A matter of time

Nick Harding takes two short breaks in the beautiful counties of Somerset and Wiltshire – and wishes that he could stay for longer…

Go west... but not too far west! There’s a stretch of Somerset and Wiltshire that covers lots of tourism hotspots as well as a wealth of lesser-known attractions. Both counties surely merit extensive articles in their own right. In fact, as if to prove the point, we – me, my partner Lin and our dog, Bonnie – ended up splitting our tour into two parts. The first few days were tentatively designated ‘Mainly Somerset’; then, a few weeks later, we enjoyed ‘Mainly Wiltshire’.

Was there a warm welcome for us? You bet there was. The Club network serves this area of England well. There are also plenty of Certificated Locations (CLs) – with some really interesting and unusual options available, but more on that later. We began our adventure at Mudgley in Somerset, around 12 miles south-east of Weston-super-Mare.


Haynes Red Room

“What do you want?” That’s what you’ll most likely be (politely) asked when you turn up at the Wilkins Cider farm, which sits at the top of Mudgley Hill (not a venture you should be taking with your caravan hitched up). To explain the question: you’re expected to try before you buy, which means making a choice between dry and sweet cider, drawn direct from the barrel, although a lot of folk find a mix (‘half ’n’ half’ in local lingo) more to their taste.

These are ciders at their very purest – made right here, using only cider apples. We ordered a four-litre mix of two-thirds dry and one-third sweet – at a cost of just £8. It’s even cheaper if you bring your own containers. (And no, we weren’t tempted to fill up our fresh water tank.)

Also available are some of the best Cheddar and Stilton cheeses you’ll ever taste, plus seasonal fruit and veg, as well as an extensive choice of locally produced pickles and jams. We bought cheese, plus a small jar of pink pickled eggs to enjoy in the ’van later on, along with some of our own, home-made chutney that I’d thoughtfully packed!

If Roger Wilkins is cider-making royalty, the West Country’s king of cars is John Haynes OBE. His eponymous Motor Museum, in the village of Sparkford, was founded on a publishing empire known worldwide for its Haynes Manuals, which offered step-by-step advice on car maintenance. The first such manual came about when John put together his own Austin ‘750 Special’ while still at boarding school. 

Today, the museum features hundreds of cars bought, owned and used by John Haynes. Each is in beautiful condition and still gets some drive time outdoors. Our highlights included a Ford Anglia 105 (my first car, although it was a 123E in Harry Potter green with white trim), Minis (we’ve both owned these in the past), a Mercedes 280SL (my dream) and a Land Rover Series 2 Pick-up (Lin’s). 

Never a Dul’ moment 

Wimbleball Lake by Stephen Ewing

Our base for the next two nights was Exmoor House Club Campsite in Dulverton, winner of a coveted Sites to Inspire award in 2022, as voted for by members. You could hear the rushing, busy River Barle from our pitch – all very relaxing, to the point of being soporific. 

One of the highlights of our stay here was a trip to the National Trust’s Montacute House, an Elizabethan mansion just over an hour’s drive from Dulverton, with lots of lovely scenery en route. There’s free parking at the house and our visit coincided with the Elizabethan Tour of the exterior, which informs about the architecture, window designs, how guests would arrive, the gardens and their layouts, and more. Inside the house, one of the guides highlighted details on some of the paintings using an LED torch – rooms are kept deliberately dark to prevent damage caused by sunlight.

We headed back to the site ready for dinner – we had spotted a few eateries at the start of the day that merited some attention. We hadn’t thought to reserve at Woods Restaurant in Dulverton, but we struck lucky as when we turned up there was a spare table for 45 minutes, and it was dog-friendly. Owner Paddy explained how he farms during the day, and that the results are served in his award-winning restaurant at night. There’s a cosy, friendly atmosphere here, and it’s obviously well-loved by locals, who are happy to come in just for a drink.

Dulverton is large enough to be home to a number of independent shops – butcher, bookseller, delicatessen, hardware store – as well as its own Heritage Centre, each adding to the atmosphere of the town. 

As with so many of the Club’s site managers, you’ll find it easy to fall into conversation with Debbie and Keith, now in their seventh year at Exmoor House. Debbie filled us in with some local details: “We’re 45 minutes to the north and south coasts. There’s also Wimbleball Lake, for kayaking, sailboarding, canoeing – nine miles away. You can walk around it, and fish in it. Quite a few visitors go fishing on the River Barle right here, too. A permit’s only £35 for the year. The walk to Tarr Steps on Exmoor is a particular favourite. There’s a farmers’ market the last Saturday of the month and the cinema in the town hall shows films on Fridays.” Phew!  

Pots of fun

Burnham on Sea by member Sammy Cheung

About an hour’s drive to the south-east, Ilminster Club Campsite sits on the edge of the Blackdown Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. You could use it as a base to explore the likes of Chard, Taunton and Ilminster itself, while the seaside delights of Lyme Regis are fewer than 40 minutes away if you want to drive. Our priority, though, was to visit John Leach’s Muchelney Pottery.

Bernard Leach is known as “the father of British studio pottery”, but it was his grandson John who founded the business here in Muchelney, on the Somerset Levels. Fired in batches, the hand-thrown, robust-looking pieces come out lighter or darker in finish depending on where in the kiln they’ve been placed. Featuring distinctive ‘fire-licked’ decoration, no two pieces are the same.

Our stay coincided with Somerset Art Weeks. That’s right... weeks. In 2023, the event will run from 16 September to 1 October. Traditionally, hundreds of artists host exhibitions and events in more than 100 venues such as loft spaces, stables, churches, farms and libraries.

An alternative Club campsite to consider for a Somerset holiday is Hurn Lane. Close to the Bristol Channel, it’s very popular with beach-lovers, especially during the summer. As well as the sands of Weston-super-Mare, Brean (where you can park on the beach), Burnham-on-Sea and nearby Berrow, other key attractions in this area include Cheddar Gorge and Wookey Hole, the latter for its caves (a great place to visit when the weather gets too hot). Glastonbury Tor is also well worth a visit. A walk to the top of the hill and the roofless St Michael’s Tower rewards with far-reaching views of the surrounding Summerland Meadows (part of the Somerset Levels), as well as Glastonbury itself.  

The final stopover on our ‘Mainly Somerset’ leg was Hilltops CL, near Langport to the south-west of Glastonbury. We couldn’t have picked a better time to visit, arriving late afternoon as glorious sunshine illuminated views across this wonderful county, and at least two others. 

Although I’ve visited possibly hundreds of CLs during my time touring, we’ve never had a welcome quite like that from Hilltops owner Shelley: “Would you like to try some turmeric latte?” Homemade, using oat milk and local honey, with a final flourish of black pepper, it was absolutely delicious – we have since made attempts to replicate Shelley’s recipe at home. 

If you’re at Hilltops in July, you’ll have a direct view down onto the Somerset Steam and Country Show, at Low Ham. And if this sort of engineering interests you, you really are in for a massive treat. Shelley’s husband, Brian, doesn’t need too much encouragement to show you some of his current restoration works – including a 1925 Bull Nose Morris, a Paxman steam engine and a David Brown tractor.

Long days

Longleat by member Mel Small

Basing ourselves at Longleat Club Campsite for the Wiltshire section of our tour made perfect sense. We couldn’t resist the safari park – the first such venue outside South Africa when it opened in 1966 – but first we wanted to visit another nearby attraction, the National Trust house and gardens at Stourhead.

Home to furniture designed by Chippendale the Younger as well as the famous Library lunette window (created by painting two panes of thin glass on both sides), the villa at the heart of the Stourhead estate is a sight to behold. But perhaps more impressive are the extensive gardens, where you will find architectural features such as ‘The Grotto’, ‘The Temple of Apollo’ and ‘The Pantheon’, which was inspired by Rome’s ancient classical original.

Back at Longleat, the wildlife rightly steals the show. You could embark on the famed drive-through safari – which takes you through zones such as ‘Tiger Territory’, ‘Lion Country’ and ‘Wolf Wood’ – or consider a walking experience that gives you the opportunity to encounter smaller animals such as meerkats and koalas or even hand-feed beautiful rainbow-coloured lorikeets. Afterwards a visit to the House is a must – tours of the ground and first floors include the Elizabethan Great Hall, State Rooms and take in an incredible collection of paintings, furniture, silverware and tapestries. As if that isn’t enough, there’s still a hedge maze to escape, a miniature railway to ride on and an Adventure Castle playground for younger visitors to enjoy.

All this exploring can be hard work – we discovered the Cross Keys Inn in the hamlet of Lyes Green was the perfect place to relax; it’s only a 10-minute drive from the Longleat campsite.

Heading northwards, another CL to consider in this area is Toplands Farm in Chippenham. Based on a stud farm, the site gives visitors the opportunity to witness more marvellous wildlife in the form of resident ponies and sheep as well as red kites, buzzards, hares and badgers. 

If you can tear yourself away from all the peace and quiet, Toplands Farm is well placed for visiting Bath (11 miles), which could easily fill two or three days of a holiday. Granted it may not be in Wiltshire, but with its Roman Baths, abbey and Georgian buildings, the attractive, compact city centre is not to be missed. Try and set some time aside for the impressive array of shops and restaurants, too.  

Then there’s Avebury (19 miles from the CL), home to the largest neolithic stone circle in Britain. Originally, there were 100 stones here, and part of the village can even be found within the circle!

Another must-visit attraction, just 12 miles to the west (and actually in Gloucestershire) is the Avon Valley Railway. We nearly missed our train (!), arriving with a minute to spare at Bitton Station, and having been ushered by volunteers into one of the few remaining spaces in the car park. There are only three miles of track to navigate but the steam-powered experience was highly evocative and will live long in the memory.

We intended to finish our trip by dipping our toe into Hampshire at Winchester (formerly Winchester Morn Hill) Club Campsite, but sadly ran out of time. About an hour and a quarter’s drive east of Longleat, this recently renovated site features a new facilities block, more pitches and a dedicated electric vehicle charging station in the car park. What’s more, it’s just a seven-minute drive from the centre of Winchester, and is even closer to Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium – the perfect venue for inquiring minds.

Talking of which, I might just enquire when the magazine next needs a journalist to explore this beautiful part of the world further…

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Family of three outside their caravan on a sunny day

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