Out and About - Somerset
Somerset is a county in South West England. The county town is Taunton, which is in the south of the county. The county of Somerset borders the counties of Bristol and Gloustershire to the north, Wiltshire to the east, Dorset to the south-east, and Devon to the south-west. It is partly bounded to the north and west by the coast of the Bristol Channel and the estuary of the River Severn. The traditional northern border of the county is the River Avon, but the administrative boundary has crept southwards, with the creation and expansion of the City of Bristol, and latterly the county of Avon and its successor Unitary Authorities in the north.
Somerset is a rural county of rolling hills such as the Mendip Hills, Quantock Hills and Exmoor National Park, and large flat expanses of land including the Somerset Levels. There is evidence of human occupation from Neolithic times, and subsequent settlement in the Roman and Saxon periods. Later, the county played a significant part in the consolidation of power and rise of King Alfred the Great, the English Civil War and the Monmouth Rebellion.
There are some fantastic opportunities for photography in the county, both wildlife and landscape. There are some magical places such as Glastonbury Tor, well worth a visit.
- Somerset Ornithogical Society - this is a great web site with lots of information on when and were to see birds in Somerset
- CVL Birding - this is another great website, which covers the Chew Valley Lake and gives updates on sightings etc.
- Somerset Wildlife Trust - loads of information on this site with information on all the 70+ reserves in the county
Bridgwater Bay is on the Bristol Channel, 5 kilometres (3.1 miles) north of Bridgwater in Somerset at the mouth of the River Parrett. It consists of large areas of mud flats, saltmarsh, sand flats and shingle ridges, some of which are vegetated. It has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) since 1989, and is also as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. In addition to the rivers, Parrett, Brue and Washford several of the man-made drainage ditches, including the River Huntspill, from the Somerset Levels, including the "Pawlett Hams", also drain into the bay.
The National Nature Reserve itself is a large reserve run by Natural England. The site is approximately 5 km north of the town of Bridgwater and comprises the lower reaches of the River Parrett and its estuary, where it flows into the Bristol Channel. Along the coast the site extends north to the town of Burnham-on-Sea and as far west as the village of Lilstock.
The reserve consists largely of intertidal mudflats with saltmarsh, sand flats and shingle ridges, some of which are vegetated. The Bristol Channel has the second largest tidal range in the world and this exposes huge mudflats and sand banks in the area. The site has an important bird population with approximately 190 species recorded on the reserve. Large numbers of wintering waders and waterfowl visit the site and some species use the area as a stop-off on migration routes. Vegetation at the site is an important food source for some birds and parts of the saltmarsh are grazed by sheep to maintain a palatable sward for wigeon grazing.
The reserve can also be accessed via the River Parrett Trail which follows the river from its source to the Bristol Channel and passes through Bridgewater. Much of the coastline within the western part of the reserve is accessible via a waymarked public footpath.
There are several areas such as Fenning Island at Stert point where there is five hides and a very impressive tower hide or on the opposite side of the River Parrett at Huntspill where the Sluice is, where you can get great views, mainly at high tide.
Very important - stay off the mud flats, there are signs everywhere so there is no excuses.
- Recommended map:
- Ordnance Survey Explorer Map 140
I found Chard Reservoir a really pleasant and friendly place to visit - some of the locals I met were clearly very proud of their wild place. The reserve includes 48 acres of open water important for migratory wildfowl, and also has woodland and hay meadows.
The north and eastern fringes are fished and there is a brilliant bird hide at the south end, which is positioned well out into the water giving a view of most of the open water. I think a few other reserves could learn from this place.
The site is well-hidden from all but the closest houses and many shoppers in nearby Chard town, which is only a mile away, may be completely unaware of the existence of this substantial stretch of water.
The nature reserve has a diverse mixture of habitats, including open water, reed beds, meadows, and woodland with many different tree species. There is a boardwalk which borders the reservoir, but it is not possible to walk the whole way around the water without using the road as it seems some of the reservoir bank is privately owned.
The paths are suitable for most wheelchairs and buggies and there is a free car park close to the entrance. There are signs from the centre of the town and I found it fairly easy to find.
- Recommended map:
- Ordnance Survey Landranger Map 193
Cheddar Reservoir is compact, about 3.5km in circumference. It can be covered in a couple of hours or so and the path is level and easily accessible. This apart from seeing the wildlife is a great family walk, especially with the Mendips as a background. There is ample free parking, shared with other recreational reservoir users. I have found that autumn and winter are good times to visit especially after bad weather when "wrecked" seabirds may be blown in. I would also go in mid-week if you are going to watch or take photos of the birds as summer evenings and weekends can easily be disrupted by other users, particularly yachtsmen and windsurfers. There are also joggers and dog-walkers, but patience and tolerance is required as they have as much right as you to be there.
Chew Valley lake
This reservoir was formed in 1956 by damming the course of the River Chew. It is 486 hectares (1200 acres) in extent and has a perimeter of some 8 miles and because of its size it is difficult without a decent telescope to see birds in the middle. Chew has been designated as a Special Conservation Area (SCA) and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) within the Mendip Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). It holds internationally important numbers of certain wildfowl species and the winter gull roost regularly exceeds 50,000 birds. The reservoir is a favourite with fishermen and there is a sailing club that operates all year in a restricted part of the lake. The lake, therefore, is subject to some disturbance from these activities but the southern end (Herriott's) has been designated as a nature reserve.
At the north of the reservoir there are public footpaths such as the "Bittern" and "Grebe" trails and car parks by the dam in an area called "picnic 1 & 2". Here there are plenty of toilets and refreshments with children’s play park.
But there are many areas were you will need to buy a permit to visit the hides and walk around the restricted areas. Annual bird watching permits may be obtained from Woodford Lodge (£12) or, day permits (£2) may be obtained from the refreshment area by the dam and bird wardens. This gives permit holders access to the hides at Villice Bay, Nunnery Point, Moreton Bank, Stratford Bay and Sutton Wick. But there is good free viewing from the roadside lay-bys at Heron's Green and Herriott's Bridge which is at the southern end of the reservoir.
Exmoor National Park
Exmoor is a National Park situated on the Bristol Channel coast of South West England. The park straddles two counties, with 71% of the park located in Somerset and 29% located in Devon. The total area of the park, which includes the Brendon Hills and the Vale of Porlock, covers 267 square miles (692 kmsq) of hilly open moorland and includes 34 miles (55 km) of coast.
Prior to being a park, Exmoor was a Royal Forest and hunting ground, which was sold off in 1818. Exmoor was one of the first British National Parks, designated in 1954, under the 1949 National Parks and access to the countryside Act, and is named after the main river that flows out of the district, the River Exe.
The highest point on Exmoor is Dunkery Beacon; at 1,704 feet (519 m) it is also the highest point in Somerset. Exmoor has 34 miles (55 km) of coastline, including the highest cliffs in England, which reach a height of 1,350 feet (411m) at Culbone Hill. However, the crest of this coastal ridge of hills is more than a mile (1.6 km) from the sea. If a cliff is defined as having a slope greater than 60 degrees, the highest cliff on mainland Britain is Great Hangman near Combe Martin at 1,043 feet (318 m) high, with a cliff face of 800 feet (244 m). Its sister cliff is the 716 feet (218 m) Little Hangman, which marks the edge of Exmoor.
Exmoor's woodlands sometimes reach the shoreline, especially between Porlock and the Forland where they form the single longest stretch of coastal woodland in England and Wales. The scenery of rocky headlands, ravines, waterfalls and towering cliffs gained the Exmoor coast recognition as a Heritage Coast in 1991. With its huge waterfalls and caves, this dramatic coastline has become an adventure playground for both climbers and for explorers. The cliffs provide one of the longest and most isolated seacliff traverses in the UK. The South West Coast path, at 630 miles (1,014 km) the longest National Trail in England and Wales, starts at Minhead and runs along all of Exmoor's coast. While this is a stunning walk some of it is not for the faint hearted, sturdy boots and appropriate clothing is required.
The high ground forms the catchment area for numerous rivers and streams. There are about 300 miles (500 km) of named rivers on Exmoor. The River Exe, for which Exmoor is named, rises at Exe Head near the village of Simonsbath, close to the north coast, but flows more or less directly due south, so that most of its length lies in Devon. It reaches the sea at Exmouth on the south coast of Devon. It has several tributaries which arise on Exmoor. The River Barle runs from northern Exmoor to join the River Exe at Exebridge, Devon. The other rivers arising on Exmoor flow north to the Bristol Channel. These include the River Heddon which runs along the western edges of Exmoor, reaching the North Devon coast at Heddons Mouth, and the East and West Lyn which meet at Lynmouth. Hoar Oak Water is a moorland tributary of the East Lyn River the confluence being at Watersmeet. The River Horner, which is also known as Horner Water, rises near Luccombe and flows into Porlock Bay near Hurlestone Point.
I've found that it can get very crowded especially around tourist hotspots such as Lynmouth and parking can be a nightmare, so would advise to visit if you can in off peak times especially if you like it wild :o) It's a great place to walk and take photos, watch out for the Red Deer especially in the rutting season.
More information can be found on the Exmoor National Park website.
- Recommended map:
- Ordnance Survey Outdoor Leisure Map 9
The Mendip Hills are a range of limestone hills situated to the south of Bristol and Bath in Somerset, England. Running east to west between Weston-super-Mare and Frome, the Hills overlook the Somerset Levels to the south and the Avon valley to the north.
The hills are largely carboniferous limestone, which is quarried at several sites. The higher, western, part of the Hills, has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) which gives it the same level of protection as a national park. The AONB is 200 square km (80 square miles). The Mendip Hills AONB Service and Somerset County Council's outdoor education centre is at the Charterhouse Centre near Blagdon. The Mendips are home to a wide range of outdoor sports and leisure activities, many based on the particular geology of the area. It is recognised as a national centre for caving and cave diving. In addition to climbing and abseiling, the area is popular with hillwalkers and those interested in natural history. There are three nationally important semi-natural habitats which are characteristic of the area: Ash-Maple woodland often with abundant small-leaved lime, Calcareous grassland and Mesotrophic grassland. Much of the Mendip Hills is open calcareous grassland which supports a large variety of wild flowering plants and insects. Grazing by rabbits, sheep and cattle maintains the grassland habitat. Some of the area is deciduous ancient woodland and other areas have been used intensively for arable agriculture, particularly since World War I. As the demand for arable land in Britain declines, some of this land is now being returned to grassland, but the use of fertilisers and herbicides have reduced the biodiversity of these areas.
Many bird species can also be found. Of particular significance is the Peregrine Falcon which has gradually recolonised the Mendips since the 1980s. It breeds on sea and inland cliffs and also on the faces of both active and disused quarries. The upland heaths of the west Mendips have recently increased in ornithological importance, due to colonisation by the Dartford Warbler, which can be found at Black Down and Crook Peak. The woodlands at Stock Hill are a breeding site for Nightjars and Long-eared Owls the Waldegrave Pool, part of Priddy Mineries, is an important site for dragonflies, including Downy Emerald and Four-spotted Chaser. Waldegrave Pool is the only Mendip breeding site for Downy Emerald dragonflies. In 2007 the first confirmed sighting of a Red Kite on the Mendips was made at Charterhouse.
A range of important small mammals are found in the area, including the Hazel Dormouse and bats. The hazel dormouse is restricted largely to coppice woodland and scrub, while the bats, including the nationally rare lesser and Greater Horseshoe Bats, have a number of colonies in buildings, caves, and mines in the area.
Amphibians such as the Great crested newt have a wide distribution across Mendip and are often found in flooded disused quarries.
Several rare butterflies are also indigenous to the area. The Large blue butterfly became extinct in the hills in the late 1970s, since which time a research project has been undertaken into the butterfly's ecology and reintroduction. Other species include the nationally scarce Pearl-bordered Fritillary, Duke of Burgandy, and White-letter Hairstreak. The White-clawed crayfish is also nationally rare and is a declining species with small populations in a tributary of the Mells River and the River Chew.
To those of you that like their history there are twenty identified Palaeolithic sites in the Mendips, including eleven representing material recovered from cave sites, including faunal remains and lithic artefacts, and eight relating to surface lithic discoveries. The material found includes handaxes, points, and scrapers. Twenty–seven Mesolithic finds are represented by flint and chert lithics. There have been large numbers of artefacts from Neolithic, Iron Age and Bronze Age remains, including barrows and forts, such as those around Priddy and at Dolebury Warren. There is good evidence for 286 definite examples of round barrows within the AONB. There are at present over 1200 entries on the National Monuments Record (NMR) for the Mendip Hills AONB and just over 600 listed building records, including over 200 Scheduled Ancient Monuments. The caves of Cheddar Gorge in particular have yielded many archaeological remains as flood waters have washed artefacts and bones into the caves and preserved them in silt. The Cheddar Man was found here.
Settlement on the Mendip Hills appears to fall into two types. The first, apparent in the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, and repeated on a small scale in the medieval and post–medieval era, comprised occupation by self-sufficient groups in small communities or isolated farms. The second was represented in the Iron Age and Roman periods by large sites with specialist functions, existing by virtue of their ability to exert power over lowland producers. From the Iron Age onward the ownership of land took on increasing importance, with large landholdings based on the mines or on stock grazing, denying settlers access to the plateau or forcing them off the hills. By the end of the medieval period a complex body of customary law had come into existence dealing with the four "Mendip mineries". That the medieval control was in the hands of the monastic foundations may indicate some continuity of tenure of large scale holdings, focused on the mines, from the Roman period.
When William Wilberforce visited Cheddar in 1789 and saw the poor circumstances of the locals, he inspired Hannah More to begin her work improving the conditions of the Mendip miners and agricultural workers. Between 1770 and 1813, 7,300 ha (18,039 acres) of land on the hills was enclosed, mainly with dry stone walls, which today form a key part of the landscape. In 2006 funding was obtained to maintain and improve the dry stone walls.
The particular geology, within which large areas of limestone have been worn away by water, makes the hills a national centre for caving. Some of the caves have been known about since the establishment of the Mendip lead mining industry in Roman times. However, many have only been discovered or explored in the 20th century. The caves which are easily accessible to the public are at Cheddar Gorge and Wookey Hole, but specialist equipment and knowledge is required for the vast majority of the caves. The active Mendip Caving Group and other local caving organisations organise trips and continue to discover new caverns.
The Hills conceal the largest underground river system in Britain. Attempts to move from one cave to another through the underground rivers led to the development of cave diving, with Swildon's Hole being the site of the first cave dive attempt in Britain, in 1934. The first successful cave dive in Britain was achieved the following year at Wookey Hole Caves, where the last sump is currently the deepest in Britain at 76 m (250 ft). The cave complexes at St. Dunstan's Well Catchment, Lamb Leer and Priddy Caves have been identified as geological Sites of Special Scientific Interest.
For those of you that like walking there are some great trails that cross the Mendips which I have listed below:
- Limestone Link
- 36 mile (58 km) path from the Mendips to the Cotswolds.
- Mendip Way
- 80 km (50 miles) long. From Weston-super-Mare to Frome. The western section runs from the Bristol Channel at Uphill Cliff affording views over the Somerset Levels. It crosses the central Mendip plateau leading down to Cheddar Gorge and then to Wells and Frome.
- Monarch's Way
- 990 km (615 miles) long. From Worcester to Shoreham-by-Sea in West Sussex. It closely follows the route taken by Charles II after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. The route enters Somerset near Chewton Mendip and crosses the Mendip Hills heading for Wells.
- Mendip Pub Trail
- 45 miles (72 km) trail between six pubs owned by Butcombe Brewery. The trail runs between Hinton Blewitt, Priddy, Axbridge, Bleadon, Rowberrow and Compton Martin.
Here are some websites you may wish to look at before you visit:
- Mendip Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
- The Mendips - British Geological Survey
- Caves and Caving in the Mendips
- Mendip Hills - iKnow Somerset
- Mendips & North Somerset - Tourist Net UK
- Recommended map:
- Ordnance Survey Landranger map 182 or Explorer map 141
The Polden Hills are a beautiful long, low ridge, extending for 20 miles, and separated from the Mendip Hills, to which they are nearly parallel, by the Somerset Levels. They are now cut at their western end by the M5 motorway and part of the Great Western Railway Main Line.
The hills stretch from Puriton, near Bridgwater, in the west, to Street, in the east. The ridge of the hill once accommodated a Roman road, from Ilchester to the port of Combwich. This road crossed the River Parrett by means of a ford, at the White House (White House Rhyne), on the Pawlett Hams. This western extension forms part of a Saxon route. The modern road, now the A39, is carried on a causeway from the King's Sedgemoor Drain, at Bawdrip, to Bridgwater. The former medieval planned town of Caput Montis was located at the western end of the Polden Hills. Caput Montis failed as a planned town and now exists as the earth works of a Motte and Bailey in the hamlet of Downend, now a detached part of the village of Puriton. There was also at Dunball a railway Halt, a hotel, a post office and a wharf - part of the Port of Bridgwater.
There are a number of small villages situated on both slopes of the ridge, many of which are named in the Domesday Book. Most of the eastern villages, from Street to Cossington, and possibly Woolavington, (which are also parishes) are located in medieval planned-parishes. They once formed parts of the Estates of Glastonbury Abbey.
There are some great walks especially to the east where the National Trust has several properties.
Collard Hill (ref ST488340) is now famous for the re-establishment of the Large Blue Butterfly and if you are in the area in the second half of June it is well worth a visit. Parking and crossing the very busy road can be a bit tricky but if you go to the Collard Hill visitor information on the National Trust website it will tell you where to safely park and cross the busy B3151.
- Recommended map:
- Ordnance Survey Landranger map 182
The Quantock Hills are a fantastic range of hills west of Bridgwater in Somerset. The highest point on the Quantocks is Wills Neck, at 1,261 feet (384 m). The hills are officially designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The hills run from the Vale of Taunton Deane in the south, for about 15 miles (24 km) to the north-west, ending at East Quantoxhead and West Quantoxhead on the coast of the Bristol Channel. They form the western border of Sedgemoor and the Somerset Levels (see other notes on this section). From the top of the hills on a clear day, it is possible to see Glastonbury Tor and the Mendips to the east, Wales as far as the Gower peninsula to the north, the Brendon Hills and Exmoor( see other notes on this section) to the west, and the Blackdown Hills to the south. In 1970 an area of 6,194.5 acres (2,506.9 hectares) was designated as a Biological Site of Special Scientific Interest. The Quantocks have been occupied since prehistoric times with Bronze Age round barrows and Iron Age hill forts. Evidence from Roman times includes silver coins discovered in West Bagborough. In the later Saxon period, King Alfred led the resistance to Viking invasion, and Watchet was plundered by Danes in 987 and 997. The hills were fought over during the English Civil War and Monmouth rebellion.
The Quantock Hills are also a great place if you like your rocks, the hills largely formed by rocks of the Devonian period, which consist of sediments originally laid down under a shallow sea and slowly compressed into solid rock. In the higher north-western areas older Early Devonian rocks known as Hangman Grits predominate and can be seen in the exposed rock at West Quantoxhead quarry, which was worked for road building. Further south there are newer Middle and Late Devonian rocks, known as Ilfracombe beds and Morte Slates. These include sandstone and limestone, which have been quarried near Aisholt. At Great Holwell, south of Aisholt, is the only limestone cave in the Devonian limestone of North Devon and West Somerset. The lower fringes around the hills are composed of younger New Red Sandstone rocks of the Triassic period. These rocks were laid down in a shallow sea and often contain irregular masses or veins of gypsum, which was mined on the foreshore at Watchet. Several areas have outcrops of slates. Younger rocks of the Jurassic period can be found between St Audries and Kilve. This area falls within the Blue Anchor to Lilstock Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and is considered to be of international geological importance.
Along this coast, the cliffs are layered with compressed strata of oil-bearing shale and blue, yellow and brown Lias embedded with fossils. At Blue Anchor the coloured alabaster found in the cliffs gave rise to the name of the colour "Watchet Blue".
The plant life is diverse and hilltops are covered in heathland of gorse, heather, bracken and thorn with plantations of conifer. The western side of the Quantocks are steep scarp slopes of pasture, woods and parkland. Deep stream-cut combes to the north-east contain extensive oak-woods with small flower-rich bogs above them. The areas where there is limited drainage are dominated by Heather with significant populations of Cross-leaved Heath Purple Moor-grass Bilberry and Wavy Hair-grass Drier areas are covered with Bell Heather, Western Gorse and Bristle Bent while Bracken is common on well-drained deeper soils. The springs and streams provide a specialist environment that supports Bog Pimpernel. The woodland is generally Birch/Sessile Oak woodland, Valley Alder woodland and Ash/Wych Elm woodland, which support a rich lichen flora. Alfoxton Wood is one of only three British locations where the lichen Tomasellia lectea is present.
The various habitats, together with the wide range of slopes and aspects, provide ideal conditions for a rich selection of wildlife. Amphibians such as the Palmate Newt, Common Frog and Common Toad are represented in the damper environments. Reptiles present include Adder, Grass Snake, Slow Worm and Common Lizard. Many bird species breed on the Quantocks, including the Grasshopper Warbler, Nightjar, Raven and the Pied Flycatcher. The Quantocks are also an important site for Red Deer. Invertebrates of note include the Silver-washed Fritillary butterfly, and three nationally rare dead-wood beetles: Thymalus limbatus, Orchesia undulata and Rhinosimus ruficollis.
There is plenty of history to excite you that like to rummage around old earth works and forts. Evidence of human activity in the Quantocks from prehistoric times includes finds of Mesolithic flints at North Petherton and Broomfield and many Bronze Age round barrows (marked on maps as tumulus, plural tumuli), such as Thorncombe Barrow above Bicknoller. Several ancient stones can be seen, such as the Triscombe Stone and the Long Stone above Holford. Many of the tracks along ridges of the Quantocks probably originated as ancient ridgeways. A Bronze Age hill fort, Norton Camp, was built to the south at Norton Fitzwarren, close to the centre of bronze making in Taunton.
Iron Age sites in the Quantocks include major hill forts at Dowsborough and Ruborough, as well as several smaller earthwork enclosures, such as Trendle Ring and Plainsfield Camp. Ruborough near Broomfield is on an easterly spur from the main Quantock ridge, with steep natural slopes to the north and south east. The fort is triangular in shape, with a single rampart and ditch (univallate), enclosing 4 acres (1.6 ha). A linear outer work about 131 yards (120 m) away, parallel to the westerly rampart encloses another 4 acres (16,000 ²). The name Ruborough comes from Rugan beorh or Ruwan-beorge meaning Rough Hill. The Dowsborough fort has an oval shape, with a single rampart and ditch (univallate) following the contours of the hill top, enclosing an area of 7 acres (2.8 ha). The main entrance is to the east, towards Nether Stowey, with a simpler opening to the North West, aligned with a ridgeway leading down to Holford. A col to the south connects the hill to the main Stowey ridge, where a linear earthwork known as Dead Woman's Ditch cuts across the spur.
Little evidence exists of Roman influence on the Quantock region beyond isolated finds and hints of transient forts. A Roman port was at Combwich, and it is possible that a Roman road ran from there to the Quantocks, because the names Nether Stowey and Over Stowey come from the Old English Stan wey, meaning stone way. In October 2001 a hoard of 4th-century Roman silver was discovered in West Bagborough. The 681 coins included two denarii from the early 2nd century, and eight miliarense and 671 siliqua dating to 337-367 AD. The area remained under Romano-British Celtic control until 681-685 AD, when Centwine of Wessex pushed west from the River Parrett, conquered the Welsh King Cadwaladr, and occupied the rest of Somerset north to the Bristol Channel. Saxon rule was later consolidated under King Ine, who established a fort at Taunton in about 700 AD.
The first documentary evidence of the village of Crowcombe is by Æthelwulf of Wessex in 854, where it was spelt 'Cerawicombe'. At that time the manor belonged to Glastonbury Abbey. In the later Saxon period, King Alfred led the resistance to Viking invasion from Athelney, south-east of the Quantocks. According to the Anglo-Saxon chronicle, the early port at Watchet was plundered by Danes in 987 and 997. Alfred established a series of forts and lookout posts linked by a military road, or herepath, so his army could cover Viking movements at sea.
After the Norman conquest of England in 1066 William de Mohun was given land at Dunster, Broomfield and Quantoxhead, his son becoming William de Mohun of Dunster 1st Earl of Somerset, while William Malet received Enmore. East Quantoxhead was given to the Luttrells (previously spelled de Luterel), who passed the manor down through descendants into the 20th century. A Luttell also became the Earl of Carhampton and acquired Dunster Castle in 1376, holding it until it became a National Trust property in 1976.
Stowey Castle at Nether Stowey was built in the 11th century. The castle is sited on a small isolated knoll, about 390 ft (119 m) high. The blue lias rubble walling is the only visible structural remains of the castle, which stand on a conical earthwork with a ditch approximately 820 ft (250 m) in circumference. The castle was destroyed in the 15th century, which may have been as a penalty for the local Lord Audley's involvement in the Second Cornish Uprising of 1497 led by Perkin Warbeck against the taxes of Henry VII.
During the English Civil War Dunster was a Royalist stronghold under the command of Colonel Wyndham. In November 1645 Parliamentary forces started a siege that lasted until an honourable surrender of the castle in April 1646. Dunster shared the fate of many other Royalist castles and had its defences demolished to prevent any further use against Parliament.
The Quantocks have some great footpaths some of which I have covered in this next bit; Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived in Nether Stowey in the Quantocks from 1797 to 1799.
In his memory a footpath, The Coleridge Way was set up by the Exmoor park authorities. The 36-mile (58 km) route begins in Nether Stowey and crosses the Quantocks, the Brendon Hills and Exmoor before finishing in Porlock.
The Quantock Greenway is a footpath that opened in 2001. The route of the path follows a figure of eight centred on Triscombe. The northern loop, taking in Crowcombe and Holford, is 19 miles (31 km) long, and the southern loop to Broomfield extends for 18 miles (29 km). The path travels through many types of landscape, including deciduous and coniferous woodland, private parkland, and grazed pasture and cropped fields.
The Macmillan Way West follows the Quantocks ridge for several miles.
If you like steam trains you will want to visit the West Somerset Railway (WSR) which is a heritage railway that runs along the edge of the Quantock Hills between Bishops Lydeard and Watchet. The line then turns inland to Washford, and returns to the coast for the run to Minehead. At 23 miles (37 km), it is the longest privately owned passenger rail line in the UK.
Here are a couple of websites I would recommend you look at before you visit the Quantock:
- Recommended map:
- Ordnance Survey Explorer map 140
The great, flat expanses of land which stretch inland from Bridgewater Bay to the Mendip Hills in the north and the Quantocks in the west. These wetlands bearly reach 25 feet above sea level, to the north of the Polden hills, the Rivers Axe, Sheppey and Brue cross the Peat Moors and Avalon Marshes, while the southern levels, including Sedgemoor, are crossed by the Parrett, Yeo, Cary and Tone. In most cases, the courses of these rivers have been changed to form part of a man-made drainage system, which helps control extensive winter flooding. Ditches criss-cross the area, acting as "wet fences" and helping form a unique landscape of farmland, wetland, fens and mires.
The county's ancient name, "Somerseata" - Land of the Summer People - originates from the time when much of this wetland landscape was only accessible in summer.
The levels and moors are steeped in history and myth. Glastonbury with its Tor, visible from high points all over Somerset, is central to the Arthurian myths and legends. Many claim it to be the Isle of Avalon and Glastonbury Abbey to be the final resting place of King Arthur and his wife Guinevere.
King Alfred in the 9th Century concealed his armies on a defended island fortress amongst the marshes at Athelney, before sallying forth to defeat the Danes.
The Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685 saw the Duke of Monmouth's uprising against King James II end with his defeat - the last battle fought on English soil.
It took me ages to find this place and I was beginning to think it was a bit of an "urban myth"! Mainly down to the lack of sign posting but when I did find it I was pleasantly surprised. It has a good car park by the main hide, which looks out on to some wetlands with another hide on the other side. You have to walk down some paths and woods to get to it, But because of this there is plenty of different environments in which to observe the wildlife.
The reserve lies 1.5 km north of Catcott and 8 km north-east of Bridgwater. It is a site of 52 ha (127 acres) and forms part of the grazing meadows and ditch system towards the western of the levels. The wooded area has a few public information boards and is used as a educational area as I found out when I found myself in a middle of a A level Geography field trip :o).
Catcott Heath (the original reserve) has a typical complement of species for wet fen meadow where grazing has been abandoned and tall herb fen, scrub and carr woodland have developed, while "normal" grazing has been stopped watch out for the goats! When I was visiting, a couple jumped out of the bushes which made me jump as I wasn’t expecting them!
In contrast the southern fields (Catcott Heath South and Taylor's) are typical of wet fen meadow with ditches found on the Somerset Levels.
Greylake is a series of low-lying former arable fields within a vast expanse of floodplain grassland known as King Sedgemoor, which covers some 6000 acres. The entrance to the reserve is on the A361 between the villages of Othery and Greinton.
It has a 700m nature trail suitable for wheelchairs that goes through some reed beds and by a lake. There is a new viewing hide which I think is too low and you can only get good views of the pond and fields close by. You also need a decent telescope to watch the many birds that are in the distant if you can see them. It's a shame the hide isn't further in the fields and raised as many others are.
There is a car park at the entrance but watch yourself when you leave the site as the road is fast and cars are on you very quick.
Ham Wall and Shapwick Heath reserves
Both these reserves are old peat workings which have provided an excellent opportunity for the RSPB and Natural England to create important habitats for many vulnerable wetland animals and plants. These wetlands are internationally important for wintering wildfowl and wading birds and support at least 64 species of breeding birds and thriving populations of both Water Vole and Otters.
There is also another area called 'Canada Farm' which is to the west of Shapwick Heath which has a hide overlooking a lake, it is a short walk from the road. Shapwick has three hides, two are easily accessible, but Decoy hide can be difficult in wet conditions. It's well worth it if you can as this is the best place to view Otters on the site. Ham doesn't have any hides but some viewing platforms that look out over the reed beds.
There is one official car park but people do park at both ends of the site and car thieves have caused problems so make sure you don't leave valuables in the car.
West Sedgemoor reserve
West Sedgemoor Reserve comprises an extensive system of wet fields, nationally important for flower-rich hay meadows, aquatic plants and insects. Large numbers of wading birds breed here and the winter floods attract tens of thousands of Teal, Wigeon, Shoveler, Pintail, Lapwings and Golden Plovers. On the southern edge of the reserve is Swell Wood which is home to one of the largest Heronries in the UK, which also has nesting Little Egrets.
Westhay Moor is a 513.7 hectare (1269.3 acre) biological Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) 2.5km north-east of Westhay village and 4km from Wedmore in Somerset, notified in 1971. Westhay Moor is also notified as part of the Somerset Levels and Moors Special Protection Area under the EU Birds Directive and as a Ramsar Site.
Westhay Moor originally lay at the centre of the most northerly of the two lowland raised bogs that formed in the lower Brue Valley. Having said all this I found it difficult to find due to the lack of signs and spent an enjoyable half a hour touring around the valley to find the car park. :o)
The peat from both raised bogs were extensively dug for fuel up until the end of World War II after which they were dug for horticultural peat. Large parts of Westhay Moor have now been dug back to the underlying clay exposing estuarine deposits dating from before the isolation from the sea and peat formation began. In 1970 the Somerset Wildlife Trust (SWT) bought the first part of the last 30 acres (10 hectares) of acid raised bog vegetation left on the Somerset Moors undamaged by peat digging or agriculture. Since then SWT have bought or been given 100 hectares or former peat workings. These were sculpted and restored to wetland as the experimental area for the Avalon Marshes. The wetland restoration has been a great success and was declared a National Nature Reserve in 1995. Peat working on is now beginning to draw to a close on Westhay Moor and the majority of the remaining peat workings are now being restored to wetland as they are completed.
Westhay Moor, forms part of the nationally important grazing marsh and ditch systems of the Somerset Levels and Moors, and is crossed by the River Brue and Galton's Canal. Over much of the moor, the water table is high throughout the year with extensive winter flooding occurring regularly. Water tables in the peat excavations are artificially lowered during active working, but excavations often fill with water for much of the year.
Much of the moor is easily accessible to able bodied people with plenty of information especially in the excellent "Reception hide" and very child friendly, but would say some of it is not very accessible to wheelchair users due to some of the gates which is a shame- the main tracks are ok and some of the hides are superb especially the reception and the north hide. But some of the small gates in between could have had a bit more thought put in. I found it though a very enjoyable visit and would recommend it.
I found this great reserve run by the Somerset Wildlife Trust on the Blackdown Hills. It is a complex of wet and dry lowland heath, ancient and secondary woodland with large areas being restored from coniferous plantation. Some blocks of conifers, mainly larch, remain. The reserve is situated on the northern escarpment of the Blackdown Hills about 3 miles south west of Wellington where permeable and impermeable strata meet giving rise to a spring line, which runs the width of the site.
A series of flushes occur, with areas of willow Carr so I would advise that some of the paths can be very muddy so take care. I also found that the footpaths are not very well signed and for a welcome change parts of the reserve were allowed to do its own thing. I came across several parts were a tree had come down and man and beast had just made a new path which was refreshing as normally the tree would be cut up!
The heathland areas contain heather, bell heather and cross-leaved heath, as well as range of other species including heath bedstraw and heath spotted orchid. The ancient woodland is dominated by Ash and Pedunculate Oak standards with an under-storey with frequent Hazel and Holly. Over 40 species from the Ancient Woodland Vascular Plant List for the South-West have been recorded. Allegedly Water collection tunnels, which I couldn't find, provide hibernacula for a range of bat species and there are Dormice within the woodland.
The reserve forms part of the Quants SSSI. A large section of the SSSI is managed by the Forestry Commission and Butterfly Conservation around Buckland wood and contains important butterfly communities. Large blocks of conifers have been removed and one of the main aims of the project is to create wildlife links between the various grassland and heathland habitats.
- Recommended map:
- Ordnance Survey Landranger Map 193 ref ST187174
South West Coast Path National TrailThe South West Coast Path runs from Somerset, through Dorset and Devon to Cornwall.
South West Lakes TrustThe South West Lakes Trust, which was established in April 2000, is the South West's largest conservation and recreation charity.
Thurlbear Wood and Quarrylands SSSI is on the limestone scarp and plateau, about four miles south-east of Taunton in Somerset. It consists predominantly of ancient woodland with oak and ash standards, but also has hazel and field maple coppice. Open glades and rides contribute to a diverse ground flora.
The Somerset Wildlife Trust land adjoins Forestry Commission land and the site is popular with walkers and horse riders. Paths are undulating and often muddy in parts of the site but well worth the effort, and from the edges of the woodland offer far reaching views to the Quantock, Polden and Mendip Hills.
Apart from butterflies other wildlife recorded on the site perhaps of greatest pleasure to many is the carpets of Bluebells and the singing of the Nightingales in May which is a must, for me it was a great pleasure just to sit and listen. The entrance to the Quarrylands site, which is run by the Butterfly Conservation, is difficult to find, but it's well worth it when you do.
- Recommended map:
- Ordnance Survey Landranger Map 193 ref ST274213
© Simon Thurgood 2013
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