Plenty of us plan to stay closer to home this summer, and who can blame us when we have beautiful counties like Somerset on our doorstep, ready to explore
Somerset’s landscapes are steeped in legend, from the lush fields of ‘Avalon’ to Cheddar Gorge and the wilds of Exmoor. The winding, country lanes hold secrets: a spectacular gathering of birds at sunset; a cave filled with fertility symbols; a farm taken over by huge sculptures.
The local food scene is flourishing, involving everyone from Michelin-star chefs to foragers on the Mendip Hills and farmers selling cheddar and cider from the barn door.
Glastonbury Festival shines as the centre of the musical universe in June (though sadly not this year) – but the region is becoming known for more than this. Quiet, agrarian villages are now fashionable places in which to eat brunch, buy designer ceramics and paddleboard down river. Bruton has an internationally-renowned art gallery and hip, country house hotels, from Soho House and Babylonstoren, are some of the UK’s most desirable.
What makes Somerset so exciting is that it preserves a bucolic way of life while keeping its finger firmly on the pulse.
48 hours in . . . Somerset
Start early with a stroll around historic Wells. It is an awesome sight to stand beneath the West Front of its Gothic cathedral (Cathedral Green; 01749 674483), with its important gallery of medieval sculpture. To the north is Vicar’s Close, said to be the only complete medieval close in England. To the south, 13th-century Bishop’s Palace (01749 988111) has fortified walls, a great hall, moat and arboretum.
On leaving Wells, it is a 25-minute drive to Cheddar Gorge. Here, ragged cliffs soar up unexpectedly from the road and limestone slabs lunge across it. Impressive views reward those who climb the steep public footpaths at either end, or walk the circular four-mile route (free; wear appropriate footwear). Non-walkers can park along the gorge bottom and take photos.
Have lunch afterwards in the village of Wedmore – once an island when the Levels were under sea – 15 minutes’ drive south. The Swan (Cheddar Road; 01934 710337) is an attractive coaching inn, offering quality pub food featuring local produce.
Uncover some of England’s most famous legends by heading to Glastonbury and the mystical Vale of Avalon. Fabled to be where King Arthur was buried and where Joseph of Arimathea hid the Holy Grail, it’s a 20-minute drive away. Park at Draper and Co, Chilkwell Street, then seek out the cloaked trustees of the Chalice Well, further along. They can grant you entrance to the peaceful garden and candlelit cavern containing the sacred red and white springs (Wellhouse Lane).
Climb the nearby steps to Glastonbury Tor. Topped by 14th-century St Michael’s Tower, it offers extensive views across the Somerset Levels, where fertile fields are crisscrossed by cattle droves and ancient rhynes (drainage channels).
Then, delve deeper into Glastonbury’s history at its ruined abbey (Magdalene Street; 01458 832267) which contains the alleged resting place of Arthur.
Between October and March (but best in December and January) the marshes around the Tor bear witness to spectacular starling murmurations, when thousands of birds swoop in cloud formations above roosting sites at Ham Wall or Shapwick Heath. The area gets busy but catch them if you can just before sunset. Spring and summer are the perfect time to explore the Levels by bike. The Bittern Trail, for example, is a circular route that links the birdlife at Avalon Marshes with Glastonbury.
From Ham Wall or Shapwick Heath, it is less than 20 minutes in the car to tiny Lower Godney and the Sheppey Inn (01458 831594), an eclectic, welcoming pub with a large terrace overlooking a river. The menu is bursting with appetising food, with dishes often incorporating spices and exotic influences. With an extensive range of cider, craft beer, interesting wine and cocktails, you can easily settle in for the night.
After yesterday’s walks and history, today focuses on art, gardens and fantastic food, centring around Bruton, an earthy yet stylish little town. Start with brunch at the Roth Bar & Grill (Dropping Lane; 01749 814 700), a buzzy, art-filled restaurant on the grounds of the Hauser & Wirth contemporary art gallery.
Afterwards, browse the exhibitions shown in the adjacent buildings of this working farm. It’s best to call or look online beforehand to see what is running and when. The beautiful garden outside is the perfect space for letting the artists’ ideas sink in. Designed by Piet Oudolf, sweeping beds of colour draw the eye, while soft, billowing grasses lend an element of fantasy.
Bringing further international flair to this tiny corner of Somerset is The Newt (Hadspen; 01963 577777), one of the UK’s finest country house hotels, a ten-minute-drive away. Owned by South African wine estate Babylonstoren, its glass-fronted restaurant, The Garden Cafe, is a lovely spot for lunch and specialises mainly in vegetable dishes. Highlights include coal-baked beetroot with apple, turnip and lovage. The estate’s cultivated gardens were designed to reflect gardening styles through the ages. Children will enjoy the apple maze, water-squirting toads and raised treetop walkway, which leads to the high-tech Story of Gardening museum.
Finally, venture into Bruton itself. Park at The Godminster Shop (Station Road) and wander up the narrow High Street, crammed with boutiques. Visit Caro for interior pieces and Make Hauser & Wirth for specially commissioned art works. Tiny stone passageways – called bartons – lead you back down to the River Brue.
Behind a zingy yellow door on Bruton’s High Street, Osip (01749 813322) serves highly innovative food. There is no menu but dinner involves six courses – simply relax into whatever Merlin Labron-Johnson, the young Michelin-starred chef and owner, has in store. The Somerset-inspired dishes could include roast chicken with local ceps and burnt garlic or fresh ricotta, tomatoes and raspberries, with oil from French marigold leaves.
Just up the High Street, At the Chapel’s downstairs bar (01749 814070) serves drinks until 11pm-ish and has a gorgeous walled terrace.
Alternatively, take a 20-minute taxi ride to Frome and peruse the well-stocked shelves of wine bar Eight Stony Street (01373 470970), or, for a cocktail, pull up a stool at French-themed Bar Lotte (6a Badcox, 01373 301 068).
Nearby Cheese and Grain (Market Yard; 01373 455 420) has live bands or DJs at weekends.
Where to stay . . .
The Newt is one of the most exceptional country house hotels Britain has seen. The hotel occupies beautiful Palladian-fronted red-gold limestone Hadspen House, first built in 1687 and home for two centuries to the Hobhouse family: activists, politicians and conservationists. Now owned by South African Koos Bekker and his wife Karen Roos, the working estate feels like a lively, cultured, kindly and well orchestrated haven.
Double rooms from £255 per night; 01963 577777
Ecclesiastical elegance meets boutique verve At The Chapel, a former 12th-century church that has been stylishly repurposed into an eight-bedroom hotel in the arty village of Bruton in Somerset.
Doubles from £125 per night; 01749 814070
The Talbot Inn tops many a list of stylish country getaways – and rightly so. The coaching inn is located in Mells, one of Somerset’s most desirable and attractive villages, and offers huge, fashionably furnished rooms and tangible history. The cooking is excellent; expect sophisticated takes on classic dishes.
Rooms from £110 per night; 00 44 1373 812 254
What to bring home . . .
Along with heritage cheddar and cider, pick up some smoked eel from Brown and Forrest (Bowdens Farm, Hambridge), a local smokery that uses eels caught sustainably from Somerset rivers and sells its fish to Fortnum & Mason.
Cider brandy is also a good buy. The Somerset Cider Brandy Company (Burrow Hill, Kingsbury Episcopi; 01460 240782) distills cider and ages its brandy in Somerset oak barrels. Its Ice Cider and a digestif, Pomona, are ideal dessert tipples to accompany cheese.
When to go . . .
Somerset has a wet but mild climate, so a visit at any time is feasible. There is something special about springtime though, when orchards disappear under clouds of pink blossom. Visiting a cider press while the air is sweet with the scent of crushed apples is also a treat, as are the wooded combes of Exmoor in autumn. Purple heather makes a pretty sight on the Quantocks in late summer, while on the Levels, you can catch starling murmurations in winter. Avoid Pilton and Glastonbury during the last week of June (unless you have tickets to Glastonbury Festival).
Know before you go . . .
Tourist board information: 01749 83 54 16; visitsomerset.co.uk
Emergency fire, ambulance and police: 999
Local laws and etiquette
Tipping is welcome, up to ten per cent of the bill.
Public transport: It is best to drive, as, though trains are available in most towns, they are not convenient for accessing villages.
Taxis are fairly reasonable and should be booked in advance, ask at your accommodation or restaurant for a local company’s phone number. Expect to pay £16 for a 20-minute journey.
Natalie lives on Somerset’s border and enjoys browsing its artisan markets, messing about on rivers, cheese tasting and picnicking in orchards with a flagon of cider. She loves Somerset for its independent spirit.