Devon, done; Cornwall, done, now let’s head back in a northerly direction, into the County of Somerset, famous for cider, strawberries, Glastonbury and Cheddar Cheese!
Keep to the western border of the county and you will eventually arrive at Porlock, a coastal village, hiding deep in one of the valleys below Exmoor. The village is listed in Doomsday as Portioc and used to be much further inland than it is now, due to the rising of the Bristol Channel, about 7,000 years ago. There is a petrified forest, which becomes exposed at low tide, proving the shore was once beyond here. At Porlock is the famous Porlock Hill, the steepest highway in the United Kingdom at 1 in 4, rising 400 metres in 3.2 kilometres.
Famous locals include Samuel Taylor Coleridge, author of “Kublai Khan”, and William Wordsworth, author of the poem ‘The Prelude’, both poets – was it something in the air? The novel “Lorna Doone”, by Richard Blackmore is set in the high country of Exmoor, a wild stretch of moorland, now a National Park. The sea near Porlock is still blue, but travel as far as Weston-Super-Mare, and it gets browner and muddier, due to the tides of the Bristol Channel, up to 13 metres!
About 60 kilometres east of Porlock lies ancient Glastonbury, well known today for its open-air music festivals. The district was once marshland and traces remain of Neolithic boardwalks traversing it. The settlement grew over time to become a trading centre and accumulated many legends about the various landmarks in the area. Joseph of Aramathea is reputed to have visited, bringing Jesus with him and a thorn bush in the town is supposed to have miraculously grown where he stuck his staff into the ground! The bush there now is not the original, but one of several planted over the years – much like the man who had a hammer that belonged to his great grandfather; since then it had three new handles and a couple of new heads, but it was still his great grandfather’s! The town is also mentioned in Arthurian legend as being the site of ‘Avalon’. Just outside the town is the steep-sided Glastonbury Tor, with the lonely remains of St. Michael’s Church perched at the top.
North from Glastonbury, we come to Cheddar, about 20 kilometres away. Cheddar is a village, situated at the southern end of the largest gorge in the UK, cutting a deep gash in the Mendip Hills. The gorge contains several caves, now commercialised, but once used as the ideal place to mature Cheddar cheese. This wonderful product is now made all over the world, but the genuine article can still be bought, made in Cheddar under the protected title, “West Country Farmhouse Cheddar”. It is the most popular cheese in the world.
Ten kilometres south east of Cheddar is the city of Wells, named after three wells there, dedicated to Saint Andrew. An early Roman settlement was situated here, followed by the Saxon township, when the beautiful Cathedral was built. Alongside the Cathedral is Vicars Close, the oldest residential street in Europe, looking now just as it did when it was built in the 14th century! The town now relies, as do many, on the tourist trade, due in part to its proximity to Cheddar, Glastonbury and Wookey Hole Caves, but it was once a centre for cloth-making and also a place of religious pilgrimage because of the Cathedral.
Swinging back to the south west for about 40 kilometres, we arrive at Taunton, the County Town of Somerset, a position held since 1366 and the home of Somerset County Cricket Club. The town boasts a 1000 year history of religious and military development, with a monastery built there in 907 AD. It is a natural hub for transport throughout the south west and is surrounded by several well-known Nature Reserves, particularly specialising in birds.
And I am afraid this is where we must leave Somerset, because I am once again, fast running out of available space to continue! I do hope that this brief visit will be enough to encourage you to visit the area, rich as it is in both history and natural beauty, along with its sister Counties of Devon and Cornwall. While you are in Somerset, please try to visit almost any small country pub and ask for some “Scrumpy”! This, if you can find it, is the real, farmhouse-made cider, quite different to the commercial variety and very much more dangerous! Drink it in small quantities and enjoy its delicious flavour; drink too much (anything over two pints!) and I guarantee you will suffer!
That is my final word of warning and also completes my trip around the south-west of England, having already mentioned Bristol and Bath in previous articles!
Have you been to Somerset? What did you do there? If not, would you? Where would you go?