There is more to Somerset than Cider!

Glynis at Wells Cathedral The Somerset area of the UK has always been one we drove through to get to Devon and Cornwall but Somerset is now fighting back.  Money has been spent and the area is definitely worth a second look.  We started our trip in the city of Bath.  There is no R in Bath, but which ever way you pronounce Bath it is a vibrant and interesting city to visit.

We went on a coach tour ….oh dear, lots of people all sat together for hours on end!  But I was so wrong, the coach run by Bakers Dolphin of Weston-super-Mare picked us up in a clean comfortable coach, with a toilet (senior must have). Our trip was arranged by the Coach Tourism Council whose consumer website has links to nearly 150 national and regional coach tour operators from across the UK with tours starting from close to where you live. You can contact them by telephone on 0870 850 2839. They will help you find a coach holiday that is just for you, the  time, destination and itinerary. They will  find the tour operator in your area that will take you literally anywhere in the UK and some operators go to Europe and other destinations.  Some will even pick you up from your door by taxi and take you to the coach pick up and do the same on the return journey.  So if you are tired of driving or getting a little older and want someone else to “take the strain” then what could be better than sitting and watching the beautiful country that we live in roll by.

Firstly, Barth or Bath! is a city not to be missed from the Roman Baths, which are amazing and well worth the £13 to tour, which includes an audio system that is clear and informative and you can do the tour at your own pace to the visit to the world famous Spa.  On the roof of the building the spa pool has water that is heated at 35 degrees and of course the pampering sessions that you can book separately a treat not to be missed. Then on to the Pump room for a drink of the famous water of the Roman Baths or just enjoy afternoon tea and cakes in the beautiful elegant restaurant, a lovely way to unwind and relax and get ready for your tour of Somerset.

We stayed at the Hilton Bath City Hotel which is ideally positioned for easy walking to many of the interesting sights.  The hotel is very accessible, we arrived by car and the hotel provided a map and details of how to get there and the car parking is right next to the hotel.  It is a short stay, but the hotel have a contract for the parking, and charge accordingly for how ever long you stay.  By train the station is at the bottom of the pedestrian precinct and you could get a taxi but I feel it would be easier to walk to the hotel than negotiate the one way systems that are prevalent in the city.

The hotel has good disabled facilities and has a very substantial restaurant.  So after a long day sightseeing the hotel is a comfortable way to spend the evening.  To see the city there is no better way than the Red Tour bus that stops along the road from the hotel, just minutes away.  The tour takes you to the famous Royal Crescent, a row of Georgian houses that are well preserved and still used and around the city over the river and even to the American War Museum.  But just walk around this lovely city, it is steeped in history and intrigue, it has beautiful shops and parks, it is the home of Jane Austen and her home is now a museum where the staff dress up in period costume, very authentic and enoyable.  Bath is a place where history and the present sit very comfortably together.

Glynis at the Bath Christmas market - sporting a Silver Travel Bag! Our coach trip started by driving through some beautiful countryside to Longleat, the amazing country seat of the Marquis of Bath.  As you drive through the beautiful grounds you can not fail to be impressed by the magnificent stately home.  We had a tour of the house which is a fine example of Elizabethan architecture and now the home of the 7th Marquess of Bath, the stunning rooms are packed with interesting facts and precious antiques.  Its 900 acres of stunning “Capability ” Brown landscaped parkland is wonderful.  It has a lake that a small boat takes you on to see sea lions, the hippos and a compound with gorillas in.  All of the animals have “space” which so good to see unlike so many zoos.  The park is full of attractions from seeing reptiles wandering around, watched by a warden of course, to the famous Longleat Maze and of course the Safari park is not to be missed.  The cost of the visit to Longleat is £25 for adults and £19.55 for seniors.  It does sound expensive, but you do get an awful lot for your money and it is well worth a visit for the young and the old.

Our visit to Longleat was not long enough but we will return and on our trip we had other places to see before we spent our second night at Wells. We set off through the lovely countryside through the town of Glastonbury – yes, I am sure you have heard of the festival but the town has a lot to offer. From a great distance before you reach the town you can see – not if you are driving – but remember we were on a coach tour so all the tour bus travellers could see the Tor of Glastonbury which is said to date back to the time of King Arthur – the one with the round table. The Tower on the Tor is 525 ft high and has been regarded as sacred since ancient times.  Christian pilgrimages would visit but now all that remains is St Michael’s Tower of the 14th Century church.  You can walk up the Tor but a local bus will take you to the top as no cars are allowed on the Tor. The Somerset Tourist Board is involved in a new film that is being made and this will promote this area to its historic value.  It is about the connection with Somerset to Aurthur and the Tor of Glastonbury and the Holy Grail, it will include the Tor and Glastonbury so it will be quite a movie  – possibly like Lord of the Rings, but I am sure it will do for Somerset what Lord of the Rings has done for New Zealand.  The Tourism Board is hoping that will be the case but what ever it does it will promote the lovely area of Somerset. 

On our way to Wells for our overnight stop we visited Clarkes Village, a designer shopping village in the town of Street.  Clarkes Village is well worth the stop for a shopping “fix” and a good cup of tea.  Clarkes Village with 90 designer shops originated from a redundant site of J & C Clark which was established in the 19th century.  There is a Shoe Museum which explains the history of Clarkes which is a short distance away and worth a visit as it has a wealth of information about the area and the shoe trade history.

Wells and the lovely Swan Hotel in Sadler Street is a short walk from the amazing Wells Cathedral.  You can see the Cathedral from the comfort of the lounge as you sit and enjoy a lovely evening meal and a glass of excellent wine.  The hotel is a 15th century coaching house and is part of the Best Western Group, but be aware this hotel does not have a lift.

Wells is a mixture of old and new architecture and is the smallest city in England with cobbled streets and water gullies that go down the main street, avoiding all the flooding of recent months.  The Cathedral is of course a must to see, but to the left of the cathedral is the amazing Vicars Close that has not changed for many centuries.  The access through the ‘Penniless Porch’ archway where beggars used to collect at the right side of the Cathedral leads to the market square that is there twice a week.  The eclectic mix architecture shows how the building styles have changed over the years.

Glynis at Weston-super-Mare Pier with Dalek Then we come to the name of this place.  Wells, why so?  It is named after the fact it has 3 wells dedicated to St Andrew.  The main one had the Bishop of Bath and Wells palace built over and around it.  This palace in itself is an impressive building.  The water rises from the well and flows into the moat that surrounds it.  The non residential parts of the palace can be viewed along with the impressive gardens.  The mute swans along the moat are out of the ordinary too!  They have been trained to ring a bell near the drawbridge to signal they are hungry and need to be fed.  A small and beautiful place but one I shall return to spend more time exploring this gem.

Our next stop on this whistle stop coach tour was to visit Cheddar Gorge. The Gorge is 400 ft deep and 3 miles long and is one of England’s largest Gorges.  We went to visit Gough’s Cave, very interesting, but not advisable if you have difficulty walking.  The cost of going into the Cave is £18.50 for adults and £14.50 for seniors but with that pass you are only allowed in the first chamber and then go somewhere for a cup of tea!  Well we haven’t quite reached that stage so we went for “the full monty” and toured with the audio speaker around our (old) necks!  The Cheddar man was found in Gough’s Cave and a skeleton of the body found is illuminated for all to see – however it has plastic bones – the real ones are in the Natural History Museum in London, but it does look good.  There are stalactites and stalagmites to see and the chambers with names for instance Solomon’s cave and St Paul’s Cathedral are really impressive, one area is still used for maturing cheddar cheese just as it was 100 years ago making it the most authentic cave matured cheese in the world. The Caves where occupied some 14,700 years ago, and John Gough with his sons decided to dig further into the cave and it was developed into the cave that now is a major tourist attraction in the Somerset area.  It is surrounded by beautiful countryside and the village of Cheddar is bursting with cheese and cider shops, for which it is world famous.

We journeyed on to Weston-super-Mare, a seaside town on the Bristol Channel.  We arrived when the tide was out and it goes out along way but I was assured that the tide does come in eventually! The Grand Pier is well worth a visit the old pier burned down in 2008 and was rebuilt at the cost of 34 million and reopened in 2010 to a high standard that states “it has something for everyone”.  Well it certainly has got a lot, from the little train that takes you to the main pier building, to a multi functional area that has entertainment for children and adults by day but can turn into a function room at night for major events, such as concerts or private corporate functions.  It has a beautiful wedding suite and an up market restaurant called Tiffany’s. The admission is free and disabled friendly.

Trevor at Longleat with Parakeets Weston-super-Mare has one of the longest  beaches in the UK.  It has sand that makes wonderful sand sculptures and the Sand Sculpture Festival is held here each year.  It is a traditional seaside town which includes the famous seaside donkeys!  A major attraction to the area is the largest dedicated helicopter museum in the South West with over 80 helicopters on show.  It cost £6 for adults and £5 for seniors and is disabled friendly.  In the centre of Weston-super-Mare is a structure that looks like a Buddhist Stupa, a round building with a long point on top.  I asked our coach driver what it was and he said he wasn’t sure but it was called locally as the carrot!  So if you decide to go to Somerset to swim in the roman baths, eat the cheese, drink the cider or go to see the carrot you will discover this beautiful area of the South West.

Our short trip was over, but with more people not wanting to fly due to airports being stressful, or don’t want the stress of driving, and the cost of fuel going up, more people are now opting for a coach holiday for short breaks or the main holidays.  Coach holidays are a way of seeing our beautiful world and making new friends, that started out as strangers!

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Glynis Sullivan

Traveller and writer for Silver Travel Advisor

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