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.
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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.
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.