Out of the Blackdowns
Stage 16, Monday 5 October 2009: from Culmstock (Devon) to Taunton, 17 miles
Apart from the brief diversion to the Wellington monument, I entered Somerset from Devon below Ringdown Common, before swinging round on a very fine path which led to the little hamlet of Burnworthy. From here, there was one more descent, this time to the Culm itself, a couple of miles from its source. It’s such a varied and interesting river, this; I will regard it differently the next time I rush through its floodplain by road or rail.
It’s not quite all downhill from here, and after having spent so long on diverse (and not always easily-traceable) paths, it was a bit of a drag to have a long mile on roads to meet up with the northern escarpment at Blagdon Hill. A steep little path runs down through a wood beside a stream, and suddenly you leave the hills behind. Visibility was good now, and for the first time I could see the Wellington monument properly! The highest part of the Blackdowns, Staple Hill, not on my route, rises in woods behind.
Ahead lies the county town’s hinterland, known as Taunton Deane. I picked up the East Deane Way at Pitminster. This path leads straight to Taunton, breasting the little outlier of Cotlake Hill with just a couple of miles to go. On the summit is a little belt of trees; you enter it with the essence of the hills behind you, and leave it with the town spread before you.
Across the Somerset levels
My four-day 2010 stage had a nice symmetry about it, from Somerset’s county town to its major city, starting and ending on canals, and with three important small towns (one, properly, a city) in the middle. But it was also a walk of two halves – two days on the Levels, and the small villages that rise above them, and two days in the Mendips, one of the highest hill-groups of southern England.
Stage 17, Friday 8 October 2010: Taunton to Aller, 15 miles
To start with, a river- and canal-side stroll, starting on the Tone past the county cricket ground before moving over to the Bridgwater & Taunton canal, then reverting to the river after four miles or so. A sluice gate on the Tone at New Bridge marks the tidal limit. Before the cutting of dykes (here called ‘rhynes’) and the drainage of the marshes in late mediaeval times, the Levels flooded in winter, and permanent settlement was confined to a few fingers of higher ground. [Indeed, in 2014, winter flooding returned to the Levels with a vengeance.]
Stoke St Gregory sits on one of these little heights, and I climbed towards it for lunch at the Royal Oak, passing the Willows and Wetlands Visitor Centre a mile before. There’s nothing wrong with the pub, and the village has a notable church, but I might have been better to have had a cup of tea and a cake in the visitor centre and find out something more about this remarkable area.Athelney, famed hiding-place of King Alfred, lies below Stoke’s hill to the north, but I cut north-eastwards to the River Parrett. My paths were bedevilled by a series of V-stiles which are designed to obstruct those with rucksacks. Going was easier by the Parrett, whose trail here lies between it and the drain of the River Sowy. After a mile or so, with cloud slowly starting to build, I crossed the Sowy and headed across Aller Moor to Aller village, and a bed for the night.
Stage 18, Saturday 9 October 2010: Aller to Coxley, 19 miles
With many highlights, this is a day to be saved for a sunny day. Alas, grey mist hang all around, against meteorologists’ expectations, until the very end. At the start, ascending Aller Hill to skirt its scarp slope, this mattered little, as the thick vegetation on the hill gives little opportunity of long views. An hour later, embarking on my longest bit of Level-bashing, two miles north and two miles east across Somerton Moor and Street Moor, a bit less gloom would have been welcome. The path on the second of these sections is continually broken by rhynes, meaning you can get no rhythm going, and worse a number of electric fences had to be carefully stepped over or crawled under.
Still, there is a sense of dalehead as you progress, with Dundon Hill to the south and the Polden Hills wrapping around to the north and east. The Poldens barely rise to 300 feet but, in the context of the Levels, they are a major barrier. I climbed them now to Ivy Thorn Hill, where an ‘old style’ youth hostel happily survived, and then dropped down to Street. Street is post-industrial: an artisan’s town, whose heart was ripped out by the closure of the Clark’s shoe factory. The firm retains offices here, and an outlet village.
The Clark’s ‘village’ aside, Street is the barely-visited neighbour of Glastonbury. The festival site of this now world-famous town lies a few miles to the east, and my route did not cross it. I did though make the trek over Wearyall Hill to Glastonbury Tor, trying to imagine what the panorama would look like if I had more than a mile or two of visibility.
Then to the town itself: how one buys a loaf of bread in the High Street I do not know, though magic crystals and incense are readily available. It’s a great place to saunter around, but I passed up the opportunity of a tour of the Abbey conducted by a young man in an unconvincing monk’s habit. I spotted that Curved Air – the sort of band I listened to in the 70s – were playing in a pub that night; alas, trying to book a month in advance, there was no B&B bed to be had in the town, so I made my way a few miles to Coxley. To avoid the worst of the A39, I cut along the Short Drove Rhyne, possibly illegally, but in so doing found quite the nicest Levels track so far.
Over the Mendips
Stage 19, Sunday 10 October 2010: Coxley to Hallatrow, 16 miles
Wells is a short hour across fields from Coxley, though a farmer here tried to make progress complex by planting sweetcorn across rights of way. Wells is one of those small English towns that have historic city status courtesy of their cathedral. I sat for a coffee in the market square just outside, and broke a lifetime’s habit by donating a few coins to a beggar in a porch; the sign here says that the porch has been sanctuary for beggars since 1300-something, so I felt I had centuries of justification.
Out of Wells, I interacted with the West Mendip Way for a while, to Wookey Hole. Underground there is great geological splendour here, but above the site owners have deposited the tackiest of visitor attractions. After a sandwich, it was a relief to leave. The southern escarpment of the Mendips is famously breached at Cheddar Gorge, a few miles further along, but my ascent was by Ebbor Gorge, far preferable to a walker as there is no road beside you. After miles of at best gentle slopes, it was great to have steep rock around me once more: it brought an immediate smile to my face. Alas, it’s not a long climb – maybe 500 feet. Soon I was on the Mendip plateau, and with few exceptions I would be trending slowly downhill all the way to Bath.
One thing I did not know about Somerset before this trip is that it once had an extensive – 80-pit – coalfield, worked out by the 1920s. This is first evident along a fascinating mile through the Priddy mineries, a couple of miles above Ebbor Gorge. There’s a distinct upland feel here, with the path (here, the Monarch’s Way) later wending through marshland.
Normal pastoral service is soon resumed, and I managed to get myself well and truly confused in the fields above Litton, and then walk straight through the village without finding my target, the church – which has an elevated site! With the afternoon wearing on now, I took double care to keep on track to Hallatrow, and made good time on a glorious autumn evening.
Stage 20, Monday 11 October 2010: Hallatrow to Bath, 18 miles
This was a day simpler in concept than practice. From Hallatrow, the Limestone Link follows (more or less) the old coalfield railway to Midford, from where the Kennet & Avon canal leads to the heart of Bath. The clue is in the ‘more or less’. Only a few hundred yards, just out of Hallatrow, are on the old trackbed. In general, one relies on paths in nearby fields.
At Camerton, once an important pit village, the Limestone Link waymarker pointed incontrovertibly through the industrial nature trail of Camerton Batch, rather than the farm track to the north shown on the map. Worth a visit it certainly was, but it took some perseverance to find anything like a direct route to where I should be.
Things became easier around Carlingcott, and after crossing a main road at Dunkerton there is a smashing riverside section to Combe Hay. From here, there is a trackbed path, which the Link eschews in favour of a short ascent. Why? Southstoke church appears above woods, a fine view, but not reason enough. All soon becomes clear, when unexpectedly a lock-flight of the Somersetshire Coal Canal appears. This long-abandoned canal has never been far away from the Link and the rail trackbed, but only now becomes apparent.
A few years later, I found out that the canal’s surveyor, William Smith, developed in the course of his work here (1798-99) the ‘stratification theory’ which was to underpin, if not create, the new science of geology. Indeed Smith to this day has a leading place in the pantheon of geologists; not bad for a blacksmith’s son with little formal education.
The Link takes the canal towpath all the way to Midford, and my lunch stop at the Hope & Anchor. Sheltered garden, balmy day, slap on suncream, eat … paella.
You enter the pub garden through what used to be the Somerset & Dorset railway, and after lunch I continued on its trackbed to the viaduct at Tucking Mill. Now, the trackbed has been opened as a bridleway direct to Bath, but then I had a road stretch past Monkton Combe before dropping down to the Dundas Aqueduct. Here, the Somersetshire Coal joined the very much alive Kennet & Avon Canal. It’s a dramatic spot, with the aqueduct carrying the latter high over not only the Avon but also the Bath to Salisbury railway. And it was busy with boats today, as I stayed to watch a collision narrowly averted.
But I had a booking on the 17.43 out of Bath, so had to make haste along the towpath north to Bathampton. This brought me back on schedule. What could go wrong? Signs urged a diversion for towpath repairs in Stanley Park, and I got horribly tied up in the streets of Bath, only to find that the works had not started at all. Back on track, I just had time to enjoy the handsome architecture of this beautiful city, before making my way to the station.
Use + and – keys to toggle large-scale and 1:50,000 mapping
The Old Pound Inn at Aller served me good beer but disappointing food; the Pound Inn at Coxley, much better food but disappointing beer. Better accommodation in Coxley, but that may be unfair as my room in Aller was a dedicated single. And the Old Station at Hallatrow? Bizarrely, no breakfast, as “there’s a Little Chef a mile-and-a-half down the road”. Forewarned, I had brought Weetabix with me, and after dinner successfully argued for milk, a bowl and a spoon. ‘Twas no way to treat a walker.