Discover the historic churches, homes and landmarks of Somerset
By Annie Cree
When you think of Somerset, historic buildings probably aren’t at the top of your list, let’s be honest, but you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the range of amazing homes and landmarks you can visit to uncover the county's rich heritage.
Ancient Glastonbury Abbey, once the largest, historic and wealthiest abbey in England, is set in 36 acres of beautiful parkland and ponds right in the centre of town. Dissolved in 1539 on the orders of Henry VIII, myth and legend surround the abbey. King Arthur and Queen Guinevere were said to have been buried here, while Joseph of Arimathea, a follower of Christ, was said to have brought the Holy Grail to Britain, hiding it at Glastonbury Tor.
Walk through the spectacular remains of Glastonbury Abbey
It’s said that the Holy Thorn grew from his staff when he placed it in the ground on nearby Wearyall Hill. A budding branch of this is sent to the Queen for her table every Christmas. Although the Abbey is now in ruins, you get a sense of the power that was once here. Visit the award-winning museum or hear tales from the living historians to be found around the grounds.
Ancient Glastonbury Abbey, once the largest, historic and wealthiest abbey in England, is set in 36 acres of beautiful parkland and ponds right in the centre of town
Close by to the Abbey is the towering Somerset landmark of Glastonbury Tor with its iconic 15th-century tower on top. It’s where the last abbot of the abbey was executed in 1539. It is considered a mythical place and pagan ceremonies like the solstice are still celebrated here annually. The spring water chalice well at its base is said to have a connection with the ‘lost’ Holy Grail. Between April and October the Tor bus runs from the Town Hall car park to the base of the Tor as parking there is limited.
Climb to the top of Glastonbury Tor to see the stunning views
Another church that has stood the test of time and the elements is medieval Wells Cathedral. Built between 1175 and 1490, it’s the earliest English example of Gothic style and considered one of the most beautiful in England. Take a free guided tour to discover the stunning 14th-century Jesse stained-glass window and Wells Clock, the second oldest clock mechanism still in use after several hundred years. Book your place on the new high parts tour, a fascinating, rare, behind-the-scenes glimpse at the cathedral’s upper areas.
Next door to the cathedral is the Bishop’s Palace, the 800-year-old residence of the successive bishops of Bath and Wells. Surrounded by a moat with swans that famously ring a bell when they want food, the palace also has 14 acres of exquisite gardens, including the famous well pools supplying the moat, and an arboretum, which makes an excellent secret picnic spot. If you see a plant you like in the palace gardens you can usually buy it in the palace shop.
The Bishop’s Place is one of the most impressive historic bishop’s houses in England
See if you can spot the cygnets ringing the bell at Bishop’s Palace
Montacute House, near Yeovil, as featured in the BBC’s Wolf Hall, is an Elizabethan masterpiece set in over 350 acres of parkland that the kids can run free in and explore. A long-standing partnership with London’s National Portrait Gallery means over 50 Tudor and Jacobean portraits are hung in the house, including in its Long Gallery. At 172 feet, it’s the longest in England.
Explore the stunning grounds of Barrington Court
Tudor Barrington Court, in Ilminster, also featured in Wolf Hall. Fully restored in the 1920s by the Lyle family, the extensive gardens were designed in consultation with the renowned designer, Gertrude Jekyll. Today, the kitchen garden supplies the restaurant, while the cafe’s apple juice and cider comes from the house’s own orchard.
A long-standing partnership with London’s National Portrait Gallery means over 50 Tudor and Jacobean portraits are hung in Montacute House
If you love fabulous gardens, visit stunning Hestercombe Gardens near Taunton. Gertrude Jekyll designed its formal gardens along with Sir Edwin Lutyens, and you’ll find exotic lakes, cascades and temples peppering its Georgian landscape garden. Near Frome is the Walled Garden at Mells, a rambling haven of tranquility, where you can lose yourself among the informal cottage perennial flowers while having a cup of tea or a pizza from the outdoor cafe.
Hestercombe House is surrounded by impressive gardens
Enjoy stunning views of the medieval Bishop’s Palace