One of the counties of Great Britain, Somerset boasts an impressive history and perhaps even more impressive scenery. It is claimed to be the birthplace of Christianity in England, King Alfred walked and fought there, and it was the home of the legendary Arthur. Famous for Cheddar cheese, real ale, cider, the mighty Glastonbury festival and the famous Levels, Somerset is a place well-worth visiting.
The name 'Somerset' is derived from the Saxon "Sumorsaete", or 'people of the summer lands'. In turn, the main settlement was 'Sumerton' (now the small town of Somerton). The Saxons were merely following the practices of the Celts, who were there long before the foreign invaders, who called the place "Gwlad yr haf", the 'land of summer'. The first recorded use of the derivation was in AD 1015, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
Somerset is located in the south-west of England. It is bordered in the east by Wiltshire, in the west by Devon, the north by Bristol and Gloucestershire and the south by the county of Dorset. The Bristol Channel, aka the Severn Estuary, bounds Somerset to the north and north-east. It is one of the most visually stunning counties in the United Kingdom, with the land varying from flat grassland (an example being the peat-rich Somerset Levels) to rolling green hills (e.g. the Quantocks, one of 5 main ranges). Somerset also contains a large part of the granite bedrock that makes up Exmoor, although this is often overlooked in favour of of the more popular Dartmoor (in reality there is little difference between the two areas), which is further west in Devon and Cornwall. Most of the other hilly terrain is made up of the Mendip, Polden and Brendon hills. These highlands yield limestone which has been used for building in beautiful Bath, as well as across the county and elsewhere. Somerset is also home to the Cheddar Gorge, another well-known English landmark.
Somerset is so picturesque largely because of its agricultural nature; the soil is well suited to farming. Wheat is the main crop around the county town of Taunton, although county-wide farmers are mostly occupied with livestock. This means that they are few very large towns in Somerset with Bath, Taunton and Yeovil being the most populous three. Until the dismantling of Avon in 1995, the city of Wells (boasting an impressive cathedral) was the only one in the county . It remains the smallest city in Britain. The main urban areas are linked by the M5 motorway, which comes up from Exeter and cuts its way through the countryside to Bristol.
Somerset has been inhabited for as long as there have been people on the British Isles. In fact, Somerset is the site of the first timber trackways (built by farmers around 6000 years ago so they could cross the flooded marshlands) in the world. There are remains of ancient hill forts and burial grounds, Roman villas and mosaics, castles and abbeys. The Fosse Way, built by the Romans, runs via Ilchester and Bath.
Possible the most famous abbey in Britain, Glastonbury Abbey is situated on a man made hill of soil near the centre of Somerset. Legend has it that the monastery at Glastonbury is so old, it was founded by Joseph of Arimathea. It is also the reported burial place of the great Arthur and Guinevere. The nearby Iron Age hill fortress at South Cadbury, renovated in the 1st century AD, is claimed to have been Camelot itself. Somerset has more to offer than myth and legend, however. There are also many facts that reveal an extraordinary history. For example, three Saxon kings really were buried at Glastonbury.
Somerset the county was really born following the victory over the Danes by the chieftain Ealdorman Eanwulf. although the Saxons had been there for at least 200 years prior to this event. It was still part of the area known as Wessex at this time, along with Wiltshire and much of Hampshire, the ruler of which was to be King Alfred the Great. Alfred also defeated the Danes and negotiated peace at Wedmore, and in doing so secured the land that would become all England. Alfred's jewel was found in northern Somerset, at North Petherton.
After the Norman invasion of 1066, the marshes around Glastonbury were drained, enabling more and more livestock to be kept and kickstarting the wool trade. This boomed during the early Middle Ages. Somerset played very little role in the Wars of the Roses a little later on, merely keeping its ports open despite a threat to the coast. Ordinary people revolted from time to time, of course, generally due to shortages of food. It became much more involved in the English Civil War in the 1640s, when Somerset's politicians led opposition in Parliament. Taunton was besieged during the conflict, and a battle was fought at Allermoor, near the town of Langport, which was under threat of burning down when Royalist cavalry were pursued down the main street by Parliamentarian forces. Charles II punished the people of Somerset later for their part in the rebellion against his father.
It was in 1685 that Somerset really grabbed the attention of the king at the time, James II. The Duke of Monmouth openly rebelled, and being a charismatic character managed to raise an army in Somerset to fight the crown. He attacked the king's forces on Sedgemoor, part of the Levels, near Bridgewater. The battle (also the last ever fought on English soil) ended in crushing defeat for the rebels; Monmouth fled long before it was truly over. He was captured and executed, and the rebel army was brutally dealt with. The infamous Judge Jeffries presided at the "Bloody Assizes", where thousands of the Somerset people who made up Monmouths army were deported or executed.
Since then Somerset has kept rather quiet, but played host to American soldiers and thousands of young evacuees from the cities in the Second World War. Oh yeah, and the Glastonbury festival was started in 1970.
In 1974, the decision was made to change the boundaries of the area governed by Somerset county council, to make administration easier. To this end an entire county was created: Avon. This contained many places that was once within northern Somerset, for example the popular seaside resort of Weston-super-Mare, as well as the large city of Bristol, Bath and parts of south Gloucestershire. Avon was not popular with the locals, however, who complained that they were Somerset people and always had been. Avon had absolutely none of the traditions or identity that Somerset could boast.
Avon lasted for all of 21 years, when the government changed everything once more. Somerset was restored to its former size, and Avon was no more. However, Somerset was now split into three administrative areas: "South Somerset" (essentially the post-1974 Somerset), "North Somerset" (previously part of Avon) and "Bath and North-East Somerset" (also once part of Avon). Each of these areas has its own council, and therefore its own rules over certain things (for example, the licensing laws for the sale of alcohol are much stricter in South Somerset than North). Bristol remains an independent metropolitan area, with its own council. Everyone should be much happier, therefore...except it often seems as if most people somehow missed being informed about the 1995 changes entirely. The local police force, for example, remains the 'Avon and Somerset Constabulary'; "to avoid confusion", apparently.
There are many, many attractions and places of interest in all three parts of Somerset. These range from the spectacular countryside views, historic buildings such as Glastonbury Abbey or Dunster Castle, caves (the most famous being Wookey Hole), beaches (e.g. at Burnham-on-Sea), wildlife parks (Cricket St. Thomas; at least before they ruined it), fantastic architecture (for example Montacute House and much of the city of Bath) to museums (two unique ones showcasing helicopters and the Fleet Air Arm). There is no shortage of accomodation either, with Bed and Breakfasts everywhere, as well as regular hotels and camp sites.
Being quite a large county, Somerset is not exactly hard to get to; head south-west from anywhere in England that's north of Bristol and you'll get there. To be more specific, from London the best way by car is to take the M4 west to Bristol and the M5 south into Somerset. If coming from further south, the M5 is again the best option, although the A38 (a main road) also runs from Exeter to Bristol. To get to Somerset fom the west (i.e. Wales), also take the M4 (east) to Bristol and the M5 south. From the north of England or Scotland, a direct route would be the M6 south to Manchester and Birmingham, then the M5 again from Birmingham to Somerset via Bristol. It should be noted that the route south from Bristol (pretty much as soon as you leave the city to the south you enter North Somerset) offers some excellent views of exactly the sort of scenery that Somerset is famed for. Bristol airport is the closest, and trains converge on Bristol Temple Meads station from all over.
Everything Quests: Places to visit in Ireland and the UK
Recommended Somerset-related websites:
www.somersetgateway.com (although the county map is out of date)
Living there for approx.
16 17 years, in various places around the county.