Great Drives: Around the Mendips in a Skoda (on a Full Stomach)

Cheddar Gorge // Photo by golfer2015/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

by Paul Davies, The Telegraph, June 27, 2017

"Where does this rank on the list of all-time-great hotel breakfasts?"

My wife always asks me this question when we stay somewhere she thinks is worthy of inclusion.

“Because this,” she adds, “is the best bacon I’ve ever had.” 

We’re at The Pig hotel near Bath, where the show-stopper breakfast is named “The Full Pig Out”. In MasterChef-speak, it’s “pig four ways”: bacon, sausage, black pudding, white pudding – plus some sort of egg and a fried tomato.

Plus all-you-can-eat pastries. Plus cheese.

My wife thinks it’s a contender – which it most definitely is – even though she asks the waitress to substitute the puddings for baked beans, so she’s really only experiencing 50 per cent of its greatness.

There are five Pigs dotted around England, all variations on the informal-yet-swanky restaurant-with-rooms theme. We’re overnighting at the one “Near Bath” (in fact, that’s its name); a Grade II listed building in the Chew Valley, formerly known as Hunstrete House. With 29 rooms, it’s the largest and grandest of the Pig clan.

It’s shabby chic meets posh country house, with a snooker room, a whopping private dining room, a potting-shed spa and the sort of wooden floors throughout that make you say “Why can’t we have wooden floors like that in our house?”

Two large stone pigs guard the front of the property; two real ones, just beyond the giant, beautifully maintained kitchen garden, are stationed at the rear.

Our postprandial plan is to meander our way south east through Somerset’s Mendip Hills to a pub called The Swan in Wedmore, which I’ve failed to convince our children has a lunchtime special called “The Full Swan Out”, consisting of several different bits of water bird. But we’ve stuffed ourselves with so much pig at The Pig that the idea of a Big Sunday Lunch now seems terrifying.

The BBC Weather app has forecast rain, as it always does, but I’m not complaining; we are equipped for inclement weather. We’ve borrowed a new Skoda Kodiaq for the weekend. It’s a big SUV – up there with your BMW X5s and Audi Q7s, although What Car? magazine reckons it’s better than them.

It’s stylish, solidly made, sporty, and not at all like the Skodas people used to laugh at. This is the top-spec “Edition”, a seven-seater, six-speed 4x4 with 19in alloys, leather interior, and an eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system.

“Let me show you my favourite thing about the new car,” I tell my daughters in The Pig’s car park, as we load our bags into the boot. I reach into a small gap in the edge of the driver’s door, and pull out a thin black object, concealed within.  “Umbrellas!” I exclaim. “In the doors!”

As they wander off to take selfies with the hotel’s chickens, I can tell their minds are blown. 

I’ve never driven a car with built-in umbrellas before. Perhaps all cars have them now, although a Google search suggests two manufacturers are known for this design quirk: Rolls-Royce and Skoda. I’m not saying that’s where the similarity ends, because people don’t make jokes about Skoda any more.

Conscious of eating up the road faster than our bodies can metabolise pork, we take a detour north west, to explore the bit on the map where the place names sound like Harry Potter characters (Stanton Drew, Norton Malrewood, Compton Dando…). 

At Chew Magna we head for the hills, due south. On our left, Chew Valley Lake, which supplies Bristol’s drinking water, is the sign that we’ve entered the Mendips proper.  

A 25-mile, undulating carboniferous limestone plateau (technical term), the Mendips region was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1972. Climbers, cavers, cyclists and walkers come here in their droves.

Despite the name, it’s not an especially hilly drive; it’s gently sloping and often surprisingly straight. Driving a big 4x4 here is not essential, but it’s nice because you get an elevated view of all that outstanding beauty. 

At The Swan, an agreeable pub full of families tucking into giant roasts, I realise I have never felt less hungry while holding a menu in my entire life. My wife suggests we simply “plough on through” and that if we resolve to not eat anything else until tomorrow, everything will be OK. We are the only people ordering salad in the whole place.

Groaning, we head north, passing through Cheddar until we reach the promenade of tourist-tat shops on Cliff Road, which snakes its way through the famous gorge. We park at a vertical limestone cliff face to buy some cave-aged Cheddar cheese at the world’s oldest Cheddar cheese shop, because that’s what everyone else appears to be doing. A car park attendant approaches.

“Nice car,” he says. He’s on his third Skoda, he explains, and likes the look of this one. He says he won’t charge us for parking – it’s obviously a Skoda brotherhood thing.

Cheesed up, we clamber up the steep gorge. Like most people here, we venture about 20 metres higher than is sensible, then scramble down on our backsides. We nibble some cheese to calm our nerves. 

Back on the road, it’s a stunning, dramatic, twisting (though all too brief) drive through the gorge; the scenery is 4x4-advert perfect. We head east, towards England’s second-smallest city, stopping at a roadside fruit shop for some strawberries, forgetting we’re still not hungry.

Wells has a cathedral, but is otherwise very un-citylike. There’s a country garden fair taking place, and people dressed in white are playing croquet in the sunshine. It’s a movie version of British village life.

Hot Fuzz, starring Simon Pegg, was filmed here; there’s a sign above the door of The Crown pub to prove it. The film was part of Pegg’s “Three Flavours Cornetto” trilogy, thus named due to the lead characters’ fondness for Wall’s ice cream. In homage, we force down several tubs of Lovingtons double chocolate chip at a café opposite the pub. The real Wells is too posh for Cornetto.

And then we head for home. At Fleet services we stop for snacks (“to keep us going”). As we park, a middle-aged man strides over. “The new Kodiaq…” he says. He’s just bought an Octavia, he explains, and “it tows the caravan lovely”, but wishes he’d gone for one of these now.

No one has ever complimented me on my car before, let alone twice in one day, and it's a strange experience. Perhaps the Kodiaq really is that good. Perhaps Skoda owners are just a very close-knit bunch. Or a bit mad?

Caravan man has a good nose around. It’s got a boot that beeps when it closes itself, we tell him. And plastic bits on the doors that pop out when you open them, so you don’t scrape the car next to you.

“And you’ll never guess what else…” He seems strangely unimpressed when I show him the umbrellas. Perhaps, as a Skoda aficionado, he’s seen it all before.

SKODA KODIAQ EDITION 4X4

  • Price £33,080
  • Engine 2.0 TDI 150PS
  • Power: 147bhp
  • Top speed 121mph
  • Fuel economy 51.4mpg combined

The Mendips are rich in history, from the Mesolithic human remains found in Cheddar Gorge to the area around Charterhouse, where the Romans mined the local lead and shipped it all over the Empire – but the more recent history is just as fascinating. 

A mile or so north of Cheddar, on Warrens Hill Road, you can park your car near the entrance to Tynings Farm (on your left) and walk north about half a mile (700m) to reach the open moorland plateau at Black Down, the site of one of the Second World War's biggest decoy cities.

Here, as part of the ingenious Operation Starfish, hundreds of beacons were placed around the countryside, which from the air would resemble a poorly blacked-out Bristol, including dummy landmarks such as Temple Meads station and Pyle Hill goods yard (look out for the remains of the main control bunker on your left).

The idea was to invite the Luftwaffe to drop their bombs here instead of the city’s factories and docks. To address the fear of invasion, 1,800 tumps were built in grid formation to prevent enemy aircraft from landing and taking off. Keep heading north for 320yd (300m) and you’ll see the double rows of tumps on your right.

At a junction, take the footpath to your right, bearing east. After 15 minutes you’ll reach Beacon Batch, the site of several Bronze Age round barrows and the highest point in the Mendips (1,066ft/325m), with gorgeous views in all directions.

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This article was written by Paul Davies from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].