Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The restorative landscape of the Somerset Levels.

High across the meadow pastures, lazy in the late summer sun, swoop house martins and swallows, coursing the waterways for insects while willows scrabble along the banks below. Roads, barely above the water level, intersect the canals and ditches, meandering through villages built of mellow ham stone. Georgian and medieval houses, thatched cottages, farms and hamlets all holding back the surrounding wetland with stone walls and neat kitchen gardens.

All of this spreads out from my vantage point on Glastonbury Tor. It is one of those beautiful late Sunday afternoons, where the heat of the day is slowly rising to reveal a landscape that stretches from Dorset round to Devon and the Avon estuary then back round to the Mendip hills in the north. It is beyond picturesque, it is deeply captivating, a landscape that drinks you in, restoring the soul from the steep climb up the hill.

Of course, I am not alone, there is a delightful mix of pilgrim, rambler, coach tripper, cyclist, didgeridoo player and holiday-maker here on the Tor. Perhaps it is just the effect of the didgeridoo echoing in the tower, or the heart mown into a nearby field or the sheep grazing on the dizzyingly steep sides or the kites flying overhead but suddenly, I am filled with benevolent cheeriness and am even driven to compose a few lines of verse.

Heart on a hill beneath a tiger sky
Over rippling fields swallows fly
Footsteps echoing this path once more
All the way round Glastonbury Tor

It was a lovely start to a week on the Somerset Levels and I have detailed below some of the places I thought were not to be missed in the area.

In Glastonbury town are the beautiful ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. Try catching a talk in the Abbot's Kitchen, a vivid insight into life at the Abbey before it's dissolution. The Abbey is situated where Joseph of Arimathea is reputed to have built a small wattle and daub church in 63AD. The Holy Thorn, said to be from the bush that sprung forth from Joseph of Arimathea's staff when he thrust it into the ground at Glastonbury is also in the grounds as is the grave of King Arthur and Guinevere.

It is almost impossible to extricate the Abbey from the wealth of myths and legends it contains and so it is worth visiting Mulchenay Abbey, a nearby ruin for another glimpse of monastic life before the dissolution. For a complete example of medieval stone masonry, try Wells Cathedral. The extraordinary modern-looking scissor arches, the West Front and the octagonal Chapter House are not to be missed.

Tucked into the high street of Glastonbury is a building called the Glastonbury Tribunal, it houses the Tourist Information Centre and the Glastonbury Lake Village Museum, an interesting exhibit about the iron age village nearby, dating from 300BC and from a time when the Levels were an inland sea.

A couple of unusual but extremely interesting places are Wells Reclamation Yard and The Forge of Avalon. Pretty much anything you could ever want for your house or garden can be found at Wells Yard and worth wandering round just so you can marvel at the thought of where you would put a statue or a column or, indeed, a Russian tank in your garden!
The Forge of Avalon is where the sword-smith Richard Hoecker works. His beautiful pattern welded blades keep this centuries-old Celtic craftsmanship alive. Details of events, workshops and commissioning information are on the website.

The stunning landscape of the Cheddar Gorge, carved out by glacial melt-water, is best viewed from the top of an open bus with a guide to point out the salient features but for the more intrepid there are rock climbing courses and the 274 steps to the look out tower and cliff-top walk. The view from the top of the gorge, across the Glastonbury Tor, Cheddar Reservoir and off to Devon just about make the 274 steps worth it (and provide a good calorie-burning excuse for indulging in some cave-matured cheddar cheese afterwards).

Mountain goats have been introduced to reclaim the original landscape and form part of the varied and unique fauna and flora of this area. Within the gorge are the caves, Gough's cave in particular providing a good audio guide exploration of the cave system and it's history. The Museum of Pre-History provides context to 'Cheddar Man' and has a good hands-on demonstrations of prehistoric skills.

For days further out from the Levels, try the Fleet Air Arm Museum or Longleat (check for ticket discounts in conjunction with Cheddar Gorge).
For the beach, try Weston-Super-Mare but bear in mind the tide goes out a long, long way over mud flats. Entertainments include The Grand Pier, Ferris wheel, sand sculpture park, aquarium, kids play park, donkeys, fish and chips, promenade....

(click on photos for larger image)

Seven hot dogs and a bottle of pop please!

Pouring with rain for the week, run out of things to do, kids are bored? Then it's time to turn to man's best friend, the DVD dog. All the family fun of a real pet without the poopy scooping!

Eight Below(PG) Eight dogs left behind in the Antarctic, struggling to survive the winter. Expect tears.
Turner and Hooch (PG) A classic cop and dog comedy drama with added slobber.
Snow Dogs (PG) Miami dentist inherits Alaskan sledge dogs. Mayhem ensues.
Beverly Hills Chihuahua (PG) Little dogs, big hearts.
Marley and Me (PG) One man and his dog, oh, and his wife, career, kids...
Beethoven (PG) Just a big dog with a big brain.
Bolt (PG) Animated superhero and his sidekick-in-a-ball hamster friend on a mission to save the day.