Known for its vast landscapes, nutty cheeses, strong cider and otherworldly villages, Somerset is emblematic of England’s picturesque countryside. In addition, it has witnessed its fair share of history, and so is home to many bewitching sites to boot. The town of Bath, originally known as Aquae Sulis, founded by the Romans at the site of natural hot springs. Today, the Roman Baths, which were enjoyed by Bath’s population so long ago, bear testament to the area’s long history.
More recently, sites such as the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey are all that remains of Henry VIII’s destruction during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, while the remarkable and world-famous Wells Cathedral is still active as a place of worship and an makes for an unforgettable visit.
Here’s our pick of 10 historic sites not to miss when visiting the enchanting county of Somerset.
Glastonbury Tor is a prominent hill overlooking the Isle of Avalon, Glastonbury and Somerset. The conical shape of Glastonbury Tor is natural as thousands of years ago it was an island; in winter, it would have towered above the flooded Somerset Levels. The terracing on the hillside has been dated to Neolithic times. Glastonbury Tor also has a grisly past. Abbot Richard Whiting was executed here in 1549 on the orders of Thomas Cromwell, the first Earl of Essex.
Glastonbury Tor is known as being one of the most spiritual sites in the country. Its pagan beliefs are still very much celebrated. It’s a beautiful place to walk, unwind and relax. Admission is free and donations very welcome. There are information points at Glastonbury Tor, as well as nearby hills Burrow Mump and Collard Hill.
At almost 400 feet deep and three miles long, Cheddar Gorge is England’s largest gorge. It formed around one million years ago during the last Ice Age when water from melting glaciers formed a river, which over time started to carve into the limestone rock. The Cheddar Yeo River gradually made its way underground, creating the famous Cheddar Caves. One of these underground caves within the gorge is Gough’s Cave, where the famed ‘Cheddar Man’, Britain’s oldest and most complete skeleton, was found in 1903.
During the tourist season, over 500,000 people visit the village. Attractions at Cheddar Gorge include Gough’s Cave, the multimedia Dreamhunters exhibit, The Museum of Prehistory, Rocksport activities and Escape Room Games. The area also has lots of scenic walks.
A military stronghold for 4,000 years, Cadbury Castle is the site of a Bronze and Iron Age hillfort in the civil parish of South Cadbury in Somerset. Hillforts were likely built to control increasing social change and population growth and the subsequent pressure on agriculture, iron ore, tin, and copper that followed. The earliest settlement of the site is likely Neolithic, and it was then occupied regularly from the late Bronze Age onwards.
Today, visitors can enjoy walking around the ramparts of Cadbury Castle, with views towards Glastonbury Tor being a scenic accompaniment to the historical site. Many of Cadbury Castle’s finds are displayed in the Museum of Somerset and Taunton.
The world famous Roman Baths complex in Bath, UK, contains an incredible set of thermal spas and an impressive ancient Roman bathing house. The Roman Baths were initially built as part of the town of Aqua Sulis, which was founded in 44 AD. Vast and lavish, the baths were able to accommodate far more people than just the residents of this town: they were intended as both a social and restorative destination for Romans across the empire.
Today, the Roman Baths offer an incredibly comprehensive insight into the lives of the ancient Romans in the town and around Britain. While the site looks quite small from the outside, a visit can last several hours.
Often described as England’s smallest city, Wells owes its medieval city status to its beautiful 13th century cathedral. Originally the site of a Roman mausoleum, an abbey church was built in Wells in 705 AD. A cathedral was built around 1175 in the new Gothic style and completed in 1306.
Wells Cathedral is breathtaking and features inverted Gothic arches and an incredible octagonal Chapter House. Inside, you will find the baptismal font of Bishop Aldhelm, which predates the cathedral by over 400 years. Do not miss the Wells Clock – the second oldest clock in Britain – with knights spinning and chimes ringing every quarter-hour. Nearby, the 14th-century Vicars’ Close is one of the best-preserved medieval streets in England.
Bath Abbey is a magnificent 16th century church built on the site of a once-vast Norman cathedral. Though ruined during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, it was soon restored by Elizabeth I and more recently by the City of Bath in the 19th century, helping to create the glorious site as it is found today.
Today, Bath Abbey represents a mixture of its many different restorative projects over the years. A number of its 16th-century features may still be viewed on its west front, such as the ornately carved West Door and large arched window. Inside, much of the 19th-century restoration efforts may be viewed, including the beautifully detailed vaulted ceiling overhead.
7. Dunster Castle
There was evidence that an Anglo-Saxon burgh existed prior the medieval castle being built by William de Mohun in 1086. The castle left the Mohun family when descendent John passed away in 1376 and it was sold to Lady Elizabeth Luttrell. During the English Civil War in 1640, the Luttrell family, who sided with the Parliamentarians, were ordered to increase the size of its garrison to protect it from Royalists. Still with the Luttrell family in 1867, they extensively refurbished the castle.
Incredibly, and with a few twists and turns involving crown ownership, the castle remained in the Luttrel family until 1976 when it was left to the National Trust. Today, it is a popular visitor attraction.
Although the original stone church of Glastonbury Abbey was constructed by Saxon King Ine of Wessex in around 712, a building on site is believed to have existed since the 1st century. The legend of King Arthur is also associated with Glastonbury Abbey, as in the 12th century it was believed that the tomb of the folkloric king and his wife Guinevere was found there. After a severe fire in 1184, a new great church was constructed and consecrated in 1213. Glastonbury Abbey thrived for a few more centuries until it was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1539.
Today, the picturesque ruins of Glastonbury Abbey are a popular tourist site. Many people come to see it for its stunning ruins, others to see the spot where Arthur and Guinevere’s tomb may have once lay.
9. Nunney Castle
Built by knight John de la Mare in 1373 under royal licence, Nunney Castle was intended to be both a grand residence, a display of de la Mare’s growing power and a stronghold for serious defence. The tower formerly stood within a larger courtyard which was enclosed on three sides by a wall and on a fourth by a brook. There were likely serveral buildings inside the courtyard. Extensively modernised in the 16th century, it was later besieged and ruined by order of Parliament during the English Civil War.
In 1926, it was taken into state guardianship, excavated and cleared of plants and rubble. Today, the ruins are open and free to visit. Make sure to look out for the annual Nunney Street Fayre, which is home to street food vendors and performers in the grounds of the castle.
10. The Bishop's Palace and Gardens
Home to the Bishops of the Diocese of Bath and Wells for 800 years, the Bishop’s Palace and accompanying Bishop’s House at Wells is designated as a Grade I listed building. The palace was originally built in around 1210. In the 14th century, more walls, a gatehouse and a moat were added, and the Bishop’s House was added in the 15th century. In the 1820s, grounds within the walls were planted as pleasure grounds.
Today, part of the Bishop’s Palace and Gardens are used by the Bishop of Wells Cathedral; however, most of it is open to the public, who can enjoy the Bishop’s private chapel and explore the ruined Great Hall. Also well-known are the stunning grounds, which are particularly popular in the summer because of the many varieties of plants and flowers, and swans which glide along the moat.