Day 27 – A Shortcut to Mendips

Starting mileage: 16645 km
Day started: 10:00
Day ended: 20:00

Somerset

Somerset

We go on an inland detour of Somerset today, to see a few places we’ve been to before once again, and catch up on a few places we’ve missed the last time.

Glastonbury is a place where time stood still in the 1970s. You can tell they’re happy with what they have by the fact there’s barely a good coffee to be found in the entire town 🙂 But this is not what you come to Glastonbury for. This is a place ruled by hippies, not hipsters. This is the capital of New Age, a town set in the Age of Aquarius, where you’re more likely to find a spiritual healer than a GP, a clairvoyant rather than a newsstand.

We’ve been here before, and we’re likely to go back again some time – not because we’re so fond of the magic crystal shops, but because we didn’t manage to climb the Tor once more… we did, however, spend a long time around the ruined abbey, for a day was fine and the gardens calm and cool. The Glastonbury Abbey was once one of the most splendid ecclesiastic complexes of Britain, and now it’s one of its most splendid ruins. After foolishly trying to face Henry VIII’s full might during the Dissolution, the Abbey was dismantled almost to the last stone, and what was left was used as a quarry; the result is striking: of an enormous, 9-nave church and vast cloisters, only a few bits of wall remain, upon which you can still appreciate the fine detailed carvings. Of everything else there remain only lines marking the foundations, a few more bits of wall and the monastery kitchen – the only building still standing in its full glory.

Even the (always rather flimsy anyway) Arthur connection didn’t spare the rebellious church. Joseph of Arimatea’s thorn tree is still growing in the corner, but nothing save a marking stone is left of Arthur’s two graves – the one in which he was ‘found’ by the industrious monks, and the one into which he was transferred by Edward I.

There are a few medieval buildings of some beauty still left on the main street of Glastonbury, if you’re into these things, but overwhelmingly, the town stands in the shadow of the Tor, and its magic; whatever you think of the tower-crowned hill and the legend of Avalon, it still looks impressive and strange, especially from afar, as it rises lonely in the midst of a reclaimed marsh.

Leaving Wells to our right, we headed for Wilkins Cider Farm – one of many Somerset cider farms, chosen pretty much at random; inside the cider barn sat a fine specimen of a grumpy Wessex “vaarrmer”, a man of few words and many barrels. He offered us a “free tasting” – which amounted pretty much to a pint of cider each – and explained, in grunts and gestures, how Medium cider is made by mixing equal parts of Dry and Sweet. We got a two-pint container of his best stuff and headed further north still, to sample that other famous Somerset product: cheese.

And there is no more famous cheese town in all of English-speaking world than Cheddar. Sadly, there is only one company still making cheddar cheese in actual Cheddar: the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company; but that’s quite enough to stock up on many flavours of the golden wedges as you like.

Cheddar’s other – the main one, some would say – landmark is of course the Cheddar Gorge itself, England’s largest and tallest, a winding, snake-like, narrow canyon bordered by two walls of sheer limestone. It is this soft, porous limestone that forms the Mendip Hills, and provides perfect environment for creation of fine karst features – sinkholes, weathered rock faces, and grand caves.

We were almost too late to see Cheddar’s greatest hole in the rock, Gough’s Cave; luckily, some forty minutes before closing they let in people at reduced “late comer” price (£9 pp), with still plenty of time to see everything you need. I’ve never been in a proper cave before, so was duly impressed with two vast, church-like halls, the frozen waterfalls, and the colourful (pink and red mostly) limestone polished by water to such smoothness it seemed it would be soft and fluffy to touch. The brain can scarcely comprehend the difference between touch and sight: what seems like so much cotton candy is, naturally, rock-hard. It is, after all, a rock.

But I was most impressed with what is a relatively new addition to the caves: the cheese maturing shelves. This is what makes the Cheddar Gorge Co.’s cheese so unique: they put the cheese back into the cheddar caves, as is their proper place! They are now set up in a more modern, controlled environment, but they are still undoubtedly Cave Aged, and the resulting taste is incomparable to that of most other cheddars.

We drove back south for a few miles for supper: for as we drove from Glastonbury to Cheddar, we couldn’t help spotting a distinctly “Londonish”-looking pizzeria in an old town of Wedmore: Brown Paper Pizza.

We weren’t mistaken. The venture is owned and run by a hip young London-educated chef, Arthur Potts Dawson, and is every bit the hipster pizza place you’d expect to see in Brixton or East End. The decor was everything that’s fashionable these days – from Lassco mirrors to wooden panels throughout; the pizzas were proper, large and fairly cheap. On the other hand, we’ve waited almost an hour to get our food – I guess time flies differently in a Somerset village – and all dishes were far too salty, which is saying something considering how much I like salt in my meal.

Something I wasn’t really aware before was how deep and pronounced the local accent is everywhere in Somerset – a lot more so than in the rest of West Country. It’s almost up there with the Big Dialects, like Geordie or Scouse, except of course a lot more understandable to an Estuarian. It’s also one of the accents most people in the world are probably familiar with, as it’s the universal “pirate” accent: everyone, from the cider farmer to the campsite owner sounds like Long John Silver. Yarr. (or Vicky Pollard, depending on your frame of reference. Yarr but noerr.)

Glastonbury Abbey

Glastonbury Abbey

Cheddar Gorge

Cheddar Gorge

Wilkins Cider Farm

Wilkins Cider Farm


We were lucky to find a spot at one of the best small campsites around Bristol – the Knight’s Folly Farm. It is widely praised, and rightly so: not only is it in a fine location – half-way between Bristol and Bath, 15 minutes from either – small, secluded and cheap (£12 with hookup), but it also has the best toilet and shower so far, with almost Japanese levels of comfort and cleanliness. The landlord is a gem. Beware of the local taxis though – they are expensive and get lost easily!

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