What is there for a landscape photographer in Somerset? With rare birds in the wetland marshes and red deer roaming the hills, wildlife is perhaps the most natural draw in our county. Yet, despite lacking charismatic mountains and rugged coastline, after watching light rays through the mist of the Levels, rambling over purple moorland and standing on the edge of a brutal gorge, you too will agree – there is plenty here to satisfy landscape photographers too. Wondering where to start with Somerset landscape photography? This guide is for you.
No Somerset guide could fail to feature this iconic landmark. The tower is all that remains of a 14th century church. This stone building replaced an ancient wooden church that an earthquake destroyed in 1275. Much earlier still – as vendors on Glastonbury high street thrill to tell you – the hill was important in pre-Christian culture too.
Whatever your religion, agriculture shaped the landscape we approach as photographers. By the Doomsday Book, monks had already drained the swamps surrounding the Tor for farm land. Prior to draining, the hill seating Glastonbury Tor would have been a tidal island. Today, the Somerset Levels remain damp. And this humidity gives rise to the holy grail of photographing Glastonbury Tor: fata morgana. With the right conditions, a mirage makes the Tor appear to float above a sea of clouds. (Given the Tor’s association with Arthurian lore, this optical effect is aptly named.)
If, like me, you don’t own a drone, you will need a vantage point above the mist. Brent Knoll, the Polden Hills and the Mendips all offer good photography spots with views of Glastonbury Tor. Autumn and winter are your best bet for a cloud inversion, but you can get lucky and see spectacular atmospherics in midsummer with the solstice sun behind the Tor!
Burnham-on-Sea Low Lighthouse
Although Somerset isn’t known for its coastline, the silty shores of the Bristol Channel have some beautiful locations to photograph. The piers at Weston-Super-Mare and Clevedon are photogenic and Black Nore Lighthouse is an iconic place to visit. However, my spot of choice for Somerset seascapes is Burnham-on-Sea Low Lighthouse.
Built in the 19th century, the lighthouse on legs worked together with another larger lighthouse. Both have a distinctive red stripe down their fronts. However, Burnham High Lighthouse stopped shining in 1993.
You need an extra high tide to get the minimalist shot people seek from this location. But even at low tide, tidal pools around the legs of the lighthouse make for nice reflections and interesting compositions. In the summer, you can aim for sun stars between the stilts as the sun sets in front of the lighthouse.
While you are here, be sure to walk to see the SS Nornen further up the beach towards Berrow. (You will need catch this one at low tide though.) Be careful here, these mud flats have one of the highest tidal ranges in the world and the tide can recede over 2000 meters. Needless to say, the water comes in fast.
Gouged by retreating glaciers at the end of the last ice age, the 200m high limestone cliffs at Cheddar Gorge are a sight to behold. Below ground is no less impressive. The caves host to the UK’s largest underground river system and Britain’s oldest complete human skeleton lay untouched for millennia near the entrance to one of these caves.
I see what practical drew our ancestors here. Yet there is more than that. Perhaps it is being enclosed by towering stone walls, and the way sound both echoes and is stifled, but there is something bewitching about the Gorge. The magic is especially potent at night. When I come to Cheddar for landscape astrophotography images, it feels like a different world. Almost Jurassic. Tawney owls call to each other across the vast chasm and the primitive clack of rutting goats butting heads makes you start, afraid of rock slides.
The roar of engines and screech of tires usually pulls me out of the dream state. Cheddar is a gathering point for boy racers and most evenings people in tuned up cars drift hairpin turns on the valley floor. Who can blame them? Anyone who drives the snaking road through the gorge will see the appeal.
There are no end of compositions here. The classic honeypot shot is the curve of the road leading through the Gorge to the town of Cheddar and beyond that, the Somerset Levels.
But it is worth paying attention to other areas in the Gorge too. I haven’t seen many photographs from the cliffs on the north side and compositions there are equally spectacular.
The intimate scenes too provide endless options for the landscape photographer. If you explore the woodlands at Black Rock Nature Reserve in late spring, wild garlic carpets the understory. Bluebells shortly follow.
And, of course, there are dramatic loan trees clinging to life on the cliffs.
A fairy-tale castle on the edge of Exmoor National Park!? Photography here should be like shooting fish in a barrel… yet I have so far failed to take an image that does Dunster justice.
Probably the best angles on the castle are with a telephoto lens from the A39. In the early morning sun, with the fields releasing light convection fog, the turrets glow on the side of the hill.
Some footpaths nearby have great viewpoints too. Look for gaps in the forest as you walk to Conyegar Tower and the trails up to the Iron Age forts to the south are worth exploring. There is also a deer park nearby. I always take a telephoto lens on the journey to Bat’s Castle hoping to catch red deer in the foreground of the castle.
The National Trust gardens are worth exploring with a camera too. Most Somerset photographers seem to have a shot of Lover’s Bridge! Dunster Castle itself is a mishmash of different eras. There are some 13th century features but much of the main house is more modern. Modern at least by UK standards.
Another attraction is Dunster by Candlelight. During a weekend in the run up to Christmas, the the medieval town is decorated with coloured lights and the inhabitants of Exmoor, West Somerset, Taunton and Bridgwater descend on the Christmas market, sample the food stalls and drink mulled cider and wine. There are plenty of re-enactors around too to add to the atmosphere. The COVID pandemic put a pause to Dunster by Candlelight for a couple of years, but inspired by the magical way the castle looks lit up at night, I visited for some astrophotography.
It doesn’t matter where you go on the Somerset Levels, there is always something to shoot. The damp ground means mist is common and on cold, clear mornings the fog often lingers on the ground before the risen sun burns it off. For this reason, I visit woodlands and lone trees again and again in changing conditions.
There are some iconic monuments to photograph. We have already looked at Glastonbury Tor, but the Levels have other gems too. In the interests of brevity, I won’t list them all, but Stembridge Tower Mill in High Ham near Langport and Ashton Windmill near Axbridge are photogenic and worth visiting. However, my favourite is Burrow Mump.
I have many shots of the St Michael’s Church at Burrow Bridge and I was torn over which one to share, but this shot, taken near Othery sums up the place. A friend suggested I crop out the farm vehicles in the foreground. But I think it tells a better story. When you look closely, the people on the hill next to the church are wearing cloaks… Wizards on a hill absorbing vibes from the moon and ley lines with scrubby farmland below? This image is an almost perfect tableau of modern Somerset.
Burrow Mump is so prominent in the landscape that you can take photos of it from any angle. The best aspects are from the East and West. I am yet to get a good cloud inversion at Burrow Mump, but because there is limited high ground nearby, a drone would be useful for that shot.
If you see a leather walking boot on the beaches around Porlock, you will soon know why.
Considering how iconic this location is, it took me a while to discover Porlock Salt Marshes. Until a major storm breached the barrier in the 90s, a naturally formed stone shingle ridge protected a small copse. The area became flooded and the tidal salt marsh and ghostly trees now attract photographers from across the country.
To get shots where the trees are fully submerged, you will need at least a 10-metre spring tide. But be careful. Once, while exploring compositions on the marshes, I left my retreat too late and got cut off. The water shouldn’t have been high enough to keep me from wading back, but the streams that drain the marshes are deep and the tide water is murky. It is very hard to avoid tripping. I waited just out of frame to the right of this image until the 11-metre tide receded.
The water only rose a hair above my waist, and I was safe in waders. My gear was not. I had locked off my second camera on a tripod shooting a time lapse, and my camera bag and clothes were on a mound next to an old stone barn. Early after being marooned, I had the upsetting knowledge that the mound wasn’t high enough to protect my stuff. I had a nervous wait while the tide lapped around near the top of my tripod. When it was safe, I returned. My time-lapse camera was fine, but I found three lenses waterlogged and a walking boot missing. Although the lenses were a financial disaster I was more upset about the boot…
It took me a year, but eventually I had enough distance from this disastrous trip to edit the photos. I am starting to think that the frame above – one frame from time lapse – is almost worth the pain. And, two years on, I am still torn between asking Alt-Berg to make me a spare and using the remaining lonely shoe to make an art installation for my house…
Needless to say, if you want to get a photo of the petrified trees at Porlock, stick to the paths around the marshes.
Growing up in Somerset, the chance of being dragged for a Sunday walk on the Quantocks filled me with weekly dread. Now, whenever I visit my hometown, I make my own way there. A stone’s throw from Bridgwater and Taunton, the Quantocks are a boon for the nature photographer.
However, while I often visit the Quantocks for the red deer herds, I’ve had very little luck with landscape photography. Why? Well, I think I was looking for the wrong subjects. I think now that the rolling hills of the Quantocks are not best photographed as sweeping vistas. Instead, intimate scenes are better.
Woodland photography frightens me. Furthermore, since I am now focused on creating more graphical, simple photos, I am even less inclined to wrestle the chaos of a forest into a pleasing frame. Of course, mist helps, and once in a while I have another go.
I took this photo in the forest near Over Stowey, near the ominous sounding Dead Woman’s Ditch. The name of the earthworks predates Victorian and modern murders and local wisdom talks of a witches burial ground. In the mist, with no one else around, there is something witching about this stretch of sessile oak woodland. Dripping dew drops and the moss-muffled hoof falls of Exmoor ponies add to the ambiance. The last time I was in this area, the interesting patterns of lichen, bark and spider webs caught my eye and textural studies seem a good reason for a return trip.
On the west side of the moorland, closer to Crowcombe, a drove runs South East towards Triscombe Stone. The Drove Road, also known as King Alfred’s way, was trodden by farmers and soldiers over centuries and in places the path sinks almost two metres deep. Beech trees line the drove. There are sometimes highland cattle in the fields on either side and with the right light and atmospherics, you could make spectacular photos here.
Clifton Suspension Bridge
Well, I didn’t technically take this image in Somerset, but most of the contents are in North Somerset, apart from the birds. The birds are in the air and thus governed by the CAA. (Thanks for the drone law knowledge Sam Binding.)
Bristol is a fantastic town to shoot in. What’s more, there is a supportive community of photographers here. If you spend any amount of time at the hot spots – the SS Great Britain, Hannover Quay, Redcliffe, Cumberland Basin, Baltic Wharf or the Buttery – you will meet them.
I took this shot of Clifton Suspension Bridge from one of the best spots in Bristol – Sea Walls. On the edge of Clifton Downs, from Sea Walls you can see out to Avonmouth and on a clear day you might spy the top of Pen y Fan on the Brecon Beacons. While Sea Walls is my top pick for shooting Brunel’s Bridge, Cumberland Basin and Clifton Observatory are excellent spots too.
There are some things to watch out for at these hot spots though. At Sea Walls, bring a tall tripod. There is a high railing, so either you climb it and take photos hand held or use a tripod that can go up at least 180cm. Cumberland basin needs a high tide. Unless you have direct light on the mud of the banks of the Avon, it can look messy. Be careful sending up a drone at the Observatory. It can get crowded there! I’ve seen six launched at once.
Other Somerset landscape photography locations
Above are favourite places to shoot since I moved back to the UK in 2017, and they are a good place to start. But there is plenty more to see! Bath and Wells are on my radar and are glaring omissions from this guide. I suspect that like the Quantocks, it is better to approach the Blackdown Hills in a very focused, detail-oriented way and I want to go back there with a camera. Finally, except for Cadbury castle, I have not explored South Somerset much and I would welcome some guidance around there.