Unfairly stereotyped as the land of cider and cheese, Somerset is an increasingly popular destination for those – young families in particular – looking to escape from London. While its charming scenery – from the rolling hills of Exmoor to the Cheddar Gorge – has long delighted outsiders, the county also boasts some lesser known attractions. Did you know for example that Somerset is home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Bath), the smallest city in England (Wells) and one of the most-recognisable locations from the Great British Bake Off (Harptree Court)? If you’re curious to buy there, here are our recommendations:
Despite its Roman history, the city of Bath is actually a relative newcomer to Somerset, having only joined the county following the abolition of Avon county in 1996. As the former home of Jane Austen, the city has long punched above its weight when it comes to culture, and now boasts an impressive tranche of museums, galleries and theatres. For greenery, head to the sprawling Royal Victoria Park – a stone’s throw from the city centre – or Sydney Gardens, the county’s last remaining Georgian ‘pleasure garden’ (and a favoured spot of Ms Austen herself). As far as schools go, Bath is well-represented across the board with a clutch of established independents (Kings Edwards and Kingswood) as well as some high-performing academies (Somervale, Hayeswood Girls, and Wellsway topping the most recent tables).
Let’s deal with the pedants first. No, Bristol isn’t technically part of Somerset, the city being granted county status in its own right by the monarch in 1373 (a fact beloved by locals who like to write correction letters to newspapers). But for modern purposes it might as well be – and it’s certainly close enough geographically. As the economic powerhouse of the South West, Bristol boasts high-paying jobs, a powerful arts and heritage footprint and even in its own independent currency, the Bristol Pound (currently the largest community currency in Britain). While Clifton has long been regarded as the swankiest neighbourhood (and has the house prices to match), it’s far from the only place worth a look: Totterdown and Temple Meads, Leighwoods, and Redland and Cotham are all cited by locals as premium places to live. All offer easy access to the excellent city centre.
If a calming seaside breeze is your thing, then look no further than Weston-super-Mare. Located less than 20 miles south of Bristol, this seaside town boasts everything you’d expect from a classic holiday spot – just watch out for those pesky mudflats when the tide rolls out. While it might be a few years away from going full Newquay, there’s no doubt that Weston-super-Mare is moving in the right direction. After Banksy opened his famous ‘Dismaland’ amusement park here (a rather backhanded compliment admittedly), the tourist office reported a serious ‘Banksy bounce’ as well-heeled tourists flooded into the town. Now they’re hoping than a renovated pier and a string of new cultural events will tempt them with a repeat visit. As an up-and-coming town, house-prices hit that sweet spot of being both affordable but also on the rise.
Like much of Somerset, Taunton – Somerset’s county town – is proud of its history, being home to both a 10th century monastery and an impressive Anglo-Saxon castle (itself a pivotal site in the First English Civil War). Modern-day Taunton has much to be proud of too – just look at how it’s performed in various happiness indices. In one recent report, it led the whole county when it came to qualities like wellbeing, happiness and good old-fashioned neighbourliness. Not bad at all. Locals are particularly proud of Vivary Park, a 7.5 hectare chunk of town centre greenery which offers tree trails, tennis courts and bowling greens, as well as hosting the annual flower show. With several independent schools (Taunton, King’s College, Queen’s College) and a number of good state secondaries (the Castle School, Heathfield Community, Bishop Fox’s), Taunton is another good option for families. Transport-wise you’ll enjoy direct trains to London Paddington, as well as good services to Birmingham, Leeds and Edinburgh.
Regarded as the prettiest village in all of Somerset, Wedmore is almost stereotypical in its classic English charm. No wonder, then, it’s been bringing in the tourists of late (thanks, in part, to the praise of Jamie Oliver and Ben Fogle). Residents like to call it ‘the Isle of Wedmore’, although don’t mistake that for aloofness or snobbery. It’s actually a reference to the village’s geography, situated slap bang between two of the county’s larger rivers and on the raised land of the Somerset Levels. So what does Wedmore have beyond its biscuit-tin visual charm? Top-notch food and pubs for a start. Locals swear by The Swan, an old country pub whose head chef trained at Hugh Fearnley-Whttingstall’s River Cottage. Civic-life is on the up as well, with a longstanding ale festival and a new arts festival already making waves. Perfect for anyone seeking a county bolthole or even just a weekend away.
Another of Somerset’s best villages, Holford is situated some 15 miles from Bridgwater and is home to just 200 people. The village is known largely for its beautiful surroundings – in particular the majestic Quantock Hills, the first place in Britain to be designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s these views which are said to have inspired the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who spent his prime writing years in Somerset. Hence Coleridge Way: the popular walking trail which takes you from Holford and across Exmoor national park. Meanwhile Holford itself isn’t bad looking either, dotted with thatched cottages, dry-stone walls and well-curated flower-beds. Pop-culture wise Holyford has one big claim to fame: it was here that Bryan Adams filmed the video for his record-breaking chart-topper (Everything I Do) I Do it For You.