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Out and About - Somerset and Bristol

[Welcome to Somerset]Somerset is a county in South West England. The county town is Taunton, which is in the south of the county. The county of Somerset borders the counties of Bristol and Gloustershire to the north, Wiltshire to the east, Dorset to the south-east, and Devon to the south-west. It is partly bounded to the north and west by the coast of the Bristol Channel and the estuary of the River Severn. The traditional northern border of the county is the River Avon, but the administrative boundary has crept southwards, with the creation and expansion of the City of Bristol, and latterly the county of Avon and its successor Unitary Authorities in the north.

Somerset is a rural county of rolling hills such as the Mendip Hills, Quantock Hills and Exmoor National Park, and large flat expanses of land including the Somerset Levels. There is evidence of human occupation from Neolithic times, and subsequent settlement in the Roman and Saxon periods. Later, the county played a significant part in the consolidation of power and rise of King Alfred the Great, the English Civil War and the Monmouth Rebellion.

There are some fantastic opportunities for photography in the county, both wildlife and landscape. There are some magical places such as Glastonbury Tor, well worth a visit.

The Hills

Somerset has six main hilly areas: Brendon Hills, Blackdown Hills, Exmoor, Mendip Hills, Polden Hills and the Quantock Hills.

Exmoor and Blackdown Hills are shared with Devon, but the rest are in Somerset. Because things change all the time I will not be writing much on each area but putting links to help you get better information. Having visited all of these areas all I can say is that they are all very special places and all worth a visit.

Brendon Hills

The Brendon Hills are a range of hills in west Somerset, England. The hills merge level into the eastern side of Exmoor and are included within the Exmoor National Park. The highest point of the range is Lype Hill at 1,388 feet (423 m). The terrain is broken by a series of deeply incised streams and rivers running roughly southwards to meet the River Haddeo, a tributary of the River Exe. The hills are quite heavily cultivated unlike their neighbouring upland areas of Exmoor and the Quantock Hills.

The hills are on the route of the Coleridge Way and are also crossed by the Samaritans Way. Here is also some more walks - http://www.gps-routes.co.uk/routes/home.nsf/routeslinkswalks/brendon-hills-walking-route.

Blackdown Hills

Straddling the borders of Somerset and Devon, the Blackdown Hills AONB covers an area of 370 square kilometres (143 sq mi). Heavily cut with sharp valleys, the hills reach their highest point of 315 metres (1,033 ft) above sea level at Staple Hill in Somerset. The hills in the southern part of the area, near Honiton in Devon, are gentler. The Blackdown Hills are a sparsely populated area; much of the land is used for dairy farming.

See the following websites for more information:


[Exmoor national park sign]Exmoor is loosely defined as an area of hilly open moorland in West Somerset and North Devon. It is named after the River Exe, the source of which is situated in the centre of the area, two miles north-west of Simonsbath. The highest point on Exmoor is Dunkery Beacon; at 519 metres (1,703 ft) it is also the highest point in Somerset.

The Exmoor National Park website will give you all the information you need if you are visiting the area.

Mendip Hills

[mendip hills]The Mendip Hills is a range of limestone hills to the south of Bristol and Bath in Somerset, England. Running east to west between Weston-Super-Mare and Frome, the hills overlook the Somerset Levels to the south and the Chew Valley and other tributaries of the Avon to the north. The higher, western part of the hills, covering 198 km2 (76 sq mi) has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), which gives it a level of protection comparable to a national park.

See the following websites for more information:

Polden Hills

The Polden Hills are a long, low ridge, extending for 10 miles (16 km), and separated from the Mendip Hills, to which they are nearly parallel, by the Somerset Levels. They are now bisected at their western end by the M5 motorway and a railway, the Bristol and Exeter Railway, part of the Great Western Main Line. Great Breach and Copley Woods near Compton Dundon is a Nature Conservation Review Woodland Site, owned and managed by the Somerset Wildlife Trust. It has been designated as a biological Site of Special Scientific Interest because of the invertebrate population. The Polden Hills are a very important area for the very rare Large Blue Butterfly.

See the following websites for more information:

Quantock Hills

[Quantock hills]The Quantock Hills is a range of hills west of Bridgwater in Somerset, England. The Quantock Hills were England's first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, being designated in 1956, and consist of large amounts of heathland, oak woodlands, ancient parklands and agricultural land. The hills run from the Vale of Taunton Deane in the south, for about 15 miles (24 km) to the north-west, ending at Kilve and West Quantoxhead on the coast of the Bristol Channel. They form the western border of Sedgemoor and the Somerset Levels. From the top of the hills on a clear day, it is possible to see Glastonbury Tor and the Mendips to the east, Wales as far as the Gower Peninsula to the north, the Brendon Hills and Exmoor to the west, and the Blackdown Hills to the south. The highest point on the Quantocks is Wills Neck, at 1,261 feet (384 m).

See the following websites for more information:

Lakes and Reservoirs

In Somerset and south Bristol area there are several Reservoirs and Lakes which apart from being stunning places to visit are a magnet for wildlife both local and passing through. I have not included water areas in the Avalon Marshes which I will talk about in a different section. Here are the six main areas of water in the Somerset area.


Blagdon sits upon the Mendip hills and commands a stunning view of the Yeo Valley. It can be approached by road from various directions and is little more than 30 minutes drive from Bath, Bristol, Wells or Weston-super-Mare. The lake is relatively shallow, with an average depth of 14 ft (4.3 m) and only 42 ft (13 m) at its deepest point near the dam at the west end of the lake. The eastern end is the shallowest where the River Yeo enters the lake.

The lake is well known for trout fishing from its banks. The suction tanks which originally supplied water to the steam boilers for the pumping engines are now used as rearing pools for the fish before they are transferred into the lake. On average 50,000 trout are reared at Blagdon each year by Bristol Water to stock this and surrounding lakes such as Chew Valley Lake and the Barrow Tanks.

Plenty of birds here too, good spot for Great White Egrets and many migrant birds. Go to the Blagdon Lake Birds website for more information. Permits might be needed in certain areas.

Barrow Gurney Reservoirs

Barrow Gurney Reservoirs (grid reference ST5468) (also known as Barrow Gurney Tanks or Barrow Tanks) are three artificial reservoirs for drinking water near the village of Barrow Gurney, which lies southwest of Bristol, England. They are known by their numbers rather than names. They are fed by several springs including one which becomes the Land Yeo. Some of the outfall is also used to feed the river which flows to the Bristol Channel. There are three reservoirs in total, one (Tank number three, 60 acres (24 ha) to the north of the A38 and two (Tank number one, 25 acres (10 ha) and number two, 40 acres (16 ha) to the south. Again this is an area for fishing but plenty of birds drop in here and is worth keeping an eye on. Again permits might be needed contact visitor centre at Chew Valley Lakes.

Chew Valley lake

[entrance to one of the hides]Chew Valley reservoir was formed in 1956 by damming the course of the River Chew. It is 486 hectares (1200 acres) in extent and has a perimeter of some 8 miles and because of its size it is difficult without a decent telescope to see birds in the middle. Chew has been designated as a Special Conservation Area (SCA) and is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) within the Mendip Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). It holds internationally important numbers of certain wildfowl species and the winter gull roost regularly exceeds 50,000 birds. The reservoir is a favourite with fishermen and there is a sailing club that operates all year in a restricted part of the lake. The lake, therefore, is subject to some disturbance from these activities but the southern end (Herriott's) has been designated as a nature reserve. At the north of the reservoir there are public footpaths such as the "Bittern" and "Grebe" trails and car parks by the dam in an area called "picnic 1 & 2". Here there are plenty of toilets and refreshments with children's play park.

But there are many areas were you will need to buy a permit to visit the hides and walk around the restricted areas. Annual bird watching permits may be obtained from Woodford Lodge or, day permits may be obtained from the refreshment area by the dam and bird wardens. This gives permit holders access to the hides at Villice Bay, Nunnery Point, Moreton Bank, Stratford Bay and Sutton Wick. But there is good free viewing from the roadside lay-bys at Heron's Green and Herriott's Bridge which is at the southern end of the reservoir. Go to the CVL Birding website for up-to-date information and sightings.

Cheddar Reservoir

[cheddar reservoir]Cheddar Reservoir again run by Bristol Water is compact, about 3.5km in circumference. It can be covered in a couple of hours or so and the path is level and easily accessible. This apart from seeing the wildlife is a great family walk, especially with the Mendips as a background. There is ample free parking, shared with other recreational reservoir users. I have found that autumn and winter are good times to visit especially after bad weather when "wrecked" seabirds may be blown in. I would also go in mid-week if you are going to watch or take photos of the birds as summer evenings and weekends can easily be disrupted by other users, particularly yachtsmen and windsurfers. There are also joggers and dog-walkers, but patience and tolerance is required as they have as much right as you to be there. No permits are required here to my knowledge.

Chard Reservoir

[the hide]Chard Reservoir a really pleasant and friendly place to visit - some of the locals I met were clearly very proud of their wild place. The reserve includes 48 acres of open water important for migratory wildfowl, and also has woodland and hay meadows. The north and eastern fringes are fished and there is a brilliant bird hide at the south end, which is positioned well out into the water giving a view of most of the open water. I think a few other reserves could learn from this place. The site is well-hidden from all but the closest houses and many shoppers in nearby Chard town, which is only a mile away, may be completely unaware of the existence of this substantial stretch of water. The nature reserve has a diverse mixture of habitats, including open water, reed beds, meadows, and woodland with many different tree species. There is a boardwalk which borders the reservoir, but it is not possible to walk the whole way around the water without using the road as it seems some of the reservoir bank is privately owned. The paths are suitable for most wheelchairs and buggies and there is a free car park close to the entrance. There are signs from the centre of the town and I found it fairly easy to find. The reserve is run by South Somerset Council and Chard Reservoir Nature Reserve webiste is great to visit.

Sutton Bingham Reservoir

Sutton Bingham reservoir which is run by Wessex Water was built in the 1950s to supply water to Yeovil. The remains of Sutton Mill are under the water, and close to the shore is the 12th century Church of All Saints. It now provides a great area for overwintering wildfowl and migrant birds. The reservoir offers an opportunity to see a wide range of wildlife. There is a short, easy walk along a section of the western bank which will take you through traditional hay meadows, rich in wildlife, to a viewing point. There is a visitor guide that describes the many plant, bug, butterfly, bat and bird species you may encounter along the way which can be obtained from their website. The reservoir is visited by passing osprey in the spring and autumn and nesting facilities have been added for a variety of birds. Access for groups to non-public areas can be organised by the ranger. It is also used for fishing, and sailing by Sutton Bingham Sailing Club and the Sutton Bingham and District Canoe Club.

The Avalon Marshes

At the heart of Somerset lie the Avalon Marshes and its nationally important nature reserves. In the last 50 years wildlife has thrived as abandoned peat workings have been transformed and restored to lush wetlands, many of which are now designated as National Nature Reserves.

Covering around 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres), the nature reserves are a haven for a broad array of wildlife and offer the chance to see some unusual species, rarely seen elsewhere. There are many habitat types to discover including open water, reed-bed, mire, fen, meadow and wet woodland. Access is provided by numerous tracks, trails and hides. Go to the Avalon Marshes website for all the main information you need.

There are 9 main Reserves, some have expanded and their names changed over the last couple of years.

  1. Catcott Complex is run by Somerset Wildlife Trust
  2. Ham Wall is run by the RSPB
  3. Huntspill River is run by the Environment Agency
  4. Shapwick Heath is run by Natural England
  5. Shapwick Moor is run by the Hawk and Owl Trust
  6. Street Heath is run by the Somerset Wildlife Trust - access is possible but can be difficult contact http://www.somersetwildlife.org/restricted-reserves.html
  7. Yarley Fields is run by the Somerset Wildlife Trust
  8. Westhay Heath is run by the Somerset Wildlife Trust - Permit needed
  9. Westhay Moor is run by the Somerset Wildlife Trust

Facebook page that's useful is Avalon Marshes facebook site

Another useful website is Avalon Wildlife

So many great places to see in a small area, unfortunately there is a dark side. Many people have come back to their cars to find they have been broken into, so be careful where you park and don't leave anything on show.

Bridgwater Bay

[beware]Bridgwater Bay is on the Bristol Channel, 5 kilometres (3.1 miles) north of Bridgwater in Somerset at the mouth of the River Parrett. It consists of large areas of mud flats, saltmarsh, sand flats and shingle ridges, some of which are vegetated. It has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) since 1989, and is also as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention. In addition to the rivers, Parrett, Brue and Washford several of the man-made drainage ditches, including the River Huntspill, from the Somerset Levels, including the "Pawlett Hams", also drain into the bay.

The National Nature Reserve itself is a large reserve run by Natural England. The site is approximately 5 km north of the town of Bridgwater and comprises the lower reaches of the River Parrett and its estuary, where it flows into the Bristol Channel. Along the coast the site extends north to the town of Burnham-on-Sea and as far west as the village of Lilstock.

The reserve consists largely of intertidal mudflats with saltmarsh, sand flats and shingle ridges, some of which are vegetated. The Bristol Channel has the second largest tidal range in the world and this exposes huge mudflats and sand banks in the area. The site has an important bird population with approximately 190 species recorded on the reserve. Large numbers of wintering waders and waterfowl visit the site and some species use the area as a stop-off on migration routes. Vegetation at the site is an important food source for some birds and parts of the saltmarsh are grazed by sheep to maintain a palatable sward for wigeon grazing.

The reserve can also be accessed via the River Parrett Trail which follows the river from its source to the Bristol Channel and passes through Bridgewater. Much of the coastline within the western part of the reserve is accessible via a waymarked public footpath.

There are several areas such as Fenning Island at Stert point where there is five hides and a very impressive tower hide or on the opposite side of the River Parrett at Huntspill where the Sluice is, where you can get great views, mainly at high tide.

Very important - stay off the mud flats, there are signs everywhere so there is no excuses.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Explorer Map 140

Greylake reserve

[A view from the hide at Greylake reserve, Somerset Levels]Greylake is a series of low-lying former arable fields within a vast expanse of floodplain grassland known as King Sedgemoor, which covers some 6000 acres. The entrance to the reserve is on the A361 between the villages of Othery and Greinton.

It has a 700m nature trail suitable for wheelchairs that goes through some reed beds and by a lake. There is a new viewing hide which I think is too low and you can only get good views of the pond and fields close by. You also need a decent telescope to watch the many birds that are in the distant if you can see them. It's a shame the hide isn't further in the fields and raised as many others are.

There is a car park at the entrance but watch yourself when you leave the site as the road is fast and cars are on you very quick.

Netherclay Community Woodland

[]Parking on the lane is limited but should be plenty of room. Good walking trails around this reserve, the site is mostly level and laid to grass, with paths cut between the newly planted trees. Apparently parts of the reserves can get very muddy during wet weather.

This area of improved pasture land on the bank of the River Tone, north of Bishop's Hull, has been planted with native broadleaved trees to create new woodland.

The site was purchased with support from Viridor Credits Environmental Company and Bishop's Hull Parish Council and is being developed in co-operation with Somerset West and Taunton Council, the parish and volunteers.

The former line of the Grand Western Canal passes close to the northern margin and a public footpath roughly follows the route of the former towpath. Hedgerows lining the northern and western boundaries have sections dominated by English elm. The northern hedge also features hawthorn, blackthorn, field maple, elder, common dogwood, oak and ash.

This is a hot spot for brown hairstreak butterflies and is why I have visited, but also look out for other butterflies and insects that can be seen along these hedges.

The riverbank itself is mainly open but a number of mature standard trees occur, including several black poplars towards the western end. The river supports a diverse fauna including a range of less common species such as otter, water shrew, kingfisher and dipper. Salmon and brown trout are known to migrate along this section of the river to spawn upstream. A pair of small ponds along the line of the northern boundary ditch provide a habitat for amphibians. It's a stunning place and another example of community getting together to protect their local environment!

Quants/Buckland Wood

[butterfly conservation]I found this great reserve run by the Somerset Wildlife Trust on the Blackdown Hills. It is a complex of wet and dry lowland heath, ancient and secondary woodland with large areas being restored from coniferous plantation. Some blocks of conifers, mainly larch, remain. The reserve is situated on the northern escarpment of the Blackdown Hills about 3 miles south west of Wellington where permeable and impermeable strata meet giving rise to a spring line, which runs the width of the site.

A series of flushes occur, with areas of willow Carr so I would advise that some of the paths can be very muddy so take care. I also found that the footpaths are not very well signed and for a welcome change parts of the reserve were allowed to do its own thing. I came across several parts were a tree had come down and man and beast had just made a new path which was refreshing as normally the tree would be cut up!

The heathland areas contain heather, bell heather and cross-leaved heath, as well as range of other species including heath bedstraw and heath spotted orchid. The ancient woodland is dominated by Ash and Pedunculate Oak standards with an under-storey with frequent Hazel and Holly. Over 40 species from the Ancient Woodland Vascular Plant List for the South-West have been recorded. Allegedly Water collection tunnels, which I couldn't find, provide hibernacula for a range of bat species and there are Dormice within the woodland.

The reserve forms part of the Quants SSSI. A large section of the SSSI is managed by the Forestry Commission and Butterfly Conservation around Buckland wood and contains important butterfly communities. Large blocks of conifers have been removed and one of the main aims of the project is to create wildlife links between the various grassland and heathland habitats.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Landranger Map 193 ref ST187174

Thurlbear Wood/Quarrylands

[butterfly sign]Thurlbear Wood and Quarrylands SSSI is on the limestone scarp and plateau, about four miles south-east of Taunton in Somerset. It consists predominantly of ancient woodland with oak and ash standards, but also has hazel and field maple coppice. Open glades and rides contribute to a diverse ground flora.

The Somerset Wildlife Trust land adjoins Forestry Commission land and the site is popular with walkers and horse riders. Paths are undulating and often muddy in parts of the site but well worth the effort, and from the edges of the woodland offer far reaching views to the Quantock, Polden and Mendip Hills.

Apart from butterflies other wildlife recorded on the site perhaps of greatest pleasure to many is the carpets of Bluebells and the singing of the Nightingales in May which is a must, for me it was a great pleasure just to sit and listen. The entrance to the Quarrylands site, which is run by the Butterfly Conservation, is difficult to find, but it's well worth it when you do.

Recommended map:
Ordnance Survey Landranger Map 193 ref ST274213

West Sedgemoor reserve

[West Sedgemoor reserve, Somerset Levels]West Sedgemoor Reserve comprises an extensive system of wet fields, nationally important for flower-rich hay meadows, aquatic plants and insects. Large numbers of wading birds breed here and the winter floods attract tens of thousands of Teal, Wigeon, Shoveler, Pintail, Lapwings and Golden Plovers. On the southern edge of the reserve is Swell Wood which is home to one of the largest Heronries in the UK, which also has nesting Little Egrets.

© Simon Thurgood 2024
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