As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to the Mendip Hills, Jackie King picks out the options for a low carbon holiday among this rich and varied Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), from the caves at Wookey and Cheddar to the gentle plains of Chew Valley and Blagdon Lakes.
However you choose to criss-cross the Mendip Hills AONB, you’ll be captivated by the variety of landscapes. Geological wonders resonating with a 300-million-year history will vie for your attention, everything from sharply rising rocky outcrops, deep craggy valleys, complex cave systems, expansive undulating plateaus and peaceful and ancient country lanes.
On foot, but particularly on a bike, plan your route, for the famous Somerset rolling hills could see you getting a little more exercise than you expected! Google Maps is useful tool in reconnaissance for the detail it gives of the ascents and descents of your planned route and you’ll be able to choose ways around some of the more challenging hills of the region, maybe taking in a few watering holes or cream tea spots.
Famous well-marked cycle routes and walks are the Strawberry Line (National Cycle Route 26), the Limestone Link, The Mendip Way (the West and East sections), which links Weston-super-Mare with Wells and, beyond the AONB, Frome, the Monarchs Way and the West Country Way (National Cycle Route 3). Excellent walking guides are available on the Mendip Hills AONB website. The Mendip Hills provide a distinctive landmark from many directions – routes out of Bath and Bristol provide views, as does the plain of the Somerset Levels; Black Down is the Mendips highest point at 325m – easily spotted from all angles - and up here the acidic red sandstone creates a diverse heathland.
The caves at Wookey and Cheddar certainly pull in the crowds and rightly so – their fascinating formation is the result of rainwater dripping onto and dissolving carboniferous limestone to carve out gorge, sink hole and cave. On flatter, more gentle plains, Chew Valley and Blagdon Lakes are big recreational centres and very popular with serious cyclists. Most evenings and any weekend see the lycra-clad road bikers emerge for some seriously speedy spinning around the watery expanse, while fishermen on hired boats, anglers and novice sailors take things at a slower pace.
Where to stay
The Mendips has some of the prettiest and most varied countryside in the south west and, with few towns of any real size, wherever you pick you're likely be surrounded by little more than rolling green views and utter peace and quiet. We've scoured the region for green and gorgeous places to stay, from mellow-stoned B&Bs, pretty cottages on working farms, to wild meadow glampsites. All of our places are committed to the environment and by staying at one of these places you will be supporting owners who really are making a difference by striving to reduce their impact on the local landscape.
Many of our places to stay provide so much more than just a bed for the night. Burcott Mill for example is a working watermill producing organic flour, so a stay at the charming B&B gives a valuable insight in to milling history with an on-site museum. Gorge View Cottage rewards visitors with a peachy position right in Cheddar, yet on a lane, and with great views of the gorge itself. The owners have created a super permaculture garden and as a guest you get access too. The ethos is to co-create a garden with nature to maximise biodiversity and habitat for wildlife, while producing as much home-grown produce as possible. It’s hard to believe Fernhill Farm is just seven miles from Bristol’s airport, such is its other-wordliness. Accommodation and events are provided and you can learn about their sister business, their wool enterprise at Fernhill Fleece and Fibre. There are 10 acres of woodland, orchard and kitchen garden and a further 150 acres of farmland with cattle and pigs. Folly Farm is an award-winning 250-acre nature reserve managed by the Avon Wildlife Trust. You can stay, marry, convene or build teams here in a farmhouse, studios or converted cow sheds. Walking trails through the land are offered and there’s a tremendous professional kitchen in the farmhouse too, or the farm will cater for you and your group/family.
Where to eat
The Mendip Hills may be a relatively small AONB, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a region with a stronger food heritage than Somerset. Farming still plays a dominant role in the region's ecomony and the AONB is densely strewn with cattle and dairy farms, organic veg growers and breweries. Some of the biggest names in the business come from the Mendips - think Cheddar cheese, Thatchers cider, Butcombe ale and Yeo Valley yoghurt, to name but a few. By shopping while you visit or stay, you'll support the local economy as you stock up your cupboards and fridge with prime Somerset fare.
One of our favourite destinations is the Yeo Valley Farm, of which there are many aspects: an education centre, Staff Canteen, wildflower meadow, organic garden, lecture theatre, but for foodies the café is the place to head to for supper evenings in a sublime setting, delicious lunches and of course tea and cake as a punctuation to your garden browsing. Most people know Yeo Valley for its rich creamy organic yogurt, but there is a very rich Somerset food heritage running through all the dishes served up (and online you’ll find many of their recipes, too). Breakfast and lunch slots get snapped up … Organic smoked bacon sandwiches, home-made granola, vegan soups, Holt Farm burgers in brioche buns or tarts made with farm leek, spinach and celeriac. A trip to Somerset wouldn’t be complete without visiting a cider farm and at Thatchers you learn about the 100-year-old history of producing cider. You can tour the orchard, discover how apples are grown and pressed and taste the nectar in the cider shop. It’s a jolly day out for all the family and the farm sits on the Strawberry Line cycle route. Another good family option is the Salt and Malt fish and chip café on the water’s edge at Chew Valley Lake. Great food served all day from breakfast to supper and views come for free while you eat cod and chips, sandwiches, afternoon tea or steamed mussels. Yum! On the Mendip Trail walking and cycling route that connects six pubs serving Butcombe ales, find The Lamb in Axbridge, a 15th-century coaching dishing up pub grub and local tipples.
Where to visit
No visit to the Mendips would be complete without a trip to Cheddar Gorge, whose limestone cliffs cut a jagged course through the middle of the AONB. There's no doubt that Cheddar Gorge is stunning and definitely deserving of the attention it receives from visitors to the region, but there are many other exciting and entertaining things to see and do in the area which will reward visitors who hang around in the Mendips a little longer.
There are gardens, lakes, beauty spots and fascinating museums detailing the region's history, geology, archaeology and industry.
At King John’s Hunting Lodge in medieval Axbridge the history of the area is laid out with exhibits that give an insight into pre-history, Roman and Saxon heritage and there is a museum shop, too. The caves of Wookey Hole and Cheddar need little introduction: find the Witch of Wookey, a valley where dinosaurs roamed and a fairy garden at the former; the ‘Cheddar Man’, a 3-mile cliff-top circular walk and a 274-step lookout tower at the latter. Milton Lodge Garden hosts plant sales and on certain days each year, the National Gardens Scheme. There are terraces, a lily pond and a layout that is perfectly angled to take in the beautiful view of Wells Cathedral and the Vale of Avalon.
Things to do
The geology of the Mendips - with its cavernous gorges and network of caves, its rugged landscape and meandering rivers - lends itself to a fantastic variety of outdoor activities. Not surprisingly, the area is very popular with potholders and cavers and enthusiasts come from miles around to experience the thrill of scrambling underground here. The open, windswept plateaus also make fantastic biking terrain and the dense woodland and grasslands are perfect for bush foraging and nature walking.
With Walk the Mendips you can spend a day immersed in learning about the natural world with people who have been running training events for over 30 years. Wild food foraging, Camp-fire craft, Archery, Bushcraft… take your pick and organise your companions. There is a similar vibe at Mendip Outdoor Pursuits where you can learn to snowboard, ski, kayak, climb, abseil and much, much more… There are residential courses and it is an approved partner for the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme. The more adventurous among visitors may look to expert Chris Binding for a caving and climbing experience. He says “caving is the next best thing to being on another planet and a sensory overload”.
How to get to and around the Mendip Hills without a car
If you're coming from the east or north of the UK, the main train stations serving the Mendips are Bristol Temple Meads and Weston-super-Mare, and with regular connections from London and elsewhere in the country. There are no train lines within the AONB and bus services are fairly limited, but with a little careful planning, it is possible to get around by public transport.
The regular bus service 126 connects Weston-super-Mare, on the Mendips' westerly point, with Wells in the south-east of the AONB, calling at major towns and villages en route, including Sandford, Axbridge and Cheddar. There are also regular bus services from Bristol to Yatton on the northern edge of the Mendips. There are various walking and cycling routes throughout the area making it a relatively easy place to get around under your own steam. Quiet roads and footpaths throughout the area make cycling and walking an enjoyable way to get from A to B.
For more idea of green holidays in the Mendip Hills, see our: