As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to Somerset and Exmoor, Nicola Forsyth describes how to have a greener holiday in Somerset and Exmoor, a land of castles and clifftops, of charming hamlets and wild moors, of clean air and burbling brooks, of starling murmurations and stags roaring in the southwest of England.
Where to stay
When it comes to accommodation, all tastes and budgets are catered for - including an
Elizabethan manor house, a Tudor farmhouse on an organic farm, a traditional cottage offering panoramic views out to Cheddar Gorge and a yurt retreat on a working Dairy Farm.
For easy access to the Mendip Hills and vistas stretching out as far as Cheddar Gorge, consider Gorge View Cottage in Mendip. The old gardener's cottage was recently renovated to exacting environmental standards with access to the large permaculture garden. The cottage boasts a four-star Visit Britain grading and a Green Tourism Gold award and will offer a 10% discount for those arriving by foot, bicycle or public transport.
Nestled in the heart of Exmoor National Park, Exmoor House is a guesthouse that combines the homeliness feeling of a B&B (complete with homemade food) and the comfort of a cosy country hotel. The Edwardian guesthouse is perfectly located for exploring the Park by bike or on foot. Nearer the coast in Lynton - also known as ‘Little Switzerland’ - another Edwardian house awaits. Close to the Valley of Rocks and Exmoor National Park, The Denes is a traditional B&B offering locally sourced food and easy access to numerous walking and cycling routes.
If you want to take a step even further back in time while in Lynton, Longmead House fits the bill. Showcasing ‘Victorian Boutique’, it houses a rustic dining room, individually designed bedrooms and exposed beams. Following rave reviews, a selection of the B&Bs homemade breakfast food is now available to buy online.
For a very local experience, consider staying in one of only two working watermills in Somerset. Burcott Mill Guest House still produces organic flour, and visitors are welcome to wander the mill museum. Parts of the Grade II listed building have been converted into B&B rooms and a self-catering bolthole for two. Just beyond the doorstep you will find Country pubs, walks and historic market towns.
Larger groups (of 10-200) may want to consider the variety of accommodation on offer at Fernhill Farm - including eco-camping barns, a horseshoe of converted cowsheds and “Ramshackle Arcs” (shepherds huts). The 160-acre working farm in the Mendips takes in grassland, woodland, an orchard and a kitchen garden. The farm aims to become self-sustaining - with a self-computerised log boiler, water harvesting, and wetland eco-treatment system which purifies all dirty water without the use of chemicals, which in turn has created new habitats for wildlife species.
Tucked away in a secluded valley on the National Trust Holnicote Estate, you’ll find Hindon Organic Farm. The 380-hectare stock farm is within touching distance of Minehead, Dunster, Porlock and the coast. The 18th-century farmhouse has three bedrooms with tree-themed names and individual styles. Named National Organic Producer of the Year in 2003-04, its food also comes recommended by Rick Stein and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
Serious walkers may be tempted by West Hollowcombe Cottages, which sits on the Two Moors Way route - a 100+ mile jaunt from Ivybridge on the southern boundary of Dartmoor National Park to Lynmouth on the North Devon Coast.
Where to eat
Local produce abounds in Somerset and Exmoor and you’ll easily find this fine local fair of breads, cheeses, ciders, cakes and more, in any number of the independent shops, farmers’ markets and festivals. Unless you’d prefer to pick your own, in which case you could join a foraging workshop to learn how to spot nature’s bounty.
The area is home to a number of well known and much-loved food and drink brands including Thatchers Cider in Sandford. The Thatcher family has been producing cider on their 380 acre farm for more than 100 years - using the same oak vats, recipes and ingredients that William Thatcher created in 1904. Committed to protecting the farmland for future generations, the family has planted 200 acres of orchards in recent years, as well as 2,000 native British trees (ash, beech, oak). Scrumpy cider fans can work their way through the four kinds on offer at Torre Cider Farm, before soaking it up at the onsite pizza and music nights or tea room.
You can also visit another well known brand - Yeo Valley - and learn about the dairy farm’s origins on Holt Farm, dating back to the 1960s as well as wandering some of its 18 organic gardens. Aside from it’s hugely popular yoghurt, Yeo Valley also dedicates considerable effort to teaching school children about sustainability.
If you’d rather experience a full country supper club experience - or if you time it right, sample a taster menu cooked by a guest chef - check events happening at Clavelshay Barn. They also host workshops if you want to hone your cooking skills, as well as drawing, nature walks and cheesemaking with lunch.
Ale fans visiting Cheddar Gorge, may want to consider a stop off (or tour) at Cheddar Ales microbrewery. Head brewer, Jem Ham, uses natural ingredients, all of which are sourced from English suppliers, and time-honoured methods to produce a fine selection - such as Totty Pot and George Best. CAMRA members may also be interested in The Bridge Inn in Dulverton, named its 'Pub of the Season' in Autumn 2013. Sitting on the River Barle, the classic country pub dates back to 1845 and offers hearty pub grub. It also has a silver grading by the green tourism business scheme. Beer lovers can get their fix at Butcombe Brewery, in Wrington. Established in 1978, it produces some 50,000 barrels of beer a year. The Brewery’s oldest owned pub - The Ring O’ Bells in Compton Martin - is also a perfect pit stop for walkers, fisherman, and families.
For something a little more, err wild, why not sample the local plants and insects? Join Go Wild and forage for bugs and nettles to snack on in the Mendips. They offer a number of low impact activities as well as accommodation.
If however, you find yourself not wanting to venture out at all one evening, there’s a Community Benefit Society of local producers, based in Glastonbury, that delivers fresh, local food throughout Somerset.
Where to visit
While the region is famed for possibly the most famous music festival in the world - Glastonbury, which is due to host its 50th anniversary festival in 2021 (postponed from 2020 due to Covid 19) on its 900 acre home of Worthy Farm - it also plays host to lots of other food, drink and arts festivals. A relative newcomer on this front is Frome Festival, which hosts musical, theatrical, literary and artistic events over ten days in July.
The most famous tourist attraction in the Mendips is probably the one million year old Cheddar Gorge. Formed by meltwater, the limestone gorge reaches 445 feet and a number of walks. Explore caves and visit the museum, which is dedicated to the discovery of Britain’s oldest skeleton, the Cheddar Man. Thrill-seekers can opt for caving or rock-climbing. For more family-friendly cave experiences, Wookey Hole Caves is a grotto of impressively-lit caves that will keep children entertained for hours.
For adventure seeking water babies who want to enjoy the beauty of the South West in a more active way, there are plenty of places for wild swimming. Tunnel Beaches in Ilfracombe also offers family-friendly swimming and has been rated the 3rd best beach for rock pooling in the UK by BBC Wildlife Magazine. Initially used back in 1823, the hand carved tunnels offered Victorians a way to swim without compromising their modesty.
History lovers may want to stop by 13th-century Dunster Castle. Part fortress, part comfortable country house, it’s also a flagship green property for the National Trust, part solar-powered and maximising composting, recycling and efforts to reduce energy consumption. There’s also Glastonbury Abbey - the fabled resting place of King Arthur. Traverse the 36 acre parkland and learn about its history, which dates back to the 7th century.
Trainspotters are also in luck, as the region has a number of railway experiences including the last narrow-gauge railway adventure Lynton and Barnstaple Railway, Lynton & Lynmouth Cliff Railway, a simple water-powered Victorian railway with a miniscule carbon footprint, diesel locomotives at Somerset and Dorset Railway and East Somerset Steam Railway
where you can climb aboard an historic steam engine or the Mendip Belle dining train.
Things to do
Nature lovers will feel at home across Somerset and Exmoor with activities including birdwatching, cycling, climbing, fishing, stargazing, horse riding and walking, as well as tips on local craft and culture, falconry and watersports and wild swimming.
As a first port of call, check out Somerset Wildlife Trust, which manages 1700 hectares of land for wildlife and people in Somerset, from large reserves to clusters of fields and woodlands and regularly hosts events and activities.
Bird watchers flock (sorry!) to Somerset given its status as one of the best places to birdwatch in Britain. The Avalon Marshes lowland wetland area in the heart of Somerset is a particular highlight for spotting resident species as well as thousands of migratory birds, and especially for the starlings. If you’re very lucky, you may catch a glimpse of the otters. A more recently created wetland, Ham Wall is home to many rare species including water voles and otters. During autumn you may see kingfishers and bitterns are visible all year. The RSPB reserve hosts regular events for those who want to learn more about wildlife.
To explore Somerset on foot, Bath-based Foot Trails offers off-the-beaten track walks - either as bespoke itineraries or guided tours - across Somerset (as well as the Cotswolds and Wiltshire). Encounter Walking Holidays offers a number of self-guided walks, taking in the best the region has to offer.
For those looking to take the pressure off their feet for a while, there are many horse and pony rising opportunities - after all the area is famous for its Exmoor ponies. Divoky Riding School has a great selection of horses for accomplished riders and beginners alike to explore the surrounding countryside. Ebborlands Riding Centre is a small, family-run centre located on a 120-acre farm just outside Wells on the southern slopes of the Mendip Hills. It offers private lessons, a weekly Children's Club during school holidays, off-road hacking, multi day courses and holiday lets. Sitting in the middle of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Shipam Riding focuses on fun, structured lessons as well as hacks into the surrounding countryside, which take a break for pub lunch and wild deer spotting. If you want to learn more about the area’s endangered and rare-breed Exmoor ponies, visit the Exmoor Pony Centre, where The Moorland Mousie Trust, works to conserve and promote the breed.
Creative types may want to check events hosted by local charity, Somerset Art Works during their stay. The artist-led organisation works with the local community to bring together the best of contemporary art in Somerset as well as making it accessible for all. Budding snappers can join Jack and his team at Exmoor Photography Courses. You can also combine a course with a seasonal safari, such as the red deer rut in October.
To round off your stay, why not spend the evening stargazing. Due to its dark skies, Exmoor National Park is Europe’s first International Dark Sky Reserve. The status means the night sky above the Park has special protection against light pollution. If you’d like to learn more, there are many events for all ages - including nightwalks, workshops, talks and the Exmoor Dark Skies Festival in October.
For more idea of green holidays in Somerset and Exmoor, see our Green Traveller's Guide to Somerset and Exmoor