Bath and the Mendips

Beautiful, elegant Bath with its backdrop of charming squares, circuses and crescents, kick-starts this tour of the Mendip Hills, stretching away south of the city, undulating and rolling down to the flat Somerset Levels, with the historic town of Wells, magical and mysterious Glastonbury and a multitude of attractive villages around every corner. The city of Bath is easily reached from London, the airports and Southampton docks and this tour will begin and end in this delightfully welcoming place. 

Starting life as a Celtic resort, it was adopted by the Romans as their city of Aquae Sulis, taking the title of the local Celtic God of the underworld for its name. The only hot springs in the country bubble up to the surface here at three main locations a constant temperature of 46C (118F). Later in the 18th century it became a popular spa town with visitors from London staying for long periods of time, socialising, gambling and enjoying the hot water and improving their health, relieving themselves of stiffness of the joints and rheumatism. Most of the city's famous architecture dates from this time.

There are a number of parking areas in Bath, just off Manvers Street is a small central car park and another nearby on Walcot Street but the largest parking area is by the Sainsbury's supermarket in Green Park. On street parking is available all around the city if you are luck enough to find a space.

Bath is very walkable. From the Roman Baths Museum and 15th century Bath Abbey you can walk up to the Jane Austen Centre in Gay Street to learn about the writer and her experiences in Bath as well as the setting of two of her novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in the city. Further on is the Royal Victoria Park and the magnificent Royal Crescent designed by John Wood the Younger and recently made famous in the TV series Bridgerton.  Just down Brock Street is the Royal Circus, begun in the mid-18th century and designed by John Wood the Elder. Then take a look at the Assembly Rooms where society's elite would gather for entertainment, ballroom dancing and playing cards. Down by the River Avon is Pultneney Bridge, a remarkably ornate river crossing designed by Robert Adam which reminds one of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence.

If you drive out of Bath on the A3062 there is one more delight before leaving the city environs, and that is stately Prior Park, built in the 1730s by the architect of the Royal Circus, John Wood the Elder and built for one of Bath's chief financial backers, Ralph Allen. Although the house is now a college the gardens are open to the public. The  grounds stretch for 28 acres and were initially laid out by the writer Alexander Pope and completed by Lancelot "Capability" Brown. It includes grottos, terraces, a lake and the famous, and much photographed, Palladian Bridge.

Continue on the A3062 as it bears right onto North Road at the top of the hill. You will then join the B3110 which will take you into the heart of the Mendips. The Mendip Hills are limestone uplands, possibly taking their name from the Celtic Welsh word Mynydd meaning hills or mountains. The elevation here is no more than 800 ft so they wouldn't be classed as anything more than medium sized hills.

Drive through Midford under the old railway arches, past Hinton Charterhouse to Norton St Philip where you will be struck by the antiquity of the old pub in the village, The George Inn, one of several claimants of the title of oldest pub in England. Evidence here of a licence to sell ale goes as far back as 1397 and the framework of the building is approximately around that date as well, it could be even much older as the structure doubled as a storehouse for the priests at nearby Hinton Priory before it became a tavern. Its importance as a coaching inn through the 18th and 19th centuries ensured its survival and it is certainly worth calling in for a drink or a meal before leaving Norton St Phillip on the A366 and then the B3139 to the city of Wells.

There now follows a scenic drive along country by-ways, through delightful stone-clad villages, meandering through rolling green hills to England's smallest free standing independent city, Wells. The town taking its name from three wells found in the grounds of the cathedral and in the market square. The impressive cathedral was built from 1176 to 1450 and the main church and cloisters are open to the public. A rare architectural feature are the St Andrews Cross arches in the nave. When a larger tower was built in 1322 the extra weight had to be distributed through some new supports. These scissor-like buttresses were added in the mid-14th century to distribute the additional weight.

Just a short walk north of the cathedral is the Vicars Close, the oldest purely residential street in Europe still with its original buildings. Constructed around 1348 as houses for clergy, only the additional of a small front garden and the tall chimneys added the following century provide any major alteration from the initial structures. Visitors are able to walk up the street which runs from a small chapel to a Medieval meeting hall at the other end.

Leave Wells along Wookey Hole Road to the extensive caverns at Wookey Hole itself.  This is the largest cave system open to the public in the UK and there really is fun for all the family. The caves were first opened to the public in 1927 and has now become one of the county of Somerset's most popular attractions. The old paper mill which dates from 1860 with its canal and water wheel stands next to the cave entrance and is now a small museum. At the cave entrance you can find your way to the animatronic roaring dinosaurs in Dinosaur Valley, the fairies of Fairy Garden, King Kong and the bones of the Witch of Wookey!!

Nearby is the tranquil and bucolic Ebbor Gorge National Nature Reserve with miles of country walks, trails and paths with plenty of mud, so make sure you wear the right sort of footwear.  One trail will take you further uphill to Deerleap Standing Stones, two Neolithic uprights that seem to stand guard over the spectacular view of the Mendip hills spreading out in front of you at this vantage point.

Take the country road from Ebbor Gorge through the village of Priddy and onto the B3135 turning left towards Cheddar Gorge. This is the best route to take to view this natural wonder as you will drive down through the gorge itself with the highest inland cliffs in the country, at almost 500ft (160m). The road winds its way down to the parking area and attractions at the foot of the gorge. The area is a mecca for rock climbers as you may have noticed on your way down. There are a range of caves to explore, not forgetting the famous Cheddar cheese that is made here. The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company has regular demonstrations from its viewing gallery of traditional cheese making plus a well stocked dairy shop complete with tastings!

If one wants to visit the other attractions in Cheddar, a combined ticket to the caves includes admission to the Museum of Pre-History and Dreamhunters-The Adventures of Early Man, both exhibitions and the cave system can be found once you enter the caverns themselves. Leave the village and gorge in a northerly direction and immediately turn left on the A371 back to Wells, avoiding the town centre and turning southwards on the A39 towards Glastonbury.

Before you are even close to the town of Glastonbury you will see its famous hill, Glastonbury Tor, rising from the plain with the ruined church tower of St Michael's on the top. This limestone capped clay hill rises some 520ft (158 metres) above the Somerset Levels, a vast area of land reclaimed from marshes and lakes and now used as grazing land for cattle.

Arriving in the town head to St John's car park, it is the largest parking area in the town as the one by the Abbey in Magdalen Street is usually full, even during quiet times. The town is quite walkable, full of new age music shops, fascinating stores selling books on myths and magic and vegan and vegetarian restaurants. There's plenty places to eat for the meat lover as well. Burns the Bread bakery, the Abbey Tea Rooms, the George and Pilgrim pub, Knight's fish and chip shop, to name but a few places to eat.

Glastonbury Abbey was once one of England's richest. Established in the 7th century it was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539 after his split with Rome. The Abbey has two legends associated with it, the early legend of Joseph of Arimathea who is said to have brought a holy relic, the Chalice from the Last Supper here in the First Century and a later story of King Arthur, carried here after being mortally wounded at the Battle of Camlann in the Sixth Century and eventually buried in the Abbey. You are welcome to visit the Abbey ruins, gardens and museum where costumed guides will illustrate the history of your surroundings. Out of the surviving buildings, the Abbot's kitchen is the most complete. The undercroft is intact and is consecrated with worship regularly held here. The nave and chancel, at a combined length of 220ft (67m) largely stands in ruin. Look out for the occasional small horizontal door. Open it to reveal medieval floor tiles underneath.

The roads up to Glastonbury Tor are very narrow with very limited parking. Walking would take about an hour from the town to the top of the hill (or Tor, using the Celtic word), however at certain popular times of the year you can take the "Tor Bus" from the Abbey Car Park on a circuit up to the base of the Tor to make the final climb yourself. The height of the Tor from sea level is 521ft (158m).

Whichever way you choose, you might want to call into the delightful Chalice Well Gardens on the way. Beautifully laid out around the Red Spring, the legendary location for the chalice itself, you can sit quietly amongst the trees contemplating,  meditating and filling your bottles with refreshing cold spring water from the ever-flowing spring. Growing here is one of the famous Glastonbury Thorn trees, others are growing in the Abbey, a tree that harkens back to the original Glastonbury Thorn on nearby Wearyall Hill. Said to have grown out of Joseph of Arimathea's own walking staff which he had himself fashioned from a tree grown from the original Crown of Thorns. The well and the spring form a stream and waterfall that trickles its way through the garden which seems to be awash with colourful plants all year around.

Take the A361 from Glastonbury towards Shepton Mallet, continuing on this road as it by-passes the town of Frome, at this point turn right onto the A362 and head to Longleat House. This majestic Elizabethan House stands in 900 acres of grounds and is home to the Marquis of Bath. In recent history it was the first Stately Home in Britain to be opened up to the public. Back in 1949 it opened its doors to visitors, boasting the first safari park outside of Africa.

The building is a fine example of a Prodigy House, built to impress the monarch, in this case Elizabeth I, with the hope that they will be suitably inspired and spend time visiting. The house is open to the public, along with the "Caperbility" Brown designed gardens laid out in the 18th century. For most visitors the highlight is the Safari Park with the African village featuring the giraffes, the Monkey Drive-Through, the lion enclosure and much more.

Leaving Longleat and heading towards the Warminster by-pass and the A36, you will see the earthworks of Cley Hill on your left hand side as you approach the A36 roundabou. Turn left here for Bath. In the late Spring and early Summer when the wheat and barley are high look out for Crop Circles, the mysterious pictograms that appear in the fields around this part of the county of Wiltshire. Created by a wind vortex, UFOs or creative artists from our planet. You can make your own decision as you continue on the A36 northwards back towards the city of Bath.