I was in Somerset, actually the gang and our trailer tent were glamping (for non-camping folk, glamping is a derivation of two words, glamour and camping, it’s a more comfortable, refined form of holidaying outdoors) in Somerset. Our base for the week was the aptly named Cheddar Mendip Heights campsite which is affiliated to the Camping and Caravanning Club but non-members are also most welcome. It is located on the outskirts of Priddy, a small village in the heart of the Mendip Hills. Cheddar Gorge, a close neighbour, was only 5 miles eastwards, and with Wells and Glastonbury close by, we had everything we needed, apart from some lovely early summer sunshine.
The campsite offered the normal amenities and its staff were extremely helpful, friendly and always welcoming. The small shop had everything we would need; wine for Sarah and a cavity creating array of sweets and chocolate for the kids and predominately me! Somerset intrigues and beguiles me, mainly the history but predominately the legend of King Arthur. The County boasts a diverse mix of culture, history and attractions and is synonymous with cider, cheese and a quantity of stunning holes in the ground. I wanted to discover the counties cultural and spiritual highlights.
I woke to a chorus of bleating sheep, agitated cows and melodic birdsong penetrating the canvas, I had to try hard to ignore the odd farting from the kids. It was early as usual, my expectations were sky high, even though the weather was overcast grey and cold enough for gloves, and it was nearly June. I turned right out of the campsite towards Wookey Hole. I was now pedalling on the NCN3 and I breezed through the small hamlet of Priddy. (West County way is part of the NCN and links Padstow to Bristol or Bath over 240 miles, 70 are traffic free. The route in the Mendips is predominately on roads). It has a lovely historic green which hosts a sheep fair and a popular folk festival and not much else. I encountered some steep climbs up to Ebbor Gorge. The gorge is classed as a National Nature Reserve with the bulk of the woodland consisting of ash and maple. I jumped off the bike and followed one of the three trails down into the valley, the path was well established, carpeted on both sides by luscious ferns and stunning blooms, a perfect place to evade detection. The habitat is home to some stunning wildlife, wild flowers and insects, such as birds of prey and dormice. As I made my way back along the worn pathway, I noticed the silence; it was so prominent, apart from the occasional melodic rustle of the trees as the wind buffeted through the ravine. Once I had reacquainted myself with the bike, I began a speedy descent into Wookey Hole, I was amazed by the unexpected distant panoramic views of the Somerset Levels with Glastonbury and the Tor, stood proudly in the distance. A mass of greenery mixed with a patchwork of colours created by the expertly manicured fields.
A popular destination, Wookey Hole is world famous for its caves, created from constant erosion by the River Axe. The quintessential village is completely over-run with tourists on a daily basis, all here to experience the dark, damp home of the infamous Witch of Wookey. The site offers more than just the caves, plenty of side attractions, including the Valley of the Dinosaurs, vintage penny arcades, cave diving museum and pirate island adventure golf. The highlight for me was the Edwardian Penny Arcade, the collection is the biggest in the country. Complete immersion is inevitable, enforced by the use of real old pennies to play the machines. It’s great fun for all ages. It was only a short pedal ride into the smallest city in England, Wells.
The tourist magnet was deserted, it was still early. I pedalled right up to the Cathedral and was surprised to see the doors open so I inquisitively ventured inside. The cathedral’s exterior reminded me of a more sedate and refined Sagrada Famillia, it equally dominated the skyline like its basque relative. Its façade is mainly gothic in style, adorned with some stunning ornate religious iconography. The interior is dominated by a selection of beautiful stained glass windows and the spacious nave, with its decorative horizontal lines. I was mesmerised by the ornate clock situated in the north transept. The original mechanism dated to between 1386 and 1392 and was eventually replaced in the 19th century. It still possess its original medieval face and displays the time on a 24 hour dial, the highlight occurring every quarter of an hour when a figure strikes two bells with hammers and two with his heels. I sat for sometime transfixed on this ancient time piece before wandering at leisure through the deserted cloisters. I enjoyed the peace and charm. Back to reality, I jumped back on the bike and freewheeled the short distance to the Bishops Palace. The Palace has been the home of the Bishops of Bath and Wells for over 800 years and is surrounded by a beautiful moat with a bizarre carbon fibre swan floating happily in its idyllic waters. Nowadays only a small section of the building is still used as residence for the Bishop, with its primary purpose hosting public functions and tourists. The lure of money is obviously too attractive.
The pretty city is blessed with a lovely mix of high street stores interspersed with a good standard of charity shops. I was intrigued by the stream which inconspicuously meanders along the main thoroughfare. Wells is named after natural springs which rise in the grounds of the Bishops’s Palace. The water I could see, happily makes its way down the High Street and enters the city at Bekyntons conduit. To mark the importance of this water to the locals, a two and half mile Water Course Walk has been created with helpful plaques around the city to aid orientation. Next I took the A39 in the direction of Glastonbury. The route was well signed; I stopped briefly in Coxley by a beautiful simple church/chapel. The setting was glorious, the road was fairly busy with the normal demands of daily life whizzing by, but in complete contrast the building oozed an infectious aura of tranquillity.
The rest of the journey to Glastonbury was fairly uneventful. The approach was dominated by the iconic Tor. I stopped in the carpark by the Abbey to get my bearings, before pushing on towards the mystical structure. Glastonbury Tor is steeped in history and rises majestically from the flat Somerset Levels, to a height of 525 feet. It’s a mysterious place and draws visitors by its connection to Arthurian legend and Gwyn ap Nudd, the King of the Fairies. Whatever you believe, the factual side of the site is demonstrated by the iconic roofless St Michaels tower, which overlooks the Isle of Avalon. I pedalled up to the gated entrance and on foot I tackled the winding path to the summit. The views were breathtaking, a 360 panorama of the Levels, Wiltshire and Dorset. I was consumed by a magical spirit.
Back in the town, I wandered around the eclectic array of knick knacky shops, the atmosphere was so chilled and so charming. Its attraction is it individuality and unconventionality. It’s a place you live and experience, rather than enjoy visually, a simple life, in far from simple surroundings. There is an abundance of quaint coffee shops and chic restaurants which encroach onto the pavement and satisfy any palate or price range. Much to my dismay I was constantly questioning the town’s credentials as possessing a genuine connection with the legendary King Arthur, was it just a simple myth? Unfortunately there will never be a definitive answer but I like the fact the mystery is still alive and Glastonbury is an excellent candidate to play host to the romantic legend. Before leaving the delights of the town, I would like to briefly mention the Rural Life Museum which is conveniently located only a short walk from the centre. I visited later in the week with the family and I definitely recommend a visit. There are plenty of exhibits, mainly focused on local history and geology, and offering plenty of opportunities to interact for both adult and children. There is also a lovely café, bulging with homemade treats and best of all, admission is free.
My route back was rather uneventful, apart from my brief and alarming interaction with the local wildlife. As I started the epic climb out of Wookey Hole back towards Priddy, I was confronted by a rather exuberant, slightly bemused but definitely substantial deer. The experience was brief but we did manage to share a glance, the whites of its eyes were stunningly vivid, with a hint of sheer terror. It disappeared into a gap in the hedgerow as quick as it had appeared. The sun started to fade as I freewheeled through the deserted village green at Priddy. I became distracted by the stunning setting of the village church. I pedalled up to the idyllic grounds and sat, it was an ideal location to pause and contemplate. The church has a pleasing appearance, bursting with a self-confidence ensconced in a lovely timeless setting. All was peaceful on my return, I had acquired a piping hot, reasonably priced loaf from the site shop and took the opportunity to relax before the clan awoke and the joyful duties of fatherhood began.
I felt slightly sluggish this morning. The weather was warmer but still a gloomy haze hung in the air. I set off to discover Cheddar, as soon as I passed the sign for the Gorge, the scenery changed dramatically; this was the beginning of an un-believably memorable three mile snake like descent through craggy peaks, high cliffs and vibrant greenery. Cheddar Gorge is the link between Cheddar village and the Mendip Hills. My immediate thought was how spectacular the amazing rock formations were, towering precariously overhead, some at over 450 feet, especially splashed in the early morning sunshine. The jagged edges created natural statues, contemporary in appearance which emphasised a ravine comfortably adorned in a simple green overcoat. There was not another soul around, it was blissful. The gorge is a stunning example of a landscape created by a surface river, which over time drained underground, leaving the gorge dry. Over the last 1.2 million years erosion from meltwaters created the caves and the awesome underground world, brimming with majestic staligtites and staligmites. The caves and the cave systems were once home to our ancestors over 40,000 years ago, plenty of caves have already been discovered and no doubt there are many more to be found in the years to come.
Unfortunately progress and globalisation have irrefutably changed the simple natural beauty of the area, it’s now dominated by a quantity of visitor attractions which are located at the lower end of the village and offer the normal amenities, cafes, restaurants and gift shops. In total, there are seven attractions to discover, I enjoyed Gough’s Cave with its hidden nooks and crannies and the remains of Cheddar Man and highly recommend a trip on the open top double decker bus, simply for the views and the guides interesting and informative commentary. But for arguably the best view and to also burn some excess calories, take the 274 steps upto the lookout tower which affords some amazing panoramic views of the gorge and the Mendip Hills. If you’re a lover of cheese, then definitely visit the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company, where you can see the traditional cheese making process take place and even sample some of the produce. It’s a great place to come and immerse in the past and enjoy nature at is best.
I pedalled from Cheddar to Axbridge along the Strawberry Line, the start of the Cheddar section is located in a non-descript industrial estate. The Strawberry Line is a disused railway path which was built in 1864. The line originally ran between Yatton and Wells and was predominately used for the transportation of strawberries to London, as well as the odd passenger, unfortunately the line was closed in 1965. Today it runs for approximately 15 miles, the well maintained section I pedalled had some glorious views of the reservoir. The Cheddar Valley Walk Society volunteers set about converting the line into a walking/cycling route in 1983, and improvement work is still taking place. I applaud their efforts and commitment to follow the original railway line as far as practical, with minimal disturbance whilst promoting a better understanding of wildlife and the countryside.
Axbridge is a pleasing town with a medieval square dominated by its inescapably romantic church, overlooking the main shopping area. The 15th century church of John the Baptist is a lovely building and shares the limelight with the understated 15th century timber framed St John’s Hunting Lodge opposite which is now home to a museum. The museum is run by the Axbridge and District Museum Trust and displays an interesting collection of exhibits and facts on local history, geology and archaeology. There is a small admission charge but this provides the trust with much needed revenue, enabling the venture to survive. I wandered into the general store next door, which took the usual guise of a Co-op or One Stop, ever present in any small rural community. After consuming a rather substantial array of vibrantly coloured sweets, brimming with carbohydrates and the required ‘E’ numbers, I jumped back on the bike and headed in the direction of Burnham on Sea.
On the outskirts of the town, I noticed further signage for the Strawberry Line on its route north through to Yatton. The route took me along the A38, passing Lower Weare before turning right onto the B3140 near Edithmead. The landscape was noticeably flatter then I had become accustomed to, which aided my progress quite significantly. As I approached the town, the memories began to flood back. The lovely resort was the location of my personal epiphany, my rebirth as a cyclist. Some years ago I set off as a naive individual from the resort sat atop a bike, my goal was to pedal home to leafy Warwickshire. What I achieved over those few days was so momentous and tied me to the road and two wheels forever. Maybe one day I will have the courage to write about my experiences back then but for now I need to concentrate on the fun packed Burnham. Obviously I could not come to this part of West Country and not pop in to see how the resort has fared since my last visit. The town has a stunning beach and the smallest pier in Britain; the main attractions are undoubtedly, the sand and the sea. The town’s most famous site is its emblematic nine legged wooden lighthouse. A wonderful splash of colour adorns the unique structure. Burnham was a rather small village until the late 18th century, when it became a popular seaside resort and it hasn’t looked back since.
I pedalled straight onto the promenade, the wind had picked up but not enough to interfere with my pedalling. I stopped by the pier, and was reminded that it is supposedly the smallest of its kind in the country. In 2008 the Daily Express rated it as one of the top five piers in Britain. The beach was fairly empty which only enhanced its inviting qualities; I spent a lovely 20 minutes wandering along the sand and the sea defences. The area is noted for its mudflats and the dangers they pose are a recognised characteristic of Bridgewater Bay and Bristol Channel. The town was the same as I had remembered and is a great place to bring the family to explore the coast and the wonders of a British summer. I admire the town’s commitment to remain true to its roots, as a traditional British seaside resort.
Turning away from the sea, the road started a gradual climb.The route back mirrored earlier but I had decided to skip Cheddar and deviate onto the A371 in the direction of Wells. After glancing at the map I noticed the small village of Rodney Stoke was sat on a direct route back to Priddy. Once I left the outskirts of Cheddar the road became a mix of gradual inclines and meditative landscapes, the rolling pastel coloured countryside was beautiful. The only negative was the rather busy road but you have to accept this is a typical symptom of a predominately tourist reliant area. Rodney Stoke is a village located midway between Cheddar and Wells. I took respite in the grounds of the lovely 12th century church. The church of St Leonard was built around 1175 and is set amongst a hub of agriculture and farming. The unhurried surroundings were idyllic. I sat looking out over the picturesque valley; the fertile farmland is studded with miniscule villages and hamlets. The road signs, in and out of the village are blazoned with the words “A Thankful Village” which I discovered was given to 9 villages in Somerset who suffered no fatalities during World War One. They obviously acknowledge the luck which was bestowed upon them, and rightly so.
Time was ticking on so I set off towards the campsite. The route became testing, steep climbs, joined enthusiastically by a substantial crosswind, making the road seem never ending. The traffic was sparse which was a relief, especially as the road reverted to single track, the remnants of horses scattered the roadway. Once at the top, the road levelled out and the surroundings reminded me of Snowdonia, barren countryside, with a plentiful array of expertly constructed drystone walling and lots of noisy livestock.
I joined the B3135 before a quick deviation onto the NCN 3 towards Charterhouse, which I had glimpsed on the map. The road was typically bucolic and mainly agricultural, with some sweeping descents. Charterhouse sounds like a rather posh and pretentious boy’s school but in reality it was a lovely peaceful hamlet with a rather spooky chapel. I did my normal idiotic thing and inquisitively stuck my head into a dark and dank outbuilding in the grounds, resulting in me being attacked from the air by either a swift or a swallow as it shot out from the darkness. I’m not sure who was more terrified; my bet is on the bird, as my girlie squeal could be heard for miles. I had read the surrounding area was once an important lead mining centre, dating back from Roman times until the 19th century. I pedalled on and stumbled upon a sign informing me I was now in Blackmoor Reserve. It was pleasantly eerie.
Blackmoor Reserve is a landscape made from years of lead mining, nowadays it consists of a large area of grassy humps and lumps and a rather bizarre gnome like character sat overlooking the surroundings. There was evidence of its past, black rocks scattered across the landscape, glistening in the early morning sunshine. Bizarrely a feeling of desolation hung over me. I left the bike in the capable hands of the hopefully observant gnome. The whole area set a wonderful tranquil image, the views were magnificent. It warrants at least a brief stroll, it’s a prerequisite. Underfoot, the terrain was an underlying strata of rocks and fertile greenery. The walk was enjoyable and the serene setting was an embodiment of the whole area.
The weather started to turn, the sun had retired and rain was likely so I headed back to base. I stumbled on temporary signs set up to guide cyclists participating in some form of sportive or charity ride later in the day. On reflection I could not think of a more appropriate location to spend an enjoyable, exertion full couple of hours on the bike. Cheddar and its surrounds offer plenty, not just for cyclists but for all holiday makers. However it’s attractions to exponents of two wheels is apparent and plentiful. The switch of emphasis between a vast open setting and an understated urban lifestyle is exquisite. The remnants of myth, legend and endless history is magical, added to the delights of the seaside and the countless geological phenomenon’s, this part of Somerset is a place of unrivalled beauty and historic highlights. Why wouldn’t you want to visit?