With dramatic landscapes and ancient sites, cider farms and timewarp villages, a tour of rural Somerset is a delight
Ensconced between Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Dorset and Devon, Somerset is rural Britain at its bucolic best, a rolling countryside of apple-laden orchards and elegant stately homes. This is a county famous for its churches and its cheese. A county whose hills and marshlands are steeped in legend. And whose name, derived from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning Land of the Summer People, reflects a pastoral past that is still very much in evidence today. So where best to begin exploring this idyllic landscape? In a city, actually, and a UNESCO World Heritage-listed one at that.
“Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?” asks Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey. The protagonist of Jane Austen’s first novel, set in the city in which she lived, was onto something. This is one of England’s most beautiful urban spaces, with an architectural showstopper at almost every turn: resplendent Bath Abbey, Italianate Pulteney Bridge, the grand sweep of Georgian houses that makes up the Royal Crescent.
For over 2000 years, visitors have been drawn to the Roman Baths that give the city its name. Watch the steam curling off the deep-green Great Bath before taking the mineral-rich waters at the Spa Fountain – a sip can supposedly cure everything from arthritis to gout. You can put these claims to the test even further at the cutting-edge Thermae Bath Spa; head up to the open-air rooftop pool for soothing views across the city.
From Bath, it’s 25 miles up over the Mendip Hills to Cheddar Gorge, by far your longest stretch between stops but worth it for this jaw-dropping introduction to Somerset’s more rugged scenery. Just driving through the gorge, the largest in Britain, is breath-taking, its craggy limestone cliffs towering 500 feet over the snaking road.
But Cheddar’s fascinating geology is best appreciated from above and below, on the three-mile Gorge Walk that circuits the summit (keep an eye out for Billy goats skittering about the upper ledges) and in Gough’s Cave, a complex of caverns filled with fantastical rock formations.
You can hardly visit Cheddar without trying some cheese, though, so stroll down to The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company, which makes its Cheddar the traditional way, wrapped in cloth and, in some cases, left to mature for a year in the dank corners of Gough’s Cave.
It’s just over nine miles from Cheddar to Wells, England’s smallest city. Don’t let its size deceive you, though, for Wells packs a mighty punch. The west front of its 12th- century cathedral is a stunning collective of prophets, apostles, angels and kings; the interior comes into its own during Evensong, when the choir, considered one of the best in the world, brings this beautiful building to life.
Virtually adjoining the cathedral, the medieval gated (and still moated) Bishop’s Palace has served as the residence of the Bishop of Bath and Wells since 1206 and houses, in tranquil gardens, the wells that give the city its name.
For the full article and to discover the rest of Somerset, see Vol 87 Issue 3 of BRITAIN magazine on sale here