The undulating green swards of Somerset encapsulate rural England at its best. The landscape is always varied, with tidy cricket greens and well-kept country pubs contrasting with wilder, more dramatic landscapes.
A world away from this bucolic charm, the main city hereabouts is Bristol, one of the most dynamic and cosmopolitan centres outside London. The dense traffic and some hideous postwar architecture are more than compensated for by the surviving traces of its long maritime history, along with a great range of pubs, clubs and restaurants.
Within easy reach to the south lie the exquisite cathedral city of Wells and the ancient town of Glastonbury, a site steeped in Christian lore, Arthurian legend and New Age mysticism. The nearby Mendip Hills are pocked by cave systems, as at Wookey Hole and Cheddar Gorge, while to the west, Taunton makes a useful base for exploring the Quantocks. Straddling the border between Somerset and Devon, the heathery slopes of Exmoor offer a range of hikes, with wonderful views from its cliffy seaboard.
A high bare plateau sliced by wooded combes and splashing rills, Exmoor can present one of the most forbidding landscapes in England. Especially when shrouded in a sea mist. When it’s clear, though, the moorland of this National Park reveals rich swathes of colour and an amazing diversity of wildlife: from buzzards to the unique Exmoor ponies, a breed closely related to prehistoric horses and now on the endangered breeds list.
In the treeless heartland of the moor in particular, it’s not difficult to spot these short and stocky animals, though fewer than twelve hundred are registered, and of these only about 150 are free-living on the moor. Much more elusive are the red deer, England’s largest native wild animal, of which Exmoor supports the country’s only wild population, currently around three thousand.
Endless walking routes are possible along a network of some six hundred miles of footpaths and bridleways, and horseback riding is another option for getting the most out of Exmoor’s desolate beauty. Visitor centres can supply details of guided walks and local stables. Whether walking or riding, bear in mind that over seventy percent of the National Park is privately owned and that access is theoretically restricted to public rights of way. Special permission should certainly be sought before camping, canoeing, fishing or similar.
Inland, there are four obvious bases for walks, all on the Somerset side of the county border:
Exmoor’s coastline offers an alluring alternative to the open moorland, all of it accessible via the South West Coast Path, which embarks on its long coastal journey at Minehead, though there is more charm to be found further west at the sister villages of Lynmouth and Lynton, just over the Devon border.
Travelling west from Glastonbury, your route could take you through Bridgwater and Taunton, Somerset’s county town. Either would make a handy starting point for excursions into the Quantock Hills, but Taunton, home to the new Museum of Somerset, is of more interest.
While in town, take a look at the pinnacled and battlemented towers of its two most important churches – St James on Coal Orchard and St Mary Magdalene on Church Square – both fifteenth-century structures remodelled by the Victorians.
Extending for some twelve miles north of Taunton and rising to 1260ft, the Quantock Hills are fairly off the beaten track, enclosed by a triangle of roads leading coastwards from Bridgwater and Taunton. Steep, narrow lanes connect the snug villages set in scenic wooded valleys or “combes” that are watered by clear streams and grazed by red deer.