A King’s Last Refuge

Situated in the heart of the West Country, Somerset’s dramatic coastline, seaside towns, rolling hills, and rich tapestry of history and culture make it a much sought-after destination for holidaymakers and those seeking for a quieter, slower lifestyle.

Somerset is a mainly rural county blessed with a varied landscape. The flat expanse of the Somerset Levels is offset by rolling hills with such evocative names like the Mendips, Quantock Hills, or Blackdown Hills. Cheddar Gorge is justly famous, and Exmoor National Park occupies a large part of West Somerset and beckons explorers, families, and outdoor enthusiasts, while the cathedral city of Wells and beautiful towns like Dunster, Glastonbury, Axbridge, or Ilminster invite visitors to explore picturesque streets and unique small shops or sample the local fare. And no visit to Somerset would be complete without a trip to Bath – whether you love Roman history, fashion, literature, or Georgian architecture!

Agriculture is a major business in the county. Somerset is famous for livestock farming, cheese-making, and cider production, while the Somerset Levels have provided willow for basket weaving since the Middle Ages. It’s also a wonderful place for food enthusiasts!

Travel Tips

Reaching Somerset couldn’t be easier. Taunton, in the centre of the county is just over two hours from London and Birmingham and just over an hour from Cardiff.

From the North, the M5 brings you straight into Somerset, and from the south, the A30/A303 is a major route.

Bristol and Exeter Airports are 30 minutes away.

The Pier at Weston-super-Mare © essentially-england.comThe Pier at Weston-super-Mare ©

Somerset History

Somerset has a rich historic heritage with much to see and explore for history lovers. From the Stone Age to the modern era, history hasn’t bypassed the county, though to many it’s biggest claim to fame is its connection with King Alfred the Great.

King Alfred the Great Statue © essentially-england.comKing Alfred the Great Statue ©

Prehistoric Somerset

Caves in the Mendip Hills have yielded signs of settlement from the Palaeolithic times and contain extensive archaeological sites such as the famous Cheddar Gorge. Bones which date back to 12,000BC have been found, and a complete skeleton known as Cheddar Man dates to 7150BC; some caves, including Wookey Hole were occupied until modern times. Somerset is also home to numerous Iron Age Hill Forts and burial mounds from the Bronze Age, and evidence of pre-historic mining activity has been found in the Mendip Hills.

Roman Somerset

Somerset was part of the Roman Empire from 47AD to 409AD, but elements of Roman occupation lingered on for nearly a century. The Romans built military forts at Bath and Ilchester. The cathedral city of Wells began as a Roman settlement and there’s evidence of Roman villas near the modern town of Yeovil. Though perhaps one of the most famous attractions left by the Romans are the Roman Baths in Bath.

Anglo-Saxon Somerset

Somerset was one of the last bastions of the Romano-British Celts, who held back the Saxon advance for over a century. Taunton’s earliest Anglo-Saxon fortifications date to 710AD, and King Ine of Wessex founded the first minster in Wells around the same time. In the 9th century, Somerset played an important role in halting the spread of the Danes. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that in January 878 the King Alfred the Great fled from the Viking’s invasion into the marshes of Somerset to organise a resistance. The Saxon royal palace in Cheddar flourished in the 10th century, even being used to host the Witenagemot, the meeting of the King’s council.

Somerset under the Normans and Plantagenets

Castles rose across Somerset in the wake of the Norman Conquest of 1066, and the county still retains wonderful architectural examples of this period. Dunster Castle has existed since at least Norman times, as have Taunton Castle, and Bridgewater Castle. Somerset boasted over 20 monasteries during this time, including Glastonbury Abbey, Bath Abbey, the priory at Hinton Charterhouse - founded in 1232 by Ela, Countess of Salisbury. Somerset’s centre of monastic power was the bishop’s seat at Wells, centred around the Wells Cathedral and the 13th century Bishops Palace.

Farleigh Hungerford Castle © essentially-england.comFarleigh Hungerford Castle ©

Modern Somerset

From Tudor to Georgian times Somerset saw an increase in population. Large country houses such as at Hinton St George and Montacute House were built at this time. During the English Civil War, Somerset was largely Parliamentarian, although Dunster and Farleigh Hungerford were Royalist strongholds. Georgian Somerset was a hive of activity, with Bath being a hub of fashionable society.

The small town of Street became a centre of shoe and boot manufacturing, and with the arrival of first the canals and then the railways, goods and people flowed east to west, and north to south with greater ease and frequency.

During the First World War, Somerset’s towns and villages suffered heavy losses. And during the Second World War, the county served as an area where troops prepared for the D-Day landings.

A Taste of Somerset

Absolutely everyone has heard of Cheddar Cheese, though not everyone will know that the land around the village of Cheddar has been at the centre of England’s dairy industry since at least the 15th century. A true cheddar cheese is made from unpasteurised milk from the cows that graze this land, is cheddared by hand rather than machinery and matured in cloth for up to 18 months to produce a rind and allow the gradual change in texture to take its effect on the flavour.

Cheddar cheese isn’t the only food what brings enthusiasts to Somerset. Make sure you try the apples, apple juice, and cider that are a Somerset staple and keep an eye out for Somerset Cider Brandy. And if you have a sweet tooth, then don’t leave without a taste of Whortleberry Jam, made from the local bilberry.

Images of Glastonbury © essentially-england.comImages of Glastonbury ©

Places to See and Things to Do

Wells: England’s smallest and Somerset’s only city has a wealth of historic interest starting with Wells Cathedral, built between the 12th and 14th centuries, and famous for its superb West Front which has over 300 statues and carvings and one of the oldest working mechanical clocks. The historic marketplace and Vicars’ Close, reportedly the oldest complete medieval street in Europe is also worth a visit.

Glastonbury: The legendary burial place of King Arthur, one of England’s most famous abbeys, and Glastonbury Tor – a beacon overlooking the Somerset levels – makes Glastonbury a wonderful place for a day out. Plus, there are lots of unusual shops!

Weston-super-Mare: A traditional British seaside town full of ice-cream, a Ferris wheel, miles of sandy beach, the newly refurbished pier and donkey rides. Ideal for a family day out.

Minehead: Sits at the junction of Exmoor National Park and the sea. Take a walk along The Parade to see the beautiful floral displays and sample the cafes, pubs, and restaurants. Or take the Southwest Coast Path from the quayside and follow it round to Poole in Dorset.

Farleigh Hungerford: a village whose castle has a gruesome secret!

Wookey Hole Caves & Attractions: Britain’s most spectacular caves and legendary home of the infamous Witch of Wookey…Wookey Hole is a wonderful day out for the family.

Glastonbury Abbey: was once the largest and wealthiest abbey in England. Its awe-inspiring ruins sit in 36 acres of beautiful parkland and ponds. From March to October you can meet a character - maybe a monk, a kitchen maid, Henry VIII’s Commissioner or one of King Arthur’s Knights - who will delight you with the history and myths of this once great Abbey.

Thermae Bath Spa: Old meets new at the Thermae Bath Spa. Visit the Roman Bath and marvel at its construction or visit the contemporary New Royal Bath where you can bathe in Britain’s only natural thermal waters.

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