I smell the harvest before we see it – a floral sweetness drifts in the autumn air, while a hint of wood smoke lingers on the nose. I’m on the Somerset Levels, that secret area of wetland bounded by the Mendips, the Quantocks and the Blackdown Hills, and heading to Pass Vale Farm at Burrow Hill, which is a place of pilgrimage for lovers of all things cider. And during September and October, the place is busy.
The orchards that surround the farm bustle with machines that grab the trees and shake them until the apples drop. Tractors scoop the fallen fruit from the ground, and the yard is piled high with apples ready for the press. But Julian Temperley, doyen of British cider makers, finds time to stop and chat. The man is a pioneer who, after a gap of 300 years, reintroduced the distilling of cider brandy to England.
He shows us his stills – Josephine and Fifi – working their magic inside a glass-fronted barn, while in a shed that serves as a shop, a dazzling array of apple-based drinks are on show. From full-bodied draught cider (£8.50 for four litres) to bottle-fermented single varieties (£14), and from non-alcoholic juices to liqueurs and his signature cider brandy (£17 to £65). I try a glass of Kingston Black aperitif (bottle £11). It goes off like a firecracker in my mouth, sweet and sharp and loaded with more apple than you’d think possible. I buy a bottle, then change my mind and buy three.
Burrow Hill is one of the best-known cider farms on the Levels, but I found plenty more, for the art of making real cider – as opposed to the carbonated stuff you find on supermarket shelves – is enjoying a revival. The National Trust’s Barrington Court, near Ilminster, holds apple days (free with £12 adult admission) where visitors can help to pick, press and taste the apples – this year they’re on 27 and 28 October. And at Jim’s Shack, a traditional cider shed at Bere Cider Company outside Langport, we get the chance to sample its still Gold Rush and lightly carbonated Farmhouse Light.
But the Levels aren’t all about apples and cider. Basket weaving has been big here for millennia, and at Coates English Willow in Stoke St Gregory, I watch the process from raw material to finished product.
I start with a tour of the workshops (adult £4.50, child £3). From log and shopping baskets to picnic hampers and tea trays, everything is handmade using centuries-old techniques. The warm smell of damp willow fills the air and is accompanied by the rhythmic sound of snipping and creaking.
Footpaths lead from the workshops past newly processed willow rods (used to make baskets rigid) drying in the autumn sun, and down to fields where the willow is being grown. Planted in plots drained by the River Tone, they twitch and clack in the breeze, and are a haven for wildlife.
The RSPB helps maintain the area as an internationally important habitat for wildlife of all kinds. The charity is also a partner in the Great Crane Project, which saw the reintroduction of cranes at a secret location on the Levels after an absence of 400 years. Brought over as eggs from Germany, the first birds were released in 2010, and now the population has risen to almost 100. The cranes are not easy to find – I took a walk along a stretch of the Parrett Trail, a 50-mile footpath that follows the River Parrett from its source in the hills around Chedington, Dorset, to Burnham-on-Sea – and although I’d been told by Ellie, our guide at Coates English Willow, that these magnificent metre-high birds were often seen in the meadows and fields I strolled through, I was unlucky.
A more energetic way of exploring the Levels is by bike. Parrett Trail Bikes in the riverside market town of Langport set me up with a bike and map (adult from £18 a day, child £12), and I headed off down quiet country lanes to the village of Muchelney, which has an ancient abbey and a church whose ceiling is decorated with extremely risqué 17th-century angels that somehow escaped the whitewashing attentions of the Puritans. During the disastrous winter of 2014, the village became an island in a sea of flood water and a regular on TV news bulletins. Back then, the lanes I cycled were completely submerged, which was difficult to imagine when stopping for a picnic on the bank of the lazily flowing river.
Before returning the bike, I called in at Muchelney pottery, where John Leach (grandson of Bernard Leach, the “father of British studio pottery”) makes his wood-fired pots (johnleachpottery.co.uk). I bought a beautiful bowl that seemed to reflect the light of the surrounding landscape in its soft, orangey glaze, and then it was back to Langport through the glow of the afternoon autumn sun, and on to our hotel.
I stayed at the Devonshire Arms (doubles from £90 B&B) in Long Sutton. With views of the village green and a cracking dinner menu (I went for the pan roast hake cake, £16.95) it also serves Temperley’s cider brandy, which has to be the only way to toast the beauty of this hidden corner of England.
Peter Benson’s novel The Levels is published by Alma Books (£7.19)
Five more trips for autumn 2018
For the literature lover, Calderdale
With its rich literary heritage, Calderdale, in the south Pennines of West Yorkshire, is a bookworm’s dream. The area is home to several festivals this autumn, with workshops, talks, music and more. Halifax Festival of Words (11-14 October), includes local poets, authors and a DJ in Borough Market. The Ted Hughes Festival (19-21 October), in and around his birthplace of Mytholmroyd, sees readings from daughter Frieda Hughes, alongside poet Simon Armitage, plus tours of Hughes’s former home. Neighbouring Todmorden Book Festival’s line-up (16-24 November) includes Ian McMillan and son Andrew, Mike Poulton, Helen Pankhurst, Lemn Sissay, Val McDermid, Sally Wainwright and the Emergency Poet prescribing poems as cures from her vintage ambulance. Nearby is the Brontë Museum in Haworth, Piece Hall in Halifax, re-opened last year and written about by early 19th-century traveller and diarist Anne Lister, and her resting place at the Minster. Some events are ticketed and require pre-booking.
For the wellness whizz, Bristol
From foodie demos and workshops on cooking over a fire to feel-good fitness activities including spinning discos and paddleboarding on the river, Wild and Well festival (20-21 October) runs across several sites in Bristol, including M-Shed and Aston Court. There are also wellbeing-related talks on a range of topics such as technology, relationships, stress and resilience, plus archery, laughter yoga, and a nighttime harvest wassail to toast the apple season.
• Weekend tickets £70 adult, family from £35 (access to all family events and one adult event), under-5s free, booking required for some events, wildandwell.org
For the museum buff, UK-wide
Although some museums run night sessions throughout the year, the Museums at Night festival (25-27 October) is a UK-wide event with special events including: circus at the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery; a multi-sensory typography workshop at the Museum of Brands in Notting Hill, London; and comedy and burgers at the Lightbox in Woking. There are also talks, performance, tours and other events at various venues.
• museumsatnight.org.uk. Some events are ticketed and require booking
For country life enthusiasts, Harrogate
Countryside Live is an all-weather show (mostly undercover) at the Great Yorkshire Showground (20-21 October), which includes local food and arts stalls, talks and rural craft workshops. Plus, meet and greet new furry friends with ferret racing, alpaca petting and equine events. Apply online in advance to enter one of several contests, including honey production, young sheep handler or the poultry championships.
• From £14 adult, £7 child, countrysidelive.co.uk
For craft beer aficionados
Hang out with the major players of indie brewing, ask those burning questions on fermentation or knock back a couple of Broken Dreams or Smog Rockets at Craft Beer Calling (18-20 October) at the Wylam Brewery in Newcastle. If beer’s not your tipple, there’s also a gin palace, a wine cellar and artisan cider options, plus a street food market and live music. • £30 weekend pass, craftbeercalling.com
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