We discover the honeypot town with medieval streets voted the best place to live near Bristol

With its artisan shops and award-winning markets, the Somerset town of Frome keeps on picking up awards as one of the most desirable places in the South West

It’s a sizzling hotspot but at the same time, it’s also as cool as a cucumber.

When it comes to desirable places to live, the Somerset market town of Frome seems to be the name on everybody’s lips these days.

It was chosen not just because of its rich heritage of wool and cloth making but also for its range of artisan shops, the independent Westway cinema and the Cheese and Grain, a music venue where the likes of Paul McCartney and the Foo Fighters popped in for ‘secret’ gigs.

An hour from Bristol by train and just one hour and 40 minutes from London Paddington, Frome is certainly well positioned, which adds to the appeal as a commuter town.

In recent years, and certainly since more people have worked from home, it has attracted new residents who have moved from nearby cities like Bristol and Bath, but also plenty of Londoners.

Frome is the quintessential market town. Henry III granted the town a royal charter in 1239 to hold a weekly market and it’s still going strong. In fact, the weekly market in Market Yard now takes place every Wednesday and Saturday, with traders selling everything from fresh fish and cheese to antiques and plants.

And then there’s The Frome Independent, which is regarded as one of the most popular destination markets in the country.

Held across the town on the first Sunday of the month, it brings together independent food and drink producers, contemporary designers and makers, vintage fashion, collectibles and furniture.

Visit on the second Saturday of the month and you’ll encounter the largest stand-alone farmers’ market in the South West at Boyle Cross in the town centre. And then there’s the popular car boot sale on the last Sunday of every month in the Cattle Market Car Park.

And when there isn’t a market taking place, there are plenty of fantastic independent shops to visit in Frome throughout the week.

Traffic-free Cheap Street dates back to medieval timesTraffic-free Cheap Street dates back to medieval times
Traffic-free Cheap Street dates back to medieval times

Traffic-free Cheap Street dates back to medieval times and has a ‘leat’ (a narrow stream) running down the middle. The water flows down from Grade II-listed St John the Baptist Church at the top.

One of Europe’s best preserved medieval shopping streets, Cheap Street is a bustling area with a range of shops and cafes, although there are currently a few empty units indicating that even desirable places like Frome didn’t emerge from the pandemic unscathed.

“A few places didn’t survive, sadly,” says Frome resident Stuart, who was walking his dog down Cheap Street when we visited. “But Frome has a growing appeal for independents so it won’t be long before all of these empty units are snapped up, and I think a few have been already.”

There certainly aren’t many empty units on cobbled Catherine Hill, though.

Catherine Hill is packed with artisan shops, cafes and restaurantsCatherine Hill is packed with artisan shops, cafes and restaurants
Catherine Hill is packed with artisan shops, cafes and restaurants

Photos of this steep, winding street are often used to illustrate why Frome has become such a honeypot for the ‘new wave’ of residents.

It’s chock-a-block with high quality independent shops selling clothes, flowers, vintage fashion, books, hardware and even a posh dog boutique shop where owners of pampered pooches can spend £14 on a lavender and mandarin dog shampoo or £42 on a fluffy onesie for canines.

The place to hangout on Catherine Hill is Moo & Two, an award-winning coffee and tea shop with local art on the walls and a vinyl-only music policy.

With its rough stone walls, flagstone floors and pile of chopped wood for the fire in the back room, it’s a homely little place serving superb coffee roasted by Roundhill roastery in nearby Midsomer Norton.

When we visited, the place was packed with cool young parents and their toddlers, as well as people relaxing over a coffee.

Rather than fiddling with smartphones and laptops, people were reading books or jotting things down in notebooks. It felt a world away from stressy city coffee shops, almost as if there is a different pace of life in this country town.

Frome is architecturally stunning, too. There are more than 400 listed buildings dotted around the town.

Rye Bakery cafe occupies a converted chapel in FromeRye Bakery cafe occupies a converted chapel in Frome
Rye Bakery cafe occupies a converted chapel in Frome

At the top of Catherine Hill, drop down picture postcard Whittox Lane and you’ll find the Rye Bakery, a cafe and art gallery in a handsome converted chapel.

This is very much the hub for many local residents and the place was so busy on a Thursday lunchtime that many people had to share tables.

As well as selling bread, cakes and pizza slices made on the premises, the Rye Bakery serves breakfast (9am-11.45am) and lunch from 12noon-3pm.

The food is excellent and made almost entirely using local ingredients - my warming beef shin and winter vegetable stew with thick slices of sourdough was exactly what was needed on a cold and rainy March day.

Back up on Catherine Hill, the shops were doing a steady weekday trade. In keeping with Frome’s heritage as a wool and cloth town, there are several shops selling designer or vintage clothes.

Designer Johnny Szymanski owns his own eponymous contemporary menswear shop on Palmer Street and he says there are several factors behind Frome’s ‘cool’ reputation and popularity.

“First, you would have to look at the independent businesses and shops that operate, many of which, like myself, are makers. This creates a really unique offering to shoppers, both local residents and people who visit the town.

“You also have to look at the aesthetics of the town. Cobbled and stone-paved streets, old buildings and a really interesting history - it all offers tourists a social media-friendly experience when they visit.

“Even though we are on the other side of the country, it’s only an hour and half by train to London so it really falls into that commuter territory for those that only have to do a couple of days a week in the office.

Frome is a picturesque market town steeped in historyFrome is a picturesque market town steeped in history
Frome is a picturesque market town steeped in history

“People from London move here for a ‘country life’ and that means a diverse range of people, professions and ages now live in the town. And diversity can only be a good thing in my eyes. But it also means you get London visitors for the weekend which helps to boost businesses.

“In terms of what it has done for my business, it has been nothing but positive. The appeal of Frome draws new people in and new people means new customers.

“As a business, you need those customers from out of town who purchase, go back to their towns and talk about your business and what they’ve seen in Frome. Word of mouth is the best marketing tool for a business.”

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