There are few areas in the world more famously associated with cider than Somerset, so when I had the opportunity to take our Benimar Mileo 286 away for the weekend, I jumped at the chance to educate myself in the art of tasting one of my favourite tipples, while touring the beautiful county.
Sadly, I couldn’t persuade any of my friends to join me as co-driver – or chauffeur – so I had to come up with a plan for tasting the ciders without having to get behind the wheel afterwards. Luckily, driving your home around with you has the advantage of providing plenty of on-board storage – I decided that I would buy a bottle at each place that I visited in the West Country, ready for ‘testing’ in the following weeks.
I am not a cider connoisseur, nor an expert in any beverage, but I do enjoy the occasional sip. Taking inspiration from a Somerset cider and apple juice tourist map on the ‘Visit Somerset’ website, I decided to begin my tour towards the south of the county, in the village of Burrow.
Burrow Hill Farm is home to the Somerset Cider Brandy Company, the first producer in the UK to get a licence to distill brandy from its cider – an old craft that was last recorded in 1678. Since 1987, when the licence was granted, its two tower stills, Josephine and Fifi, have been producing the award-winning and unusual eaux de vie. You have to be pretty patient in this business, though, because it needs to mature for 20 years.
Working up a thirst
Luckily, that hard work had already been done when I rolled up in the Benimar. There is plenty of parking space in the yard, which is surrounded by historic buildings and backs on to the orchards, where you can see pigs and sheep grazing happily side by side.
By the entrance to the small shop are several interesting features; a bell with the label ‘ring for cider’ and a plate above the door reading ‘J Temperley licensed to sell cider and brandy’, both of which give an intriguing insight into the history of the place. There is also a notice pinned up with directions for the Orchard Walk, which customers are invited to take. Before I headed into the shop, I soaked up the beautiful sunshine strolling among the fruit-ladened apple trees providing shade for the grateful livestock.
At the bottom of the first orchard I came to an open gate and a track to the top of the hill in the next orchard, which has fantastic views across the Burrow Hill estate.
Returning to the shop, I was hot on the heels of a group who were being taken off for an organised tour. I hadn’t thought to book myself on one of these, so had to be content with eyeing up the many products; from ice cider to the special cider brandy and everything in between – including pickles and a cider apple sauce, which I picked up for my father.
Burrow Hill Farm’s shop is in a charmingly cluttered barn that smells reassuringly of old cider barrels, embracing the sweet amber liquid until it has fermented to perfection.
Mooching in Muchelney: Thorney Lakes
I bought myself a bottle of the good stuff and set off for my home for the night – Thorney Lakes and Caravan Park in Muchelney, near Langport. It is just a few miles away, but the lanes were rather narrow so I was relieved to arrive at my site.
Pitching up here is a delight – take your pick of plots in the orchard or head to the grass field; there are plenty of hook-up points and no set pitching plan.
I quickly made the ’van my home and had a cup of tea before heading out on foot to explore. Just a few minutes’ walk down the lane you’ll find the renowned John Leach’s Muchelney Pottery studio, which is interesting to browse. About a mile further on is Muchelney Abbey, the second-oldest religious foundation in Somerset.
Thorney Lakes is a peaceful place to stay, and not just because you can be surrounded by trees (I found a treasure trove of windfall apples) if you choose to pitch in the orchard. Walk down the paved lane and you’ll find the ‘lakes’ part of the site – well-stocked fishing lakes with plenty of bridges, providing an excellent place to relax, even if you don’t fish.
After my afternoon stroll, it was time to get dinner on the hob and crack open the first cider of my trip; the ideal refreshment for a sunny evening.
Barrington Court’s sugar daddy
The next day’s adventures began just a few miles from the site in the village of Barrington. The National Trust’s guardianship of Barrington Court began in 1907 and in those early days the delapidated building was a terrible drain on the Trust’s resources, but through the years it has kept the estate’s cider heritage going, even though the orchards have been dramatically reduced.
The hall and gardens are beautiful, although the inside of the property is sparse, with no furniture at all. It has been panelled and floored with salvaged wood from historic houses – a particular passion of Colonel Lyle’s, of Tate & Lyle sugar empire fame, who collaborated with the National Trust in the building’s refurbishment. The staircase, for example, was reclaimed from a Scottish castle. When I visited there was a display of Tudor costumes from the TV dramatisation of Wolf Hall; many of the rooms were used as sets in the BBC drama about Thomas Cromwell’s life, friendship with King Henry VIII and ultimate downfall.
There is so much to learn at this restored Tudor manor house that I spent far more time here than I intended, so decided to stay for lunch in Barrington Court’s very popular Strode House Restaurant, housed in the old stable block. With hardly a table free, but tempted by the homely cooking smells, I was just in the nick of time for a hearty lunch.
Perry’s Cider Mills, museum and tearoom
One of the best-known Somerset cider producers is Perry’s Cider Mills, who still use small-batch techniques and traditional farmhouse cider methods. In the original thatched 16th-century cider barn, where the business began, you’ll find a rural museum full of interesting machinery and explanations. Among the treasures are the two hydraulic presses, which were in use until 2013.
The collection of buildings is charming, with overflow parking in one of the orchards. I drove the motorhome in here before realising that the trees were just the right height to brush against the roof, but managed to find an appropriate spot outside a large shed.
Exploring the Perry Cider Mills museum left me feeling thirsty. Luckily, the farm shop – with plenty of barrels of cider for tasting and much more to buy – joins on to a charming tearoom, with a great selection of cakes to tempt me for the second time that day.
Perry’s labels, including those designed by Bristol-based screenprint artist Tom Frost, are reason enough to buy a bottle or two. It’s even tempting to buy one of each blend – just to make sure you’ve tried the whole range.
Finding Avalon – and Greenacres Camping
With my cider booty stowed, I eased the ’van out of the orchard and headed towards that night’s base, Greenacres Camping in Barrow Lane, North Wootton, near Shepton Mallet.
I got side-tracked when I saw a sign for Bower Hinton farm shop, where I stopped to buy food to cook for dinner. It has quite a selection of cider, beer and other local delicacies; it also has plenty of parking space so don’t let the narrow entrance stop you from visiting in your ’van. It is just off the A303, so it’s very convenient.
By the time I arrived at Greenacres Camping, I was ready to sit back in the ’van and relax. The pitches are laid out around the perimeter of large, green play areas; great for creating a sense of community. My farm-fresh produce made a tasty dinner to accompany my evening’s tipple; one of the lighter ciders from Perry’s, the Morgan Sweet.
I awoke the next morning to another beautiful, sunny day, which made the campsite glow with colour. I had just one more stop on my tour and made my way there, meandering through the beautiful Somerset countryside and looking out for places of interest en route. The Traveller’s Rest caught my eye as I approached my final cider producer along the A37. It was advertising local cider for sale, so I had to stop off to see what was on offer.
At this small pub, just off the main road, you can buy a 2.5-litre container of one of a selection of tapped local ciders, for very reasonable prices. The choice of ciders is always changing so it is worth popping back to see what they have on any given day.
I continued on to the Avalon Vineyard; down narrow, winding lanes, just a couple of miles from the A37. There is little turning space here, but don’t let that put you off.
The ivy-covered barn has a serving hatch, which the owner opens whenever customers turn up. While you’re sampling some of the unique cider, wine and honey mead, you’re likely to have Mika, the dog, winding around your ankles. Behind you are row upon row of vines. The whole place feels lush and green, like you’ve stepped into another world. (Don’t worry, they still have ‘Chip and PIN’ here!)
With my cider haul safely stowed in the back of the ’van I steeled myself for the long drive back to London.
I still have cider and apple juice producers to visit in the north and east of Somerset, but I will always be tempted to return to the great producers that I discovered on my first fascinating sweet cider tour.
Exploring the Perry Cider Mills museum left me feeling thirsty – luckily, the farm shop joins on to a charming tearoom