Beauty and pioneering industrial heritage

Date Posted: 03/08/2011

Group Leisure goes west to find out what’s new in this delightful part of the country.

Head west and you will discover a region full of contrasts with plenty of inspiring attractions to fill a group itinerary.

Somerset offers a wonderful mixture of heritage, countryside and coast. The county abounds with history and legend and your group can follow in the footsteps of King Arthur and King Alfred, explore Exmoor – where R.D. Blackmore set his classic novel Lorna Doone  - and visit the mysterious Glastonbury Tor.

For traditional seaside fun stop by at Weston-super-Mare, complete with seaside donkeys and a recently restored pier, with a wide sweep of sandy beach and a promenade boasting superb views over the Channel, particularly from the 40-metre high Wheel of Weston. From here England’s smallest city, Wells, is within easy reach and groups can visit the cathedral, famous for its stained glass.

The jewel in Somerset’s crown is the golden city of Bath, home to Britain’s only natural hot springs. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Britain’s World Heritage Cities, Bath boasts a host of superb architectural sights, such as the Roman baths, Royal Crescent and Pulteney Bridge spanning the River Avon.

Just 13 miles away from Bath is the very contrasting city of Bristol that is most famously associated with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, widely regarded as the greatest engineer of the Victorian era. He left an indelible mark on the city and the highlights include the soaring Clifton Suspension Bridge, where guided tours are available for groups, and mighty steamship ss Great Britain (pictured), which is always a popular addition to an itinerary. Groups can also walk the Brunel Mile, a pedestrian route from Temple Meads railway station to ss Great Britain with panels providing information and images reflecting Brunel’s contribution to the city. Bringing Bristol right up to date is the vibrant revitalised harbour area with a host of group-friendly attractions that you can find out about below.

When it’s time for a refreshment break some of the irresistible regional delicacies include the most popular of English cheeses, Cheddar, tasty Sally Lunn or Bath buns and of course a drop or two of Somerset cider.

Multi-million museum opens in Bristol

Bristol’s new £26 million museum M Shed opened this month.The first museum dedicated to the history of the city, it covers a vast period from prehistoric times to the 21st century. The flagship attraction is housed inside a 1950s wharf building on Bristol’s historic harbourside that was called M Shed.

Divided into three galleries, Bristol People, Bristol Places and Bristol Life, it is designed to appeal to all ages and visiting groups can explore Bristol’s trading past, the city’s wartime history and industrial and engineering prowess. There are working exhibits on the harbourside, including steamboats, trains and cranes as well as an attractive cafe that opens out onto a public square on the dockside. Admission to M Shed is free.

Lots to see at Longleat

Longleat Safari & Adventure Park recently hit the headlines with the high profile rehabilitation of Anne, the former circus elephant, and groups can now see her happily settled in her new home on the Somerset and Wiltshire border. Another new arrival in every sense of the word is Lemmy, a rare Bactrian camel and the first to be born at Longleat in two years. Native to China and Mongolia, Bactrian camels are an endangered species and there are eight at Longleat.

If your group members want to walk amongst meerkats and chipmunks, get up close to monkeys or be amazed at giant anteaters now is their chance. In April Longleat opened its new £3 million attractions Jungle Kingdom and Monkey Temple. They include the UK’s first walk-through meerkat enclosure, a rainbow lorikeet aviary where groups can feed nectar by hand to these beautiful birds, and the captivating monkey section where the playful residents run along ropes above visitors’ heads. Group benefits include a free GTO familiarisation pass and discounts for parties of 12 or more. Visits to the safari park can also be combined with a tour of the Elizabethan stately home.

Happy Birthday Bristol Zoo Gardens

Birthday celebrations are in full swing at Bristol Zoo Gardens with a host of special events to mark its milestone 175th anniversary this year. Congratulations also go to the zoo’s lioness Shiva who gave birth to two healthy cubs, a boy and girl, at the end of 2010. It is a real breeding success story as there are only 400 Asiatic lions left in the wild. Also new for this year is the meerkat lookout where groups can get close up to these cute and hugely popular animals at eye level in undercover viewing areas.

Famous names from Bristol’s past and presentare honoured on a special ‘walk of fame’ that honours 50 of the city’s most renowned people, places and icons. Also open is Bristol’s smallest cinema, showing nostalgic old home movie clips of the zoo. The zoo offers discounted entry to groups of ten or more and other benefits include guided tours and a number of special group events, such as garden walks and history talks.

Head to Holburne

Bath’s transformed Holburne Museum reopened last month following a three-year makeover. The redevelopment sees Holburne’s elegant galleries restored and new spaces created to allow more of the museum’s wonderfully rich collection to be shown than ever before.  The museum was founded to display the personal collection of Sir William Holburne, a sailor who grew up and retired in Bath. 

Ranging from the ancient world to the 19th century, the collection includes paintings, sculpture, silver and porcelain with important works by Stubbs, Constable and Gainsborough. For the first time the Holburne will be fully accessible to all visitors and there is a new shop and cafe that opens out onto the garden.

Get set for Museum of Somerset

The new Museum of Somerset at Taunton Castle opens later this summer following a redevelopment totalling nearly £7 million. Amongst the treasures going on display for the first time will be the Frome Hoard, the second largest collection of Roman coins ever discovered in Britain which has recently been saved for the nation following a national fundraising appeal. Admission to the museum will be free and for the latest updates on the opening date visit

Arnolfini anniversary

Bristol’s harbourside contemporary arts centre celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. Take in one of the free exhibitions or book to see a live performance. The entertainment programme includes music, dance and literary events.

Five great group attractions

•    At-Bristol:
The hands-on science centre aims to make your group members see the world - and themselves - in a new light. A new permanent exhibition, All About Us, focuses on all things human.
•    Bristol Aquarium and IMAX 3D Cinema: The exciting aquarium complex, formerly known as the Blue Reef Aquarium, has unveiled a learning lab where visitors can find out more about the marine environment and the attraction’s breeding programmes.  
•    Cabot Circus: Home to the south west’s only Harvey Nichols and a four-storey flagship House of Fraser department store, the Bristol shopping centre has more than 120 shops and a wide range of cafes and restaurants.
•    Hestercombe Gardens: This Taunton attraction stands out for having three complete period gardens - Georgian landscape, Victorian terrace and formal Edwardian - in one 40-acre setting.
•    Sally Lunn’s: The oldest house in Bath, built in 1482, serves the most famous local delicacy the Bath bun. Groups can visit the kitchen museum and arrange to have morning coffee, lunch or afternoon cream tea.  

Five heritage highlights

•    Brunel’s ss Great Britain: Experience the sights, sounds and smells of Victorian life on board the world's first iron-hulled, steam-powered ocean going ship.
•    Fleet Air Arm Museum: Housing the largest collection of naval aircraft anywhere in Europe the museum Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton offers guided tours and special interest talks for groups.
•    Jane Austen Centre: Enter the famous author’s Regency world with a visit to the permanent exhibition and walking tour of the houses where she lived and places in Bath that inspired her.
•    Montacute House: Featured in the film Sense and Sensibility this glorious honey coloured Elizabethan mansion near Yeovil has a long gallery which is the largest of its type in England.
•    West Somerset Railway: Take a nostalgic trip on Britain’s longest heritage railway, running for 20 miles between Bishops Lydeard and Minehead, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary year.

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