PUBLISHED: 14:33 30 December 2007 | UPDATED: 14:58 20 February 2013

Illustration by David Barwick

Illustration by David Barwick

Want an exciting cultural and heritage experience? 'Somerset Life' discovers the delights of our county town. Be it Tantone in the Domesday Book or Toneborough in Thomas Hardy's novels, modern-day Taunton owes its prominence to its position on the...

Ever since the Saxons pushed the Romano-British Celts back into present-day Devon in the 690s, the Vale of Taunton has remained one of England's prized assets. Protected on three sides by upland terrain, the vale is a land of plenty. In 1609, John Norden, the country's greatest topographer, described it as the 'Paradise of England'.

Taunton prospered under the Saxons. Later, the Diocese of Winchester, annexing town and vale, grew powerful on its milk and honey. Later still, the monarchy took charge, issuing a royal charter. The town lost that privilege when it backed the Parliamentarians in the English Civil War, but it grew regardless, producing silk and cloth. Like so much of Somerset, though, many tapped its wealth and tried to impose their will, but Taunton remained its own town.

Never more so than now will today's visitor discover a town very much in control of its destiny.

Hit the downtown

Follow the excellent Taunton Heritage Trail from the castle where King Ine, King of Wessex from 688-726, built the original castle in 700 to consolidate the territorial gains of his predecessor. The castle's Assize Hall is where Judge Jeffries] took three days to condemn 526 followers of the Duke of Monmouth to death after defeat at the Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685, less than a month after Monmouth had arrived in Taunton to declare himself King of England. A plaque at the northern end of the High Street commemorates the Duke's folly. Tudor House on Fore Street, Taunton's oldest building, takes up the story as Royalist Sir William Portman owned the 14th-century building when he escorted the Duke to London to be hanged.

Despite its turbulent history, today the castle is the benign custodian of Somerset County Museum, home to the fabulous Shapwick Hoard of Roman coins. (Somerset County Museum will close to the public on 19 April 2008 for a two-year re-fit before re-opening as the Museum of Somerset in the summer of 2010.) Nearby, eye-catching creeper covers the Old Municipal Buildings where Bishop Richard Foxe founded a grammar school in 1522, which continued until 1870. The beamed main hall still hosts civic functions.

Taunton takes pride in its links with the church. St Mary Magdalene Church boasts the highest church tower in Somerset, with Glastonbury Tor and Alfred's Tower visible from the top. The Unitarian movement also put down strong roots here. The Mary Street Unitarian Chapel still has its original 18th-century interior where Coleridge and John Wesley once preached.

In such an enlightened town, perhaps it is no surprise to learn that visitors can walk across the universe, albeit a scaled-down version. The Somerset Space Walk is a model of our solar system, with planets marked at intervals along the canal path between Taunton and Bridgwater. Start at the Pluto stone by Tone Bridge.

Eating and sleeping

Taunton's café culture offers welcome respite. Favourite haunts include Roots on Bath Place, Rendezvous by St Mary Magdalene Church, Olive Tree by Tone Bridge and Pain Et Vin on St James Street.

For dinner, The Willow Tree (tel 0844 567 2391) on Tower Lane is run by Darren Sherlock, former head chef to the Roux Brothers. Fish lovers might enjoy French-run Hugo's (tel 01823 323213) on Cheapside, which is supplied by Taunton fishmonger Phil Bowditch.

The Castle Hotel (tel 01823 272671) remains the most luxurious place in town to rest your head, while Richard Guest's innovative cooking continues to win plaudits in the Michelin-starred restaurant.

For the best of town and country, Bindon Country House Hotel at Langford Budville, near Wellington (tel 01823 400070) makes a delightful retreat, as does the stylish, modern chic of The Farmers Inn at Higher West Hatch (tel 01823 480480).

For views over Taunton Vale, the Lamb & Flag (tel 01823 421736) on Blagdon Hill has few rivals. Further west, The Blue Ball Inn at Triscombe, near Bishops Lydeard (tel 01984 618242) offers B&B and award-winning food. A drive to the Carew Arms at Crowcombe (tel 01984 618631) via Nether Stowey passes by where Coleridge and Wordsworth once lived.

Higher Dipford Farm at Trull (tel 01823 275770) promises B&B on a working dairy farm only three miles from Taunton, or dine with other guests round a large pine table at Bashfords Farmhouse, West Bagborough (tel 01823 432015), three miles from the restored West Somerset Railway (tel 01643 704996). Grander still is Montys Court at Norton Fitzwarren (tel 01823 432255), which has remained in the same family since 1838.

Things to take home

Craft Co-operative Makers (tel 01823 251121) on Bath Place features the work of 14 Somerset artists, including founder-member Sibylle Wex from Williton, who produces painted silk scarves for women and ties for men.

Cooks who care about ingredients will appreciate 'Jam With Lamb: Seasonal West Country Cooking' by Richard Guest, head chef at The Castle Hotel . The book includes recipes, tips on finding food in the wild and details of specialist food producers in the Westcountry.

Market days in Taunton bring a buzz to the centre. The WI Country Market on Bath Place opens Wednesday, Friday and Saturday mornings, while there are Farmers' Markets every Thursday on the High Street, and Taunton Antiques Centre on Silver Street hosts an Antiques Market every Monday.

Explore the area

Sports fans are accommodated all year round in Taunton. Taunton Racecourse (tel 01823 337172), two miles south of the town on the B3170, holds race days throughout the National Hunt season. During the summer, Somerset County Cricket Club (tel 0845 337 1875) makes a wonderful day out, either watching men or women since it became the official home of the England women's team in 2006. Spare a moment to visit Somerset Cricket Museum, considered one of the best in the country.

Restored in the late '90s, Hestercombe Gardens at Cheddon Fitzpaine (tel 01823 413923) is one of England's finest gardens. Marvel at the formal Edwardian garden created by Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll, then discover a wilder side of lakes and temples.

The ancient art of basketmaking is still practised at Coate & Son Willows and Wetlands Centre at Stoke St Gregory (tel 01823 490249), founded in 1819 by Robert Coate and still run by the Coate family today. The drive there is worth the visit alone.

To the north-west, follow Coleridge and Wordsworth across the ancient uplands of the Quantocks, or picnic on the rolling Blackdown Hills to the south. Old pedunculate oaks, stinking iris and purple hairstreak butterflies await visitors to Neroche Forest, near Buckland St Mary, which has spectacular views over Taunton Vale from the car park at Staple Hill. BY STEPHEN TATE. PHOTOS BY TONY HOWELL

Further information

Taunton TIC tel 01823 336344, www.heartofsomerset.com

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