Wandering Out West
The rich Vale of Taunton, with the Blackdown and Quantock Hills on either side, leads us westwards to our National Park, Exmoor.
One of the best ways to travel here must be the marvellous West Somerset Railway – the longest heritage railway in England. You can ride from just outside Taunton all the way to Minehead passing immaculately maintained stations, signal boxes, a castle and a harbour. The countryside is sumptuous and it is easy to see how it inspired some of this Country’s greatest poets.
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a leading light in the Romantic Movement, wrote some of his best work while living in Nether Stowey. He and his friends William and Dorothy Wordsworth walked almost daily for miles over the Quantocks, Brendon Hills and Exmoor, admiring the moors and combes and immortalising them in verse. Today you can follow in his footsteps by taking the Coleridge Way from the National Trust owned Coleridge Cottage to Lynmouth on the other side of the Somerset border.
Protected by law as the first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to be designated back in 1956, the Quantock Hills are famous for their heathland, oak woods and Jurassic Coast. Look out for thatched cottages, wild ponies, panoramic views and whortleberries.
A castle sits proudly atop the medieval village of Dunster which is packed full of listed buildings and places to visit. Now owned by the National Trust, the castle had been in the same family for 600 years. It is surrounded by gardens and has a stable block, working water mill and underground reservoir to explore. Also overlooking the village is a tower used as a landmark for shipping while in its centre is the splendid tiled Yarn Market. Visitors are spoilt for choice with shops, restaurants and walks aplenty in this delightful, historic village.
On Exmoor woodland meets the sea in places and the result is dreamlike. You can lose yourself in valleys that might not look out of place in epic tales such as Lord of the Rings with mossy banks, waterfalls and ancient trees. It is here too that you will find Britain’s highest sea cliffs and the dramatic Valley of the Rocks. Inland and on higher ground you will cross a landscape of an altogether different character - remote and wild. These moors are home to the famous Exmoor Ponies and Red Deer. They are also the backdrop to the fictional Lorna Doone whose echoes can be found in tearooms, shops and the real-life Oare Church.
Exmoor’s remoteness makes it a prime place to stargaze and the co-operation of a number of organisations led to it becoming Europe’s first Dark Skies Reserve. One of the best sites is Wimbleball Lake as the water reflects the starry glory. In daylight, the reservoir offers sailing, rowing, walking and bird-watching.
A drive along the Exmoor coast is rewarded with breath-taking views and picturesque stops including Porlock Weir where they are once again growing oysters. Minehead is the largest resort with Butlins Holiday Camp on the seafront and North Hill rising above the harbour. Tucked between the National Park and Quantock Hills we have gems such as Old Cleeve Abbey, the port of Watchet, which inspired the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Wiveliscombe.
There has been a settlement on the banks of the River Tone since Saxon times and as befits a largely rural county, Taunton is a typical market town. The livestock may have moved out but there is an award-winning Farmers Market every Thursday. Barges no longer transport goods along the canal from Bridgwater but there is an imaginative Space Walk on the towpath and the riverside has been given over to gardens.
Taunton is not only the administrative centre of the County, it also houses the Museum of Somerset and is a focus for arts, culture, sport and shopping. The museum records the last acts of this Country’s Civil War when the infamous Judge Jeffery held his Bloody Assize in the Great Hall of Taunton Castle sentencing 500 rebels to death or transportation. The town’s sky line is dominated by not one but two church towers, one of which St Mary’s at 50m high, has been described as the finest in England.
The church towers can be seen from the ground of Somerset County Cricket Club, which has hosted international matches and is the home of the England Women’s Cricket Team. Another sport enjoyed here is national hunt racing with the course at Orchard Portman staging around 15 meetings each season.