A rural county famed for its cider and cheese, Somerset also has many mystical and religious connections. Glastonbury is the New Age centre of England, and Wells has a magnificent cathedral, founded in the eighth century.
The improvement of the A303 has made the county much more accessible from London, and sparked interest in the country house market. Since the demise of the modern, and unpopular, county of Avon, the city of Bath is now once again part of Somerset, although its housing market is still largely independent from the rest of the county.
Somerset has a long coastline along the Bristol Channel, from Devon to the mouthof the River Avon, but the only natural harbour is at Watchet.
The county’s varied landscape ranges from rolling valleys and hills to the crags of Cheddar Gorge and the wilderness of Exmoor to the west.
Agriculture is the main industry, but tourism also thrives, particularly round Glastonbury and in coastal towns like Minehead.
Somerset also has the beautiful Cheddar Gorge as a major attraction, and for scenery cannot be beaten. The quantocks offer views for miles on a clear day, and the eerie mists around Glastonbury Tor offer an atmospheric walk to the top.
Hunting is part of the fabric of the countryside and often weekend strolls are punctuated by the thunder and baying of the Quantock at work.
Typically, houses are built of stone, including the soft-coloured Blue Lias limestone of the Somerset Levelsand the golden-yellow Ham stone in the south, with clay-tiled roofs.
The Chew Valley and the cathedral city of Wells, the smallest city in England, are among the best places in the county to live, together with Butleigh, which is close to Millfield School, and Castle Cary.
Although Somerset has relatively few Georgian gems, as opposed to areas like the Cotswolds, what is does have is lots and lots of good stone houses, and pretty old farmsteads.
When a large country house does come up, people queue up to make a bid for it. A recent example of this is Langholm House, am elegant Georgian village house with 4 reception rooms, guest bedroom quite, 3 further rooms, stable flat, swimming pool and croquet lawn. It has just gone under offer, with an enormous amount of interest. The asking price is in excess of £3m.
‘Prices have pretty much doubled in five years,’ says Will Morrison from Knight Frank in Exeter. ‘You do still get more property for your money than you would in Wiltshire, or Warwickshire, but the differential is smaller than it was.’
As increasingly flexible working arrangements become the norm, many buyers who are looking for a new family home are happy not to have to travel into the capital every day. They can work from home, and go in a few days a week when they are needed in the office.
‘And it makes such a difference being surrounded by all this glorious countryside,’ points out Mr Morrison. He claims that 75% of all his buyers were coming from the south east, which clearly has impacted on prices, as they bring London money with them, people all have to pay more.
But it is not just people retreating from London who buy in Somerset: ‘We get quite a few people relocating from within the country, for work or for schools,’ says James Toogood from Knight Frank’s Bristol office.
And one thing which everybody will mention at some point is the schools in Somerset. They are fabulous. From Clifton College to Wells Cathedral School, to the infamous Millfield, where the waiting list is longer than queues for Harry Potter books. Agents all over the county say they have multitudes of young families who are desperate to be near a particular school because they don’t want their children to board, or even because their children cannot board, because that list is oversubscribed.
But prices have not yet reached Gloucestershire levels, and are in fact unlikely to, because of the county’s location. ‘in the £800,000 – £1.2m bracket you will find a nice small rectory with five bedrooms, and a couple of acres. Over £1.2m you can get a really super house,’ Mr Morrison says. ‘Anything below £800,000 and you can buy a nice small farmhouse with a bit of land.’
Train: Paddington to Taunton 1hr 50min; Paddington to Yeovil, two hours; Paddington to Bristol, 1hr 30min.
Car: Taunton is 148 miles from London and Wincanton 117 miles, via the M3 and A303. Bath is 110 miles, via the M4.
For those who travel with work, or have homes abroad, Bristol airport is increasingly international, and a lot less torturous than Gatwick.
Bruton School for Girls, Bruton (01749 812277). Girls only, age range 8-18, day and boarding. www.brutonschool.co.uk/
Clifton College, Bristol (0117 973 9187). Co-educational, age range 13-18, day and boarding. Associated preparatory school. www.cliftoncollegeuk.com/
Downside School, Stratton-on-the-Fosse (01761 235100). Boys only, age range 9-18, day and boarding. www.downsideabbey.co.uk/
King’s School, Bruton (01749 813326). Boys aged 13-18 (co-educational sixth form), day and boarding. www.kingsbruton.org.uk/
Millfield School, Street (01458 442291). Co-educational, age range 13-18, day and boarding. www.millfield.somerset.sch.uk/
King’s College, Taunton (01823 328210). Co-educational, age range 13-18, day and boarding. www.kings-taunton.co.uk/
Queen’s College, Taunton (01823 272559). Co-educational, age range 8-18, day and boarding. www.queenscollege.org.uk/
Taunton School (01823 349223). Co-educational, age range 12-18, day and boarding. Associated preparatory school. www.tauntonschool.co.uk/
The Royal High School (01225 313877). Girls only, age range 4-18, day. www.gdst.net/royalhighbath/
Wells Cathedral School (01749 672117). Co-educational, age range 11-18, day and boarding. Associated preparatory school. www.wells-cathedral-school.com/
Golfcourses: Lansdown, Bath (01225 425007); Bristol & Clifton (01275 393474); Yeovil (01935 75949); Burnham & Berrow, Burnham-on-Sea (01278 783137).
Yacht clubs: Burnham-on-Sea Yacht Club, Minehead Sailing Club.
Hunts: the Exmoor, the Taunton Vale, the West Somerset.
Staghounds: the Quantock, the Devon and Somerset.
Fishing: rivers Parrett and Axe, Chew Valley Lake, Blagdon Lake.