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Spring 2005 - Southern England - One Week in Somerset
April 29 - May 29, 2005: Four weeks in England
One week in rural Somerset, between Taunton and Ilminster.
Saturday May 7, Arrival in Somerset
Weather: Sunny and warm.
We left the Salisbury apartment around 10:00am, stopped at Waitrose for groceries, some lunch things and breakfast in their cafe, then drove the A303 into Somerset. This is not a motorway, but it felt like one - dual carriage way (divided highway) with rest areas.
We drove to the village of Hinton St. George, about 15 miles from our next cottage. Wendy and Richard (WendyAsh and Ricardo on the board) had rented a cottage there for the weekend. It seemed to take twice as long getting there as it should have. The route planner said a 1hr 30min drive, and we only stopped once to use restrooms (and get into a non-moving line to buy a map at a Little Chef) but it took an hour longer. We got there around 1pm.
Hinton St. George is a lovely village, well off any main roads, down a few miles of very narrow roads. We were shocked by how narrow the roads were; they are one car width with tall hedges on each side and pullouts every 1/4 mile (so two cars can pass). We spent most of the next week driving on roads that narrow and got used to them quickly, but that first time is always a shock.
Wendy and Richard had rented a lovely old stone cottage (Varsity Cottage from Rural Retreats) with living room and eat-in kitchen on the ground floor, bedrooms and bathroom upstairs, a huge back yard. It was on the main street of the village and, if I remember right, there was a nice food shop there. The village was very quiet, not much traffic. We had a nice lunch at their cottage.
After lunch we drove to Tintinhull Gardens, a National Trust house and gardens in a near by town (off the A303, near Stoke sub Hamdon). The house and gardens were small, but perfect. It was a lovely way to spend the afternoon.
Slow Travel Photos: My photos of Tintinhull Gardens.
www.nationaltrust.org.uk: The National Trust, Tintinhull Gardens, Somerset
After our garden visit, we drove to Hatch Beauchamp to find our next cottage. We were delighted with the cottage and got ourselves settled in. That night we went out for a wonderful dinner with Wendy and Richard at a good restaurant in a nearby town.
About our Cottage - The Cider House, near Taunton
We rented The Cider House from Helpful Holidays (2bed/2bath house), a cottage on a farm in Somerset, 1/2 mile from the village of Hatch Beauchamp, between Taunton and Ilminster. 308 ($575) per week, $82/night. The cottage sleeps 4.
Vacation Rental Review 1408: My review of Helpful Holidays, The Cider House.
Slow Travel Photos: My photos of The Cider House.
This was one of the nicest cottages we have ever rented. It is on two levels: entrance, second bedroom, second bathroom, laundry on the ground level, then upstairs to a large open living room, dining room and kitchen. Off that is a large bedroom and bathroom. It was beautifully furnished and very comfortable. We immediately felt at home. There is an honor box for paying for phone use. We kept track of our time. 10 for internet use for the week (18 hours between us at 60p per hour).
Belmont farm with the Parish Church behind. Our cottage
is on the right.
The Cider House was originally a farm building, but was restored in 1999 and made into a holiday cottage. It is attached to the main house, where the owner, John, lives. The farm has 200 acres in total, 70 of which are woodlands. There are the remains of an 18th century landscape garden in these woods. Belmont farm was once part of Hatch Court which was owned by John's family since 1900. Hatch Court was the large manor house and was sold in 2000. Belmont Farm was the home farm for Hatch Court, and the landscape garden was part of the estate.
A public footpath from Hatch Beauchamp passes in front of the main house. You can walk from the house to the pub in 10 minutes, on footpath the whole way, not on roads. The Parish Church is beside the house. Services are held there a couple of times a month and cars drive in a different road, so you are not bothered by the traffic to the church. You can see the Hatch Court manor house from the farm.
The village of Hatch Beauchamp has a pub, but no shops. There are many small villages within a 15 minute drive with interesting pubs and tea rooms. The nearest towns for shopping are Langport, Taunton and Ilminster. Langport has a Tesco; Taunton a Sainsbury's (one on the first roundabout after the M5 entrance, another in the center of town). Taunton is the largest town, with a lot of shops on the High Street (they have a Marks and Spenser). Much to my disappointment, there is no Waitrose anywhere nearby.
Sunday May 8, Hestercombe Gardens
Weather: Sunny and warm.
Today we met Wendy and Richard at Hestercombe Gardens, just outside of Taunton, not far from our vacation rental. This is a large garden with wooded areas with several trails. We did a nice long walk then toured around the flower gardens area. We had an afternoon tea in the gardens tea room, then they came back to see our cottage and see the owner's beautiful flower garden.
Slow Travel Photos: My photos of Hestercombe Gardens, Taunton, Somerset
www.hestercombegardens.com: Hestercombe Gardens, Taunton, Somerset
Monday May 9, We love Somerset!
Weather: Sunny and warm. Occasionally colder. Needed our polartec vests when walking.
Woke up to bright sunshine. This cottage is quiet and peaceful, we slept like rocks. The only noise is the birds. Had our coffee and toast out in the garden. There is a nice area set up for the cottage guests, but John (the owner) said we could sit in the main flower garden if we preferred. He has a little corner "summer house" set up.
We were thinking of a hike around Cadbury Hill (which is supposed to be "Camelot" from the King Arthur tales), but decided we wanted a shorter drive so chose the River Parrett hike, not far from the cottage.
A week in a place is too short a time for me. We had tried to book two weeks here, but only one week was available. From this location, I wanted to get into Dorset, up to Exmoor, up into the Quantok Hills and over to the Mendlips, but each place would need a full day for exploring and hiking. I also wanted to explore many of the nearby towns: Yeovil, Ilminster, Taunton. And we needed a day just to do the hikes from the house. That was six days of activities and we only had four days left. The vacation was going by too quickly.
River Parrett Hike
We drove along the country lanes (very narrow) to the next village, Curry Mallet. This village is delightful! Lovely old stone houses, a pub, a small shop. There was a sign at the end of our road announcing "Chip Cart Tonight, Curry Mallet, 5 - 7pm". In many of the small villages a chip cart comes once a week and you can get fish and chips or burger and chips.
We continued on the narrow back lanes to Fivehead, another pretty village, then joined the main road and drove to Langport (about 15 minutes from Hatch Beauchamp) to do the River Parrett walk from our Somerset Pathfinder hiking guide. Langport is a larger village with a couple of pubs, a good tea room (Parrett Coffee House), and several shops, including a nice natural foods store.
We parked in the free parking lot and put on our hiking boots and packs (first time using our boots on this trip and we have been here over a week!). It felt great to be out in the countryside and on a trail. We did a very nice two hour hike, first along the river, then through farmer's field, then along a lane for 1 mile (not much traffic but we did almost get forced into a ditch when two cars passed each other and us at the same time), then back along the river. This hike went along part of the long distance "River Parrett Trail".
Parrett Hike: The trail crosses over a "dismantled railway line"
Lots of people were out walking dogs, or just walking. We got talking with one woman on our way back. She could tell we were strangers because: a) she did not know us; b) we had packs on; c) I had a map; d) when we said hello she knew from our accent we were from the US. She wanted to know how far we had hiked (not far) and where we were from (New Mexico). She had never been out of Somerset, although they had just bought a camper van and were going to see England, but her friend had been to Texas. She was delighted to find that we lived close to Texas.
She then told us all her friend's comments about Texas to see if we agreed or disagreed:
Then it was our turn. Isn't the price of petrol high? She said you never think about it because that is just the way it is! A few more pleasantries about how much we love Somerset and we went on our way. People are very friendly in the countryside!
We ended our walk around 1:30pm, went back to the car to put our runners on, and found The Parrett Coffee House and had a great lunch. I had Cauliflower Cheese Bake and Steve had a veggie burger and fries. We both had tea. Total was 11.00.
The Parrett Coffee House, Langport, Somerset
We went into the natural foods store, bought a few things, and got into a conversation with the woman at the till. After a rocky start when she said "there is more to life than Tofu" and I asked why she was working in a natural foods store if she thought that, we got into a discussion of the "alternative" places in the area. Glastonbury is only 20 minutes away and is full of vegetarian restaurants. But she thought Totnes in Devon was the big alternative center in the area. She has friends in Telluride, Colorado and goes there frequently. Her comment about the US: she loves the food because there is such a variety. "Here, all you get is Eggs and Chips."
We drove back home. Steve worked because he had a project to get finished this week. (I complained about him having to work that week, but once he finished the project, my nightly journal keeping and blogging pretty much ended. That was what I mostly did while he worked.) I did a walk around the property here. I took a lot of photos of the house, gardens, fields, and woods. I talked to the owner for awhile. I walked along some of the footpaths. I came upon garlic plants in bloom - you could smell the garlic!
We drove the back lanes again in the early evening, to pickup fish and chips (for Steve) and a pineapple fritter and chips for me, at the Fish & Chips Van in the next village. We had an odd soda made with Burdock and Dandelion and sugar (Ben Shaw's).
How do you think people here pronounce the village we were in - Hatch Beauchamp? Hatch as you would expect - hah-tch - but Beauchamp is beech-am!!
Tuesday May 10, Walking in the Woods
Weather: Sunny and warmish - still a bit cool. Really we are having fabulous weather on this trip.
Coffee and toast in the garden again this morning, but this time in a different part of the garden, over near the barn (no longer in use for animals). Then we did a hike on this property.
There is a two mile trail in the woodlands here that goes through the remains of an 18th century garden. John maintains this trail and it is open to the public two days a week (read more about The Line Wood Walk). If you stay here, you can walk in the woods at any time. It takes an hour to walk the trail, through woods and some meadows. At this time of year it is filled with white garlic flowers and bluebells. Also birds, butterflies (the Somerset Butterfly Group has counted 30 species of butterflies and moths in these woods), rabbits (they have burrows built into one of the hills), deer (we saw a deer this morning), and badgers (it is my life's dream to see a Badger some night - and not just as road kill). Not much remains of the original landscape garden, but you see some things, like the old Bowling Green which John keeps mowed, and the area where the Ice House was built.
The woods are lovely to walk in. For me, these are the perfect woods - tall old trees, a wide walking trail, lovely wildflowers, and views over the countryside from several points. Stunningly beautiful.
The Line Wood Walk at Belmont Farm
Another note about Belmont Farm: Colonel Chard of Rorkes Drift fame (people know this story from the film "Zulu") is buried in the graveyard beside the church here. John's grand-uncle, who bought Hatch Court, is buried in the church.
After our morning walk we wanted to go our for lunch so looked up some recommended pubs in the area (in a tourist pamphlet that Wendy got for us) and picked out a good looking place nearby - The Old Barn Owl Inn, Westport. It took us about 15 minutes to get there on the narrow country lanes. It was closed! The tourist book says it is open daily, but their sign says closed Monday and Tuesday lunch. Next we went to Barrington Court, a National Trust property with a restaurant (Strode House Restaurant), but you have to pay 6 each to get into the National Trust property, then you can go to the restaurant. So we drove on.
By now it is getting closer to the dreaded 2pm lunch deadline. You can find lunch in tea rooms until 4pm or even 5pm, but pubs usually stop serving lunch at 2pm. We headed to The Brewer's Arms in South Petherington, because it was only 10 minutes away, but the road was blocked off for roadworks and when we detoured we ended up driving through Shepton Beauchamp (a lovely village) and then being miles away and going in the wrong direction, so we headed to The Wyndham Arms in Kingsbury Episcopi. We got there at 1:55pm and were told we could have lunch, if we ordered quickly.
We ended up having a lovely lunch in an empty pub (everyone left shortly after we arrived). Steve had cod, peas and chips; I had fried Somerset Brie. I also had a half pint of local Somerset cider (alcoholic) - it was great! We drove back through Langport, where we had been yesterday, arriving just as all the kids were getting out of school.
We had drinks with John this evening and learned a bit more about this area (which we are starting to really love). He has a travel diary from his great aunt who toured China, Japan, India in the very early 1900s. He is transcribing it and some of her letters. We are trying to convince him to let us put in on SlowTrav. He also has a postcard collection that she kept from the trip. I would love to scan them all and post them.
Somerset feels a lot like the Cotswolds, but without the tourists. The villages are just as beautiful (beautifully preserved stone houses and row houses), the area is filled with public footpaths, many of the villages have good pubs or tea rooms (not as many as in the Cotswolds), the countryside is rolling hills and woods. I am sure there are more tourists here in the summer and on weekends, but the whole area feels more peaceful than the Cotswolds (and I love the Cotswolds); not as many cars on the road, people drive slower, local people are always happy to stop and chat. The nearest Waitrose is an hour away in Bath, but even I can live without a Waitrose! John said they were thinking of writing to Waitrose to protest that they forgot Somerset!
As you might guess, this vacation rental is fully booked from March to November (in winter he has a tenant). Many people come every year. It is rented through the agency Helpful Holidays. We are thinking about reserving a few weeks now, for next year. We are the first Americans he has had staying here.
Wednesday May 11, Hike from Illminster
Weather: Sunny and warmish. Wore my polartec vest on the hike and a light sweatshirt.
A Badger Outside Our Bedroom Window
Woke up to brilliant sunlight once again. I am somewhat obsessed with Badgers, but not so obsessed that I manage to go out after dark to look for them. So far I have only seen three of them - all road kill. Last night I tried to talk Steve into going out, but he said he would rather find one of the road kill Badgers and move him around so I get the idea, than go out in the cold. And I was too lazy to go out myself. But the Badger came to me - or tried to.
John told me today that for the first time this year, a Badger broke into his garden (it dug under a gate) and started to burrow in the grass area under our bedroom window. He thought this was pretty interesting since we had been talking about Badgers last night (he told us where to go looking for them in the dark). So, a badger was about 20 feet away from me and I slept through it. He won't be back because John has now secured the garden (he does not like Badgers as much as I think I do).
Had breakfast out in the garden again. It is lovely to sit out there among the flowers. Today we went to Ilminster. We did a hike from our Pathfinder Guide, but again the instructions were not as good as they should have been. The guides for the Cotswolds are really good and pretty accurate, but for other areas, they are not always great. This hike even had a typo - "half left" instead of "half right"!! I would be outraged, except we had the same thing on Slow Travel with on of our Tuscany bicycle rides (but we fixed it - the advantage of having an online book).
We drove into Ilminster and found the car park (lots of signs at first, and then no signs at all, but we found it). Ilminster is a small town with a beautiful church (the "minster") and one of those old market squares. There are lots of interesting shops, including a very good cheese shop.
The church in Ilminster
We walked from the car park to the market square, where the hike starts, only to walk right back to the car park which was on the hiking route. We started out walking through some modern sprawl, then took a wrong turn (the instructions were vague) and spent about 30 minutes wandering around a big field trying to figure out which hill was Herne's Hill and where the "enclosed pathway" was. Eventually we found it after stomping around and saying "bollocks" frequently.
The walk was lovely, going up Herne's Hill which is a large hill overlooking Ilminster. The whole area is a large park. We walked over the hill and down the other side to a small town. Then we came back on a different route. This was where we ran into the typo and spent another 30 minutes tromping around a field full of sheep looking for the style and path marker, when we should have been in an entirely different field of sheep. Finally figured out where we were and made our way back.
Old bridge that goes over a dismantled railway line - which was turned into a walking path.
The hike ended at a big field with knee high grass. The book said to go diagonally across, but no path was cut (John cuts a path through his fields for the public footpath). It seemed to take forever to go through the high grass and our legs were aching when we finished the hike (turns out we could have followed a path along the edges of the field - duh).
We went to a coffee shop in Ilminster for lunch; soup and bread, followed by Somerset Apple Cake with clotted cream and coffee. Somerset is known for its apples and cheese. The Somerset Apple Cake was really great. Our conclusion on coffee on this trip is to only order it if they have an espresso machine (order espresso) or if they offer a "cafetiere", which uses fresh coffee grounds. Don't order coffee if they serve it from a pot!
We walked around town, visited the Tourist Information Office (not a good one, just a row of pamphlets), got some Somerset Cheddar at the cheese shop (excellent), got a few groceries for dinner, visited the church. Around 3:30pm we headed back home because Steve has to get some work done this week. We got lost and ended up, once again, on the very narrow back lanes visiting lots of towns near Hatch Beauchamp.
These back lanes are one car width, with high hedges on each side. Every 1/4 mile or so there is a pullout, so if you see a car coming towards you, one or the other of you pulls into a pullout so the other can pass. There is hardly any traffic on these roads and you get quite used to driving along (not too fast) and not thinking you will be in a head-on collision any minute. The villages in this area are really beautiful.
Driving on the narrow country lanes around Hatch Beauchamp.
After working for a bit, we went for a stroll in our woods here. Today the woods were open to the public and we saw another couple out walking. John had mowed the "Bowling Green" since our last walk and we wanted to see it. We decided it would be perfect for croquet. There are several places on the grounds that would be perfect for croquet and we asked John about it, but he does not have a set. We have a set at home, from when we lived on the farm in Pennsylvania, and we have not used it in 15 years (our Santa Fe yard has "native" grass and is sloped - no good for croquet). Next time we come to Somerset, we will bring the croquet set and leave it here.
I made dinner tonight and we ate it while watching the TV show "Relocation, Relocation", about a guy who buys a house in Margate on the north coast of Kent. I love that show.
Hard to believe we have only two days left. Tomorrow I want to walk part of the Bridgewater-Taunton canal which is only a few miles from here. It was never finished because trains were invented and there was no longer need for canals, but they restored it in the 1990s and made a walking trail and cycling route along it. There is also a three mile long canal near here. We might make it up into the Quantock hills on Friday, but there is no chance of visiting Dorset and Exmoor, like I had planned. Oh well, next time!
Today a letter arrived for me! It was from Helpful Holidays, the agency we used for this place and for our last week in Devon, and was the instructions for getting to the house in Devon. They mailed them to me in the US, but they probably arrived after we left. I had been meaning to phone them and ask them to mail them here, but I didn't (I have an amazing talent for putting things off). And then they just magically appeared! Turns out Wendy emailed them for me, knowing I would not get around to doing this, and had them mail them to us!! It is so lovely being looked after like this! (Thanks Wendy!)
How Much Per Mile?
We filled up with gas today for the first time. We were almost down to 1/4 tank. Diesel is 0.899/liter; unleaded is 0.849/liter. It cost 41.00 to fill our tank (about $80). It probably costs about 55.00 ($110) to fill the tank and the car gets 540 miles on a tank (it has a readout that says this).
0.899/liter is about $7.00/gallon. It works out to $0.20 per mile. I think. Think about that when you are lost on the backroads!
John told us he can take a bus from here into London for a day trip and the cost is 14.00, round trip. I remember taking the train from Stroud to London and it was much more expensive than that.
Thursday May 12, Taunton and Bridgwater Canal
Weather: Sunny but cool, clouding over by the end of the afternoon. Rain predicted for this weekend.
Woke again to lovely sunshine. It was a bit cooler today. We were going to head to the Quantock hills, but decided we would do a shorter local day out instead, so drove to Creech St. Michael, a small town near Taunton (about a 10 minute drive) to walk on the Taunton and Bridgwater Canal. We walked out for an hour and then walked back. Read more about the Taunton and Bridgwater Canal.
Taunton and Bridgwater Canal with swans and walking path
The day was a bit cool (we had our Polartec vests on), but was sunny and lovely. There were lots of swans on the canal, but no canal boats. We saw a field full of swans beside the canal. We also passed a field of apple trees in bloom (this is apple growing country), many walkers (with a variety of interesting dogs), many cyclists, and one runner. We talked to some of the cyclists who said they ride from Taunton to Bridgwater (about 10 miles), have drinks at the pub, then ride back. Not bad.
After our walk, we drove back to the Muchelney Abbey near Langport. This was our third time in this area and this time we went into the Abbey. First we had a light lunch at a restaurant beside the Abbey (the Almonry Cafe). We had been hoping for an excellent early afternoon tea, but the tea rooms do not open until the summer. The restaurant was open, so we had soup and tea and cake (all good). We had a nice chat with the woman running the place. She and her partner worked in advertising in London, but packed it all in and moved to the country to run this restaurant. We were the only ones in the restaurant (we had arrived late).
When we first arrived at the Abbey, we could not find the restaurant, but some people who had just been there pointed it out to us. After lunch, when we were going into the Abbey, this same group was just leaving. Turns out they are from Salisbury and were out for a daytrip. One of the woman runs the Mompesson House (a National Trust house), near the Salisbury Cathedral, and we had to admit that during our week in Salisbury, we never made it there. The Mompesson House was built in 1701 and is a perfect example of Queen Anne architecture. It was used for Mrs. Jennings' London house in the recent movie "Sense and Sensibility".
Everyone loves to chat (especially me). I think it might be the time of year. This area fills with visitors in the summer months, but now is quite empty, so the shop keepers, restaurant/cafe owners, even the people out walking, all have time to chat. We float through our day from conversation to conversation. We are probably going to be in for quite a shock when we get to the more upscale and touristed Southern Cotswolds.
The Muchelney Abbey was interesting (English Heritage, 3 each). Most of the abbey is gone, but a few rooms were left.
Detail of fireplace in the Muchelney Abbey
We drove back through Langport and stopped at the Tesco. They have some good prepared foods and some organic products. We got a few things for dinner. As we were leaving, I noticed the magazine rack and realized that I had not bought any magazines! I love British magazines and even buy them at inflated prices in the US, but had forgotten to get any in the past two weeks. I bought a Country Life and a Homes and Gardens. The young boy at the cash register told me that he had lived in Pennsylvania when he was young and would go back there tomorrow if he could. He said he loved it in the US.
We had planned to have a short day, so Steve could get some work done, but did not get home until 5pm. The weather is supposed to change this weekend - colder and rain - so we can have some "time off" then. Our housesitter left a message that Steve's Irish citizenship papers have arrived!!
Friday May 13, Leaving Somerset
Weather: Overcast and cooler today, with sunshine here and there. No rain. Needed a coat.
Finally some bad weather and we could take a day off. We both spent the day working (I spent the day writing pages about England for Slow Travel).
I wanted to go into Taunton, because it is the nearest big town and we have not been there yet, but Steve was absorbed in his work, so we did not leave until after 5pm and, of course, everything was closing. We parked and walked around the downtown. It seems like a nice town, about the size of Cheltenham (where we stayed last year). It has a Sainsbury's downtown and one on the outskirts (east side, one roundabout west of the M5 entrance), a Marks and Spenser downtown, no Waitrose, several good looking restaurants, a nice looking deli, a natural foods store, two book stores (I only noticed the two chain stores, there are probably others).
We picked up some dinner at Sainsbury's, then home for a quick dinner and I got us mostly packed.
I am almost in tears because of having to leave this place. The only thing that makes it better is that I suspect I might like Minchinhampton even more (I am fickle that way). It will be nice to be in a town where we can walk out to a tea rooms for breakfast and get a paper in the morning. But, I have loved this place. We felt at home from the moment we stepped in the door.
I phoned the person who looks after our next rental and she said that the last people left today, so we can check in at 11am tomorrow! This is great news, because we will not have to park somewhere and worry about the luggage and computers in the car. We will drive straight up to Minchinhampton and get settled in our new place.
Badgers? We did not see any stinking Badgers!
We walked out at 11pm with flashlights looking for badgers. Did not see any.
>> continued - a week in the Cotswolds (Minchinhampton)
Slow Travel Photos: My photos of Tintinhull Gardens, Somerset
www.nationaltrust.org.uk/hbcache/property313.htm: The National Trust, Tintinhull Gardens, Somerset
Slow Travel Photos: My photos of Hestercombe Gardens, Taunton, Somerset
www.hestercombegardens.com: Hestercombe Gardens, Taunton, Somerset
Vacation Rental Review 1408: My review of Helpful Holidays, The Cider House.
Somerset Line Wood Walk: A description of Line Wood Walk on Belmont Farm (Hatch Court), near Hatch Beauchamp, Taunton, in Somerset
Slow Travel Photos: My photos of the Line Wood Walk
Bridgewater and Taunton Canal: A description of this canal walk
Slow Travel Photos: My photos of the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal
Slow Travel Photos: Somerset pub lunch
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