Heritage > Counties > England


Otherwise known as Somersetshire, the modern county of Somerset covers 1,365 square miles and has a population of 450,000. Somerset is not alone in the fact that it contains no cities and equally not alone in the fact that this apparent deficit is more than adequately atoned for by the presence of some wonderful market towns.

The administration centre of Taunton is equalled in it's beauty by the other major towns of Yeovil, Wells, Bridgewater and Glastonbury (the home many say of Avalon of the Camelot legend).

Somerset is known worldwide as the home of Cider and indeed Cider production is ranked second only to dairy farming as the main industry.

Natural features of the county include the rivers Avon, Exe and Parret, the marshy coastline of the Bristol Channel and the Mendip Hills which include Cheddar Gorge, the origin of English Cheddar cheese.

As with many of England's southern counties Somerset remains a picturesque reminder of the pre-industrial days.

Facts on the region

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: Defendamur ('We Defend').

County Town: TAUNTON Host to one of the country’s largest cattle markets. The Castle Hotel is a very up-market place to stay.

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

Highest point: Dunkery Beacon at 1,706 feet.

Somerset’s local government: Apart from the north of the County of Somerset there is a 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.

The local 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.

Local Towns and Villages

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 and proximity 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 of 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.










Long Ashton

Midsomer Norton









Places to Visit

1 Royal Cresent, Bath, Somerset

The Roman Baths, Bath, Somerset

Barrington Court, Ilminster, Somerset

Beckford's Tower, Bath, Somerset

Bishop's Palace, Well's, Somerset

Claverton Manor, Shrewsbury, Shropshire


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 Ilminster.

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 from the region

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.

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

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