What has the US state of Iowa and the UK county of Somerset have in common?
In Iowa’s case its what is called in terms of tourism as a fly-over state where most tourist’s head further west to a perceived more interesting destination. In a similar way Somerset could certainly be called a drive-over county!
For thousands of visitors are often unaware of the delights that the county has to offer as they head even further west to the counties of Devon and Cornwall.
The West Country for many visitors is just Devon and Cornwall. Forgetting that Somerset is as much in the west as the other two!
One great way to start is to explore the coastal area that faces onto the Bristol Channel and on clearer days it’s extensive views to the Southern coast of Wales.
Here colourful multi-layered cliffs from the Jurassic period are markers from that time and also provide a great backdrop to many of the often near deserted beaches on this coast. Just one excellent reason to explore this region in yet more detail.
A hidden waterfall tumbling a curtain of fresh cool water down the green weed encrusted cliff face at St Audrie’s Bay was a great surprise.
Before the tourism, this coast was busy but with fishing as the local people made their living from the sea or used the beach itself as a way of gathering a harvest from it. Constructing large triangular stone fish traps to their catch prey as the tide receded.
And one feature that does become apparently clear on this coast is that the sea retreats a long, long way. As this part of the southwest coastline has some of the largest tidal ranges in the UK and the world.
Running parallel to the sea for many miles is one ideal way of accessing some of the coastal delights of West Somerset. The West Somerset Railway a preserved rail link who’s station stops give ideal easy access to many villages, coves and towns hugging this coast.
Riding behind one of their heritage steam or diesel trains from the town of Minehead just a short distance to Dunster and the pretty village and hilltop castle there. Much photographed and one lovely place to stay if you can get into the Luttrell Arms on the main street.
The view from front and you see the iconic Yarn Market as you take breakfast or teatime in the rear garden then you get a lovely alternative view to the castle.
SOMERSET KEEPS ON SURPRISING
Back on the train to Washford village with a small railway museum at the station and a short walk from it through a residential part of the village and you will be able to check out Cleeve Abbey originally built in the 13th century now looked after by English heritage.
This abbey lost its main church in the reformation but much of the remainder was saved as the buildings were absorbed into a farm during the reign of Henry VIII.
Still today you can see an original coloured tiled pavement discovered in situ in the Victorian period and now housed under a purpose built roof to protect it from further discolouration from UV light.
Examples of rare painted wall art and intricate wooden roof carvings are some other highlights with the huge dormitory and other areas giving a glimpse of the life of a monk just before the reformation.
Yet another short ride on the train and you will find yourself in the harbourside town of Watchet.
A day ticket on the railway makes all this very easy and adds a relaxed holiday element to the day as you are carried between stop off points in this charming way.
SURPRISING SOMERSET HAS WRITERS AND ENGINEERS
The town of Watchet offers more than you would think it has a contemporary arts hub complex. Housed in a series of recycled shipping containers placed by the harbour. With artists in residents and a gallery it even has a major exhibition by a world famous artist booked in for next year.
There is also a small maritime museum run by volunteers in a former railway warehouse designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
With seaside shops, pubs, cafes and bars where you can get a taste of the West Country with local cheeses and ciders being popular choices.
The classic romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth with his sister Dorothy spent time enjoying this area of the country from their bases at Nether Stowey and nearby Alfoxton House at Holford. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner poem was penned during this time and there is a memorial statue dedicated to it on quayside at Watchet.
Back to your car and nearby The Chantry Tea Gardens at Kilve where a cream tea provides a great afternoon diversion.
The footpaths along this section of the coast provide excellent views both inland and seaward with numerous other places of interest to visit.
Places like Brean Down who’s steep stepped path to the top will find you well rewarded after the brief climb with stunning views over the wide expanses of sandy beaches either back towards Minehead or to the other side and Weston Super Mare.
This stunning promontory with numerous defensive structures from Napoleonic times and the Second World War with even links going back to Mesolthic period. Today it is looked after as a nature reserve run by the National Trust.
However what is clear after my hosted visit is that Somerset and this western area of it has just as much to offer in historical, arts, nature and environmental terms as any of the counties further west do.
Perhaps it should market itself as: Surprising Somerset?