Shepton Mallet: Beginning to bloom

East Somerset Railway locomotives stop at nearby Mendip Vale

East Somerset Railway locomotives stop at nearby Mendip Vale - Credit: submitted

From prime-time shopkeeping shows to prison ghost hunts, Shepton Mallet’s popularity is on the rise

You’ll find a wealth of luxury lifestyle brands at Kilver Court (c) Visit Somerset

You’ll find a wealth of luxury lifestyle brands at Kilver Court (c) Visit Somerset - Credit: submitted

Much like the Snowdrop Festival, which sees Shepton Mallet planted with hundreds of thousands of colourful bulbs each February, the town itself is showing the green shoots of growth. Another once prosperous Somerset market town, it has had its hard times. But a 2010 BBC series, Turn Back Time: The High Street, of which Shepton Mallet was the subject, sowed a seed in people’s minds that this Mendip town is still a lovely place to live, work or visit. And that seed is beginning to germinate.

It started when the nation’s favourite grocer, Greg Wallace, helped turn the town’s quaint old main street into a Victorian parade of shops to illustrate the historical importance of independent shopkeepers. The popular programme served not only to remind us what we’ve lost by the disappearance of independent retailers on our high streets, but it seems to have caused Shepton Mallet to take stock too. Locals delighted in this transformation, from a town blighted by empty shop fronts to a thriving local shopping community, and they have slowly helped individual businesses re-establish themselves in the town centre.

Food & drink

You can’t get much more quirky than Hive, a haberdashery-cum-coffee shop, proof if it were needed that the high street can belong to small start-ups. It’s apparent this hive of activity is aptly named, with people constantly popping in for zips, buttons or knitting advice (they do craftwork courses and events too) or to sample the wonderful coffee and generous breakfasts and lunches or to pick up takeaway orders placed online.

Another local business doing a roaring trade is the popular Italian restaurant La Tavola D’Oro in Town Street. This quintessentially Italian family business is run by folk who are clearly passionate about their food – everything on the menu is delicious, seasonal, fresh and reasonably priced. While La Tavola D’Oro is a lively spot for dining out of an evening, it does some great value lunchtime specials too.

Charlton viaduct frames the wonderful gardens at Kilver Court (c) Visit Somerset

Charlton viaduct frames the wonderful gardens at Kilver Court (c) Visit Somerset - Credit: submitted

Shepton Mallet does a fine line in fine dining too. Bowlish House is a grand option, with its New England-inspired Cape Cod dining room and peaceful country garden. Duncan Bannatyne’s Charlton House Hotel & Spa, meanwhile, has gained a reputation as one of the leading country house hotels in the southwest, offering spacious grand suites and opulent four-poster rooms, each with an outside courtyard or balcony. Yet despite the grandeur, there are reasonable priced doubles from £85 a night, some with freestanding baths. Add to that the spa facilities, gently rolling gardens and delectable locally-sourced menus and Charlton House is an ideal place for a relaxing afternoon or weekend break.

With plenty of opportunities for countryside walks around the town, the Thatched Cottage is the perfect place at which to end one. Just to the east of the centre, beneath its well groomed thatch you’ll find a smart, paired-back interior, traditional dining with a modern twist, friendly service and eight good value en-suite rooms.

The Dusthole has a real country pub feel to it. Formerly the Kings Arms, and once a provisions house for the prison, it got its unusual current name from the quarry workers who drank here in the 1900s, brushing themselves off at the bar after a hard day’s work. Nowadays there are comfy rooms above the pub and in luxurious log cabins in the garden, as well as plenty of local ales and cider.

Hop aboard

Just a kilometre down the road is Mendip Vale, the western terminus of the East Somerset Railway. It once extended west through Shepton Mallet to Wells and Yatton, and east to Wanstrow, Frome and Bristol. Now heritage steam locomotives run up and down the pleasant 4km stretch between the Cranmore and Mendip Vale. The three-course lunches and afternoon teas served in the Mendip Belle dining carriage are particularly popular, while there is usually a packed programme of family events, as well as footplate experience days and driver taster sessions.

The Bath and West Show attracts thousands of visitors to Shepton Mallet (c) Visit Somerset

The Bath and West Show attracts thousands of visitors to Shepton Mallet (c) Visit Somerset - Credit: submitted

Time to hit the shops

Nothing says Shepton is open for business quite like the designer shopping centre at Kilver Court.

Home to a number of outlet stores for luxury brands including Mulberry, Rapha and Yves Delorme, there are plenty of boutique concessions too, as well as a cafe, restaurant and nursery, making it the perfect place to go gift shopping.

Many visitors linger in the wonderful gardens too. Covering three and a half acres, they were created by industrialist Ernest Jardine at the beginning of the 19th century as a recreational space for employees at his lace-making factory. Nowadays it has been sculpted by Mulberry founder Roger Saul, and includes a 100m herbaceous border, formal parterre, rockery and subtropical island. Overlooking it all is the statuesque 27-arch Charlton Viaduct, built in the 1870s to carry the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway over the River Sheppey, though now no longer used. The gardens are free to RHS members, otherwise it is £7.50 for adults, £5 for concessions and free for under-14s.

Shepton Mallet prison must be a foreboding place at night (c) Jailhouse Tours

Shepton Mallet prison must be a foreboding place at night (c) Jailhouse Tours - Credit: submitted

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At your leisure

As spring comes around, so too does the opportunity for an al fresco swim in the town’s lovely lido, a 25m heated outdoor pool hidden in a residential cul-de-sac. In true Somerset fashion its warm waters were heated by the cider factory next door, though it has now opted for a more efficient on-site system. The changing rooms are charmingly traditional, though, and there’s plenty of space on the grassy surrounds for picnics as well as outdoor table tennis, a shallow pool for youngsters and large splash pad with water jets. An adult swim is £4.20, and juniors £2.50.

Other nearby leisure pursuits include the Mendip Golf Club at Gurney Slade, regarded as the best course in Somerset with far reaching views over seven counties.

It’s show time

If there is one venue synonymous with Shepton Mallet it is the Bath and West Showground, a 240-acre site just out of town that draws visitors to the annual agricultural and rural shows and collectors fairs in their droves. The highlight of the year here is the Royal Bath and West Show at the end of May, while earlier events include the Charterhouse Classic Car Auction and Vintage Motorcycle Club Autojumble. In June the venue hosts the Footman James Classic Vehicle Restoration Show, the longest running event of its kind.

Go to jail

Shepton Mallet prison, or the Cornhill as it was once known, is one of the town’s many iconic buildings. Visitors can go on fascinating self-guided or accompanied tours of the building (from £15 per adult), but if you get the chance the occasional ‘ghost hunts’ are an experience that shouldn’t be missed.

Not for those of a nervous disposition, these explorations of one of the creepiest buildings in England (built in 1625 it also became the oldest operating prison until its closure in 2013) run from 9pm -3am, and include using ghost detecting apparatus and ouija boards! Shepton Mallet was a category C Lifer prison, incarcerating the most hardened and dangerous of criminals, including the Kray Twins in 1950s.

Its many unmarked graves throughout the grounds, and tales of countless executions carried out here over the centuries, only add to the intense and unnerving experience. Tickets, priced at £59, sell out quickly.

Celebrating all that is good about Shepton Mallet is the Collett Festival, a summer series of community events in the delightful green space of Collett Park. At any time of year, though, it is a lovely place to while away idle time, with a charming family-run cafe on hand for drinks, snacks and ice creams, as well as its own entertainments including rounders, inflatables, music and fun runs.

Did you know...?

The 50ft-tall Market Cross was built in 1500 to mark the centre of the town. Here the Parliamentarians of Shepton Mallet fought off the Royalists from Wells during the English Civil War. Once a covered shambles would have stood here; they are long gone but now, as then, the cross still embodies the heart of Shepton Mallet. Yet during the filming of the Turn Back Time programme, this important landmark was found to be in a state of disrepair, prompting a £90,000 restoration programme. It is somehow fitting that this emblem be returned to its former glory, as it looks like the same will soon be said of this once handsome wool town.