Bath Abbey
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History of Somerset

Discovery the history of Somerset from the beautiful cathedrals and abbeys to vital industries and stunning landscape that shaped the county we know now. We have picked out our favourite moments of Somerset's history to give you a flavour of the path this county has taken to get to where it is now. You may be surprised to hear how frequent the city of Bath was featured in Jane Austen's fiction.

The Old English word from which ‘Somerset’ is derived meant ‘people living in or dependent on Somerton’. The market town of Somerton, in south Somerset, continues to thrive but is no longer the largest or most important town in the county.

Somerset has a rich literary legacy. Much of Jane Austen’s fiction is set in Bath. William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived and worked in Porlock and Nether Stowey. Henry Fielding was born near Walton. Evelyn Waugh spent his final years in Combe Florey. And the ashes of TS Elliot are in East Coker.

Somerset is shrouded in myth and legend. According to legend, King Arthur is buried in Avalon, the mystical area around Glastonbury, where the abbey is said to be the world’s oldest church. Joseph Arimethea apparently donated his tomb to Jesus and travelled to Britain to request that a church should be built by Glastonbury Tor. According to another legend, the village of Wookey Hole is haunted by the ghost of a witch who once cursed a man from Glastonbury who was betrothed to a local girl.

An ancient track through the Somerset Levels known as the Sweet Track is thought to be the oldest engineered road to be discovered anywhere in the world. It is named after the peat-cutter who unearthed it and is believed to date back to roughly 3807BC. 

Somerset has many traditions, including the annual hobby horse ritual, on the night before May 1, when the horse dances through the streets of Minehead accompanied by musicians, tapping passers-by for money and lashing those who refuse with its tail. Farmer Michael Eavis started Glastonbury at his working farm in 1970, and it is now the biggest performing arts festival in the world. The globally popular activity of ten pin bowling is based on skittles, which originates in Somerset and is still played at many pubs, usually with nine wooden pins rather than 10. For centuries, Somerset has been famous for cider and there are still more than 30 farms in the county dedicated to its production. The term ‘scrumpy’ comes from a regional word meaning ‘small or withered apple’.

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