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Cheddar Gorge & Forde Abbey

Desperate to have some time to replenish after a hectic festive period, my boyfriend and I headed West and booked ourselves in at the Shepherds Hut Retreat, deep in the Somerset countryside. We arrived in the dark, welcomed by a luminous half moon and a symphony of stars. If you looked closely, you could just about make out the outline of the rolling hills surrounding us.

The sound of rain dancing on the roof acted as our alarm the next morning, but it was by no means unwanted. It was the type of rain that only made the surroundings more beautiful in a sultry, moody kind of way. A quick round of peanut butter on toast and copious amounts of tea later, we headed to one of my favourite places in the UK, Cheddar Gorge.

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I've dreamt of going back to Cheddar, ever since I visited with my family during the 2008 summer holidays. One of the immediate perks of visiting a tourist trap in January is that you have it all to yourself. We wandered around and marvelled at the 400ft limestone cliffs wrapped in fog, which we learnt later that they were carved out millions of years ago by the Ice Age floods - one of Mother Nature's earliest sculptures!

After an hour of walking through the heart of the Gorge, I realised that we hadn't said anything but 'wow, this is stunning'. With the risk of sound too airy-fairy, there is just something different about this place. It feels familiar, almost primitive.

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We found the National Trust walking trail that takes you up and over the cliffs. It's a pretty hefty incline with the promise of the best 360 views you can get over the surrounding area. Unfortunately, the weather made it hard to see anything further than 20 yards ahead of us, but on the plus side, it felt like we were walking on clouds!

The walk back down was a slow and sometimes quite a tense process (I don't have the best balance...), perhaps it was because I was too busy looking up at the trees rather than where I was placing my feet. A feral goat kept us company for a while before wandering back into all the shrubs and flora around. I read that in the summer, the lower slopes are covered in herbs like thyme, wild basil and marjoram. The smell must be gorgeous! A visit in summer might be on the list as I don’t think you could ever grow bored of Cheddar Gorge.

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The next morning we drove 15 minutes down the road to a place called Chard, home to the famous and beautiful Forde Abbey. Having followed them on Instagram for months, I was so excited to get to walk around the gardens and to see the first bloom of snowdrops.

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Being January, the garden was very much asleep, but every so often there were messages from Spring emerging from the ground. Vibrant Camellias stood tall in the Winter Garden, proving that the winter colour palette can branch out of greys and browns. The snowdrops certainly did not disappoint either, a blanket of white guides you into the estate and we were lucky enough to witness the morning sunlight kiss the foreheads of the early arrivals. During February, they hold 'Snowdrop Weekends' to celebrate the delicate beauties looking their absolute best.

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Eight-hundred years ago, Cistercian Monks wandered around the same gardens, primarily using it to grow seasonal fruit and vegetables to supply their vegetarian diet. It was lovely to know that the ground beneath our feet has been nourished for so many centuries.

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There is a perfect balance between formal and relaxed landscaping at Forde. You have the tranquillity of the Great Pond, the openness of the Arboretum, as well as the detailed touches hidden within the Walled and Rock Garden alike. It is clear to see the passion and knowledge that the gardeners have at Forde Abbey. They both respect its history and also craft its future potential.

We left our 48-hour retreat feeling energised and inspired to get back to our day to day lives. Sometimes it’s nice to trade in a city break for a slower pace of life.

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Louise Smith