Local Attractions in Somerset & Exmoor

As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to Somerset & Exmoor, Jackie King picks out a selection of historic, cultural and natural attractions.

It's perhaps not widely known that Exmoor has a wonderful coastline (including the highest cliffs in Britain) as well as a wealth of places to visit inland that cater for all budgets and tastes. And it's not just a summer destination, the region is packed with wonderful places to visit in winter, spring and autumn. This is one of the best places in Britain to go birdwatching (including the spectacular starling murmuration), there are world class caves to explore, and of course the grandaddy of music festivals, Glastonbury. Keep an eye out too for the lesser known festivals that celebrate the best food and drink and music in the region.

Kilver Court Secret Gardens

Featuring a millpond, an award-winning rockery, and a vegetable garden, there are many reasons to visit Kilver Court Secret Gardens. Set against the magnificent backdrop of the Charlton Viaduct, visitors can enjoy a magical stroll around the three acre site. Industrialist Ernest Jardine created the gardens in the early 1900s to inspire his workers, and today they are sure to inspire any visitor. The same pair of gardeners have tended the site for over thirty years, and their devotion has really paid off- these beautiful gardens are well worth a visit. kilvercourt.com/garden

Milton Lodge Gardens

On a gentle slope looking out towards Wells, Glastonbury Tor and the Somerset Levels beyond is Milton Lodge Gardens, created in 1900 by Charles Tudway, the present owner's great-grandfather. Designed to capitalise on the stunning views, the gardens consist of a series of manicured terraces, sloping lawns, and lily ponds, bordered by a colourful collection of flowering shrubs and perennials, roses and wild flowers, and a variety of lovely trees. On hot days find shelter in The Combe, an 8-acre arboretum of woodland garden filled with gracious old trees and shady spots. miltonlodgegardens.co.uk

Cheddar Gorge and Caves

Probably the most famous tourist attraction in the Mendips, the breath-taking limestone Cheddar Gorge, which rises a dramatic 445 feet at its greatest height, was formed by meltwater nearly 1 million years ago. There are caves to explore, a museum to investigate, dedicated to the discovery of Britain’s oldest skeleton, the Cheddar Man, great walks (the 3-mile cliff top circular gives spectacular views into the gorge – bring a picnic), and a 274-step lookout tower, giving you uninterrupted views across the valley. Thrill-seekers can opt for caving or rock-climbing. cheddargorge.co.uk

Wookey Hole Caves

Wookey Hole Caves need little introduction - this is family fun at its best. The beautifully-lit caves and grottos will keep children entertained for hours: there’s the Witch of Wookey (a stalagmite which resembles a witch), a prehistoric valley of the dinosaurs, a magical fairy garden; you can even play around with producing your own paper at the 18th century paper mill. wookey.co.uk

Mendip Outdoor Pursuits

Build a raft and sail it down the river, explore the labyrinth of underground caves or head off with a map and compass for an afternoon of orienteering. From bush crafts and assault courses to guided walks and mountain walking, Mendip Outdoor Pursuits has dozens of different trips and ideas for company away days, school outings, stag and hen parties. mendip.me

The Royal Bath & West Show

This wonderful celebration of the British countryside is well worth a visit. There's a vast range of trade stands displaying the best food and drink that the South West has to offer, and The British Cheese Awards and British Cider Competition are held at the show. Once you've had your fill of the culinary attractions, there's plenty more to see and do. Go canoeing, watch livestock competing for the title of best in show, and enjoy an array of equestrian events. If you're after something quirkier, pay a visit to the alpacas, or see the shearing competitions. bathandwest.com/royal-bath-and-west-show

Glastonbury

This world famous festival takes place annually at 900-acre Worthy Farm, near Pilton, Somerset. Established by Michael Eavis in 1970, Glastonbury plays host to a star-studded line-up over the course of five days. Most people camp, though a few tipis are available for a more luxurious experience, and B&B accommodation can be found nearby. glastonburyfestivals.co.uk

Watchet Festival

Family friendly music festival with views of the West Somerset coast line and beyond. Has on site camping, three Stages, and over 50 live acts. It runs over the August bank holiday weekend. watchetfestival.co.uk

Bridgwater Carnival

This annual carnival, set in the Somerset market-town of Bridgwater, includes a procession of traditional carts, lovingly constructed by West Country carnival clubs, compete for the attention of the judges, attracting crowds of up to 150,000. The event in Bridgwater, which takes place on the first Saturday of November, is the largest in a series of carnivals throughout Somerset. Whilst the carnival is free, donations to local charities are encouraged. somersetcarnivals.co.uk

Exmoor Pony Festival

The annual Exmoor Pony Festival showcases one of the unique charms of the region: the wild moorland ponies which roam the National Park. Catch a glimpse of the ponies in their natural habitat on a safari with an expert guide, see them at the Exmoor Pony Society's yearly Breed Show, enjoy family-friendly activity days, or attend one of the many other events on offer. exmoorponyfestival.com

Frome Festival

Established in 2000, this is a relatively recent addition to the festival calendar. The ten days in July are jam-packed with musical, theatrical, literary and artistic events, all of which take place in the pretty market town of Frome. These days more than 30,000 people attend each year, and as the festival expands, more and more attractions are added. fromefestival.co.uk

Tunnels Beaches

Tunnels Beaches opened in Ilfracombe in 1823, offering Victorians with a way to swim without compromising their modesty; the hand carved tunnels led to separate tidal pools for men and for women. Today it is both a historical attraction and a great place for a swim - with no gender segregation required! Tunnels beaches is also a wonderful place for rock pooling and kayaking. To see the tidal swimming pool in its full glory, visit within three hours of low tide. tunnelsbeaches.co.uk

Wild Swimming

For hardy souls who want to combine getting some exercise with enjoying the beauty of the South West, few things are better than wild swimming. There are many places to embark on an aquatic adventure, from windswept bays to quiet stretches of river and hidden waterfalls. Wild swimming will introduce you to many delightful areas of natural beauty across Exmoor and Somerset; the website below is a treasure trove of information, with recommendations to suit a variety of ages and skill levels. wildswimming.co.uk

Dunster Castle

Perched on a wooded eyrie gazing across its namesake village to the coast, Dunster Castle blends Medieval ambition – the 13th-century gateway is the oldest surviving element – with a Victorian ideal of fortified grandeur. 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. Mostly, though, it’s a chance to wander lush gardens, play king of the castle, delve into the crypt to learn about the resident bats, and explore the 600-year family history of the Luttrell family, inextricably linked with the village and surrounding area. nationaltrust.org.uk/dunster-castle-and-watermill

Wells Cathedral Evensong

Choral Evensong takes place at 5.15 pm from Monday to Saturday, and at 3.00 pm on Sunday. For the full experience, visit during the Wells Cathedral School term time to hear the heavenly voices of boys and girls in addition to the men's choir. The sublime music and the grandeur of the cathedral make for a truly unforgettable experience. Have a look at the website for a full calendar of services, especially in the run up to Christmas. wellscathedral.org.uk

Glastonbury Abbey

Glastonbury Abbey has many claims to fame. It's the fabled resting place of King Arthur, and a modern-day pilgrimage destination with a history dating back to the 7th century. Start your visit in the engaging and informative museum, then wander around the ruined abbey itself. There are also 36 acres of parkland to explore, with an orchard and a wildlife area including a Badger Boardwalk. In addition, between March and October guides in full costume give visitors fascinating insights into medieval life. glastonburyabbey.com

Burcott Mill

Recorded in the Domesday Book, this flourmill is one of the few remaining working watermills in the UK. The River Axe still powers the old Victorian cogs which drive the millstones, producing flour sold throughout Somerset, and supplying various restaurants and bakeries in the region. The mill is open daily for tours (advance bookings only) or for a quiet wander around the museum. Louise and Steve also run B&B in some of the neighbouring buildings. burcottmill.com

West Somerset Rural Life Museum

Go back to school – and back in time – with a visit to this fascinating museum in the idyllic National Trust hamlet of Allerford. Housed in the old school house, built in 1821, the museum incorporates a replica schoolroom from that era (complete with original desks and benches!), offering an insight into educational mores of two centuries ago. Elsewhere, displays illustrate various domestic and trade topics – imagine taking on the laundry duties of a Victorian maid – as well as artefacts from across Exmoor, while the photographic archive reveals snapshots of local life over the past 200 years. allerfordmuseum.org.uk

Wells & Mendip Museum

The permanent collections in the Wells Museum, which was established by a member of the Wells Natural History and Archaeological Society in 1894, document the region’s history, from an intriguing collection of Stone Age artefacts, to an important collection of minerals and fossils, and social history artefacts dating from the 18th century. wellsmuseum.org.uk

King John’s Hunting Lodge

Housed in a half-timbered building in the middle of medieval Axbridge, this museum illustrates the history, geology and community of the village and the surrounding area, with exhibits such as civilian life in Somerset during World War II, prehistoric caves found nearby, as well as those on local prehistory, the Roman period, and Saxon history. There’s also a museum shop where you can pick up gifts of local interest. kingjohnshuntinglodge.co.uk

Dunster Water Mill

The River Avill powers the region’s finest working water mill, alongside Exmoor National Park and just steps from Dunster Castle. Watch flour being milled as it was for hundreds of years, the wheat grain fed down to huge grinding stones. The attached museum features a fascinating collection of ancient agricultural machinery, once again demonstrating the efforts of farming and food production in years gone by. As well as selling the mill’s own stone-ground wholemeal flour, the Mill Shop is also stocked with home-made muesli and other local treats, and you can settle in for an indulgent cream tea in the adjacent tea room or riverside garden. nationaltrust.org.uk/dunster-castle-and-watermill

Dark Sky Telescope Hire

Explore the breathtakingly starry skies above Exmoor with a rented telescope for as little as £30 per week. Simply choose from a list online, fill in a booking form, and collect the telescope from Ian at West Withy Farm, then you're ready to start your stargazing! The details below are for the company's Somerset base, but a limited range of telescopes can be hired from different locations within Exmoor – check online for more information. If you're new to astronomy and need a guided tour of the cosmos, this can also be arranged. darkskytelescopehire.co.uk

Lynton and Barnstaple Railway

Woody Bay was one of the original stations on the Lynton and Barnstaple railway, which was 19 miles long, much of it on a gradient of 1 in 50. It was built to the narrow gauge of one foot eleven and a half inches (600mm) and opened in 1898. Faced with increasing competition from road transport, it closed in 1935. The one-mile of track from Woody Bay to Killington Lane was reopened in stages between 2004 and 2007, and is currently the longest-closed section of a railway to be reopened anywhere in the world. From the carriage window there are views of the sweeping Exmoor landscape, and on a clear day you can see the coastline of Wales. The railway is owned by a Charitable Trust and is operated as a 'not for profit' business, with the majority of work undertaken by volunteers. lynton-rail.co.uk

Lynton & Lynmouth Cliff Railway

You step on, the brakes are released, and you glide up (or down). It’s that simple – yet this elegant water-powered Victorial railway is something of a work of genius. Designed by George Marks and opened in 1890, the vertiginous railway was intended to provide an easier access route for tourists and goods to reach clifftop Lynton from the harbour at Lynmouth. Powered only by water from the River Lyn, the railway has a carbon footprint the size of an ant’s, and a ride in one of the two racing-green carriages, albeit lasting scant minutes, is as charming a travel experience as you’ll encounter. cliffrailwaylynton.co.uk

Somerset and Dorset Railway

This magical heritage railway near Midsomer Norton, North Somerset, is run by a dedicated team of volunteers. Open only on Sundays and Mondays, its range of diesel locomotives are well worth a visit. There's also a small museum and signal box to investigate, and a shop selling books and souvenirs. Enjoy an assortment of refreshments in a café converted from a buffet coach to top off your visit. sdjr.co.uk

East Somerset Steam Railway

Explore the region near Shepton Mallet in style by taking a ride in a historic steam engine. The 2.5 mile route between Cranmore and Mendip Vale Stations offers picturesque views of the Somerset countryside, from the comfort of a beautifully preserved train. For a decadent treat, try a Sunday lunch on board the Mendip Belle dining train, or a delicious cream tea in the summer. A miniature railway also operates for a few days each month, and there's a well-stocked shop. See the website for a calendar of special events, including plenty of activities for younger passengers. eastsomersetrailway.com

Tiverton Canal

Explore the Grand Western Canal by horse-drawn barge, just a stone's throw from Tiverton. This unique attraction, featured on BBC's Countryfile, combines an outing on the water with a chance to admire beautiful animals. The Tiverton Canal Co. has three horses – Taffy, Dandy, and Ross - for you to meet. A two and a half hour return trip, with a chance to stretch your legs in the middle, is the most popular journey on offer. There's also a floating café serving refreshments, and hire boats available. tivertoncanal.co.uk

Countryside Mobility

A not for profit mobility equipment hire scheme working to improve access to the countryside for people with limited mobility living in and visiting the South West region. Its wheelyboat is available at the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal and also at Wimbleball and Trampers at Hunters Inn, Glen Lyn gorge. countrysidemobility.org

Calvert Trust

The Calvert Truste "enables people with physical, learning, behavioural and sensory disabilities to experience exciting, challenging and enjoyable outdoor activities." From its centre at the edge of the Exmoor National Park, it runs Activity Holidays, School Residentials, Themed Breaks & Specialist Courses, Carers Breaks and Horse Experience Weekends. calvertexmoor.org.uk

Pony Access

Pony-powered ferry service for wheelchair users. Exeter based, but owner also works in Brecon and Sussex, and says "to be honest, anywhere people want me. Always happy to discuss possibilities." ponyaccess.com


For more information on characterful places to stay, local food and drink, and nearby outdoor activities, see our Green Traveller's Guide to Somerset & Exmoor


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