Getting out and about in Somerset

22/08/2019 11:00

Written by Norm Longley

Wildlife watchers will be in their element in Somerset thanks to world-class birdlife on the Levels and fantastic fishing at Blagdon, but if you fancy expending slightly more energy, how about trekking the valleys of Exmoor or rock climbing in the Mendips?

Somerset Levels Somerset by Joe Dunckley ShutterstockThe landscape of Somerset is varied and fascinating, and definitely worth exploring in its entirety © Joe Dunckley

The Mendips

The Mendips look and feel like a tough little bit of Derbyshire dropped into the soft southern underbelly of Somerset. A distinctive limestone ridge pocked by innumerable cave systems and flanked by deep gorges, this is terrific walking country, though the wonderfully varied terrain permits all manner of adventurous pursuits, including mountain biking, caving and climbing. 

Walk the Mendip Way

The adventurous among you could tackle the 50-mile-long Mendip Way, which connects Weston-super-Mare and Frome. The walking is glorious, and, though not especially pronounced, this terrain is not to be underestimated.

Climb the canyon walls of Cheddar Gorge

climbing Cheddar Gorge Somerset by mrtom-uk iStockScaling the rock face of Cheddar Gorge is a fun challenge for the adventurous traveller © mrtom-uk, iStock 

Cheddar Gorge might be best known for its famous caves but it also draws in plenty of climbers hoping to scale its vertiginous walls. Why not don a harness and take on the challenge for yourself?

Cycle the Strawberry Line

Running between Yatton and Cheddar – a distance of ten miles – the Strawberry Line takes its name from the railway (which was officially called the Cheddar Valley Line, and was part of the Great Western Railway) that transported local strawberries, produce and passengers until its closure in 1965. Following the old trackbed (part of the National Cycle Network Route 26), it’s off-road nearly all the way and mostly flat too, making it a wonderful Slow proposition for families with little ‘uns.

Fish for trout on Blagdon Lake 

Fishing Blagdon Lake Somerset by acceleratorhams iStockAnglers come from all over the world to catch trout at Blagdon Lake © acceleratorhams, iStock

Manmade Blagdon Lake was completed in 1905 and, with its plentiful stocks of brown and rainbow trout, it has since become one of the country’s premier fly-fishing venues. 

Somerset Levels

Fringing Glastonbury and extending across parts of the north and centre of the county, the deeply rural, pastoral landscape of the Somerset Levels has undergone a wholesale transformation over the last 30 or so years that has been nothing short of remarkable. Where once it was intensively worked for peat, today it’s an area of pristine chequerboard fields, extensive wetlands and languid rivers.

Watch the winter migrants at Westhay Moor National Nature Reserve

Westhay Moor National Nature Reserve Somerset by Mike Woodhead Avalon Marshes Landscape Team Somerset-Wildlife TrustThe bird-rich landscape of Westhay Moor National Nature Reserve is a sight not to be missed © Mike Woodhead, Avalon Marshes Landscape Team, Somerset Wildlife Trust

Owned and managed by the Somerset Wildlife Trust, Westhay Moor – the Avalon Marshes’ northernmost reserve –  was once a significant peat harvesting area. It is a little-visited corner of the county and hence you can enjoy this peaceful landscape, consisting mostly of open reedbeds, in relative solitude. As elsewhere on the Levels, winter is really the best time to observe birds here (including grey herons, bitterns and marsh harriers).

Witness the murmurations spectacle on Shapwick Heath

Flock of starlings Shapwick Heath Somerset by Ian Redding ShutterstockHuge numbers of starlings gather over the heath to fly in perfectly co-ordinated formations © Ian Redding, Shutterstock

Between November and February, Shapwick Heath’s main draw is the murmurations, the name given to large groups of starling flocks. Although not uncommon elsewhere in the UK, it’s widely acknowledged that few parts of the country can rival the Somerset Levels when it comes to this marvellous spectacle. These great swarms – which can be anything from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands – generally peak in December and January when the resident community is joined by a large migrant population from northern Europe.

Visit the cranes on the Levels

Cranes  Somerset by Dick Kenny ShutterstockThe best time to spot the cranes is in the early morning, before they are disturbed by walkers or farming operations © Dick Kenny, Shutterstock

One of the most exciting events to happen on the Levels in recent times was the introduction of 93 common cranes on West Sedgemoor Nature Reserve, the first 21 of which were released in 2010. Until then, this majestic bird had been absent from the South West for over 400 years. At last count, in 2018, there were at least 56 of the original 93 cranes alive, and an additional 17 second-generation birds in the group, so the Levels are an excellent place to go to see these fascinating birds.

The Quantocks

The Quantocks, although of modest height and lacking the drama of nearby Exmoor, present superb walking possibilities. Moreover, these hills aren’t especially well travelled, so the chances are that you’ll have them (almost) all to yourself.

Walk the Coleridge Way

You can follow in the famous poet’s footsteps, literally, by undertaking the Coleridge Way, a 51-mile-long path beginning in Nether Stowey and ending in Lynmouth, in north Devon. If you have the time and inclination (and a bit of good weather), this is a wonderful trek, one ideally completed over a leisurely five or six days.

Chug along the West Somerset Railway

West Somerset Railway Somerset by Don BishopFans of steam won’t want to miss out on the wonderful West Somerset Railway © Don Bishop

One, very leisurely, way of exploring the Quantocks is aboard the delightful West Somerset Railway, which chugs serenely through rolling countryside and along a short stretch of coastline before reaching Minehead. Even if you’re not a fan of steam, this is an unmissable experience.

Hunt for fossils at Kilve Beach

Kilve Beach Somerset by Christian Mueller ShutterstockFossicking on Kilve Beach is fun for all the family © Christian Mueller, Shutterstock

Unique fossil-rich Kilve Beach lies within the Quantocks AONB and is Somerset’s answer to Dorset’s Jurassic Coast. Fossicking along the shoreline is great fun for all the family, but do watch out for the changing tides and take sturdy footwear for clambering over the rugged, rocky beach. 

The coast

With so much to detain visitors inland, Somerset’s coastline often gets bypassed, which is a shame as there’s lots to get excited about here.

Brave the waters of the Bristol Channel at Clevedon

Sea swimming has quite a tradition here in Clevedon, reflected in a number of annual events, though the big one is August’s Clevedon Long Swim, which has taken place every year (except during World War II) since 1928. The mile-long race starts at Ladye Bay under the pier and finishes on Clevedon Beach; even if you don’t fancy it yourself, it’s worth coming along to watch – it’s great fun.

Cycle the Brean Down Way

Brean Down Somerset Jon Drew ShutterstockThe eight-mile-long Brean Down Way culminates at the beautiful sands of Brean Down © Jon Drew, Shutterstock

Inaugurated in 2017, the Brean Down Way is an eight-mile mixed-use path between Weston-super-Mare and Brean Down. Now part of National Cycle Route 33, the traffic-free route is mostly level, and there is also the option of cycling a couple of beach-bound sections, though obviously only at low tide.

Exmoor

The expansive Exmoor National Park truly has something for everyone. Walkers, of course, are spoiled for choice on Exmoor, with coastal walks and inland trails of every description, but there's also plenty of wildlife-watching opportunities to be had, along with a glorious stretch of coastline.

Walk the South West Coast Path 

Hill near Bossington Somerset by Chris Spracklen South West Coast Path AssociationTackle the long-distance South West Coast Path for a challenging hike and stunning views © Chris Spracklen,  provided by the South West Coast Path Association

Some 35 miles of the South West Coast Path traverse Exmoor (it starts in Minehead). If you are planning on doing some extensive walking, then it’s worth making the most of the best seasons: spring or autumn is the best time to visit the coast, when the landscape is at its loveliest and the crowds have thinned out.

Stargaze on an International Dark Sky Reserve

Exmoor International Dark Sky Reserve Somerset by Keith Trueman, Visit ExmoorInland Exmoor is perfect for stargazing due to its status an an International Dark Sky Reserve © Keith Trueman, Visit Exmoor

In 2011 Exmoor was designated Europe’s first International Dark Sky Reserve, being ‘a public or private land possessing an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural, heritage and/or public enjoyment’. Although stargazing is a year-round activity, winter months offer greater absolute darkness and less chance of atmospheric humidity, resulting in clearer night skies – optimum conditions would be a hard frost, a clear night and no moon. A great time to visit is during the Exmoor Dark Skies Festival in October.

Visit Exmoor’s indigenous red deer population

Red deer Exmoor Somerset by phil Woolley ShutterstockExmoor is one of the view places left in the country where you can see the majestic red deer © Phil Woolley, Shutterstock

Exmoor’s iconic animal, red deer have existed on the moor since prehistoric times and the national park now plays host to one of Britain's last remaining indigenous populations. There’s something very special about spotting one of the herds as they stalk the moor.

See a carpet of white in February at Snowdrop Valley

Snowdrop Valley Exmoor Somerset by Visit ExmoorNorth Hawkwell Wood is a real spectacle in February when thousands of snowdrops start blooming © Visit Exmoor

Come February, North Hawkwell Wood near Wheddon Cross really comes into its own as it is completely carpeted with snowdrops. Snowdrop Valley is owned by the Badgworthy Land Company and is an ESA (Environmentally Sensitive Area). During the snowdrop season the narrow road leading to the valley is closed to traffic so visitors must walk there along a choice of two woodland routes or take the Park and Ride bus that runs from the Wheddon Cross car park (next to the Rest and Be Thankful Inn).


Want to find out more about exploring Somerset? Check out our guide to the county:

Slow Somerset: the Bradt guide

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