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County-landscape

. Somerset is a rich farming county where cultivation and growing grain took place long before Caesar's arrival. The landscape has an amazing diversity of scenery: there are the high heather-clad hills of Exmoor in the north west with their wild ponies and deer and lovely combes, especially near Oare - Lorna Doone country; the bleak limestone land of the Mendips in the east, and the huge water meadows of the Levels, fed by the rivers Tone, Parrett, isle and Brue, in between. The Levels have a Fen- like quality about them.

. Separating the rivers are ridges of grey and golden limestone, used to good effect for building cities like Bath and Wells.

. in the north and east, the deep-cut valley of the River Avon has accentuated the county's isolation from its neighbour, Gloucestershire, encouraging Somerset to look south and west.

. All of Bristol south of the Avon is geographically part of Somerset with suburbs dotted right down to Portishead and across to Bath.

County-facts

Origin of name: 'Dwellers from Somerton' is the Old English derivation, referring to a farmstead tended during the summer but not occupied in winter.

Name first recorded: 1015 as Sumaersaeton.

County Motto: Defendomur ("We Defend").

COUNTY TOWN

TAUNT-ON Host to one of the country's largest cattle markets. The Castle Hotel is a very up- market place to stay.

Other Towns

BATH The city with the best window-shopping in the west takes its name from its unique hot springs.

BRIDGWATER A wide main street, tall spired church andproximity to the civil war battlefield of Sedgemoor put this town on the tour list.

BRISTOL The city's dominance and importance over the centuries has led it to spill both sides of the River Avon and all that area south of the river is within Somerset.

BURNHAM-ON-SEA Miles of sandy beaches attract tourists to this red-brick town facing Bridgwater Bay.

CLEVEDON A quiet resort and residential town on the Severn estuary with a shingle beach and some fine medieval houses.

GLASTONBURY A town associated with Arthur's Avalon and rich in romance and legend; the Abbot's kitchen building at the famous 12th-century Abbey ruins is worth seeing and the nearby sugar-loaf- shaped Tor offers spectacular views over the flats.

MINEHEAD Small-harboured, popular place on the Bristol Channel with picturesque old village and restored old fishermen's chapel (once a salt store).

SHEPTON MALLET Pleasant market town famed for hosting the nearby Glastonbury pop music festival (25 years' worth). There is a market cross and remains of the Shambles of what was once a thriving medieval wool town.

SOMERTON The Saxon capital of Somerset with attractive market place and handsome old Market Cross and late 16th- and 17th-century buildings.

WELLS A gem of a small medieval cathedral city with jousting knights marking the quarter-hour of the superb cathedral clock.

WESTON-SUPER-MARE Highly popular Bristol Channel resort with vast sands stretching into the distance, pier, and lavish entertainment.

YEOVIL Suffered in the air raids of World War II which destroyed many old buildings, but the Ham stone 14th- century church survives. Local history museum in Hendford Manor is well worth a browse.

. Bedminster . Bishopsworth . Brislington . Chard .

Crewkerne . Frome . llminster . Keynsham . Knowie .

Long Ashton . Midsomer Norton . Nailsea . Paulton .

Porlock . Portishead . Radstock . Street . Watchet . Wincanton

COUNTY RIVERS

Barle, Yeo, Avon, Exe, Tone, Parrett, Brue,Cary and Fortune.

HIGHEST POINT

Dunkery Beacon at 1,706 feet.

county-calendar

. May and June: The internationally acclaimed Bath Music Festival.

. May: The Order of British Druids celebrates Beltane, the coming of summer, on Glastonbury Tor.

. May: The Royal Bath and West Show takes place near Shepton Mallet.

. The last Sunday in May: A Roman Catholic pilgrimage to Glastonbury, followed by a Church of England pilgrimage on the last Saturday in June.

. September: A Cheese Festival is held at Frome.

. September: There are fairs at Crewkerne and llminster

. Early November: Bridgwater, Glastonbury and Highbridge hold Guy Fawkes' carnivals.

. Wincanton holds race meetings, as does Bath.

. The events and venues of Bristol are too numerous to mention here, for this city is Somerset from the moment it spills south across the Avon.

famous-names

. Robert Blake, Cromwell's great admiral, was born in 1599 in Bridgwater where there is a fine museum.

. Bristol has developed its own 'happening indie-pop, trip-hop and ambient music scene' with award- winning performers Portishead (named after the suburb of Bristol), Tricky, Massive Attack all playing in each others albums and all achieving critical and commercial success in the mid 1990s.

. Parson Woodforde, who wrote Diary of a Country Parson, (a classic of 18th century English country life), lived in Castle Cary.

. Sir Henry Irving, the first actor to be knighted, was born in the village of Keinton Mandeville.

. Television personality Jonathan Dimbleby and his wife, the writer Bel Mooney, live in Swainswick.

. The Beatles' film A Hard Day's Night was filmed partly on location at Crowcombe and at Minehead.

. T. S. Eliot is buried at East Coker, the village from which his ancestors emigrated to the New World.

. Leslie Crowther, TV host and enthusiastic Lord's Taverner, lives in Corston.

. The town of Wellington gives the Wellesley family its title; its most famous is the Duke of Wellington.

local government

Apart from the north of the County of Somerset there is two tier local government operating under Somerset County Council and five district councils - Mendip, Sedgemoor, South Somerset, Taunton Deane and West Somerset. North-East Somerset and North- West Somerset & Bath Councils plus that part of the City of Bristol authority south of the River Avon (in 1996 Bristol was made a ceremonial County) are the single-tier structure for the rest of the County. Kilmington is a contiguous part of the County of Somerset under Wiltshire County and Salisbury District Councils. Holwell is Somerset detached in Dorset and administered by both Dorset County and West Dorset District councils.

intro

TO ME THERE are three Somersets - all sharply contrasting. The north, with Bath the southern outskirts of Bristol and the coastline, which takes in the very pleasant resorts of Clevedon, Portishead and Weston-super-Mare with their seaside attractions. The mystical centre with the little city of Wells, the lime stoned and caverned Cheddar Gorge and Glastonbury, with its spiritual Tor. Finally and again quite different, the west with Exmoor, Minehead and its common heritage with Devon. It is only when you travel from Minehead to the Devon border that the landscape can be termed spectacular, with great hog-back cliffs created at the point where the hills of Exmoor drop almost perpendicular to the wrinkled sea of the Bristol Channel below. Inland it is a county of superb natural beauty where the hills of Exmoor, the Mendips, the Brendons and the Quantocks rise above rich, mature farmland studded with stone-built towns and quaint villages.

towns-and-villages

Take your pick from the grandeur of the cities of Bath and Wells, more intimate towns like Shepton Mallet and Glastonbury, or the villages of the ancient, eerie Levels, where legends of Joseph of Arimathea, King Arthur and Guinevere abound.

Of all the places in this county, none can compare architecturally with Bath. The city sits in a green fold in the hills, its mellow stone work blending perfectly with the surrounding countryside. Bath. a one-time Roman city, reached its zenith in the late 18th century, when it became the most fashionable spa in Britain thanks almost entirely to the efforts of one man -John Wood.

It was Wood's marvellous talent that led to the creation of one of Britain's greatest architectural masterpieces, the Royal Crescent, a magnificent fan of stone, so unspoilt today that you can almost hear the clop of horses' hooves on the cobbled stones. Over the years Bath has lost none of its charm, despite the huge numbers of visitors who flock to enjoy Bath buns, to the accompaniment of a chamber music, in the Pump Room near the Abbey. Just away from the bustle have a look from Grand Parade at the V-shaped weir that runs just past the Italianate Pulteney Bridge. This city is best visited outside the peak summer season.

After tourism, Somerset has no large-scale industry other than agriculture, now that brick and tile making in and around Bridgwater are declining. But the scenery and the villages remain as compelling as ever. Cheddar has given its name to one of the world's great cheeses, and although little cheese is made here today, visitors do come to admire the limestone caves and the bravest of them indulging themselves in a little pot-holing.

Other places well worth visiting include Dunster, with its wide main street and 17th-century yarn market; Porlock, whose Ship Inn has associations with the poets Southey and Coleridge; and the attractive town of Wellington, close to the Devon border, whose most famous son, the Iron Duke, is commemorated in a conspicuous monument on the highest point of the Blackdown hills. On a 1,000- acre estate at Cricket St Thomas, near Yeovil, there is a wildlife park and the National Heavy Horse Centre.

local-history

Somerset - 'the old crooked shire in the West' - is believed to have taken its name from the early Saxon settlers who grazed their herds on the county's excellent pastures in summer. Whatever the explanation, the county has a formidable history. Prehistoric man looked out across the Somerset Levels from the Iron Age fort on the isolated hill of Brent Knoll and the Romans established the city of Aquae Suits above the medicinal waters of what is now Bath. Glastonbury became a great Celtic emporium and it is believed that the massive hill fort at Cadbury could be the site of King Arthur's legendary Camelot. According to the legend, this is the place from which King Arthur set out to find his sword Excalibur. For those with a taste for something more certain than legend offers, the village of Athelney commemorates the last desperate vigil of King Alfred in the winter of 878, even if it is best remembered as the place where the cakes were burnt rather than the battle at which he defeated the invading Danes. The Isle of Athelney is an island in name only, but in Alfred's time it was surrounded by a waste of trackless marshes which provided the beleaguered king with some security while he regrouped his forces. In subsequent centuries, there were further devastating incursions by the Danes and others - but the gloom was lifted a little when Edmund defeated Canute's army at Penselwood.. From then until the Civil War, Somerset prospered; its towns grew, abbeys and monasteries were founded. Montacute House near Yeovil is an example of Tudor domestic architecture at its best. Now in the hands of the National Trust, the house contains an impressive collection of 17th- and 18th-century furniture, as well as Elizabethan and Jacobean portraits.

In the village of Norton St Philip, the George Inn, with its stone floors and timber and plasterwork walls, has the authentic feel of a 15th-century hostelry. It was once a guest house for the now-ruined Hilton Charterhouse Priory. Samuel Pepys once described the tomb of the two ladies at the foot of the priory's tower as having 'two bodies upwards and one stomach.'

Somerset played a considerable part in the Civil War and was staunchly Royalist although Taunton, the county town, was an isolated Parliamentary stronghold. In 1685 Charles II's illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, led a rebellion to overthrow James II and suffered a terrible defeat at Sedgemoor. It was in the Great Hall of the Castle at Taunton, now a museum, that Judge Jeffreys held his Bloody Assizes in the aftermath of that rebellion, hundreds of men being condemned to death in a single day.

 

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