Was Cadbury Castle really King Arthur’s Camelot? Did Joseph of Arimathea really walk through England’s green and pleasant land to plant a thorn from Christ’s crown of thorns at Glastonbury, where it blossomed once a year on the day of Christ’s resurrection? Was it really at Athelney that King Alfred, deep in thought, allowed the cakes to burn? Myth and legend seem to be as integral to Somerset as its cider orchards and Cheddar cheese, its free-roaming ponies on Exmoor and the olde- worlde pubs with their skittle alleys.
Many literary luminaries found inspiration here. Exmoor provided the setting for RD Blackmore’s great historical romance Lorna Doone; Wordsworth and Coleridge both lived in the county for several years and it was during their countless walks over the Somerset hills that they fashioned their Lyrical Ballads, a new kind of plain speaking verse that inspired the Romantic Revolution. Tennyson was a frequent visitor to the county and it was for his Clevedon friend, Arthur Hallam, that he spent 17 years perfecting his great lyrical poem In Memoriam.
Hallam was a member of the Elton family whose great house, Clevedon Court, is just one of many fine mansions within the county borders. Others include the late-medieval stone manor house of Lytes Cary, the Palladian Hatch Court and the exquisite Montacute House, built in the late 16th century for Elizabeth I’s Master of the Rolls. The fine houses are sometimes overshadowed by their gardens. There are some splendid examples here, particularly those, such as Barrington Court, Hestercombe Gardens and Tintinhull House Gardens, that were planted, or influenced by, the early 20th-century landscape gardener, Gertrude Jekyll.
A wealth of prehistoric remains have been found within the county, but two of the area’s most popular and famous attractions are both natural – Cheddar Gorge and the caves at Wookey Hole. With cliffs over 400 feet high on either side of the road that runs through the bottom of the gorge, Cheddar is indeed a spectacular sight, while the caves at Wookey Hole, from which the River Axe emerges, are famous for their echos and for their fantastic stalagmite and stalactite formations.
Somerset also contains the smallest city in England, Wells. It is also one of the country’s most delightful cities, clustered around its superb cathedral. This magnificent building boasts a truly wonderful Astronomical Clock, which was installed in the 14th century and is still functioning perfectly.
To the north of the Mendip Hills lies the city of Bath, which in the 18th century became the most fashionable spa town in the country. Some 1600 years earlier, it was equally fashionable among the Romans. Close by is the West Country’s largest city, Bristol, Sir John Betjeman’s favourite English city, which, he asserted, had “the finest architectural heritage of any city outside London”.