PUBLISHED: 08:45 08 March 2010 | UPDATED: 15:52 20 February 2013
Join Liz Pickering as she explores the riches that Taunton, the county capital of Somerset, has to offer. Photos by Neville Stanikk.
Traditionally, Taunton has been one of Somerset's more affluent towns, with its transport-friendly location on the River Tone. Mentioned in the Domesday Book as Tantone, the settlement continued to grow with every passing century, repeatedly being fought over and coveted by those in power. Many have grown rich off Taunton's back, from trade in silk, cloth and various other commodities.
For all the push and pull of political power, Taunton appears to have long had a strong sense of free will, through the Civil War when it sided with the Parliamentarians, and into the 21st century, when it has seen considerable expansion and development. It is a regional centre for shoppers and lovers of cricket and horseracing, and also a cultural centre for those enjoying theatre performances, film, art and music.
With its great mix of shops, restaurants, sports and leisure facilities, and its perfect location for exploring so much of the fantastic Somerset countryside, Taunton really does have something to offer every visitor.
Hit the downtown
Today much of Taunton's centre is dominated by shopping, and in part the buzz and vitality of the town is thanks to the popularity of the range of shops on offer. But for an understanding of the roots and real identity of the town, follow the Heritage Trail. The best place to start is at the castle, and from here the trail celebrates more than 1100 years of Taunton's heritage, with 69 particularly special historic buildings.
Normally the Somerset County Museum at the castle would also be one of the first recommended ports of call, but the museum is undergoing a two-year refit and will reopen as the Museum of Somerset in the summer of 2010. However, any self-led tour around the town centre will undoubtedly show you many unique heritage buildings side by side with the newer additions - Grays Almshouses at East Gate, for example, or the oldest building in Taunton, Tudor House on Fore Street.
You could also explore the town centre with an entirely different focus, by studying the unusual geology of the area that has led to such a range of stone being used in the construction of the town. Most towns and villages feature a particular predominant stone sourced from just one quarry, but Taunton owes its unusual appearance to its location between a variety of different quarries. Follow the Taunton Rock Trail to see for yourself the sandstones, limestone, blue lias, calcareous grit and chert that have all been quarried locally and have made Taunton so distinctive today.
The town centre is something of a shopper's paradise, with ample street shopping as well as the covered Old Market Shopping Centre. There is so much to see, I would advise you to take Taunton at a leisurely pace, perhaps buying a crpe or doughnut from one of the street vendors; or you could visit on a Monday or a Thursday for the antiques and farmers' markets, respectively.
Eating and sleeping
With so many hungry shoppers milling about Taunton's centre, it is no surprise that the town plays host to a very good range of cafs, bistros, takeaways and pubs. A nice spot for a cup of coffee and a Danish is Brazz bar and caf (01823 252000) by the portcullis at Castle Green.
There are various pubs to be found, but for something a bit unusual try the Winchester Arms. It's like a castle of its own behind Taunton Castle and the Castle Hotel, so you can enjoy your pint of Westcountry ale amongst grand surroundings (01823 284723).
For somewhere special to stay, the Castle Hotel cannot be rivalled for its central location, imposing architecture and the quality of its award-winning restaurant. Run by the Chapman family for more than 60 years, the hotel maintains a sense of the individual, offering good traditional hospitality of a sort that is becoming increasingly rare (01823 272671).
Heading out of Taunton itself, the Rose and Crown (01823 490296) at Stoke St Gregory is everything that a country pub should be. The food is unpretentious but of the highest quality, produced locally and always fresh. If you choose to stay for the night or a longer period, you might feel more like a guest of the family than a paying customer, though those wanting to keep to themselves are equally well catered for in The Cottage, about 150 yards away from the pub.
Things to take home...
The Shakespeare Gallery at Riverside Place displays a beautiful collection of contemporary glassware, ceramics and jewellery, with many items produced by local artists. Take away a lasting memento in the form of a vase, bowl or goblet made by none other than Will Shakespeare in the adjoining workshop (01823 333422).
Sheppy's Cider has been in production since the early 1800s and nothing is more local to Taunton than a bottle of Sheppy's made from renowned apple varieties grown on site. Pick out your favourites after a tasting session, and be sure to stop by Sheppy's Rural Life Museum, shop and tea room before you leave. (Three Bridges Farm, Bradford-on-Tone, 01823 461233).
Explore the area
Taunton is a sporting town, home to Somerset County Cricket Club and its own racecourse. Both are very popular places to visit for tourists and local residents alike.
If stretching your legs is more the order of the day, see how far you get on the walk along the Bridgwater and Taunton Canal. You could even take a cruise on a traditional narrowboat.
The canal is of course the obvious choice for walks and cycle routes in Taunton, but there are numerous spectacular walks in and around the town, some through nationally important nature reserves. Try the East Deane Way, or just one of its six sections, perhaps heading to the village of Burrowbridge about halfway between Taunton and Glastonbury. Here you can also see the Burrow Mump (both words meaning 'hill'), which stands strategically at the meeting point of the Rivers Tone and Parrett. Burrow Mump was once topped by a chapel belonging to Athelney Abbey, and a church built in 1838 now stands at the summit.
The landscape of so much of Somerset has been determined by its past under water, and there is nowhere better to learn about the wetlands and local traditional willowcraft than at the Coates Willows & Wetlands Centre at Stoke St Gregory (01823 490249).
6-8 March: Writers at the Castle. Literary weekend focusing on the craft of biography writing, with internationally renowned guest speakers. Various times and packages available. The Castle Hotel. Bookings 020 8742 3355
9 March: Taunton Races, The Racecourse, Orchard Portman. 01823 325035
16 March: Footloose. Tacchi Morris Arts Centre, Monkton Heathfield. 7.30pm. 01823 414141
17 March: Russell Kane comedy stand-up.
Wellsprings Leisure Centre, Cheddon Road. 7.30pm. 01823 271271
21-23 March: West Somerset Railway Spring Steam Gala. The Railway Station, Bishops Lydeard. 8.30am-6.30pm. 01643 704996
28 March: Taunton Concert Band, Easter Concert.
Tacchi Morris Arts Centre, Monkton Heathfield. 7.30pm. 01823 414141
5 April: Taunton Marathon and Half Marathon. Starts 10.30am at Somerset College, Wellington Road. 01823 283892
20 April - 2 May: 'A Sense of Place' by Somerset Art Gallery Trust. Taunton Library, Paul Street. 9.30am-5.30pm Mon, Tues and Thurs, 9.30am-7pm Weds and Fri, 9.30am-4pm Sat. 01823 340311
24 April: An Audience with Paddy Ashdown. Brewhouse Theatre, 7.45pm. 01823 283244
Taunton Tourist Information Centre, 01823 336344, www.heartofsomerset.com