Somerset’s historic houses, museums and bonfire night traditions

Somerset’s historic houses, museums and bonfire night traditions

As the days get shorter and the weather more unreliable, there is no better time than to seek inspiration indoors at one of Somerset’s historic attractions. Significant parts of Somerset’s story can be told through its grand country homes. Montacute House, an imposing Elizabethan mansion just outside Yeovil, is a favourite with visitors, and it is open year round. Standing at the end of an avenue of yew trees, this three-storey, Ham stone house was completed in 1601 and has tall, stone mullion windows, with two Dutch-style gables at each end. It is owned by the National Trust and those who visit will get to see the 550-year-old Tournai tapestry, which has recently been returned for display after a few years of being spruced up. The cloth was bequeathed to the house and it features a knight on horseback. It is one of the few tapestries that remains from the 15th-century. Elsewhere, visitors can admire Elizabethan portraits loaned from the National Portrait Gallery in the Long Gallery, which is the longest of its kind in England.

Wells is brimming with historic sights. The medieval Bishop’s Palace has been the home to the bishops of Bath and Wells for more than 800 years. The 13th-century building has a moat, drawbridge and gatehouse, while inside, visitors can walk along the vaulted Undercroft, then through the Long Gallery, past the portraits of former bishops and into rooms filled with spiritual artefacts. The palace’s Great Hall lies in atmospheric ruins yet the Chapel is still standing and is a wonder of light-filled stained glass and delicate, Doulting stone arches.

Just a few minutes drive from Taunton, Hestercombe House and Gardens has a contemporary art gallery open inside the house. If it’s a dry autumnal day, the Georgian landscape garden outside is a delight, with its cascade, folly and alcove, as well as Edwardian formal gardens designed by Jekyll and Lutyens.

Other parts of Somerset’s history are told in the county’s museums. Somerset is famous for its cheese and cider making, so, for an insight into the county’s agricultural heritage, the Somerset Rural Life Museum in Glastonbury reveals all. Exhibits depict different country trades and the traditions of food production, with a peat boat once used on the Somerset Levels plus a handsome tithe barn to admire.

For an overview of Somerset through the ages, head to Taunton and the Museum of Somerset. Set in a reconstructed 12th-century castle, exhibits include the skull of a stone-age bear and cover Somerset’s pre-human landscapes, its Anglo-Saxon settlers and the growth of transport, towns and society. There is also a section on Somerset’s military regiments.

For something different, the superb collection of vintage British and American classic cars at the Haynes International Motor Museum - just outside Wincanton - will add shine to anyone’s day. Alternatively, the Fleet Air Arm Museum, near Ilchester, houses gleaming examples of Royal Navy aircraft, including a Concorde that visitors can board and a simulator that flies them by helicopter to an aircraft carrier, where a Phantom and a Buccaneer take off.

Remembering that it will soon be the 5th of November, unfortunately many of Somerset’s famed carnivals, which commemorate Guy Fawkes’ failed gunpowder plot, have been cancelled due to the pandemic. However, there are a few key bonfire events taking place to keep an eye out for. In Bridgwater there are plans for a Grand Firework Display in St Matthew’s Field on Friday, November 5, at 7.30pm. The event, which includes a fun fair, has been sponsored by the town council and on Saturday, there is also a Grand Costume Parade expected in Bridgwater Town Centre at 5.30pm.

In Wells, a fireworks extravaganza is promised at Wells City Football Club on Friday, November 5. Near Taunton, a fireworks night and disco is being planned at the Oake Manor Golf Club on November 6th and another firework display is on the cards at Shepton Mallet’s Rotary Club, on the same Saturday.

Fireworks and wildlife don’t mix well, of course, which is why at Marston Park, a stylish lakeside glamping site near Frome, quiet fireworks are being used for their two events over the weekend. Finally, time beside the bonfire can be followed by dinner at Durslade Farm - the site of the Hauser & Wirth art gallery - located between Bruton and Wincanton. A community bonfire begins at 5pm on Saturday, November 6, with tables in the warm at the Roth Bar and Grill restaurant available from 6pm afterwards.