The Mendip Hills (or Mendips as they are known locally) is a ridge of hills that run from Frome in east Somerset west to the Bristol Channel at Brean Down Fort between Burnham-on-Sea and Weston-super-Mare. Their proximity to Bristol and Bath and the main M5 means that they are perfect for exploring in a weekend.
Established in 1972 as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty this 30km ridge in made up of limestone and is riddled with gorges and cave systems. Cheddar Gorge is the best known gorge but the smaller Burrington Combe and Ebbor Gorge are still impressive landscapes.
The hills are mainly meadows with wooded areas and are home to a range of birds, butterflies and mammals. Orchids grow on the steep hillsides and bluebells adorn the woodlands in the spring. To the north is Blagdon Lake and the larger Chew Valley lake and to the south is Cheddar Reservoir, all of which are home to a range of birds.
Steeped in history the remains of Cheddar Man were found deep in the cave systems and since the Iron Age the area has be inhabited. The Romans mined the area for iron and the remains of the mine workings can be found on the plateau. More recently Brean Down Fort was built as a Palmerston Fort looking out over the Bristol Channel.
From the Mendips there are spectacular views across the Somerset Levels to Glastonbury Tor and the Somerset Coast with South Wales in the distance across the Bristol Channel. To the north the landscape is more gentle with hills towards Bristol and Bath that roll away from the Mendips.
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Planning the Mendip Hills road trip
BREAN DOWN FORT TO WELLS
TOTAL DISTANCE: 50 MILES
DRIVING TIME: 2 HOURS
ALLOW: 3 DAYS
The road trip from Brean Down to Wells encompases a range of landscapes as well small villages and towns. The roads are easy to drive even for larger vehicles although the gorge has some very tight and narrow bends which will require skill and planning to navigate.
There are plenty of places for fuel and food so planning is more relaxed for this short road trip. There are supermarkets in Burnham-on-Sea, Cheddar and Wells. The cheapest fuel is in Burnham-on-Sea and Wells but if needed there are numerous options to refuel.
To make the most of this journey it is best to travel slowly. The best way to explore the Mendips it to walk and get off the beaten track. Whilst the direct route from Brean Down to Wells is just 22 miles, it is possible to travel much further as you criss-cross the plateau visiting the villages and enjoying the walks.
If you want to really slow down then basing yourself in any of the villages and making short day trips during a week long visit will allow you to explore the real beauty of this small Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
How to get to thE Start of this road trip
The start point for this road trip is Brean Down Fort. The fort is north of Burnham-on-Sea (M5, junction 22) and is at the end of a long sandy beach. While it looks close to Weston-super-Mare on the map, there is no direct route by car over the river and to get to Brean Down from Uphill you will need to travel on the main A370.
LOCATION OF BREAN DOWN FORT
There is nothing at this end of the beach other than a cafe and car park. Just before the car park you will find a small campsite which backs onto the beach or for more options then have a look at accommodation availability in Burnham-on-Sea.
From Bristol it is easier to travel down the A38 and meet the M5 at the junction. This will allow you to see the hills looming ahead of you as you travel down Red Hill from Bristol Airport.
The road trip ends in Wells. From here it is a direct road to Bath on the A37 or the A37 and A39 into Bristol. If you are heading west then the A39 will take you through Glastonbury to the M5 at Bridgwater.
LOCATION OF WELLS
three day itinerary for the mendip hills
Given the distances involved in this road trip it is possible to complete as a day trip from Bristol, Bath or Taunton. If you prefer the slow travel adventure then the following itinerary works perfectly. It can be completed in reverse and can be extended with extra days of walking, the choice is yours.
Day One – Brean Down to Cheddar
TOTAL DRIVING DISTANCE: 15 miles
TOTAL DRIVING TIME: 30 minutes
The first day of the road trip explores the Bristol Channel at Brean Down Fort, the most westerly boundary of the Mendip Hills before travelling east towards Axbridge and Cheddar Gorge.
The night can be spent in Cheddar where there are a number of campsites or small B&B’s. It is not possible to spend the night in the gorge even in a van and you will be moved on.
Day Two – Cheddar to Priddy
TOTAL DRIVING DISTANCE: 30 miles
TOTAL DRIVING TIME: 60 minutes
The second day is all about exploring the northern side of the Mendip Hills with the small villages and lakes that cling to the hillside. A walk along to Crooks Peak or the highest point of the Mendips at Beacons Batch will allow you to see how the hills rise above the surrounding landscape.
The night can be spent in one of the villages or head into Wells and enjoy the larger hotels and nightlife in the city. There is camping around Priddy and the campsite is within walking distance of the Queen Victoria pub.
Day Three – Priddy to Wells
TOTAL DRIVING DISTANCE: 5 miles
TOTAL DRIVING TIME: 20 minutes
The final day of the road trip explores the hidden Ebbor Gorge before dropping down to the city of Wells with its cathedral and Bishop’s Palace. There is less walking and wildlife but this is made up for by the beautiful city that you will explore.
There are plenty of places to stay in Wells and a number of small independent cafes and restaurants to sample depending on your budget and time.
There are lots of car parks in Wells but they can be busy at weekends in the summer months. The easiest for finding a space is the multi storey by Waitrose on the main road. You can’t miss it as it is on the right at the third set of traffic lights.
MAP OF EASY TO FIND CAR PARK IN WELLS
Tours to the Area
If your time is limited or you are wanting to have a real holiday then there are a number of commercial tours that include a visit to Cheddar Gorge and Wells as well as Glastonbury. These include short stops in each place but will give a taste of the landscape and history of the area.
Best Time of Year to Explore the Mendips
The Mendips can be explored at any time of the year but spring and early summer brings the best wildflowers across the meadows.
If you are not afraid of a bit of rain and wind then this road trip can be completed at any time of the year. Just bring your waterproofs and be prepared for muddy walks.
While this area doesn’t see much snow the area around Priddy will be the first to have snow fall and during the winter months the roads can be very icy. Priddy also has days where it is within the clouds and the fog hangs over and in the village.
Places to visit on the mendip hills
The Mendip Hills have lots of walks and villages to explore. The details below are some of the highlights, but taking your time and wandering really will allow you to find some special surprises and hidden corners.
Brean down Fort on the Somerset coast has been in use since the Stone Age with the remains of a Roman temple close to the current fort. More recently an Iron Age fort was built into the headland before the Palmerston Fort was built to defend the Bristol Channel during the Napoleonic War.
The fort is located at the end of the headland which is 5km walk from the parking at Brean Sands. It is fairly steep at the start but the effort is worthwhile.
If you don’t want to walk to the top of the down which can be exposed in windy conditions then walk along the expansive Brean Sands. This beach has the second largest tidal range in the world so if you don’t see the sea, don’t go looking for it. The tide will come in faster than you can run.
READ MORE: EXPLORING BREAN DOWN FORT AND BREAN SANDS
Axbridge has a long history and since Saxon times was favoured by royalty as a base for hunting. In the 16th Century King John’s Hunting Lodge was built. This is a timber framed building that sits on the corner of the main square. It is now a museum and maintained by the National Trust.
In the opposite corner of the square to the Hunting Lodge is the village church which has steep steps to the entrance and ornate plasterwork inside.
Close to Axbridge is Cheddar Reservoir which is an alternative walk if you want something flat and easy.
Axbridge is a good place to stop for lunch and has a choice of small restaurants and pubs.
Cheddar Gorge is a 3km long gorge and is over 400metres deep in places with a road that runs at the base of the cliffs. It is best to park in the small village area around the caves to explore before heading up the gorge road. The centre of Cheddar village has the ancient market cross and from here it is a short walk to the mill pond at the base of the gorge.
The main cave system runs from the mill pond area into the hills and despite its commercial exterior appearance is worth exploring. There are some small tea rooms, cafes, restaurants and shops around the cave entrance. No trip to Cheddar would be be complete without sampling the cheese and cider that is for sale in the shops in the gorge.
From the mill pond a walk takes you up onto the Mendip Hills and a large circular walk allows spectacular views out across the Cheddar Valley. This is especially beautiful at sunset when the sun does down over the Bristol Channel in the distance.
If you visit during the spring then stopping at Black Rock and walking through the bluebell woodland is a must.
READ MORE: BLACK ROCK AND LONGWOOD BLUEBELLS
After exploring the caves and village take a slow drive up the gorge itself. You can go as far as you want.
Look out for the sheep and goats that roam free on the road.
The gorge looks totally different from each direction so it is worth driving up and down as well as getting out of the car just to stand and absorb the sheer scale.
It is possible to turn in the gorge at any of the parking areas or continue up onto the hills and then loop back down to Cheddar down the extremely steep but amazing road to Draycott. This road is the first road on the right after the top of the gorge and is signposted to the gliding club.
As this road goes into the trees after passing the gliding club there is a small parking area and gates either side of the road. These lead into nature reserves with beautiful walks which are similar to those around Cheddar Gorge but with far less people.
READ MORE: EXPLORING CHEDDAR GORGE
Strawberry line and Crooks Peak
A small parking area at King’s Wood just off the A38 above Cross is the start of the walks in this area. From here you have two options.
In the winter months this can be snowy, but year round you will encounter semi-wild ponies and cattle that graze the down.
If you prefer something more gentle then head downhill and you will see the entrance to the Strawberry Line walk. This trail is on the old Strawberry Railway Line that ran from Wells to Yatton.
The Cheddar area is well known for its strawberries (make sure to buy some from the roadside stalls in the summer months) and before road transport the Strawberry Line was vital in the delivery of strawberries from the Somerset fields to the London markets. The walk is flat and starts with an impressive and very dark tunnel walk.
If you are feeling the need for some cider then walking along the Strawberry Line to Sandford will take you past the Thatchers cider shop where you can stock up on cider or the tasty gin that they produce.
chew valley lakes and villages
From the Strawberry Line continue up the A38 towards Bristol until you reach Churchill with a large set of traffic lights. Here you need to turn right towards Bath on the A368. This road is quite narrow in places but will pass through small villages that are really pretty.
Look out for the ornate chapel in Rickford and the village pond in the centre of Compton Martin village as well as the small cottages on the roadside.
The road will eventually cross a lake where there is parking. There is a short walk around part of the lake or you can enjoy bird watching from the parking area. Chew Valley Lake has a good range of birds and some unexpected visitors.
If you are feeling peckish then the Yeo Valley Organic Garden and cafe in Blagdon is the perfect place to stop. It has a small kitchen garden and cafe with views across the valley.
Burrington combe and Beacons Batch
Burrington Combe is another gorge with caves and stunning walks. The views from the walk to Beacons Batch at the top of the coombe are great and you can often watch the planes landing at the airport. This hill is the highest in the Mendips, but despite this it is not as difficult as the walk to Crooks Peak.
From the top of Burrington Coombe it is an amble over the top of the Mendip Hills. There are lots of walks to choose from or you can drive and see where you end up. Even as a local it is easy to get lost.
Stock Hill woods and priddy pools
Priddy Pools are the remains of a Roman mine and the area is now dotted with pools. These are home to dragonflies and frogs and make for a lovely evening walk.
Stock Hill Woods on the opposite side of the road are also nice for a walk and are good for mushroom hunting in the autumn.
Priddy village has a remote feeling and is centred around a large village green. There are some cave entrances used by potholers and in the summer the Priddy Sheep Fair takes over the village. Close to the village are ancient standing stones and burial mounds which can be explored on a circular walk from the village.
The Queen Victoria pub in the village serves food and has the most amazing Gingerbread House decorations for Christmas when the whole building is decorated and a large bottle sculpture fills the garden.
Ebbor Gorge and wookey hole
Leaving Priddy on the road by the Queen Victoria will take you down a steep lane. As you come to the brough of the hill the landscape is laid out in front of you. Glastonbury Tor will rise above the flat Somerset Levels in the foreground and on a misty morning will appear to float above the clouds.
Resist the temptation to stop on the hill as this is a fast local road, but continue a short distance to the Deerleap parking area on the right. From here the views are stunning and a gentle walk will take you to some ancient standing stones.
A little further on there is a parking area on the left at Ebbor Gorge. This is a small but perfectly formed gorge and is much quieter than Cheddar Gorge. A trail leads round the reserve with caves, streams and rocks to explore. Don’t be tempted to stay after dusk as the car park is locked.
From Ebbor Gorge you can either walk to Wookey Hole Caves or drive down to the main car park. These are limestone caves, similar to Cheddar Caves but are a little more commercialised. It is believed that a witch lives deep in the caves and the legend behind this is strong! You may see divers in the caves and will more than likely be shown the Cheddar cheese maturing in the cool dark caves. As well as the caves there is a paper mill and a few other attraction, but go for the caves – these are the best bit!
Things to do in Wells:
- Visit the Cathedral – At the top of the High Street is Wells Cathedral. From the market place, walk through the small and discrete Paupers Gate in the corner. The cathedral is the biggest building in the city and sits on Cathedral Green. Built in the 1300’s it has unique scissor arches supporting an ornate ceiling. Look out for the Chapter House up a stone staircase worn smooth by centuries of feet, the astronomical clock as well as beautiful stained glass windows.
- Walk to Vicar’s Close – Tucked behind the Cathedral is Vicar’s Close. This is the oldest inhabited medieval street in Europe. Built in 1363 the two rows of houses lead to a small chapel at the end. An optical illusion means it looks longer from the Cathedral than it does from the Chapel.
- Discover the Bishop’s Palace – This fortified palace has been home to the Bishops of Bath and Wells for over 800 years. It has beautiful gardens to wander and is the source of the springs that the city takes it name from. Look out for the swans and kingfishers who make the the moat their home. It is tucked away behind the Bishop’s Eye, a huge fortified archway into the market square.
- Visit the Market Place – While it may seem like just a normal market place with a local market on a Wednesday and Saturday there is more to this market place than meets the eye. The Town Hall was used as the Assizes courts in Poldark and the Crown Pub on the corner had a starring role in the Hot Fuzz movie.
- Walk the streets – Behind the cathedral the roads are dotted with old houses. Many are straight onto the road while others have pretty cottage gardens. Wandering around the city can lead to some little surprises.
READ MORE: GUIDE TO VISITING WELLS