The ultimate guide to visiting Somerset
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Somerset is a beautiful county with many quirks, such as its much-loved lingo. The accent can almost be described as a “pirate talk”, with the ooo-arrs and is most famous in the action-comedy film “Hot Fuzz”, starring Simon Pegg, which was filmed in Wells.
Lovely West Country burr aside, you can combine so much from railway adventures to beachside fun all within a short distance away.
When you hear the phrase “West Country”, you may automatically think of Devon and Cornwall. Somerset is said to be the heart of the West Country, encompassing a contrast of countryside, coastlines, towns and cities.
So here are our picks of the best spots and some insider tips for your visit to the real West Country.
Cheddar is arguably the world’s most popular cheese, and in Cheddar, you can even find cave-aged cheese and watch the whole cheese-making process before trying a couple of cheeky samples at the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company. Formed over one million years ago during the last ice age, Cheddar Gorge and Cheddar Caves are home to prehistoric findings including Britain’s oldest complete skeleton, the 9,000-year-old Cheddar Man. It’s an international centre for caving and rock climbing if you are feeling brave and energetic. Cheddar Gorge day tickets for adults are from £16.95.
How to get there: The nearest airport to Cheddar, and for all the locations in this piece, is Bristol (BRS). For Cheddar, if you get the train, Bristol Temple Meads is the closest mainline station. From there, you need to go to Weston-super-Mare station.
Exmoor National Park
One of the most peaceful of all National Parks, Exmoor is renowned for its dramatic coastal views, heather moorland, ancient woodlands, steep combes and, of course, Exmoor ponies. Covering 267.5 square miles, 71% of Exmoor is in Somerset.
The coastline within Exmoor stretches 37 miles. A great place to start is Minehead, a classic bucket and spade beach. Then, walk along to Bossington with a pit stop in Selworthy. No trip to Exmoor would be complete without a visit to Periwinkle Tea Rooms in Selworthy for a cream tea. Its thatched roof is worth the trip alone for that postcard photo.
How to get there: The nearest train station is Taunton.
Glastonbury and Wells
Only six miles apart, these two Somerset stalwarts are well worth half a day each of exploration. Start in Glastonbury where you can visit the Glastonbury Tor, which is just 10 minutes walk from the high street, where you can shop for all your new age and spiritual needs.
Steeped in legend, this 518-feet high hill of mystery is topped by the 14th-century roofless St Michael’s Tower and 360-degree views of Somerset. If you want to tap into your spiritual side but can’t face the Summer Solstice crowds at Glastonbury Tor in June, Burrow Mump is just a few miles away. This mini-me a dead ringer for the famous Glastonbury peak and even includes its very own St Michael’s church ruins at the top.
Wells is the smallest city in England and it can call itself a city because of the famous 13th-century cathedral. Inspect the intricate details of this monumental Gothic church followed by The Bishop’s Palace, home to the Bishops of Bath and Wells for 800 years with 14 acres of gardens. Tickets are £15 (for adults) and are valid for a whole year, so you can visit as many times as you like.
Deer Leap Viewpoint is a real gem. On a clear day, looking east you can see the dark line of hills marking out Exmoor National Park and if you look south, you can even spot aircraft landing and taking off at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton.
How to get there: The nearest train station is Castle Cary.
Fleet Air Arm Museum
After Glastonbury, a visit to Europe’s largest naval aviation museum is only 12 miles up the road. This is the kind of place where museum meets theatre. You can virtually fly by helicopter to the replica flight deck of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal where you‘ll see fighter aircraft and two enormous projection screens showing a Phantom interceptor fighter and a Buccaneer strike bomber.
The museum has the largest collection of naval aircraft anywhere in Europe, with four exhibition halls, more than 90 aircraft and 30,000 artefacts including the first British-built Concorde where you can go on board and into the cockpit. Adult tickets are from £13.50.
How to get there: The nearest train stations are Castle Cary or Yeovil Pen Mill or Yeovil Junction.
Thatcher’s cider tour
Home to some of the best cider farms and orchards in the U.K., you can’t visit Somerset without learning all about cider — and tasting it, too. Did you know that one of the country’s leading cider makers offers tours of its farm and orchards? You can enjoy guided tours of Thatcher’s orchard and mill in Winscombe, North Somerset, where you will be shown the whole process of its 116-year cider-making skills. At the end of the tour, you will then get the chance to of course sample some Somerset ciders. Tours take place every Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday and last approximately two hours. Tickets are £12 per adult.
How to get there: The nearest mainline train station is Bristol Temple Meads then a local train to Weston Milton.
This masterpiece of Elizabethan Renaissance architecture and design recently found fame for being a film location for BBC historical drama “Wolf Hall”. The Long Gallery measures at more than 52 metres and is the longest of its kind in England. It houses over 60 Tudor and Elizabethan portraits on loan from the National Portrait Gallery.
Beautiful gardens surround Montacute that constantly change, filling the house with a beautiful scent in summer and providing an atmospheric backdrop for a winter walk. Adult tickets are from £14.25.
How to get there: The nearest train station is Yeovil Pen Mill.
Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway
Historically, connecting Somerset and Dorset was a railway line between Bath and Bournemouth, which closed in 1966 and even crossed what is now the hallowed land of Worthy Farm, where Glastonbury Festival takes place. Whilst you can take a train between these two counties today, The Somerset & Dorset Railway Heritage Trust has set up an attraction at Midsomer Norton where you will find the restored station buildings, four restored trains and even a buffet coach, which is open for snacks.
How to get there: The nearest train station is Bath.
Restaurant top picks
The city of Bath is amazing for restaurants and while you are there, you can have a dip in the healing spa waters of the Gainsborough Bath Spa, which uses the same water from the Roman Baths next door.
If you like seafood, The Scallop Shell, also in Bath, does upmarket fish and chips well and lots of grilled seafood, including a very garlicky lobster. Upstairs, there is an alfresco terrace, too.
In sunny Frome, The Thai Kitchen is very cute and it feels like you’re having dinner at a friend’s house. It has a very fresh approach with just four to five yummy dishes on the menu that change every day.
Where to stay
The Newt in Somerset stands proudly in Castle Cary and encompasses everything Somerset stands for. This five-star country house hotel has it all with splendid gardens, woodland and farmland. Its 23 well-appointed rooms are stunningly elegant as are the two restaurants and spa. The price includes a garden tour, cider tour, garden and spa access along with a complimentary mini larder. Rooms start from £275 per night.
Twiglet Tree House in Mells, near Frome, has a long private drive, surrounded by fields in the heart of the Somerset countryside where you will find a cosy heated double bedroom up in the trees. Downstairs is your own private bathroom with a shower and a loo. The shepherd’s hut next door also has a kitchen. Prices start at £80 per night (minimum two nights).
Read more: The ultimate guide to visiting Brighton
Back in Bath, The Royal Crescent is one of Bath’s most iconic landmarks. This impressive 500-foot long landmark is arranged around a perfect lawn overlooking Royal Victoria Park and forms a sweeping crescent of 30 Grade I listed terrace houses. One of these houses is The Royal Crescent Hotel & Spa. An unassuming door reveals an Aladdin’s Cave of relaxation and lushness. Every one of its bedrooms has a completely unique design and décor and best of all, unlike many other hotels, you’re welcome to arrive and leave at a time that suits you. Rooms start from £248 per night.
Though it’s only three or four hours from London by car and train, Somerset couldn’t feel further removed from the city hustle and bustle. This bucolic English county is prime chocolate-box territory and a rural delight with corkscrew lanes, green pastures, cider and cheddar. Proper job!
Featured photo by Martyn Ferry/Getty Images