“Cider has always been the drink of Somerset” is a refrain you’ll hear from many a seasoned drinker in this part of the world, and despite competing claims from any number of other counties – among them Devon, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Kent – there is no question: Somerset is cider’s spiritual home.
Here, in the ‘land of the summer people’ (for that is where Somerset takes its name), history, heritage and apples have been fused to magical effect for centuries, and there are now in excess of 40 cider-makers throughout the county.
The gradual easing of lockdown gave me the perfect excuse to revisit three of Somerset’s most traditional (as well as three of my favourite) cider producers in recent weeks – as well as the opportunity to reacquaint myself with this enchanting countryside I am fortunate enough to call home.
First up was a return visit to the cider king himself, Roger Wilkins, who is as much a part of Somerset folklore as Michael Eavis. Situated at the end of a narrow muddy lane in the village of Mudgely overlooking the wonderful Westhay National Wildlife Reserve, Wilkins Cider Farm has been home to the Wilkins family since 1917, although cider has been produced here for hundreds of years. In charge of proceedings is the indefatigable Roger, who was born here, started drinking cider at the age of four(!), and regularly used to consume 20 pints a day. Now well into his seventies, he looks pretty good on it.
There’s still much for Roger to do on his 55-acre farm, from tending to his hundred cows to parcelling up bottles for deliveries as far away as Sheffield and Scotland – which has proved to be something of a financial lifeline in recent months. And Roger’s got a lot of scrumpy to shift. He informs me that the last four harvests have been so good that he’s got some 18,000 gallons in reserve.
Much like Roger himself, there’s little that precious about the way his traditional farmhouse cider (agricultural wine, as he likes to call it) is harvested – ‘I just crush the apples and press ‘em’ – or how it tastes, though that’s not to say it isn’t damn good stuff. There are three varieties: sweet, dry and medium (or ‘alf ‘an alf’ in Rog speak), and aside from a little saccharine nothing else whatsoever is added.
There’s no standing on ceremony here either. Just grab a glass and help yourself from one of the giant wooden barrels – once you’re done, you pretty much pay what you like. The place itself is firmly old school, an open-sided brick and corrugated-iron barn with the occasional bit of antiquated machinery and a couple of tatty tables, both of which were already fully occupied when I pitched up just ten minutes after opening time: 10am. They don’t mess around in these parts.
Read just about any article on Roger’s place and it’ll tell you that the lounge (it’s not what you think) is home to a Banksy – which is true, up to a point. Roger explained to me that while the piece (of him holding a pint, naturally) may well have been conceived by the elusive Bristol artist, the spray work wasn’t, and that’s because he knows who did it.
Whatever its provenance, Roger has been offered various sums of money yet refuses to sell it, largely on the grounds that it would cost a small fortune to get the wall replaced. In fact, such is Roger’s renown that many an A-list celebrity has beaten a path to his barn door, among them Mick Jagger, Jo Strummer and – his personal favourite – Johnny Rotten. Roger maintains that he’ll give the farm another couple of years but beyond that he’s not sure, given that the only other family member who could possibly take it on is his grandson. But for now, there’s nowhere else in Somerset quite like Roger’s gaff.
Somerset Cider Brandy Company
Tucked away amidst tall hedgerows in a blissfully quiet corner of south Somerset, Burrow Hill is the setting for the Somerset Cider Brandy Company, the country’s only apple distillery.
Cider has been pressed on this site for more than 200 years, though its modern incarnation is all down to Julian Temperley, who got things rolling in 1987 and just two years later Somerset Cider Brandy was granted the first commercial cider distilling licence in recorded English history; their brandies are now bottled at 3, 5, 10, 15 and 20 years. They’re a talented bunch, the Temperleys, among their clan Julian’s daughters Alice, a renowned fashion designer, and Matilda, a celebrated photographer and, as it happens, the company’s managing director. On my previous visit I was given the full cider-soaked works by Julian, which was as entertaining as it was long (he’s not one to rush).
On this occasion I stopped for a chat with Matilda who told me that production, which ground to a halt during lockdown, was on the cusp of resumption, while there had been a steady increase in the number of visitors dropping by, be it for a wee tour or to load up with goodies from the well-stocked shop.
Most, though, come for the fabled cider bus. Ordinarily a fixture at the Glastonbury Festival (sadly not so this year of course), the bright blue double-decker is currently being put to good use as a bar (Saturdays 10am–5pm) where you can sample any number of scrummy beverages, be it a draught cider, ice cider, sparkling perry, aperitif or liqueur.
Quaffing aside, visitors are welcome to picnic in the picturesque orchards, packed with some 40 different apple varieties like Brown Snout, Bulmer’s Norman and the legendary Kingston Black. But no visit to Burrow Hill is complete without a brisk march to the top of the hill itself, a prominent mound topped by a solitary sycamore tree with a swing attached. Like so many other vantage points in Somerset, the views from here are sensational, from the orchards wrapped around the base of the hill to the Levels and Glastonbury Tor yonder.
Ham Hill Cider
A 20-minute drive southeast from Burrow Hill is Ham Hill Cider, named after and set against the backdrop of the eponymous local beauty spot. A relatively modest 40-acre site of sweeping orchards, it’s one of my favourite small cider-makers, a fair few of which you’ll find in this part of south Somerset, an area otherwise known for its hamstone villages, each one hewn from the soft, golden-coloured stone quarried at Ham Hill; some, like South Petherton, Hinton St George and Montacute, are among the prettiest in the country.
Ham Hill Cider was started in 2009 by four local chaps, for whom it remains a part-time concern (as much as they’d like to, they haven’t quite given up the day jobs). These ‘four sons of Somerset’ clearly know what they’re doing though, and have crafted something really rather special here.
Head cider-maker Chris explained to me that all their ciders are harvested from 100% freshly pressed Somerset vintage cider apples, chiefly Dabinett, Kingston Black and Redstreak. The result is a core range of half a dozen easy-supping ciders, all of which hover around the 6% mark; these include Bop Drop, a sweet fruity nectar, and Long Barrel, a remarkably accomplished sparkling cider that won gold at the Somerset Cider Championships.
I met up with a few old college pals here one balmy Friday evening and enjoyed a terrific tasting session in the Cider Works, their rustic on-site bar (6pm–10pm Fridays). For now, seating is outside in the yard, and very pleasant it is too, but during cooler months the action moves indoors where local bands strike up on the small stage. It’s possible to camp here too, which was just as well given that my only other option was to walk back to my parent’s house in Yeovil some seven miles away.
Following a visit to Ham Hill Cider, you could do worse than make tracks for Ham Hill itself and take a walk amongst the hilly mounds and dips before settling in for another pint at the Prince of Wales pub and soaking up yet more gorgeous views.
Discover more of Somerset’s delights in Norm’s Slow Travel guide: