The inhabitants of this county are plain, honest, and hospitable, but unpolished, and reserved in conversation. They entertain a kind of indifference for the rest of the world, owing, probably, to the good opinion they entertain of their own portion of it. John Strachey 1737
For decades, journeying back and forth to the homeland in Devon and Cornwall I drove through Somerset on the M5 but rarely stopped. When performing in the 1980’s with the region’s touring repertory company, Orchard Theatre, we’d play venues there, at Taunton, Frome, Bridgewater and elsewhere…An overnight stop before heading off with set in tow to the next theatre or arts centre with little time to take in or get to know the county. Had a good time one term back in that same decade based at Montacute House, in the south of Somerset, working for the Young National Trust Theatre company, playing James I of England in a daily interactive performance for sixth formers in the great Elizabethan Mansion. Apart from a visit to the amazing Yeo valley organic gardens at Blagdon two years ago, I’d not lingered to uncover what else the ‘land of summer grazing’ had to offer. That’s why I so enjoyed planning and booking this week away with Kim, who likewise knew little about the place but was particularly drawn to explore the county’s fine gardens. Where better a place to be based than Wells, in the heart of this pastoral landscape, between the Mendip hills and central belt of the Somerset levels?
We usually embed ourselves out-by in the countryside when on holiday but this time opted for the comforts and conveniences of a tastefully decorated, well equipped comfortable terraced house in town (complete with garden) just five minutes walk from Wells’s magnificent cathedral and gardens. We found it a friendly traditional market town, or rather city – England’s smallest – with lots of independent shops in a variety of old buildings. Wells also yields fine views, with easy instant access on foot to the unspoilt surrounding countryside around it.
Water, pasture, hedges, ditches, orchards and churches seem to define the landscape hereabouts. The straighter the roads down on the levels – in ancient times the great marshes and lakes of Avalon – the more rolling they seem to be!
One of the highlights of our stay was a visit to Westhay Moor on the levels, an extensive spent peat works acquired by Somerset Wildlife Trust in the 1990’s. A combination of expert management and nature’s healing recourse has seen an industrial wasteland transformed into an important wetland wildlife haven, home to rare moths, mosses and sundews. Our casual meander, stopping at various hides and viewpoints, proved a revelation. It opened one’s ears and eyes to a wealth of sounds and sights…The call of the cuckoo, a brilliant flash of kingfisher, a glimpse of either a great white or a cattle egret enfolding itself into a latticework of bullrush, the nests and family flotillas of swans and coots and arching effortlessly over it all the graceful flights of wide winged marsh harriers.
We heard the unmistakeable boom of that rarest and well camouflaged of birds, the bittern. Thanks to some friendly seriously well equipped photographers met in the reserve’s hides we were able to identify the calls of otherwise unknown birds, like reed bunting and cetti’s warbler. Never seen so many house martins in one place as here, trawling open beaked through an unseen mass of insects above the reed beds and meres, seemingly indifferent to would be predators like the pair of hobby falcons also observed quartering the skies around.
Breaking out of the bedrock below the Mendips the powerful springs that give Wells its name seem to have been a natural gathering place for worship and trade from pre-history, through Roman, Saxon into Norman times when the cathedral we see today was built. Through their heyday in the middle ages the powerful and wealthy bishops of Bath & Wells harnessed these waters to irrigate produce, fashion a moated defence, erase localised flooding, power numerous mills and guarantee the town a water supply to cleanse its busy market streets.
We thoroughly enjoyed discovering this little bit of paradise on earth, all 14 glorious acres of it. An amble along the ramparts of the moated walls gives a good view of the famous resident swans that have learned to ring a bell by the gatehouse when they want feeding. A wooden footbridge gives access to the immaculately groomed sanctum of springs, sculpted by a Victorian bishop into a reflective pool that captures the glorious gothic mass of the cathedral behind it.
We were also charmed by the impressive ruins of the 13th century great hall, now interpreted as romantic open garden space; the chapel and south lawns with their great trees and contemporary under planting; the imaginative children’s play area, traditional orchard meadow, immaculate community allotments all combined in a slowly unfolding and quietly satisfying experience to make this a favourite among great gardens.
We had a venture into contemporary aesthetics with a trip to Hauser & Wirth Somerset, at Bruton, which has become something of an arts destination. We had free pre-booked entry into its contemporary garden designed by Piet Oudolf with adjacent galleries displaying work of international artists housed in new and repurposed 19th century model farm buildings.
Those same structures also accommodate Roth bar & grill where we had a lovely laid back outdoor lunch (in this time of Covid) to celebrate Kim’s 70th birthday, along with our dear friend Michael Gee.
I’ve written about Michael before and his work in orchard conservation that earned him a well deserved British Empire Medal a few years ago. He had travelled over from home near Barnstaple to join us for a couple of days sightseeing. On his instigation we called off at a couple of outstanding Somerset churches – Croscombe and North Cadbury – but sadly Covid had caused them to close and they weren’t yet open to casual visitors.
It would be here that I’d take away the memory of a quintessential Somerset rural setting. It’s one of cows (Friesian or Devon Ruby reds) grazing buttercup rich meadows within orchards of traditional standard apple trees. They abut lush small fields – mainly pasture or if ploughed then black peaty soil of the levels or rich red soil of the sheltered coombes – all defined by well maintained unbroken hedges dominated by masses of hawthorn in full white bloom.
Michael piloted with the OS map as I drove through a maze of lanes on the cross country trip back, via Glastonbury. Here we caught the last hour of the working day at the recently upgraded Somerset Rural Life Museum, set in the former abbey farm on the outskirts, just below the famous tor topped with the its church tower. We could view people toiling up the ridge walk to get their take of the panoramic view offered from its lofty eminence.
We were treated to a well curated, detailed display of art and artefacts about Somerset country life in the old farmhouse, adjacent cottage and courtyard outbuildings. Their greatest treasure though has to be the Abbot of Glastonbury’s awesome great barn, built in the 1340’s, with its elaborate roof joists and stone engraved emblems of the four apostles in each gable end of its cruciform structure.
Hestercombe is the queen of the county’s gardens, with a reputation resting on the contrasting delights of an 18th century landscape valley gardens folded into high ground at the rear of the estate’s mansion (which until 2013 housed the Somerset Fire & Rescue HQ) while out front, with views over the vale of Taunton, sits the Edwardian garden designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens with planting by Gertrude Jekyll.
Both of these horticultural paradises were ‘lost’ until recent times. A charitable trust now manages and continues the development of gardens and house (now home to art galleries and fundraising bookshop & gift shop) The landscape garden had been planted up in the 20th century with commercial forestry and its linking lakes silted up, with viewpoint shelters either destroyed or damaged. A massive amount of dogged hard work had to be done to restore or replace them.
For us the revived Lutyens/Jekyll terraced gardens exceeded all expectation. Clear design, marrying his use of intersecting grid lines and levels, local stone terracing and flag steps, long avenue pergola, rills and ponds with her subtle repeat planting and astute choice of plants by colour, form, texture and seasonality. A perfect match, harmonious and satisfying, and clearly hugely influential in setting a pattern for garden design elsewhere.
An unexpected attraction was the rook wood, close to the house, where the preserved remains of a concrete and brick accommodation block told the story of UK & US service personnel billeted here during WW2. Witness accounts & photographs were given moving artistic underpinning through a striking contemporary artwork from Jon England consisting of 18,000 galvanised nails & roofing felt which animated in pixel fashion a b/w photograph of a pilot in the cockpit of a Lancaster bomber.
Other treats included a morning exploring in awe and admiration, the cathedral interior followed by a walk along a section of the Mendip Way, from the Bishops palace across adjacent fields and back through the nature reserve at Kings Wood.
Walking the land was rewarding in unexpected ways too. We scaled the lone eminence of Burrow Mump topped by the gaunt remains of a ruined church. Now in the care of the National Trust this conical hill is dedicated as a war memorial to the 11,000 Somerset men who died fighting in both world wars. On another day, having picked up the key from the equally ancient Manor Farm (itself a listed building), we went inside the handsome medieval fish house where the abbot’s bailiff once lived, now marooned in rippling meadow by a long lost lake, the former rich source of eels and fish supplying Glastonbury abbey. At both these sites we were lucky enough to fall in to conversation with two very different local farmers, and learned how the levels disappear under water every winter when tides and floodwater meet in rivers and Rhynes (drainage ditches). Distant landmarks identified, like Hinckley Point nuclear power station, and we heard about the changes they’ve seen or expect to see in agriculture this century due to climate change and subsidy payment reform.
Left Wells at 8.30 & got back home in the north Tyne shortly after 5pm. Huge tailbacks on the other carriageway as far up as Gloucestershire on the M5 heading west told their own story of staycation in an England coming out of lockdown on a bank holiday weekend/half term. We too became part of that great mass migration, edging slowly upcountry to join the M6 in Birmingham, picking up speed again before crawling northwards once more by Manchester with everyone else seemingly heading for the Lakes, Dales, or the coast.