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Historic highlights in Somerset

By Kingfisher Visitor Guides

Home to prehistoric sites, ruined abbeys and an artistic way of life shaped by local industry, Somerset is a haven for history buffs. Pay a visit and venture back in time.

Castles and abbeys

It may be renowned for its epic music festival, but Glastonbury Abbey is the town’s historic centrepiece. Once the wealthiest monastery in England, today the abbey stands in ruins, shrouded in legend and surrounded by 36 acres of parkland. The on-site museum displays a model of the abbey in its former splendour, but it’s just as fun to wander the remains and imagine the sheer scale for yourself. The purported graves of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere rest here, as does the Holy Thorn tree, believed to have sprouted from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea. A spray from the thorn is still sent to the Queen every Christmas – a ritual dating back to the 17th century.

Wells Cathedral is a church that has truly stood the rest of time. Built from 1175, it’s considered one of Europe’s first Gothic structures and, by jove, it’s a beauty. Wander through the iconic West Front, adorned with hundreds of medieval carvings, to a gawp-worthy interior of stained glass windows, scissor arches and a rare astronomical clock. Stick around to watch the jousting knights gallop out every quarter hour!

While in Wells, hit two historical birds with one stone with a visit to Bishop’s Palace, the historical residence of the Bishops of Bath and Wells. Many of its rooms are open for visitors to tour, but the real draw are the grounds. In addition to the surrounding moat (yes, you get to cross a drawbridge and everything!) are 14 acres of exquisite gardens and an arboretum. The latter makes for a fine picnic spot.

Two of Somerset’s best castles lie at either end of the county. To the east, the small-but-perfectly-formed Nunney Castle was built in 1373 and the ruins are free to enter. Team your visit with a walk around lovely Nunney village, following the Village Trail. Dunster Castle near Minehead, on the other hand, provides more substantial insight into local history. Perched dramatically atop a hill, this National Trust property features a working water mill, terraced gardens and an atmospheric attic tour the kids will love.

Read more: Discover the breathtaking caves of Somerset

Museum madness

The Museum of Somerset in Taunton is your definitive guide to the county’s history, with exhibits all the way from prehistory to the modern day. It has the unusual claim of the largest collection of 17th-century cauldrons in England, as well as the 4th-century Low Haim mosaic and 80,000-year-old Banwell Bear skull.

The eagerly-awaited Somerset Rural Life Museum reopened its doors in 2017 following a major redevelopment. Set on the magnificent Abbey Farm in Glastonbury, the museum celebrates many facets of Somerset’s social history, from food and farming to arts and crafts. Another insight into local industry awaits at the volunteer-run Brick and Tile Museum in Bridgwater. It’s home to the last traditional brick kiln in the South West and only open on Tuesdays.

Somerset Rural Life Museum

Explore rural life from the 1800s onwards at Somerset Rural Life Museum

Rather than casting the net wide, many Somerset museums delve into intriguing detail on specialist topics. For petrol heads there’s the award-winning Haynes Motor Museum, home to the UK’s largest collection of cars. The Jane Austen Centre in Bath is a must for bookworms with its costumed characters and ‘proper’ old English tea room.

Aviation meets theatre at Yeovil’s Fleet Air Arm Museum. As well as Europe’s largest naval aircraft collection (including the first British-built Concorde), an interactive carrier experience lets you ‘board’ a helicopter to explore the HMS Ark Royal’s flight deck. Hold on tight! Although not strictly a museum, the West Somerset Railway is chug-full of nostalgia. Ride through Somerset’s industrial heritage on a bonafide steam locomotive.

Cider and a side of cheese

Ask a local what sums up Somerset and one word is likely to crop up time and time again: cider. Apple orchards have been cultivated here since Roman times. Over 156 apple varieties have sprung from local towns and villages, each boasting its own distinct taste. Cider makers, from little farms to larger commercial enterprises, are fiercely proud of their produce. Once you’ve had a sip, you’ll soon see why.

The 200-year-old independent family farm, Sheppy’s, lovingly harvests, presses and bottles cider from its 55 acres of apple orchards. Take a weekend tour to see the cider-making in action, including an all-important tasting at the end. The best times to visit are April and May, when the trees are in blossom, or October and November when the harvest begins. It may sound booze-centric, but the play park and donkey paddock make it a hit with kids too.

Thatchers Cider in Sandford, famous for its Thatchers Gold and Haze blends, also offers factory tours. The complimentary tastings are the perfect aperitif before dinner in the excellent on-site pub, The Railway Inn. On a smaller scale, Harry’s Cider in Langport is run by a father-and-son duo (no prizes for guessing Dad’s name). Book ahead for affordable Saturday tours and artisanal sips.

After slurping all that cider, you may fancy a slice of cheese or two. Unsurprisingly, Cheddar village is the destination of choice for fromage-fiends. Set in the breathtaking folds of Cheddar Gorge, this village is the home of cheddar cheese and still makes the good stuff in the traditional way. Follow your rumbling stomach to the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company to watch live cheese making in action. Then, round off your visit with a wedge at the Taster Bar. Real cheese connoisseurs can even embark on a VIP tour, complete with a cheese-tasting session and a goody bag to take home.

Read more

Top 10 reasons to visit Somerset

Outdoor adventures in the wonderful county of Somerset 

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Image credits: ©Irisphoto1/; Marcntomsmum0/Pixabay; Sheppy’s House of Cider;; South West Heritage Trust; The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Co

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