Cider, cheese and cool scenery: a car-free adventure in Somerset

Posted by on January 15, 2018

The train glides west. Uncompromising-looking grey clouds are shedding icy raindrops on to Bath’s spires and crescents and Bristol’s colourful terraces. But I’m hoping at least three things will warm this wintry West Country jaunt: cheese, cider and the scenery of Sanditon. Several scenes in ITV’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s unfinished “beaches-and-ballgowns” novel were filmed in Somerset and, arriving on the sandy seafront in Weston-super-Mare, I recognise the green slopes of Brean Down, a regular backdrop.

Brean beach, one of Sanditon’s star locations, is a few miles south, and a cycle route from Weston opened in 2017. Given the weather, I opt to hop on the X5 bus (£7 Avonrider ticket), heading north to Clevedon, an elegant coastal town whose sea wall and marine lake also featured in the series. As I stroll by the sea, past the 150-year-old pier, rays of late-afternoon sunlight spill out of a rift in the clouds above Steep Holm, one of the distinctive islands in the Bristol Channel.

Steep Holm Island in the Bristol Channel. Photograph: David Porter Fine Images/Alamy

On the way back to Weston, I stop off at Clevedon’s time capsule-like Curzon. Opened in 1912, it is one of the world’s oldest continually running cinemas: its layers of history include a shrapnel-scarred exterior, red-and-gold tin panelling and a vintage cafe. The early-19th-century Royal Hotel in Weston, where I’m staying, also takes guests back in time, with wrought-iron balustrades, striped wallpaper and sunset-facing lounges. It was the first hotel built by Sanditon-style speculators when the town became a seaside resort. As I walk to the Old Thatched Cottage for supper with a friend who lives locally, the wet beach glows in the setting sun like molten lava.

Next morning, I catch the 126 bus from Marine Parade through the misty Mendip hills to Cheddar Gorge (rover ticket £7). The autumnal gorge is quieter than in tourist-choked summer. I walk beside the swollen River Yeo and, alone, through ancient, dripping caves (online adult ticket £16.95, 5-15s £12.70). In one cavern, huge cloth-bound rounds of cheese are maturing. Afterwards, I visit the Cheddar Gorge Cheese company, which made them (admission £2), and watch the afternoon’s whey-draining, curd-chopping and turning – “cheddaring” – before taking some strong cheese straws up the 274 steps of Jacob’s Ladder for a picnic at Pulpit rock.

Selection of Cheddar cheeses on sale in a store at Cheddar Gorge. Photograph: Chris Cooper-Smith/Alamy

Time for cider. The bus back to Weston stops by the village of Sandford’s gourmet Railway Inn, meeting point for tours of Thatchers (£12pp). Fruit-bowed trees are casting long shadows in the orchard by the time we arrive; there are crisp, bittersweet apples, pungent oak barrels and the rumble of lorries unloading the harvest. The tour ends back in the pub for a tasting that takes us from single-variety ciders through toffee-appley Rascal to the heady flavours of 458, blending numerous varieties. The others all have to drive home; luckily, I only need to stagger over the road to the bus stop.

Next day, I catch the train to Taunton, half an hour away. The Museum of Somerset (free) in the town’s castle fuses 12th-century architecture and contemporary design with exceptional results. The museum’s treasures (including fossil plesiosaur, Roman narrative mosaic and intricate bronze shields) are worth a trip and the displays (cooking pots on the ceiling, glass panels in the floor) force visitors to look at them afresh. The latest exhibition is a retrospective of paintings by Tristram Hillier, who lived in Somerset. Great cafe, too, with homemade soup (£4.95) and cakes; I have avocado toast with goats’ cheese (£7.50).

Taunton Castle, which houses the Museum of Somerset. Photograph: Alamy

From the nearby bus station I catch the number 28 bus through the russet-draped Quantocks to medieval Dunster and explore the castle and gardens (adult from £9.50, child from £4.70). Paths wind down through palms and lavender to a riverside jungle of redwoods and tree ferns with a working watermill at one end. In the evening I stroll round Dunster’s evocative sights: the butter cross, dovecot, tithe barn, and Rapunzel-esque fort on wooded Conygar hill. Then, I retire to my antique four-poster in the Luttrell Arms Hotel, overlooking the 17th-century octagonal, timber-farmed Yarn Market, and am serenaded by church bells.

Dunster Castle. Photograph: Billy Stock/Getty Images

With its log fires and antler-festooned bar, the Luttrell Arms is one of 14 pubs on an ale-and-cider trail recently devised by Buses of Somerset with the local branch of Camra. The inns are reachable by steam train or on the 28 bus (day rover £12). England’s longest heritage railway, the 20-mile West Somerset Railway, seems a suitably old-fashioned way to pub crawl back towards Taunton. So, I follow a riverside path to the station next morning, after an unusually good breakfast, featuring fresh figs, flat mushrooms and Bumblee’s strawberry jam.

By the time I have to head home, I’ve checked out five more pubs, including the creeper-covered White Horse near Cleeve Abbey in Washford and the snug, unmissable Pebbles Tavern in Watchet (Camra’s regional cider pub of 2019). In Washford, where blue signs show walkers a safe route to the abbey (avoiding the pavementless road), I also pop into Torre Cider Farm before looping back to the station via two miles of hilly footpaths with views of the coast. Watchet is packed with shops and museums; I stroll out to the lighthouse and, rounding the centuries-old harbour that inspired Coleridge, find a statue of the Ancient Mariner and his albatross. In Pebbles, I sample woody sulphite-free Wild Rabbit from Secret Orchard in nearby Nettlecombe and bring in – as advised – food from the neighbouring chippy or Sam’s deli (my bespoke sarnie, £4, involving ripe Somerset brie, goes well with the cider).

White Horse, Washford. Photograph: Phoebe Taplin

Last stop on my pub crawl is Quantock Brewery’s capacious taproom at Bishops Lydeard, a short bus ride from Taunton station. Great Western Railway introduces new timetables in December, the biggest network change since the 1970s, with more and faster trains across the south-west. Good news for those of us hoping to make the journey on a regular basis. Sobering up with coffee as the train races Londonwards, I start planning a return trip.

Rail travel was provided by Great Western Railway (London Paddington to Weston-super-Mare from 2¼ hours, from £17 single if booked in advance; Taunton to Paddington from 1¾ hours, from £19) and by West Somerset Railway (£22 for a day rover; £20.25 in advance). Accommodation provided by Royal Hotel (doubles from £100 B&B) and Luttrell Arms Hotel (doubles from £76.50 room-only). More information at Visit Somerset and Visit Exmoor

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