The Grand Tour '07: Somerset ~ May 24th - 26th

Saturday, the 22nd of September, 2007 - 27 past 10pm

Current Song ~ "Songs of Love" by The Divine Comedy.

Over the last few months, I've gone from never leaving London unless forced to by the OU, to having a bag on wheels permanently half-packed.

This all started for totally practical reasons: we were attending a writers' event in Brighton and a naming ceremony in Bath, both of which demanded either a hotel booking or a complete lack of realism.

Thus we naively set forth, cheerfully assuming that booking into a b&b six to ten weeks in advance would be cheap and easy.

It was neither of those things.

I did the bulk of the research (because I had the time and will research anything if not forcibly restrained), and Dan did the making enquiries (because leaving me with tasks that may involve telephones is a good way to limit progress).

After what seemed like an age of slogging through website after near-identical website and review after unrealistic expectation-driven review, Dan amassed a collection of over fifty email responses, and I learnt a number of things that may or may not be useful in the future. For example...


1. Is surrounded by beautiful looking country house type hotels, not all of which call for a second mortgage. Some merely require you to sell a kidney.
2. Has absolutely no rooms whatsoever for a single night at the weekend. None.


Brighton (& Hove):

1. Has roughly a gazillion b&bs (give or take).
2. Also has roughly a gazillion people wanting to book those b&bs for the same night as you.
3. Is the place for you if you have a taste for pricey novelty themed rooms. (I was particularly taken by the 'Hove, Actually' room.)

In the end, however, we made it through all these pitfalls and snares and ended up with two nights in Bath and one in Brighton to look forward to.

Buoyed up by this success, we got a teensy bit carried away, and decided to go on holiday somewhere else just because we could.

Several hours of looking up random parts of England later, I stumbled across Somerset, which seemed to offer everything I was looking for: it was somewhere I'd never been before, it had a nifty looking castle, and, miracle of miracles, we actually had a choice of b&bs even at short notice. Oh, the luxury of choice!

witches We ended up staying at a converted barn house in Washford, in a huge, gorgeous high-ceilinged en-suite room, around which was hung a whole coven of ornamental witches.
And this, my friends, is where finding obscure little guest houses really pays off. A soulless chain might have fluffy towels; it might have clean sheets; it might even have fancy soaps; but you can bet your last penny that you'll have to provide your own witches.

The first evening passed very pleasantly.
We found the local pub (the only one within walking distance - such is the countryside), despite being confused by passing two quarter-of-a-mile signs to the nearby cider farm about a quarter of a mile apart. Presumably the first one was a sign for the next sign.

The pub was between chefs, resulting in the normally extensive food menu being very much abridged. We did, however, manage to order pudding without a minute to spare: I got the very last portion of apple pie, and by the time we left, I gather that the dessert menu had been reduced to cheeses.

Then we went back to the b&b to settle down with a cup of tea and a piece of the ice box cake that I made for the trip, before getting ready for an early-ish night.
And that was when all of the lights abruptly failed.

Now, this being a rural area, there isn't much in the way of light from lamps and passing cars and suchlike, so when the lights go out indoors, you're left with the kind of dark that you very rarely get in London. Real can't-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face dark.

As you might imagine, this made negotiating unfamiliar surroundings rather challenging. But at least I got to demonstrate my awesome powers of communication:

Dan: Where is the light switch?
Lily: Over there! *points at darkness*
Dan: Where's there?
Lily: There! By the thing!

I'm a useful person to have in times of crisis.

The next day the lights were all working again, and the trials of the night faded before the radiant glory of the Best Breakfast in the History of Time.
It was so huge that we were obliged to forget the idea of lunch, and included the most fantastic fried eggs that I've ever had, courtesy of the chickens down the road.
I wouldn't want to start the day that way on a regular basis (not least because my arteries would go on strike), but it's something I look forward to on holiday.

Suitably energised, we drove to the medieval village of Dunster, and wandered off to have a look around Dunster Castle.

I have slightly mixed feelings about castles that remained occupied until relatively recently.
On the one hand, they obviously benefit from having been looked after over the centuries, and it's nice to see a whole 11th century castle rather than just assorted bits of one.
On the other hand, people in recent centuries were no more keen on living in a museum than we would be, and remodeled castle interiors to suit their needs and tastes.
All perfectly understandable, but it does mean that you step through the door of an imposing battle-scarred fortress and find yourself in a typical English stately home.
Such was the case here, but it was at least a stately home with a lot of interesting historical artifacts on display.

fox weathervane As a Civil War fanatic, I was also very interested to see the secret passageway behind one of the bedrooms where the future Charles II is said to have been hidden.
It was incredibly tiny. I think I would have had trouble fitting into that small a gap, and I'm really quite small. Charles II was over six feet tall, and I hate to think how unpleasant it would have been for him.

Alas, the castle takes its indoor photography ban seriously - we had to switch off all cameras and phones at the entrance - but the grounds at least are fair game. And for the budding wildlife photographer, there are such exciting challenges as the small bird that will pose charmingly for ages, then vanish completely the second you take out a camera!
We did better with things that are less flight-capable, like fountains and weathervanes.

The castle grounds are also home to the National Collection of Strawberry Trees, which bear precious little resemblance to your actual genuine strawberry (judge for yourself). We walked past several of them before we realised what they were.

We had a quick drink and a wander round the village, which is as charming and picturesque as you'd expect a medieval village to be, and like so much of the English countryside, also very good at reminding you of your own mortality.
Narrow winding roads with little or no pavement were no doubt less terrifying to negotiate before cars were invented.

cleeve abbey archway Later in the afternoon we walked to Cleeve Abbey.

I think that had to be my favourite attraction of the holiday.
The surviving parts of the buildings are really very beautiful, and for an eminently reasonable fee you're allowed to ramble around and photograph things to your heart's content.

Of course, the architecture also came with unforeseen problems - most memorably in the case of the archway pictured here.
It looks like the ideal place to pose for photos, but go and stand there and you suddenly find yourself in high winds.
It was quite a challenge to keep my hair from blowing in my face just before every photo; and, judging from the photo where I appear to have a very impressive moustache, it was not a challenge I rose to with any great success.

On our third and final day in Somerset, we bade farewell to the b&b and went off to catch the steam train from Washford to Watchet.

Watchet is a small but enterprising harbour town: while other councils grapple in vain with technology, their council has stormed ahead with a shiny full-colour Official Watchet Town Guide and a rather nice website.

We went to the Market House Museum; which is, essentially, a large shed, but one filled with nifty objects ranging from locally found fossils (accompanied by rather charming illustrations - never I seen a cuter ichthyosaurus) to some apparently rare sheet music (which was obviously of interest to me).

watchet As you'd expect, most of the museum was dedicated to artifacts of a maritime nature - shipwright's tools, actual bits of ship, and so on.
My knowledge of sailing is hazy at best - I know which way up the boat is supposed to go, but have a very limited understanding of how to keep it thus when the sea has other ideas. Luckily, Dan has experience of such matters, and was on hand to explain what all the peculiar metal thingies were for.
(There were labels, but without having a comprehensive dictionary on hand...)

That left time to walk all the way around the marina (where I ended up wishing fervently that I'd brought a scarf and mittens), and past the Ancient Mariner.

While waiting for the steam train back, we noticed a rather curious thing: the face on the waiting room clock in Watchet Station was reversed, so the clock went anti-clockwise (this is I think the same clock).

Our last port of call in Somerset was the Torre Cider Farm, home of an impressively huge pig named Cynthia and a wide assortment of chickens.

I wasn't quite ready to be parted from fresh farm eggs just yet, so bought a dozen of them in the farm shop, along with a jar of marmalade. (And I could have saved money on whortleberry jam, too, had I not already bought it at Dunster Castle. Gah.)

We drove home via Bristol to visit Dan's brother, sister-in-law and niece. A tad nerve-wracking, it being my first introduction to family, but I think it went okay.

So, yes. All in all, I thought Washford was an excellent place to stay for a couple of nights - and I speak as one who has never been a fan of the countryside.
It would have been off-puttingly difficult without a car; indeed, I'm not really sure how we would have got there in the first place. Transport problems aside, though, there's easily enough to keep one occupied for a short break.
More than enough, even: we were forced to miss a church with carvings depicting villagers doing battle with a two-headed dragon, and that obviously wasn't a decision I took lightly.

And, as an added bonus, in the week following my return I learnt to fry eggs with at least a modicum of competence!
What more could one reasonably ask of a short break in the West Country?


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