Somerset is a ceremonial and non-metropolitan county in South West England. The name derives from Old English Sumorsǣte, which is short for Sumortūnsǣte, meaning “the people living at or dependent upon Sumortūn.”
The first known use of the name is in the law code of King Ine, Saxon King of Wessex from 688 to 726 making Somerset along with Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset one of the oldest units of local Government in the world.
It is bordered by Gloucestershire to the north, Wiltshire to the east, Dorset to the south-east, and Devon to the south-west and is partly bounded to the north and west by the Bristol Channel and the estuary of the River Severn.
Somerset’s county town, Taunton, is in the south. Somerset is a rural county of rolling hills such as the Blackdown Hills, 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 Palaeolithic times, and of subsequent settlement in the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods. The county played a significant part in the consolidation of power and rise of King Alfred the Great, (left) and later in the English Civil War and the Monmouth Rebellion.
Agriculture was, and still remains a major business in the county. The farming of sheep and cattle, including for wool and the county’s famous cheeses (most notably Cheddar), are both traditional and contemporary, as is the more unusual cultivation of willow for basket weaving.
Apple orchards were once plentiful, and Somerset is still world renowned for the production of strong cider and perry’s.
The people of Somerset are first mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of AD 845, in the inflected form ‘Sumursætum’, but the county is first mentioned in the entry for 1015 using the same name. The archaic county name Somersetshire is first mentioned in the Chronicle’s entry for 878.
Although ‘Somersetshire’ had been in common use as an alternative name for the county, it went out of fashion in the late 19th century, and is no longer used. Somerset was adopted as the official name for the county with the establishment of the County Council in 1889. The Old English name continues to be used in the motto of the county, Sumorsǣte ealle, meaning “all the people of Somerset”
The caves of the Mendip Hills were settled during the Palaeolithic period and contain extensive archaeological sites such as those at Cheddar Gorge (above)
Bones from Gough’s Cave have been dated to 12,000 BC, and a complete skeleton, known as Cheddar Man, dates from 7,150 BC. Examples of cave art have been found in caves such as Aveline’s Hole. Some caves continued to be occupied until modern times, including Wookey Hole.
The dry points such as Glastonbury and Brent Knol also have a long history of settlement, and are known to have been settled by Mesolithic hunters. Travel in the area was helped by the construction of one of the world’s oldest known engineered roadways, the Sweet Track, which dates from around 3,800 BC. The exact age of the henge monument at Stanton Drew stone circles is unknown, but it is believed to be Neolithic. There are numerous Iron Age hill forts, some of which, like Cadbury Castle and Ham Hill, were later reoccupied in the Early Middle Ages.
On the authority of the future emperor Vespasian, as part of the ongoing expansion of the Roman presence in Britain, the Second Legion Augusta invaded Somerset from the south-east in AD 47. The county remained part of the Roman Empire until around AD 409, when the Roman occupation of Britain came to an end. A variety of Roman remains have been found, including Pagans Hill Roman Temple in Chew Stoke, Low Ham Roman Villa and the Roman Baths that gave their name to the city of Bath.
After the Romans left, Somerset and the coastal counties were ‘invaded’ by Anglo-Saxon peoples and by AD 600 they had established control over much of what is now England.
But Somerset was still in aboriginal hands and held back the Saxon advance into the far south-west for some considerable time. But, by the early eighth century King Ine of Wessex had pushed the boundaries of the West Saxon kingdom far enough west to include and hold Somerset. The Saxon royal palace in Cheddar was used several times in the 10th century to host the Witenagemot.
After the Norman Conquest, the county was divided into 700 fiefs, and large areas were owned by the crown, with fortifications such as Dunster Castle used for control and defence.
Somerset contains HMP Shepton Mallet, England’s oldest prison still in use, which opened in 1610. In the English Civil War Somerset was largely Parliamentarian, with key engagements being the Siege of Taunton and the Battle of Langport.
In 1685 the Monmouth Rebellion was played out in Somerset and neighbouring Dorset. The rebels landed at Lyme Regis and travelled north, hoping to capture Bristol and Bath, but they were defeated in the Battle of Sedgemoor at Westonzoyland, the last pitched battle fought in England.
Arthur Wellesley took his title, Duke of Wellington from the town of Wellington. He is commemorated by a large obelisk, known as the Wellington Monument.
The Industrial Revolution in the Midlands and Northern England spelled the end for most of Somerset’s cottage industries.
Farming continued to flourish, however, and the Bath and West of England Society for the Encouragement of Agriculture, Arts, Manufactures and Commerce was founded in 1777 to improve farming methods.
Despite this, 20 years later John Billingsley conducted a survey of the county’s agriculture in 1795 and found that agricultural methods could still be improved.
The Somerset Coalfield reached its peak production by the 1920’s, though all the pits have since been closed and most of the surface buildings removed. Apart from a winding wheel outside Radstock Museum, little evidence of their former existence remains. Further west, the Brendon Hills were mined for iron ore in the late 19th century; this was taken by rail to Watchet Harbour for shipment to the furnaces at Ebbw Vale.
Many Somerset soldiers died during the First World War, with the Somerset Light Infantry suffering nearly 5,000 casualties. War memorials were put up in most of the county’s towns and villages; only nine, described as the Thankful Villages, had none of their residents killed.
During the Second World War the county was a base for troops preparing for the D-Day landings. Some of the hospitals which were built for the casualties of the war remain in use. The Taunton Stop Line was set up to repel a potential German invasion. The remains of its pill boxes can still be seen along the coast, and south through Ilminster and Chard
There is an extensive network of caves, including Wookey Hole, underground rivers, and gorges, including the Cheddar Gorge and Ebbor Gorge and the county has many rivers, including the Axe, Brue, Cary, Parrett, Sheppey, Tone and Yeo.
Agriculture and food and drink production continue to be major industries in the county, employing over 15,000. Apple orchards were once plentiful, and Somerset is still a major producer of cider. The towns of Taunton and Shepton Mallet are involved with the production of cider, especially Blackthorn Cider, which is sold nationwide, and there are specialist producers such as Burrow Hill Cider Farm and Thatchers Cider.
Gerber Products Company in Bridgwater is the largest producer of fruit juices in Europe, producing brands such as “Sunny Delight” and “Ocean Spray.” Development of the milk-based industries, such as Ilchester Cheese Company and Yeo Valley Organic, have resulted in the production of ranges of desserts, yoghurts and cheeses, including Cheddar cheese. (below right) Show caves are open to visitors in the Cheddar Gorge, as well as its locally produced cheese, although there is now only one remaining cheese maker in the village.
Traditional willow growing and weaving is not as extensive as it used to be but is still carried out on the Somerset Levels. Fragments of willow basket were found near the Glastonbury Lake Village, and it was also used in the construction of several Iron Age causeways. The willow was harvested using a traditional method of pollarding, where a tree would be cut back to the main stem. During the 1930s more than 3,600 hectares (8,900 acres) of willow were being grown commercially on the Levels. The Somerset Levels is now the only area in the UK where basket willow is grown commercially.
The county has a long tradition of supplying freestone and building stone although tourism has long been a major industry, supporting more than 20,000 people. Attractions include the coastal towns, part of the Exmoor National Park, the West Somerset Railway (a heritage railway), and the museum of the Fleet Air Arm at RNAS Yeovilton.
The town of Glastonbury has mythical associations, including legends of a visit by the young Jesus of Nazareth and Joseph of Arimathea, with links to the Holy Grail, King Arthur, and Camelot, identified by some as Cadbury Castle, an Iron Age hill fort.
Glastonbury also gives its name to an annual open-air rock festival held in nearby Pilton.
The county flower of Somerset is the Cheddar Pink or dianthus gratianopolitanus.