Status Ceremonial & (smaller) Non-metropolitan county
Origin Historic
Region South West England
- Total
- Admin. council
- Admin. area
Ranked 7th
4,171 km²
Ranked 12th
3,451 km ²
Admin HQ Taunton
ISO 3166-2 GB-SOM
ONS code 40
- Total (2004 est.)
- Density
- Admin. council
- Admin. pop.
Ranked 22nd
210 / km²
Ranked 25th
Ethnicity 98.5% White
Somerset County Council
Executive Liberal Democrats
Members of Parliament
  1. South Somerset
  2. Taunton Deane
  3. West Somerset
  4. Sedgemoor
  5. Mendip
  6. Bath and North East Somerset (Unitary)
  7. North Somerset (Unitary)

Somerset is a county in the south-west of England. The county town is Taunton, situated at 51°00′49″N, 3°06′23″W(Grid reference ST227247). Somerset borders the Ceremonial counties of Bristol and Gloucestershire to the north east, Wiltshire to the east, Dorset to the south east and Devon to the southwest. The county is bounded to the north by the coast of the Bristol Channel.

The name is pronounced as though spelled Summerset. The name derives from Somersæte, meaning land of the summer people, referring to a farmstead tended during the summer but not occupied in winter.[1] The name continues in the motto of the county, Sumorsaete ealle, meaning "all the people of Somerset" in Anglo-Saxon.

Somerset is a rural county famous for its rolling hills and downland, the large flat Somerset Levels, and the Exmoor National Park which straddles the border with Devon. The town of Glastonbury is famous in mythology. The north of the county is administratively independent and includes the city of Bath, a World Heritage Site famous for its Roman history and Georgian architecture. The popular sea-side resort Weston-super-Mare lies on the Bristol Channel coast.


The Somerset Levels, and specifically the dry points such as Glastonbury and Brent Knoll, have a long history of settlement, and are known to have been settled by mesolithic hunters.[2] The caves of the Mendip Hills were settled during the neolithic period and contain extensive archaeological sites. There are numerous Iron Age Hill Forts, some of which were later reused in the Dark Ages, such as Cadbury Castle. Somerset, like Dorset to the south, held the Saxon invasion back for over a century, remaining a frontier between the Saxons and the Romano-British and Celts. The first known use of the name Somersæte was in 845 after the region fell to the Saxons. After the Norman Conquest the county was divided into 700 fiefs, and large areas were owned by the crown.

In the English Civil War Somerset was largely Royalist, unlike neighbouring Wiltshire. In 1685 the Monmouth Rebellion was played out in Somerset and neighbouring Dorset. The rebels landed at Lyme Regis and traveled north hoping to capture Bristol and Bath, but were defeated at the Battle of Sedgemoor.

The traditional northern boundary of the county was the River Avon, but this has crept southwards, with the creation and expansion of the City of Bristol. In 1974 a large part of northern Somerset was removed to form the southern half of the County of Avon. Avon has now been abolished, and North Somerset and Bath and North East Somerset have reverted to Somerset for ceremonial purposes, but are administratively independent for local government purposes.

Somerset contains England's oldest prison still in use, in the small town of Shepton Mallet, and the world's oldest known engineered roadway, the Sweet Track.

Geology, landscape and ecology

Much of the landscape of Somerset falls into types determined by the underlying geology. These landscapes are the limestone karst and lias of the north, the clay vales and wetlands of the centre, the oolites of the east and south, and the Devonian sandstone of the west. To the north east of the Levels, the Mendip Hills are moderately high, often mountain limestone hills with an extensive network of caves and underground rivers and a number of gorges, famously Cheddar Gorge. 198 km² of the central and western Mendip Hills was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1972. The main habitat on these hills is calcareous grassland, with some arable agriculture. To the south of the hills, on the clay substrate, are a number of broad valleys which support dairy farming and drain into the Somerset Levels. This expanse of flat land, stretching up to 20 miles inland, is only a few feet above sea level. Before it was drained, much of the land was under a shallow brackish sea in winter and a marsh in summer. Drainage started in Roman times, restarting in Saxon times and is continuing now. According to legend Joseph of Arimathea sailed across the levels to Glastonbury, a dry point near the eastern edge of the levels. In the far west of the county, running into Devon, is Exmoor, a high Devonian sandstone moor, which was designated as a national park in 1954. The highest point in Somerset is Dunkery Beacon on Exmoor, with an altitude of 519 metres (1704 feet).


The coastline of the Bristol Channel marks part of the northern border of Somerset. The area of the Bristol Channel has one of the largest tidal ranges in the world. At Burnham-on-Sea, for example, the tidal range of a spring tide is over 12 m. Current proposals for the construction of the Severn Barrage aim to harness this energy. The main coastal towns of today are, from the west to the east, Minehead, Watchet, and Burnham-on-Sea. The coastal area between Minehead and the eastern extreme of the county’s coastline is known as Bridgwater Bay.[3]

In the mid and north of the county the coastline is low as the flat wetlands of the levels meet the sea. In the west the coastline is high and dramatic as the plateau of Exmoor meets the sea with high cliffs and waterfalls.[3]


The county has many rivers, including the Axe, Brue, Cary, Parrett, Sheppey, Tone and Yeo. These both feed and drain the flat levels and moors of mid and west Somerset.[3]


Along with the rest of South West England, Somerset has a temperate climate which is generally wetter and milder than the rest of England. The annual mean temperature is approximately 10 oC and shows a seasonal and a diurnal variation, but due to the modifying effect of the sea the range is less than in most other parts of the UK. January is the coldest month with mean minimum temperatures between 1 and 2 °C. July and August are the warmest months in the region with mean daily maxima around 21 °C. The number of hours of bright sunshine is controlled by the length of day and by cloudiness. In general December is the dullest month and June the sunniest. The south-west of England has a favoured location with respect to the Azores high pressure when it extends its influence north-eastwards towards the UK, particularly in summer. Convective cloud often forms inland, especially near hills, and acts to reduce sunshine amounts. The average annual sunshine totals around 1600 hours. Rainfall tends to be associated with Atlantic depressions or with convection. The Atlantic depressions are more vigorous in autumn and winter and most of the rain which falls in those seasons in the south-west is from this source. In summer, convection caused by solar surface heating sometimes forms shower clouds and a large proportion of rainfall falls from showers and thunderstorms at this time of year. Average rainfall is around 800-900 mm. About 8-15 days of snowfall is typical. November to March have the highest mean wind speeds, with June to August having the lightest winds. The predominent wind direction is from the South West.[4]

Economy and industry

Somerset has few significant industrial centres. Bridgwater was developed during the Industrial Revolution as the West Country's leading port. Yeovil is important in the manufacture of helicopters. Many towns have developed small-scale light industries, such as Crewkerne's Ariel Motor Company, Ltd., one of the UK's smallest automobile manufacturers.

Agriculture continues to be a major business in the county, if no longer a major employer. Apple orchards were once plentiful, and to this day Somerset is linked to the production of strong cider, arguably more so than any other part of the world. The towns of Taunton and Shepton Mallet are involved with the production of cider, especially Blackthorn Cider, which is sold nationwide.

The Dunster Yarn Market was built in 1609 for the trading of local cloth
The Dunster Yarn Market was built in 1609 for the trading of local cloth

Much of the county is scenic and unspoilt. Tourism is a major industry in the county, estimated in 2001 to support around 23,000 people.[5] Attractions include its coastal towns, part of the Exmoor National Park, the West Somerset Railway (a heritage railway), and the museum of the Fleet Air Arm at RNAS Yeovilton. The town of Glastonbury is famous for its mythical associations, and open-air rock festival (actually in Pilton), while the Cheddar Gorge is famous for caves open to visitors, as well as its locally produced cheese.

This is a chart of trend of regional gross value added of the non-metropolitan county of Somerset at current basic prices published (pp.240-253) by Office for National Statistics with figures in millions of British Pounds Sterling.

Year Regional Gross Value Added4 Agriculture1 Industry2 Services3
1995 4,601 298 1,608 2,695
2000 5,872 199 1,936 3,737
2003 6,586 215 1,956 4,416

Note 1: includes hunting and forestry

Note 2: includes energy and construction

Note 3: includes financial intermediation services indirectly measured

Note 4: Components may not sum to totals due to rounding


Somerset has long traditions of art, music and literature. Wordsworth and Coleridge wrote while staying in Nether Stowey, Alfoxden and Porlock in the west of the county. Traditional folk music, both song and dance, was important in the largely agricultural communities. Somerset songs were collected by Cecil Sharp and incorporated into a number of works including Holst's A Somerset Rhapsody. Halsway Manor near Williton is an international centre for folk music. The tradition continues today with groups such as The Wurzels.

The Glastonbury Festival of Performing Arts takes place most years in Pilton, near Shepton Mallet, attracting over 100,000 music and culture lovers from around the world, world-famous entertainers and local people alike.

A number of shows and events form part of the agricultural calendar.


Taunton war memorial
Taunton war memorial
Palladian Pulteney Bridge and the weir at Bath
Palladian Pulteney Bridge and the weir at Bath
The west front of Wells Cathedral
The west front of Wells Cathedral
The West Somerset Railway
The West Somerset Railway

The original county town of Somerset was Somerton, but in recent years that role has been transferred to Taunton. The county has two cities, Bath and Wells.

Main settlements (with a population of more than 3,000)

Place names

Somerset placenames are mostly Saxon in origin, though the settlements may well be older. In many cases it is likely that a Saxon place name replaced an earlier Celtic one, for example a charter of 682 concerning Creechborough Hill defines it as "the hill the British call Cructan and we call Crychbeorh". A few modern names are Celtic in origin, such as Tarnock, while others are hybrid, having both Saxon and Celtic elements such as Penhill.

Most of the river names are Celtic, such as Axe, while a few may be pre-Celtic such as Parret (earlier Pedred).

Places of interest

National Trust National Trust
English Heritage English Heritage
Forestry Commission Forestry Commission
Country Park Country Park
Accessible open space Accessible open space
Museum (free)
Museums (free/not free)
Heritage railway Heritage railway
Historic house Historic House



  1. ^ Mesolithic hunters and fishermen. Somerset History.
  2. ^ Somerset. Camelot Village: Britains Heritage and History.
  3. ^ a b c Somerset Topography. Somerset County Council.
  4. ^ About south-west England. Met Office.
  5. ^ Employers in Somerset. Somerset Chamber of Commerce.
  1. Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911, "Somersetshire".


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