South Somerset's easy cycling in perfect English countryside makes for a lovely circular tour, with great scenery, great B&Bs and great pubs
Ham Hill is crunch time. Somerset is not the Pyrenees, or even the Pennines, but after 70 miles of gentle cycling, it still comes as a shock, ramping up till I’m standing on the pedals. A moment’s respite halfway up, but then it rears up again, a sunken lane overhung by trees. Another minute or two, arms straining with the legs, and there’s light at the end of the tunnel. As the road levels off, our horizon expands explosively.
Ten minutes intense effort brings us a view stretching over most of Somerset, but it’s more than a spectacular panorama tapestried in woods and hedgerows. It’s full of memories, fresh and vivid: the indignant piping of a wren disturbed in its foraging, the scent of ripening apples, the taste of blackberries. The muscles remember, too: they know the scale of those rolling hills, the way the lanes curl like the local accent.
There is a lot to appreciate in South Somerset, and the South Somerset Cycle Route does a great job of finding it. But cycling requires something more than linking a series of ‘attractions’. Cycling is about the journey itself, not just about reaching a destination. And two things in particular are crucial to maximum enjoyment: the roads themselves, and the refuelling opportunities.
Right from the start, things looked promising. Yeovil Junction station is a mile out of town and within a couple of minutes we were into quiet lanes. In fact, within half a mile we were in Dorset. Not a mistake, just flexibility in the route, dipping into the neighbouring county rather than plodding through the suburbs of Yeovil. A wise choice, especially as it takes us past the golden elegance of Sherborne Abbey church. The sun slipped from behind a cloud and the stones suddenly glowed.
From Sherborne’s sedate traffic - we must have crossed the A30 without realising it - we slipped quickly back into quiet, rolling lanes and soon, between Sandford Orcas and Corton Denham, back into Somerset. The route is littered with such names: Charlton Mackrell, Dowlish Wake and Keinton Mandeville could be characters from Trollope. Perhaps we had slipped through a time warp; the lack of traffic certainly made it feel that way.
Past the ancient earthworks of Cadbury Castle (a just-maybe-Camelot), we freewheeled down into gentler, more open country. Open, at least, when the lanes were not half-submerged under luxuriant hedgerows. We’d had a great pub lunch at the Catash Inn, North Cadbury; otherwise, we could easily have filled up on blackberries.
After Castle Cary, the lanes were flatter still, but equally narrow and equally indirect. Here we met our only traffic jam: a couple of hundred Friesians, apparently unattended, and seemingly in even less of a hurry than we were. Or perhaps it was suspicion that made them so slow to pass.
With bikes no longer spotless, we pressed on to Somerton, and more refreshments in the town square. The place felt almost French – maybe the unforced harmony of the soft stone buildings, maybe the flower stall under the market cross – but the tea was much too good.
Cycling lets you enjoy frequent refreshment stops yet still feel virtuous. And every now and then you find somewhere really special, like the Rose and Crown in Huish Episcopi. Known as ‘Eli’s’ after the grandfather of the present landlady, the pub has been in the same family for around 140 years, and has never been ‘themed’. Just for a moment, looking at the backs of the beer pumps, we wondered if we’d walked in the wrong door. But that’s just the way it is: no bar, only a central servery. Naturally the beer is real, and so is the food - cooked, not reheated.
With that inside us, and a farmhouse breakfast too, we were ready for a good long stint next morning. Mist on the levels gave a cool start, but the sun burned through and mazy lanes drew us on. Around Shepton Beauchamp, deep in cider country, the lanes were incised deep into the slopes; trees on either side reached towards each other, sometimes closing completely. We rode in soft dappled light down green tunnels.
Coffee in Ilminster, scrunched between hills, and then we finally turned east again. Ham Hill lurked on the horizon, but there was always something else to think about. A scattering of potatoes across the road: happenstance or a novel form of traffic calming? We slalomed through, then slowed to watch a buzzard circling overhead, low enough to catch the disdainful flash of its eye.
Somehow, for all its ducking and diving, the route got to the foot of Ham Hill, and then triumphantly to the top. In every way, Ham Hill is in exactly the right place. With 70 miles of 80 under your wheels, it is a perfect culmination. The last few miles, mostly downhill, allow just the right degree of unwinding. And there is one other thing about Ham Hill that turns good route design into genius. There is a pub on top.
Our luck was in: we arrived at the doors of the Prince of Wales just before they finished serving lunch. We appreciated the roasted pepper soup, with vibrant swirls of chive oil, and the chance to sit back with a reflective pint.
The mellow mood turned to exhilaration during the long freewheel down from Ham Hill. Missing the turning for Montacute – thanks to an idiot in a red BMW – couldn’t dampen our spirits. We carried straight on through Odcombe to regain the route. In our minds we had almost finished already. East Coker flashed past, and then Barwick Park, with its collection of follies. One of them is called Jack the Treacle Eater – one refuelling strategy we hadn’t tried.
Another turning, another lane, and then, sooner than expected, Yeovil Junction. The final approach was uphill, but only just, and the sun shone on the platforms.
Direct trains from London Waterloo: South West Trains
Direct trains from Bristol serve Castle Cary and Yeovil’s other station at Pen Mill.
Where to stay
There's lots of choice; we stayed at Cary Fitzpaine House, near Somerton, and Spring View, in Huish Episcopi.
Free route guide and accommodation listings are available from Tourist Information Centres in Somerset
There are a couple of short off-road sections, which could be walked. There’s no need for a full-on mountain bike and a good hybrid or touring bike would be ideal.
Bow Bridge Cycles, Langport Visitor Centre