A postcard from Somerset, where normality is flickering through

Emma Cooke
·5-min read
Our writer spent a weekend in the Mendip Hills when domestic travel reopened on July 4 - getty
Our writer spent a weekend in the Mendip Hills when domestic travel reopened on July 4 - getty

What post-lockdown travel looks like in the county, from social distancing in pubs to contact-free check-ins

What should have been a straightforward drive from London to Somerset turned into a hellish journey. My partner and I had left the capital for the West Country early on a rather wet July day and discovered crucial parts of the M4 closed. Diversions were clogged with back-to-back traffic. 

As our sat nav struggled to reroute us and we slowly crawled past another car – a beautiful vintage model – broken down on the side of the road, cool box full of picnic drinks visible as the owners frantically tried to make repairs, I wondered at the wisdom of our retreat out of the city. 

When travel shut down globally due to the coronavirus pandemic, here in the UK there was fear both of the spreading virus, but also of the impact such a closure would have on the many businesses which rely on tourism, both domestic and international, to make a living. 

It was welcome relief to many, then, when the Government announced the reopening of domestic travel within England on July 4. In response, Telegraph Travel launched the Great Escape, to cover the reopening of the country and what it would look like – which is how we ended up getting to know the A roads around the M4 that Saturday (July 4) far better than I would have liked. 

Stress and hunger led to us pulling off and following a far emptier road into the Cotswolds village of Marshfield. Pretty, even in the drizzle, we found a pub, the Catherine Wheel, accepting walk-ins for lunch. Inside, I was struck by the buzz of conversation, despite fewer tables.

New, post-lockdown pub signs - Emma Cooke
New, post-lockdown pub signs - Emma Cooke

New signs detailing social distancing rules were bedecked with Union Jack flags, and a group outside cheerfully chatted about swinging by the other pubs now open in the area. “I just had my first McDonalds,” we overheard a boy gleefully informing his friend as we left to get back on the road.

Reinvigorated, the remaining drive into the Mendip Hills was traffic-free and by the time we’d arrived at the Harptree Treehouse (canopyandstars.co.uk), we were truly excited for our rustic retreat. Situated in the heart of some of Somerset’s most beautiful countryside, our accommodation for the weekend was an elevated double-circle cabin on the Harptree Court estate, a 19th century Grade II listed building. 

The benefits of self-check in had never been so apparent. Parking in a clearly marked alcove, signs directed us around a large pond, through the grass and towards the treehouse. No one else was in sight throughout. 

Fields of Gold by Sting was playing on the radio as we entered the cabin, which lay far towards the glamorous end of glamping. A king-size bed, wood burner and enormous copper bathtub were key features of the space, alongside a compact but well-equipped kitchen and small living area with leather chairs. 

“The past few weeks, since the announcement that that lockdown was easing, have been the busiest in Canopy and Stars 10-year history, certainly the boost that domestic tourism needed,” said Mike Bevens, the managing director Sawday’s and Canopy and Stars, which counts Harptree Treehouse among its properties. 

Blissful isolation at Harptree Treehouse - Canopy and Stars
Blissful isolation at Harptree Treehouse - Canopy and Stars

“Canopy and Stars places by their nature tend to be remote and socially-distanced but we have introduced additional measures to ensure guest safety. Most are offering contact-free check-in and we have introduced a Clean and Safe charter that our owners have signed up to, introducing additional cleaning measures in line with government guidelines.” 

Most of these ‘additional measures’ are invisible to guests. Everything within our treehouse, we’d been told, had been ‘Ozone’ sanitised on top of the regular rigorous cleaning procedures usually carried out. The tea and coffee usually left out for breakfast had been swapped with a welcome pack of individually wrapped, locally sourced items: a definite upgrade. 

Otherwise, everything from the crisp white bed sheets to the ‘Fireside’-scented Noble Isle toiletries – a Somerset company – were everything you’d expect from a luxury stay. The only noticeable difference from normality came when we needed to ring around the list of suggested local attractions and restaurants in the welcome pack, to see which had reopened and could take us for dinner.

Our Saturday night meal consisted of jerk chicken and onion bhajis served by a friendly, visor-clad waitress at The Seymour Arms. “They’re much more comfortable to work in than masks,” she told us as we asked about the pros and cons of her head gear. 

Though many local restaurants were still preparing to reopen to the public, the village of Harptree is a five minute walk away from the treehouse, and its 17th century pub, the Waldegrave Arms (thewaldegrave.co.uk), was newly open. As we walked in on Sunday, locals smiled and nodded at us, and we stopped to admire the village’s red telephone box, now converted into a book swap club. 

The rules are being taken seriously at The Waldegrave Arms - Emma Cooke
The rules are being taken seriously at The Waldegrave Arms - Emma Cooke

But even in this idyllic spot, Government rules were being taken seriously. Inside the pub, all staff wore masks, a one-way system had been set up, and counters were being furiously scrubbed as we arrived. 

Our Sunday roasts – from the table, not at the bar – were, however, deeply familiar. Tender slices of roast beef were accompanied by crisp Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes, a beautifully rich gravy and a creamy horseradish sauce. The low-beamed ceilings and great stone fireplaces also remained largely ours to enjoy, with only two other tables arriving to dine while we were there. 

Waiting for our rose panna cotta and brown butter ice cream desserts to arrive, we made plans to go on a post-lunch walk, sipped our pints, and felt the first flickers of normality returning.