said to have arrived at Glastonbury by boat – on disembarking he stuck his staff into the ground and it flowered miraculously into the Glastonbury Thorn (or Holy Thorn). This is said to explain a hybrid hawthorn tree that only grows within a few miles of Glastonbury, and which flowers twice annually, once in spring and again around Christmas time (depending on the weather). The abbey was built at Joseph’s behest to house the Holy Grail, which gives it claim to be the oldest above-ground Christian church in the world, roughly 65 years after the death of Jesus.
The monks also set about digging a network of canals across the Somerset Levels, reclaiming bits of land and creating huge fish ponds. By the 14th century, only Westminster Abbey was more richly endowed and appointed than Glastonbury. However, with the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, the abbey was stripped of its riches, with the abbot brutally hanged, drawn and quartered on top of the Tor. The extensive ruins of the abbey still remain, including the Abbot’s kitchen, one of the best preserved medieval kitchens in Europe.
The famous Glastonbury Festival takes place in the nearby village of Pilton.
A small rural town just four miles away. The word Sheptun meant “sheep enclosure” in medieval English and the Mallet part of the name comes from a local Norman family of Malet. Two annual agricultural shows are held close to the town: the three day Royal Bath and West of England Society Show which is held on the society’s showground near Evercreech, and the one-day Mid-Somerset Show on the town’s southern edge. It’s also the nearest town to the big music festival that occurs every couple of years – the town of Glastonbury is a couple of miles further away!
There’s a mix of shops, pubs and restaurants, plus you may also be able to find bargains at the town’s Mulberry Factory Outlet & Kilver Court Designer Village. Shepton Mallet also hosts one of the UK’s best illuminated carnivals, held in November.
Just a couple of miles beyond Glastonbury and home of Clarks Shoes. Shopaholics will love Clarks Village, a designer outlet complex that includes more than 90 shops and restaurants, mostly selling goods at discount prices.
13 Miles to the west, along the line of the Mendip Hills, this little town is famous for the cheese that can now be found almost all over the world. The earliest reference to this delicacy is in 1170, when King Henry II purchased 10240 lbs. of Cheddar at a farthing per lbs. (that’s 4644 kg at a total cost of £10.67!). Scott of the Antarctic took with him 3500 lbs. (nearly 1600 kg) of Cheddar made in Cheddar on his famous expedition in 1901.
Today only one manufacturer remains, offering guided tours and a huge selection of different cheese varieties.
Cheddar Gorge is the largest gorge in England and home of the famous Cheddar Caves. The network of spectacular passages and chambers includes Gough’s Cave, where the remains of Cheddar Man were found. This is the oldest complete skeleton found in Britain, dating from 7150 BC. A hole in his skull suggests a violent end and other remains show that the inhabitants of the cave enjoyed a bit of cannibalism. Amazingly, DNA testing has found a direct descendant of Cheddar Man still living in Cheddar, 9000 years later!
Cheddar also has a number of good restaurants, including two excellent curry houses, a Chinese, an award-winning Thai, and two fish and chip shops.
Wookey Hole Caves
One mile beyond Wells the River Axe emerges from the foot of the Mendip Hills, having carved spectacular caverns out of the rock. The caves, at a constant temperature of 11 °C (52 °F), have been used by humans for around 50,000 years. The low temperature is also perfect for maturing Cheddar cheese, which is still produced to this day by the Ford Farm dairy.
Archaeologists exploring the caves have found the bones of rhinoceros, bear, mammoth and lion, along with flint tools, Roman coins, weapons and ornaments, the remains of an Iron Age hut and the foundations of a Roman building.
Legend has it during the Dark Ages an old woman who kept a dog and some goats lived alone in the caves. Everything that went wrong in the village was blamed on her. The local people believed she was a witch who cast spells and caused misfortune.
Eventually, the people asked for help from the Abbot at nearby Glastonbury Abbey. They sent a monk called Father Bernard to exorcise the witch’s spirit. Father Bernard entered the cave armed only with a bible and a candle.
In the faint light he saw the witch stooping over her cooking pot. He tried to talk to her, but screaming curses and casting spells, she fled deeper into the cave down a narrow passageway called Hell’s Ladder.
The brave monk followed her and they met again in the shadowy depths of an inner cavern. Quickly, Father Bernard scooped up a handful of water from the river, blessed it and threw it over the witch. She turned instantly to stone and her frozen figure remains in this cavern – known as The Witch’s Kitchen – to this day. A 1000 year old skeleton of a woman was discovered in the cave, lending credence to the story of the witch.
Take a guided tour around the caverns and the paper mill – established in 1610 it is the country’s oldest working paper mill and you can see sheets being made by hand in the traditional way. Just beyond Wookey Hole is Ebor Gorge. Like a smaller version of Cheddar Gorge, and hidden in thick woods, it features a number of lovely walks.
The City of Bath is only 21 miles away and is one of the most popular visitor destinations in the UK. Iron Age Britons found a hot water spring here and built a shrine. The Romans then came and constructed a magnificent temple, an extensive complex of baths, and an entire city. After they left their buildings began to crumble and King Alfred built a new town on this spot. The hot springs were still used for bathing and Bath became a popular spa town.
After the civil war Bath was regularly visited by a succession of monarchs who came to “take the waters” and soon everybody who was anybody had to be seen there. During Georgian times this led to massive redevelopment, with the construction of impressive crescents, terraces and parks that still stand today. During the Victorian era the original Roman baths were rediscovered and have now been extensively restored – a tour is a must. In recognition of its unique architectural character the city was selected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The list of famous residents and visitors is endless (Charles Dickens, Samuel Pepys, William Pitt…) but one stands out – Jane Austen set two of her six published novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, in Bath and made the city her home from 1801 to 1806.
Today the city is still terribly fashionable, with loads of fabulous boutiques, pubs, bars, restaurants and the modern Thermae Spa.
18 Miles away is this magnificent Elizabethan mansion with its famous gardens, maze, grounds and safari park. It is currently the seat of the Marquess of Bath, whose wife Emma Weymouth was a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing 2019. Much of the house is open to the public and boasts some fascinating interiors, paintings and furnishings.
Birdwatching and wildlife walks on Somerset Levels
The Somerset Levels, often flooded and offering miles of marshland, have always attracted a huge numbers of birds and other wildlife. Today the old peat workings, covered in reed beds, provide a perfect habitat for a wide variety of creatures – heaven for serious birdwatchers and those with just a casual interest.
Westhay Moor, Ham Wall and Shapwick Heath, about seven miles from the hut, are the best reserves, with lots of pathways and hides. Millions of starlings start to arrive in November and stay through to January/February – massive clouds settle down to roost in the reed beds every evening, providing a spectacular sight. This phenomenon is known as a “murmuration”, presumably because of the weird sound a few hundred thousand wings make!