Escape To The West Country

Right now I should be staring up at the Croatian city of Pula’s magnificent Roman amphitheatre about to head inside and explore its ancient surrounds. Instead, 2020 had other ideas and I instead find myself staying ‘at home’ this summer and holidaying in the UK.

Funnily enough though, I do find myself still looking up in amazement at an ancient structure of historical note – Wells Cathedral in Somerset, looking magical in the midday July sunshine. It might be a young whippersnapper at 800 years old compared to Pula’s 2000 year old arena – but of course, it’s equally spectacular.

Rewind a few hours and me and my wife, together with our two young children (ages 5 and 2) have just spent the morning at Wookey Hole – the UK’s largest show cave and a family summer holidays favourite for many a year. With the current situation, there are no guided tours but with a guide book and a limit on visitors giving you as much time as you need inside, we’re still able to appreciate the natural wonder of the subterranean world. After exploring the caves it was time for lunch and a quick look on the map showed that Britain’s smallest city was only 10 minutes down the road.

We set up our pic-nic – if you have small kids you’ll understand that lunch can usually start around 11.30am depending on little ones’ moods – and we have the cathedral green to ourselves. Come 12pm and it begins to fill up, a pleasant buzz of families and couples doing the same thing as us. The kids are quick to finish up their food and find similar aged children to run about with.

Later, we meander around Wells taking in the rest of the cathedral area including the fabulous Bishop’s Palace Gardens. Unlike the cathedral, this was a place I’d not read about prior to our visit and so had a real feeling of discovering some kind of hidden secret. With its mix of manicured lawns, tumbling medieval ruins, ramparts and hidden gardens we spend a good few hours wandering about finishing the visit with the kids discovering ‘the Dragon’s Lair’, a secluded adventure playground overlooking the cathedral.

For our week-long trip we are based at an AirBnb rental on the outskirts of Bruton. Technically a town – though some might call it a large village – Bruton is pretty and charming with plenty of highly instagrammable nooks and crannies to discover. Our particular favourite are the stepping stones over the river and the dovecote on the hill – well worth a quick hike up to capture a view over the town and surrounding countryside. The town is also home to a few well-reviewed food hot spots and we manage to call into a couple of them during the week. At the Chapel serve up fantastic wood-fired pizzas in – surprise surprise – a converted former chapel whilst On the Brook (they’ve certainly got this literal restaurant name thing down to a tee) saves us during the one rainy afternoon of the trip – we fill up on homemade soups and bread, many of the ingredients coming from the nearby farm the cafe is located next to.

Our week is spent slowing down to a relaxed pace, taking in the sights, and enjoying each other’s company in the outside world. We’ve struck gold with the area we’ve chosen – rolling countryside, golden sunlight, and serene quietness dominates though quirky sights, family-friendly locations and tourist attractions are still in abundance. On our final day, we drive 20 minutes over the county border into Wiltshire and to the National Trust owned Stourhead estate. One of the Trust’s most beloved estates, there are over 2000 acres of parks and gardens to explore. We spend the most incredible day here making our way around the vast garden taking in the flora and fauna and above all the serenity of it all. Glimpses of ornamental follies tease us every now and again through the tree line as we slowly descend towards the lake and then we are met with the most dramatic and beautiful view imaginable. With ancient grottos to explore and dragonflies hovering over lakes the children quickly start to imagine themselves in some kind of fantasy land. Overlooking the lake from the Palladian stone bridge, it’s easy to consider that we actually are already there.

Back at our accommodation for our final evening, we call up a local pub in Bruton – The Sun Inn on the High Street  – for takeaway food. Specialising in a Persian orientated menu we eat amazing curry, sit on our balcony enjoying the sun setting and deliver a  toast to a wonderful few days away. Croatia wasn’t to be and those Roman ruins will have to wait till next year but Somerset stepped up and delivered big time. Cheers to that!

By Chris Horton