Winscombe, Sandford & Churchill: The 3 north Somerset villages you need to visit
PUBLISHED: 15:50 19 August 2019
From apple orchards to an old strawberry transport route, three north Somerset villages are well worth savouring
Though Winscombe lost its station in 1963, the old Cheddar Valley Line (or Strawberry Line, named after the delicious cargo carried from the strawberry fields of Cheddar) that runs through the village is now a busy footpath and cycleway, and from the old station here (now the Millennium Green, the site of a popular May Fair) you can travel traffic-free to the coast at Clevedon via Sandford, Congresbury and Yatton, and in the opposite direction through the railway tunnel at Shute Shelve Hill to Axbridge and Cheddar.
There are plans to use the Strawberry Line as part of a grand circular route, largely using various segments of disused railway lines across Somerset. The aptly named Somerset Circle would be an 85-mile, traffic-free circuit linking Bristol, Bath, the Mendip Hills, the Somerset Levels and the coast. About 50 miles of this potential route has already been completed, including: the River Avon Trail (which is cyclable from Pill to Bristol), the Bristol and Bath Railway Path, the Two Tunnels Greenway, the Colliers Way and Norton Radstock Greenway. The route already links Winscombe and Sandford and there are plans to link Churchill too.
A fantastic vantage point over Winscombe, Shute Shelve Hill to the south affords magnificent views over Cheddar Reservoir and beyond. Yet it houses hidden treasure too - namely Shute Shelve Cavern, a natural tunnel system in which lie 350,000-year-old speleotherm fossils, mineral deposits resembling huge teeth - much like stalagmites and stalactites. Access is controlled by the Axbridge Caving Group though it welcomes inexperienced cavers and conducts occasional caving trips during bat survey season (April-September).
Approaching the village along the old railway cutting beneath Shute Shelve Hill from the south you'll soon find Holly Croft, near the handsome Grade 1 listed 15th century church of St James the Great. This is home to The Green Wheel, whose two-acre fields have been providing the Bristol area with fresh, organic produce for almost 20 years. A little further you'll find the community centre, its Thursday market becoming the hub of the area. It's a great place to find fresh fish, local, seasonal fruit and vegetables, free-range eggs, homemade cakes, savouries, preserves and local honey, Hobbs House bread, Moorland Farm beef and much more besides. There's also a fantastic village bakery in Woodborough Road, selling all manner of delicious artisan breads, pastries, wholefoods and hot and cold sandwiches. It is even working on an app, allowing you to place orders straight from your phone.
Given that it has been suggested the name Winscombe means 'a valley belonging to a Saxon named Wine', it is only fitting that the village boasts a good wine shop, and while it is called simply the Wine Shop its selection of fine vintages of wines and spirits, as wells as events, courses, talks and wine tastings, is anything but. Its next event is a charity wine tasting at the Strawberry Line Cafe on 4 July to raise funds to help extend the cycle and footpath. It also hosts the annual Somerset wine fair in October.
For an overnight stay make a beeline for the lovely Woodborough Inn, offering a fine range of local ales, hearty food and cosy rooms and very reasonable rates For longer stays nearby Home Farm Cottages in Barton is just the ticket. With five pretty cottages sleeping from two to six people they each boast lovely views over rolling hills.
To the south east the National Trust property King John's Hunting Lodge in nearby Axbridge is worth exploring and is just a quick walk or cycle away along the Strawberry Line.
Head north up the Strawberry Line and you reach Sandford Station Heritage Railway Centre, at the heart of this picturesque village. With a cafe, model railway, restored 1940s Sentinel shunting engine and vintage carriages to explore it can often be a busy place packed with railway enthusiasts.
Enthusiasts of a different kind flock to nearby Myrtle Farm, where the Thatchers family has been making its famous cider since 1904. A fascinating guided tour tells you all about the family business, as you wander through the orchards and cider mill, trying ciders along the way (there are also open days - the next one is September 14). There's a nature trail too, as well as a shop from which to procure your favourites or purchase gifts, or the Railway Inn next door, where you can be sure of a Thatchers family welcome, not to mention their ciders behind the bar. Their wines have been carefully chosen by Winscombe's Wine Shop too and there are some great regional beers and ales to try too. The Strawberry Line runs right through its orchard and there's plenty of bike parking and even a place to tether your horse!
While the Thatchers farm has plenty to keep the grown-ups happy, kids will be spoilt for choice at nearby Court Farm Country Park just a stone's throw away in Banwell. A working farm, with adventure playground and other activities, it gives children a real hands-on experience, from lamb milking to sheep shearing.
The more adventurous should head for Churchill, home to the 250-acre Mendip Snowsport and Activity Centre. It offers a wide range of activities from year-round ski slopes and toboggan runs to frisbee golf and yeti hunts, as well as kayaking, raft building, orienteering and archery. There is a huge Canvas Village there too, with 10 canvas bunkhouses and a 3,600 sqft central canvas 'hub', which acts as dining room and lounge for school residential trips, youth group camps and corporate team building events.
There are comfortable places to stay in Churchill, most notably the Winston Manor Hotel and The Beeches B&B, both of which offer ideal bases from which to explore the Mendips. The village also has a quaint post office, store and tearoom, a throwback to yesteryear, as well as two popular pubs, the Crown Inn and Nelson Arms.
The nearby hamlet of Star has a gem of a place - the Star Inn, which was recently taken on and renovated by the team that refurbished the Duck in Burtle (which received our Family Dining Award in 2017).
With wonderful walks to be had between the three villages and beyond, it's the perfect spot for spending leisurely summer days in the fresh air. This little corner of the Mendips may be easy to overlook but for those with a love of the outdoors especially, it is well worth a detour.