Somerset's Great Drive: From south to north
PUBLISHED: 11:53 12 September 2017 | UPDATED: 11:53 12 September 2017
This month Mark G Whitchurch takes a Great Drive from a Tudor mansion to an Elizabethan promenade, separated by some of the prettiest villages the county has to offer
We start our journey at Barrington Court, the second property to join the National Trust portfolio in 1907. Today this idyllic setting is one of the most peaceful and fascinating gems Somerset has to offer. Stroll through the kitchen and formal gardens, the latter designed by Gertrude Jekyll, who also masterminded the gardens at Hestercombe.
Next admire the pond with its huge koi carp, which is overlooked by Strode House that was once the stable block before being converted into a house in the 1920s. Then emerge onto the south lawn with plenty of traditional games to keep the family entertained.
Before embarking on your Great Drive enjoy a coffee on the terrace in front of Strode House, to fully appreciate the tranquillity of this beautiful slice of Somerset.
Once on the road turn right out of the car park to travel through the village of Barrington, itself worth an explore with its sandstone cottages and obligatory thatched roofs. Upon reaching the B3168, turn right in the direction of Westport and Hambridge. Cruise this quiet route across the Somerset Levels to Curry Rivel; there, it’s right to hook up with the A378 in the direction of Langport. Meander along Langport High Street, often bustling with action, before joining the B3153 towards the pretty town of Somerton with its grand architecture and ornate buttercross.
Take the B3151 in a northerly direction to pass through Compton Dundon on your way to Street, where you could always pop into Clarks Village for a spot of retail therapy. The A361 or Street Road then takes you to the A39 in the direction of Wells, but at the third roundabout hang a left on to Meare Road for a more relaxed route and back out into rural Somerset.
With far stretching views over the Somerset Levels, Meare leads to Westhay, which in turn leads to Mudgley Hill that takes you into the affluent village of Wedmore, where a few of the boutique shops may catch your eye.
Locate Lascot Hill at the top of the village, which continues the country lane feel to this Great Drive, transporting you to the A38 at Lower Weare, where it’s right and immediately left to join Old Coach Road to Cross. In this quiet hamlet turn left to join Webbington Road, passing over the M5 motorway to Bleadon and then the A370, where its north to our final destination.
Once a small village, Weston-super-Mare rapidly expanded in the Victorian era, facilitated by the expansion of the railway network. As people of the time flocked to the coast for holidays and medicinal purposes, piers, hotels and restaurants vied for attention along the coastline with a traditional promenade providing a scenic stretch for that typical afternoon stroll. With the afternoon sun high in the sky enjoy a walk and maybe some traditional fish and chips to complete your Great Drive.
If you wanted to drive a sports car with the back to basics spirit of the original sports cars of the 1960s, there was little choice other than to buy the well-regarded Mazda MX-5. Light, nimble and a lot more reliable than the classic examples, the MX-5 has dominated this niche for decades.
However, Fiat has seen fit to reintroduce its 124 Spider to spice up the competition. Launched nearly 50 years since the original 124 cruised the streets of Italy, this retro variant looks to pick up where this Italian icon left off.
With bodywork design cues that hark back to the original, the 124 Spider manages to strike a convincing balance between 21st century sports car whilst reflecting its heritage. More muscular in design than the current MX-5, the 124 Spider angles at a more masculine buyer who looks for a bit of performance from their sports car. The 124 Spider is happy to oblige with a Abarth variant that can punch to 60mph in six.eight seconds and top out at 144mph thanks to its 170bhp four-cylinder turbocharged motor.
However, for me, a classic lightweight sports car is more a delicate balance between power, handling and an exhilarating driving experience at, let’s call it, respectable speeds. With this in mind I opted to test the Lusso model with a one.four litre motor – a middle of the range example and reflective of the model most will opt for.
Presented in Argento Grey it certainly looked sharp, 17-inch multi-spoke alloy wheels looked to amplify the 124’s good looks. Keyless entry allowed access to the leather lined interior; all standard specification as is the seven inch iPad style central screen that controlled the stereo and navigation systems, either with a touch of the screen or via an i-drive style controller. The 124’s party trick is the roof – no electric motor just a very well-engineered and ergonomically designed mechanism that allows you to lower and raise the roof with one hand. Clever stuff and allowing you to operate it at nearly any speed, keeping out those British showers.
The Fiat trademark ‘Multiair’ engine is happy to rev to the red line – with the final burst of power being liberated high up the rev range.
Just the shortest of drives soon reveals that like the MX-5, the 124 Spider is a cracking example of what a 21st century sports car should be; nimble, fun and with a suitable level of modern creature comforts.
And there is good reason why I draw this comparison, as the Fiat shares much of its mechanicals and interior with the latest class-leading Mazda. Working in partnership with the Japanese manufacturer, the 124 Spider was developed at the same time as the new MX-5 and is constructed in the same factory with the Fiat engines being shipped from Italy to Japan.
So, the Fiat 124 Spider does seem to be the sports car that allows you to have your cake and eat it. With the Lusso model tested starting at £23,800, it also offers great value for money.