Boasting 4,171 square kilometres of natural beauty featuring two impressive gorges, one unique tor, a stunning national park and the highest sea cliffs on mainland Britain, it’s safe to say that Somerset is a county full of surprises.
As Dan from outdoor pursuits centre Exmoor Adventures comments, “Somerset is a fantastic county, with miles of coastline, stunning sea cliffs, open moorland, meandering rivers and much more! There are plenty of adventures to be had, as well as activities to try, around Somerset and Exmoor.”
Whether you consider yourself a bit of an amphibian and feel comfortable in the water, or are a solid land dweller, Somerset provides countless opportunities to try out a new outdoor activity in time for spring. So, if you’re lucky enough to be planning a stay in a Somerset holiday cottage this spring or summer, be sure to check out these exhilarating experiences!
When the sun shines and dapples off the sapphire blue seas that lap up on the Somerset coast, it’s only natural that we get that intense urge to dip our toes in the ocean. Of course, in the United Kingdom the water is often rather chilly for most of the year, so swimming outside can be more of an adrenaline activity than a relaxing bathe. Nonetheless, in the spring the water is just warm enough to make wild swimming a fun and exciting way to spend an afternoon.
Sian from The Girl Outdoors comments: “I love wild swimming in the summer and Somerset is full of beautiful spots for a dip. Claverton Weir is perfect for a dip and a picnic (and there's a secret rope swing to find), or you can cycle along the canal from Bristol to Bath and jump in the river by Bitton.”
Calverton Weir is a lovely spot, both for paddling and longer swimming sessions. Spanning a length of 100 metres, the weir meanders through the beautiful Avon Valley, among meadows, ferry-crossing steps and woodland. This is the perfect spot for a leisurely swim, but the outdoor setting can add some excitement, making it the ideal wild swimming experience for beginners.
Swimming is a delightful way to spend a day for friends, couples and families alike, but if you’re looking to turn up the adrenaline somewhat, why not try out watersports in Somerset? Home to some of the best beaches in the country, Somerset is the perfect place to try out a new activity that will get those endorphins firing!
Dan agrees, saying: “With the sun making an appearance and temperatures rising, water sports provide a tranquil and fun option for all ages.” He suggests, “Why not try stand-up paddle boarding around the sheltered coastal waters of Porlock Bay or canoeing along the Tiverton Canal?”
The beauty of Somerset’s watersports is that there is something to suit every ability and preference, whether you’re looking for something fast and exhilarating or a little more leisurely. Stand-up paddle boarding, or SUP, is the perfect way to explore calm waters at your own pace as you kneel or stand on a board and propel yourself with a large paddle. Alternatively, kayaking offers a real sense of freedom, allowing one or two people to paddle along areas such as the River Bearle or the Taunton Canal. You can take it steady or push the pace to feel yourself glide along at a graceful speed.
Seeking a challenge? Learn a new skill by trying out sailing on one of the many lakes, reservoirs and marinas in Somerset. With many training centres in the area offering Royal Yachting Association qualifications, you could learn to ride everything from dinghies to yachts. The perfect bonding activity, this fun and hands-on process will build confidence and get the whole family chipping in!
We all know that Somerset is the home of the famous Wookey Hole, the famous caves near Wells that legend claims are the old haunt of a witch. According to myth, the witch was jealous of the romance between a local couple from Glastonbury, and cursed the relationship to fail. However, later, the man, now a monk, went into the caves to bless the water, splashing it upon the witch, who was petrified and thus remains in the cave to this day. A 1000-year-old skeleton of a woman was discovered in the caves in 1912, which some believe to be the legendary witch’s remains.
Today, thousands of tourists visit Wookey Hole every year to discover the story of the envious witch. Although a tour through the show cave may get your heart racing when you hear of the site’s mysterious history, there are actually various activities on offer at the caves that are perfect for thrill-seekers.
One of the best of these is the Wild Wookey Caving Experience, an adventure caving experience with an edge. The programme, which was designed and created by a small team of dedicated and inspired cavers, is a specialised experience that goes beyond the introductory excursion to feature unique site-specific technical features. These include everything from abseiling, traversing over deep water and Via Ferrata climbs to navigation challenges through the labyrinthine passages illuminated with glow sticks and filled with obstacles such as slopes, ropes, crawls, stoops and more.
Becca Burne is a specialist cave guide at the Wild Wookey Caving Experience, and she explains: “Wookey Hole is a world famous show cave but there is much more ‘behind the scenes’ and the Caving Experience mission route closely parallels this in certain places, but breaks away to do its own thing, culminating in 'an interesting manoeuvre' and an awesome abseil.... intrigued? You should be!”
If you love the idea of scaling towering walls in the glorious sunshine, with spectacular views over the Somerset countryside, you should head to Cheddar Gorge. The area, famous for its sweeping cliffs reaching up to 450 feet and its stalactite caverns, is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, but it is also a famous hub for rock climbing.
David Thorpe from Cheddar Gorge explains: “The world-famous Cheddar Gorge is a haven for wildlife, an international centre for caving and rock climbing… and arguably the best picnic spot in the country! For some visitors, however, the ultimate way of exploring Cheddar Gorge and Caves from top to bottom just has to be Cheddar Gorge Rocksport, which offers adventure caving, and rock climbing. Led by a team of highly-trained guides, it’s hard, dirty and fun - and suitable for beginners.”
The climbing here varies from the beginner-friendly, where you can join a group to ‘learn the ropes’ and try out your first ascents, to routes suitable for experienced climbers. If you are already a climber, you will find hundreds of sport- and trad-climbing routes in the Gorge, all of which will push you to climb just that little bit harder – and higher!
As David notes, however, you don’t have to be into dangling off the side of a cliff to enjoy the Gorge. He comments that “it is also possible to enjoy one of the country’s most stunning walks - a three-mile circuit around the cliff tops on both sides of the Gorge, accessed by the 274 steps of Jacob’s Ladder.” So there’s still some element of climbing involved!
He continues, “For the adventurous and less adventurous alike, Cheddar’s two famous show caves are not to be missed. Gough’s Cave is widely recognised as one of the most beautiful stalactite caverns in the world. It was here that Cheddar Man, the oldest complete skeleton found in Britain, was discovered in 1903. The story of the formation, discovery and history of the cave is brought to life by an audio-guided tour. Dreamhunters, in Cox’s Cave, is a spectacular multi-media walk-through experience which makes full use of a dramatic natural setting to take the visitor on a journey through pre-history.”
Those who just can’t get enough of the gravity-defying experience, Somerset also offers some excellent activities in the form of tree climbing. Of course, all of us have shimmied up an apple tree during our youth, but Exmoor Adventures take it to a whole new level with their safety-conscious, yet exhilarating, excursions.
Dan explains: “For families wanting a less energetic option than high-speed watersports, we deliver tree climbing activities in the beautiful setting of Horner woodlands. There's a challenge for all ages and abilities, from 5 year-olds through to 65 year-olds!”
Harnessed and roped up to some of Somerset’s biggest trees, you will face the challenge of scaling branches and specialist climbing holds as high as you dare. Set in a beautiful private woodland close to Porlock, this brilliant activity is perfect for families with children, as the whole group will learn how to climb and belay, building trust and confidence whilst having a lot of fun. Plus, at the top of the tree you will have unrivalled views across the luscious green landscape!
Hiking Glastonbury Tor
While adrenaline-inducing may mean wiggling through dark caves and climbing lofty rocks to some, to others it simply means taking a brisk hike on a challenging trail. If you don’t want to push yourself totally outside of your comfort zone, but still fancy trying something active, why not spend a day out from your luxury cottage taking on a refreshing hike?
Jo from the blog Slummy Single Mummy suggests: “One of my favourite outdoor spots in Somerset is Glastonbury Tor. It has this wonderfully iconic status, but has been a huge part of my life growing up in and around Somerset and I couldn't tell you how many times I've climbed it with various friends, family and boyfriends over the years! It's not a massive climb, but enough to get the blood pumping, and the views from the top on a good day are spectacular. It's a must if you're in the area.”
Not only is Glastonbury Tor a brilliant hiking spot, it is also an area of historical and spiritual significance, drawing thousands of visitors each year for this reason. Considered one of the most sacred pagan sites in the country, it is easy to see why Glastonbury Tor is given special qualities, as it stands out high above the surrounding area as if placed there by an unknown force. In fact, King Arthur and his Nnights of the Round Table were said to have visited the Tor, so you’ll be among good company on this Somerset pilgrimage!
Boasting Exmoor, cliff paths, the Blackdown Hills and the Mendips, it’s no surprise that the varied terrain of Somerset entices hundreds of mountain bikers each year. With a mixture of easy and technical routes available to try out, Somerset is the perfect place to take to two wheels.
Dan comments on this, saying, “Cycling is continuously growing in popularity, with a large number of road events around Somerset. Exmoor hosts over 400 miles of fantastic bridleways for mountain bikers looking for an adrenaline fix.”
If you’re looking to take on some of the more difficult mountain biking routes in Somerset such as those in the area between Bridgewater and Taunton, you should have lots of experience riding off-road, because here there are lots of steep drops, rough areas of terrain and considerable exposure on the trails. These red and black-graded trails should be avoided by novices! However, intermediate mountain bikers could visit the Blackdown Hills, which are particularly exciting during the summer when the conditions are most stable. The Leigh Woods are also home to the Yer Tiz Trail, a moderate blue grade of narrow paths weaving through the woodland.
Whether you opt for an intensive session of jumps and tricks for the experienced biker, or simply develop your skills on a hilly route, mountain biking in Somerset is sure to get your heart racing!
Outdoor activity centres
Perhaps several of these suggestions of exciting things to do in Somerset have sparked your interest, but you’re not sure which activity to dedicate your time to. If this is the case, it might be worth planning a day out to one of the county’s renowned outdoor pursuits centres. Here, you can try your hand at various different sports and activities, all led by professional instructors.
The Mill on the Brue outdoor activity centre is one of the most popular in the area. Tricia from the Brue explains why their centre makes for such a great family day out:
“Get tired and grubby, but with a huge sense of achievement at tackling exciting and challenging outdoor activities. Depending on age and experience there is something for everyone from 6 to 80+. We offer over forty activities, games and tasks, from adrenaline-busting ones such as zip wires across the valley and a climbing tower with a high jump and high ropes, to archery, animals, pizza cooking in a clay oven, canoeing, fire lighting and many more - the programme is packed and varied.
“The activities inspire both children and adults to get outside more, and to try something they have never done before. Life is all about equipping people with the right skills to deal with it - the outdoors encourages persistence, problem solving and leadership, plus developing team work values including communication, trust, support, and many more. Experiential learning always makes more of an impression. And, of course, it needs to be fun!”
Image credits: Exmoor Adventures, Wild Wookey Caving Experience, Cheddar Gorge, Mill on the Brue.