As part of our Green Traveller's Guide to the Mendip Hills, Jackie King picks out a selection of gardens, animal centres and other family fun experiences in this glorious Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in Somerset, southwest England.
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, but there is a whole host of other exciting and entertaining things to see and do in the area which will reward the visitor who hangs around in the Mendips a little longer.
When the sun is shining, there are gardens and lakes - namely Chew Valley and Blagdon - havens of peace and tranquility and incredibly quiet, especially during the week. With so much to do in the great outdoors, it can be difficult to take yourself inside, but there are also some fascinating museums detailing the region's history, geology and archaeology which will keep the family amused on rainy days.
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
Chew Valley Lake
On the northern edge of the Mendips, fringed by reedbeds, woodland and grassland, Chew Valley Lake is a pleasant place to while away an afternoon. Designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, over 260 bird species have been recorded at Chew. To protect the wildlife, access to the lake is restricted in certain areas, but there are plenty of trails which loop around the lake, as well as sailing and fishing available. There are landscaped picnic areas, a teashop and art gallery, too.
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
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
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
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
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. www.wellsmuseum.org.uk
For more information on characterful places to stay, local food and drink, and nearby outdoor activities, see our Green Traveller's Guide to the Mendip Hills.