Flagons of cider and scenes of simple bucolic life were the first thoughts conjured up when we planned our trip to Somerset. We may have never been far from a pint of the West Country’s golden nectar, but we discovered so much more. Breath-taking galleries, local produce cooked with imagination and passion, and, best of all, many creative, generous, and inspiring people who make Somerset a bountiful cultural melting pot. Read on for our guide to exploring Somerset.
England’s smallest city is a place of historic architectural marvels. The soaring splendour of its cathedral is breath-taking, and its crooked rows of medieval cottages are charming. However, as we explored Wells, we were most struck by the creativity of its residents.
Our trip began at Wells Outdoor Market, held on Wednesdays and Saturdays. There has been a market on this spot since the twelfth century. As we made our way across the cobbled marketplace, sheltered in the shade of the cathedral towers, and chatted to local cider, chutney, and vegetable purveyors, it was easy to imagine how this tiny city, remarkably unscathed over time, might have appeared 900 years ago.
We left Market Place under The Bishop’s Eye, the stone gateway leading to the Bishop’s Palace and Gardens. Once a seat of absolute power, the Palace is now a place of peaceful tranquillity and restorative beauty. As we entered the gardens a croquet game was being played on the green, picnics were being enjoyed under mature trees, and the delicate scents of roses, cornflowers, and lupins passed across our noses. The former kitchen gardens, now the Community Garden, were particularly vibrant and we spotted the volunteer-grown produce from its allotments in the Palace’s café, The Bishop’s Table. The Gardens, the name for the 14 acres of curated ground inside the ancient ramparts, also have an Artist in Residence. Current Artist in Residence, Edgar Phillips, creates stained glass wings that can be found in the garden – echoing the shapes, colours and materials of their gorgeous surroundings. With more time, we would have loved to have returned to take part in one of Edgar’s workshops, or to attend one of the open-air theatre productions that are a staple of summer at the Bishop’s Palace and Gardens.
From the Bishop’s Palace we wandered through the oldest street in Europe, Vicar’s Close, a picturesque row of 42 cottages (one per vicar) and enjoyed the sounds of flute lessons trailing on the breeze from the open windows of Wells Cathedral Music School.
Our next stop took us across the Somerset Levels to Avalon Marshes Nature Reserve. The Marshes form part of Somerset’s Super Reserve, stretching over 15,000-acres of protected wetland from Glastonbury to Bridgwater Bay. Visitors flock to this stunning wetland landscape in the hope of seeing The Big Three: the marsh harrier, the bittern, and the great white egret. We arrived at Shapwick Heath in the late afternoon, when everything was drenched in golden light and the air hummed with birdsong. We walked through lush woodland and tangled reed beds before emerging at the decoy hide on the edge of the water, the air thick with several billion more midges than were welcome! The colours were sensational, with blue skies, yellow water lilies, and the flash of an egret’s wing on the mirrored surface of the lake. Across the water we could see straight to Glastonbury Tor. We left this serene spot with plans to return in the autumn, when a fellow walker told us a murmuration of starlings would sweep through the sky.
Left thirsty by our waterside walk, we headed for refreshment at The Sheppey Inn, in Lower Godney. Warmly welcomed at this cosy pub, we were guided through the excellent selection of local ciders before taking our glasses on to the riverside terrace. Surrounded by large family parties and taking in the small stage with mics in waiting and delicious-looking menu (the seafood bisque had come highly recommended) we imagined we could have spent several more happy hours here.
Dinner plans and a growing appetite took us to The Swan, a handsome Georgian coaching inn in Wedmore. The garden was scented with jasmine and called for a glass of rose with which to enjoy the balmy evening. The menu, led by former River Cottage chef, Tom Blake, combines modern brasserie and traditional pub classics to perfection.
We travelled through the lush and green Somerset fields as the sun set towards Chapel Allerton, a few miles outside Axbridge, where we stayed at Mount Pleasant Farm. This wonderful B&B is run with generosity, love and care by all round creative-wonder Daisy Nicolaou. We arrived to rooms scented with sweet peas picked from Daisy’s garden and awoke to breakfasts with piles of toast, home-made jam, generous pots of tea and eggs from Daisy’s parents’ chickens. Exploring the gardens, we discovered beautiful flower beds full of poppies, dahlias, and love-in-the-mist, allotments jewelled with red currants, raspberries and gooseberries, and the swimming pool which proved irresistible at dawn. In the old barn, there is studio and exhibition space full of beautiful paintings and pottery made by Daisy’s mother and sister, and gorgeous furniture sourced by Daisy at local reclamation yards and markets – the row of golden velvet theatre seats caught this magpie’s eyes!
A little down the road from Mount Pleasant Farm is The Valley Smokehouse, run by Jonathan Newberry. Originally a chef, Jonathan opened the smokery at Chapel Allerton over thirty years ago and now supplies some of the finest smoked goods in Somerset to top chefs, including Raymond Blanc, as well as the public via his farm shop.
Jonathan’s Maison de Fumée might be a little unorthodox (it’s formed from two reclaimed lorry bodies) but the preparation methods, dating back thousands of years, are thoroughly traditional. Slow preparation is essential to bringing out the unique flavours of his produce. Jonathan told us the shimmering pink slithers of smoked salmon from Loch Duart are his most popular item, but he also works with more local produce. Fishermen bring him trout from nearby Blagdon Lake and we also eyed up smoked local cheeses, butter, and charcuterie.
Next door to the farm shop and smoke house is Jonathan’s pub, The Wheatsheaf Inn. Currently under renovation, all the rooms are closed except for one very special dining room. Jonathan hosts a weekly supper club at The Chef’s Table with a tasting menu. The dishes are full of ingredients from the smoke house or sourced locally to give a true taste of Somerset.
The ancient market town of Langport lies on the edge of the River Parett, whose looping course we followed, accompanied by drifting stand-up paddle boarders and darting dragon flies, towards the high street where we found a lovely mixture of interiors, arts and vintage shops. Formerly housing the town’s horse drawn fire cart, Langport Antiques Market is a treasure hunter’s dream and full of cider flagons, travelling trunks and rugs. Shakspeare Glass and Arts also tempted us with its café, gallery and workshop where we could watch glassblowers creating orbs, bowls and lightshades as if by magic.
The drive from Langport to the Quantocks takes an hour, or a little longer if you encounter fifty sheep being herded across the road. Along the way the roadside is framed with wide open spaces, patchwork fields knitted together in a countryside colour palette, punctuated by little hamlets every few miles. Eventually the wide straight roads, and scenic views give in to quaint tracks better suited to horses, and hedgerows tower up above us. By the time they give way, we’re on the Quantocks, the manicured topography long gone, leaving only the rugged landscape of the AONB – beautiful in its pristine wilderness, bracken and fern interwoven at every roadside.
We stopped off near the alarmingly named ‘Dead Woman’s ditch’ and took our time wandering, enjoying the well-maintained footpaths that criss-cross the heathland summits. We were a little early for the heather and gorse that would soon be setting the landscape ablaze with colour. Instead, the air was thick with sun-drenched ferns, and our eyes were caught by the shine of the backs of wild horses cantering over the landscape.
Ilminster and South Petherton
Travelling further south, we passed Make by Mary Temperley, a skincare and interiors emporium in an old brewery in Langport, before arriving in Ilminster at another Temperley establishment. The Phoenix Studios in Ilminster is home to the studios and boutiques of atelier Alice Temperley. Around a central courtyard are rooms sparkling with aquamarine sequinned jumpsuits and white feathered wedding dresses. We could have lost the rest of the afternoon to these rooms, but the pull of their onsite bakery with fresh focaccia proved equally strong. With more time we would have stayed to sample the delights of the sensational sounding cocktail bar, The Somerset.
Moving on to honey-hued South Petherton we were spoilt for choices of places to eat. We looked through the windows of Holm, housed in the former bank, enticed by its cosy yet Scandi-simple interior and imaginative tasting menu full of local produce, including a gooseberry and mackerel dish that particularly appealed. We would also have been very happy at Pip’s Railway Carriage, a quirky café serving up a menu of sustainably and locally sourced dishes in 1850s train carriages. We made a note to return on a Friday night, when English tapas-style small plates feature on the menu. The farm shop next door to Pip’s, The Trading Post, was also full of delicious things, particularly on its cheese and chocolate counters.
After much deliberation, we opted for a meal at The Lord Poulett Arms in Hinton St George. This fantastic pub, popular with local dogs and their humans, had a superb menu that pleased our group with its steak and chips as much as its imaginative vegetarian options including sweet potato hasselback, hummus, cavolo nero and sesame. Its chocolate puddings were a hit with all.
Heading further east we arrived at Lytes Cary near to Somerton, a medieval manor house famed for its Arts and Crafts garden. Saving the longer walks through the grounds for a cooler day, we explored the landscaped gardens. Yew hedges separate the gardens into a series of rooms and we followed the sound of trickling water to the fountain garden, the sight of strange silhouettes to the topiary garden, and the scent of rosemary to the kitchen garden. In the courtyard we found a second-hand bookshop in the barn and a shop selling beautiful tins of biscuits, we could have taken them all back to our holiday cottage.
We had come across Hauser & Wirth’s modern art galleries in Zurich, Menorca, and New York and were curious to explore the Somerset outpost. Just on the edge of the village of Bruton, we discovered a sculpture garden, gallery, restaurant and farm shop which, belying the gallery’s international reputation, brought us closer to the environment around us. We discovered Henry Moore sculptures in the garden, that took inspiration from monoliths and trees, echoing the landscape around us, and in the converted threshing barns giant structures energised the negative space around them. We could have happily filled several baskets with the fantastic selection of local produce available from the farm shop, Durslade Farm Shop. Likewise, Roth Bar and Grill, promised tempting dishes filled with ingredients sourced from local farmers, gamekeepers and gardeners.
With our appetites piqued, we wandered into Bruton village. The High Street is a treasure trove of arty boutiques and eateries. We poured over beautiful books, homewares, and knitwear in Caro, watched fresh pasta being unspooled by the chef at The Old Pharmacy, and dreamed of dining at Michelin-starred Osip, before heading to At the Chapel. We entered this 17th-century chapel through the bustling bakery where light from the open fire flickered over piles of pastries, cakes, and loaves, and then stepped into the immediate calm of its café. The former nave is all clean lines and light, with a beautiful modernist staircase leading to the gallery above. It also served a very welcome flat white and lemon and polenta cake.
Our next stop took us seven miles away to a Victorian lace mill that promised beautiful gardens, fascinating history, and tempting shopping. We wandered through the gardens, breathing in Gertrude Jekyll roses and enjoying the mix of geometric designs and more rambling spaces. The former mill is now home to the TOAST outlet store. We discovered beautifully simple yet modern womenswear in earthy tones, all created with heart and social conscience, and left wearing an ochre organic tee.
Frome and Radstock
Our next stop was Frome where we had lunch booked at Bistro Lotte. Whilst the original tiling and stained-glass signing hints at the building’s past as an English greengrocer, the menu is all about relaxed French dining. Revived by a leisurely lunch of moules frites and galettes, we set out to explore the high street. We had heard of Frome Independent, an award-winning monthly market with stalls from local crafts people, food producers, and antiques traders accompanied by live music, and we were delighted to find the same creative spirit running through the town. We particularly loved Kobi and Teal, where we fell in love with abstract prints that echoed the Somerset landscape, and Seed, where we found simple dresses coloured with natural dyes.
Our final stop was Somerset Lavender, outside Radstock. Acres of lavender colour the landscape purple and scent the air with its sweet and herbal fragrance. After walking, and smelling, our way through the farm we headed to the café and its imaginative selection of cakes sweetened, of course, with lavender. A perfect place to sit and reflect back on a delightful couple of days exploring Somerset.
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Ruth loves a good story. Following a decade living in London and working in publishing, her ears are always pricked for a spicy plot twist or unforgettable character. She delights in meeting hosts and discovering the history that brought saffron to her spaghetti, the hiking detours that will lead to temple ruins, and why someone cares so passionately about their special corner of the world. She loves that as a marketer for Sawday’s she can share these stories with others too.