Head west for some wonderful experiences

Date Posted: 27/07/2012

Jeannine Williamson finds Regency splendour and pioneering industrial heritage in the West Country.

Situated in the heart of the West Country, Somerset provides a multitude of experiences for groups that range from sweeping moorland and picture postcard English countryside to seaside resorts, elegant cities, a pioneering maritime and engineering heritage, and charming Wells - the smallest city in England.

With its enduring appeal of architecture and history, the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage City of Bath is an unforgettable destination. The best way to cover the highlights is by joining an organised tour and there are plenty of ways of options, including bus, boat, and walking tours. In addition to the wealth of information on its website, Bath Tourism Plus is launching its first mobile application and the free app - available on both iPhone and Android handsets - will provide GTOs with an interactive and useful source of up-to-date information on the city.

13 miles from Bath is the contrasting city of Bristol and the legacy of Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Here, groups can tour his ground-breaking creations including Clifton Suspension Bridge, ss Great Britain and Temple Meads railway station. The latter also provides a quick and easy gateway to the city from Bath as there are regular train services between the two destinations with a journey time of around 12 minutes.

Literally translated, the name Somerset means land of the summer people, and for centuries the county has been famous for its fruits of the land. Apples, cider and Cheddar cheese are incorporated in many tasty regional recipes and no visit would be complete without a delicious Somerset cream tea, where your group will have the chance to try whortleberry jam - unique to the Exmoor area.

Look what’s new at Longleat

New themed displays at Longleat allow groups to enjoy incredibly close encounters with exotic arrivals from across the globe. There is a stunning new addition to the safari park’s famous big cats in the shape of Cheetah Kingdom, home to the world’s fastest land animals capable of speeds in excess of 60mph. And following on from its successful launch in 2011, the spectacular Hunters of the Sky aerial birds of prey show in Longleat Adventure Park is even bigger this year, with more birds, new displays and additional opportunities for visitors to handle the birds.

Other new attractions set to open this month at the safari park on the Somerset and Wiltshire border include the multi-million pound lakeside gorilla enclosure, which will complement the newly themed Tropical Storm cafe and Gorilla Bar. Groups can also come face to face with giraffes on an eye-level feeding platform at the new African Village.

Why not combine a visit to the safari and adventure park and adjoining Elizabethan stately home with Cheddar Gorge? There are discounted rates for parties of 12 or more and prices have been held at 2011 rates.

All aboard for anniversary year

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the opening of the West Somerset Railway line, which runs through some of the area’s most scenic countryside. A 20-mile stretch now comprises Britain’s longest standard gauge heritage railway that runs between Bishops Lydeard and Minehead. In addition to the large free car park at Bishops Lydeard, where there is a coach set down by the booking office, new for 2012 is a free coach park adjacent to the Minehead station.

There are also several new tours that will appeal to groups, combining a train journey with a vintage coach tour. These include trips to Dunster Castle, Hestercombe Gardens and an Exmoor mystery tour. Group benefits on the West Somerset Railway include discounted fares for parties of 16 or more, carriages available for exclusive use and group catering.

Ahoy there

Aardman Animations, the film and television company behind Wallace & Gromit, is based on Bristol Harbourside, the city’s regenerated dockland area. It’s easy to see where the inspiration for their new film The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists came from with a swashbuckling pirate-themed walk that covers Bristol’s 16th, 17th and 18th century maritime history. Exclusive tours can be booked for groups of six or more.

GTOs can round off the pirating experience by taking their groups to M Shed. Located in a former 1950s dockside transit shed, the museum tells the history of Bristol through objects and the personal stories of local people. A new attraction is the pirate ship featured in The Pirates! which will be on show in the foyer until September.

Soak up history

Blessed with the only natural hot springs in the UK, the history of Bath has been shaped by its waters. Around the heart of the World Heritage Site, the Romans built an impressive temple and bathing complex with much remaining to this day. Here groups can walk on ancient pavements and see the extensive ruins. Returning groups will be fascinated by the new interpretation and displays following a £5.5 million investment.

When it’s time to relax, your group members can pamper themselves with a treatment at one of the city’s spas including the Thermae Bath Spa, where advance bookings can be made for parties of eight or more. The baths are fed by natural thermal waters and there is an open-air rooftop pool with views across the historic city.

Five great group attractions

1. Avon Valley Railway: The preserved railway has teamed up with Avon River Cruises to offer groups a combined scenic boat trip and steam train ride with a traditional cream tea.

2.  Grand Pier: After being destroyed by fire in 2008, Weston-super-Mare’s pier reopened in 2010 following a £51 million investment, and features fun-filled attractions including rides, arcades, a 4D cinema and elegant Edwardian tea room.

3. Holburne Museum: After several years of major development the museum reopened last year and has doubled in size to showcase its wonderful collection of 9,000 objects and artwork.

4. ss Great Britain: Brunel’s mighty steamship is in dry dock in Bristol and groups can experience the sights, sounds and smells of life on board for Victorian passengers and crew.

5. Tyntesfield: Created by one of England’s richest commoners, William Gibbs, this Gothic mansion south-west of Bristol houses the National Trust’s largest recorded collection as nothing was ever thrown away.

Five natural highlights

1. Bristol Zoo Gardens: As well as being home to 400 species of animals, the zoo is set in 12 acres of gardens that contain one of Bristol’s most important botanical collections, with unusual plants, shrubs and trees from around the world.

2. Cheddar Gorge (pictured): With its caves, dramatic cliffs, a museum and open top bus tour, Britain’s biggest gorge is one of the UK’s most spectacular natural locations and offers a variety of different attractions for visiting groups.

3. Exmoor: This National Park contains an amazing variety of landscapes within its 267-square-miles and is home to herds of wild ponies that are one of the country’s oldest native breeds.

4. Glastonbury Tor: Strewn in legend and myth, and topped by a church, the conical tor is one of Somerset’s most distinctive landmarks.

5. The Walled Gardens of Cannington: Having undergone extensive redevelopment, a ‘hot’ herbaceous border, sub-tropical walk and Victorian style fernery are among the classic and contemporary features of the gardens set in the grounds of a medieval priory.

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