Sophia Waugh hymns the unique spirit of her home county
In theory we could be self-sufficient, running our own kingdom, and sometimes, as one of England’s most rebellious counties, we are still tempted to try for devolution. We have moorland and Levels, old iron and coal mines, rivers and the sea. We can hunt our own meat, grow our own apples and tomatoes, and have the most famous cheese in the land.
For centuries the monarch was so afeard of Somerset that he would not visit it, even drawing the blinds of his train as it passed through the county town’s station. We formed behind Monmouth (scary Protestantism) and it is believed (well, by a few people anyway) that Jesus’s uncle Joseph of Arimathea brought the Holy Grail, carrying drops of Jesus’s blood, to Glastonbury. Arthur’s Camelot was just outside Glastonbury which is now, apart from the festival, a rather scary small town full of cultish shops.
My father’s approach was to be rude about Somerset in print, not because he did not love it, but because, terrified at the thought of the county changing, he wanted to put off tourists and retirees from invading us. I cannot help but sing the county’s praises.
We have everything you need, and everything you could crave. We have two cities (Bath, reclaimed from Avon, and Wells). We have more than our share of ancient monuments. While our villages are not so dinky as those of Gloucestershire, we have some fine architecture — Montacute is one of the best Tudor country houses in the land. Wiltshire may have Stonehenge, but we have The Fairy Toot. It’s not much to look at, being one of those old barrows which archaeologists love so much, but it cures warts, which is more than Stonehenge can claim.
Neither are we short of literary associations: Henry Fielding and Arthur C. Clarke were both Somerset men; Rattigan, Sidney Smith and the Waughs all lived in a small village near Taunton; Coleridge and the Wordsworths were neither the first nor last to appreciate the Quantock Hills and Shelley’s daughter is buried in a hillside churchyard behind an arched gate from which many rebels were hung by Judge Jeffreys.
But, like so many places, Somerset is more than the sum of its parts. It is a county to which many people, having fled what seemed dreary in youth, return long before they reach their pensions. We do not come back because of the cheddar or the cider; we come home because it is a county which reaches into the souls of its children. We come home because of the wide streak of warm red earth, because of the primroses which stud the banks, because of the wild sweep of Exmoor and the grey of the sea. We come home for the dampness in the air and the springs which are as beautiful as anywhere on God’s earth. We come home because here at least we do have ‘time to stand and stare’. It is no good if you live in Somerset, or even if you are just visiting, to be scratchy about the slow pace of life. When you are surrounded by cows being driven along the lane, turn off your engine, open your windows, and breathe in the smell of warm hide and grassy breath. When you are held up by the hunt, don’t bother blubbing about Bambi, but enjoy the spectacle of the hounds (only a pair at a time of course) for what it is – one of the oldest sports in history.
Not so very long ago, the English enjoyed something called a ‘driving tour’. At a slow pace, in a slow car, they would drive around the countryside, stopping at seaside towns, picnicking on the moor high above the sea, bickering about the pickle, but taking advantage of what England has to offer. Thundering coachloads of elderly people do arrive from Birmingham to walk slowly around towns such as Dulverton, but if you take yourself just a little further into the county there are still places, even tourist attractions, of memorable beauty. Maybe in these troubled times a driving tour is a way of leaving behind the city and calmly retrenching. Let your eye travel slowly over the lines of the hills and I defy you not to feel at peace.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 28, 2011