There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Over the Mendips to Wells: Day 17 of the South West Odyssey (English Branch)

The South West Odyssey is a long distance walk.
Five like-minded people started in 2008 from the Cardingmill Valley in Shropshire and by walking three days a year have now (April 2018) reached Ringmore on the South Devon Coast (almost).

It may have rained overnight, but the morning mist cleared early and we prepared to set out in bright sunshine.

Preparing to leave the Seymour Arms, Blagdon
I took a short walk over the road to look at Blagdon Lake which, like its larger neighbour Chew Lake, provides drinking water for Bristol. It was formed in 1891 by damming the (Congresbury) Yeo one of thirteen River Yeos in Somerset and Devon.

Augustus Toplady was the curate of Blagdon from 1762-64. During this time he had cause to shelter from a thunderstorm under a large cleft rock in nearby Burrington Combe and was inspired to write the hymn ‘Rock of Ages’. The hymn was definitely written in 1763, the rest of the story is probably apocryphal though a metal plaque marks the spot where he may not have sheltered.

Blagdon Lake and the Rev Augustus Toplady's church

Back in Bishop Sutton we set off through the village and then up what the landlady of the Seymour Arms had described as ‘Cardiac Arrest Hill’. At 174m, 125m above the level of the lake, Burledge Hill does require a little effort, but to describe it as a threat to health was a bit over the top. Our plan had been to follow the minor road winding round the highest part of the hill, but it seemed pleasanter, if longer, to take a footpath that climbs straight up the side and then continues to a fort.

The hillside is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, ‘nationally important…,’ according to the citation, ‘…for a wide variety of species-rich unimproved neutral grassland communities…’ There is a list of plants an expert could have spotted, but we were happy to settle for several banks of wild primroses.

A bank of primorses on Burledge Hill
The fort, an Iron Age hill fort constructed early in the first millennium BC, was a disappointment. We had not expected to see much, but a great deal of imagination was required to turn a few bumps in the ground into earthworks. It probably shows up well from above, but no one had a helicopter in their pack. My photograph, showing only a bush and a field, is too dull to reproduce, so here is close-up of the primroses instead.

Primroses, Burledge Hill

We crossed the top of the hill to the road, turned south and a kilometre later entered Whitehill Lane. Someone had clearly been ignoring the ‘unsuitable for motor vehicles’ sign and I was glad when we reached the end of the muddy and deeply rutted track at a viewpoint on the edge of Widcombe Hill.

The views of the lake…..
Chew Valley Lake from the Widcombe Hill viewpoint

 ….and the northern scarp of the Mendip Hills were good…

The northern slope of the Mendips
… though the view of the assembled company involves a more niche use of the word ‘picturesque’. Alison had an impressive app on her iPad which showed exactly where we had walked and informed us, to two decimal places that I cannot now remember, that we had covered some 4.5 km at a respectable 3km/h.

Some look at the view, others don't

From here we walked round the hill to the village of Hinton Blewett before descending the grassy slope back into the Chew Valley. We paused for coffee by the lower of two small reservoirs which had recently been emptied for repair work and had just started refilling itself.

Coffee by the Coley reservoir

A heron flew up from the river, landed in an adjacent field and stood staring at the grass as if wondering where the fish had gone. Mike observed that it looked indignant. Sometimes I lie awake at night wondering just how large a range of emotions herons can display.

Our return to the Chew Valley was brief. We walked past the reservoirs towards Litton, turned down Stoneyard Lane, which, despite its name is more of a dry stream bed than a lane, and started the climb up onto the Mendips. At Wooten Hall at the top of the track the stile was equipped with a length of rope to make the ascent easier. We climbed across farmland and just beyond Greendown we joined the Monarch’s Way.

Over the wall at Wooten Hall

The Monarch’s Way is a 990km waymarked trail following the wanderings of the future Charles II after the Battle of Worcester in1651. Worcester to Shoreham-by-Sea, from where he fled to France, is roughly 250km, so he hardly took the direct route. We had walked part of the Monarch’s Way previously, notably on Day 10 in 2011 (Andoversford to Perrott’s Brook) and this time we would follow it, with the odd deviation, for the rest of today and much of tomorrow morning.

Back on the Monarch's Way

Once we had climbed the slope it was a long haul over a grassy upland. We passed the summit of Eaker Hill, at 290km one of the highest points of the Mendips, but rising only 20m from the surrounding grassland.

Reaching Red Quarr Farm (‘quarr’ is an old version of ‘quarry’), we turned right, spent too long on a busy B-road then turned left into a large apparently nameless area of woodland.

Nameless woodland on top of the Mendip Hills

The wood was pleasant after the farmland, dry and springy underfoot, pleasantly shaded overhead. Emerging from the forest, we crossed the road into the Priddy Mineries nature reserve, an area of open heathland. As it was lunchtime and there was no lunchtime pub we briefly paused here to not have lunch. We then set off, halted while I went back to attempt to fetch my glasses case (which had actually been in my pack the whole time) and set off again.

At not-lunch Alison’s app was telling us we had walked 500m in the two hours since the viewpoint. We began to wonder if it was all it was cracked up to be.

Across the Priddy Mineries to Fair Lady's Well

The heathland was also pleasant to walk over and we soon passed Fair Lady’s Well and continued through an area with grassed over spoil heaps and small patches of what is known locally as ‘gruffy ground’. Sparkling in the sun, they looked like surface coal deposits, and when Mike found an adit in a small ravine we jumped to the obvious, but wrong, conclusion. The North Somerset Coalfield, I now know, consisted of deep mines in the valley and these mineral deposits are not coal. The Priddy Mineries were lead mines which were worked from pre-Roman times until finally closing in 1908. The land is too contaminated for agricultural use, and is now a nature reserve. Clearly unfazed by the lead, twenty species of dragonflies and all Britain’s native species of amphibians (except the Natterjack Toad) breed here in profusion.

'Gruffy Ground' Priddy Mineries

At the end of the mineries, a quick right and left along a quieter B-road took us into another area of pasture. After a kilometre and a half of this featureless grassy farmland it was easy to forget that we were actually on top of the Mendips. We reached the edge almost without warning and a huge view opened up across the Somerset levels, with the distinctive outline of Glastonbury Tor in the hazy distance.

Down to Wookey Hole

The descent was grassy but steep.  At the bottom we reached Wookey Hole, a village of no great charm tacked onto the edge of the theme park that Wookey Hole Caves have become. Francis seemed to be expecting a twee little place offering a choice of tea rooms with home made cakes. He was disappointed, but the Wookey Inn was open and offered an opportunity for a belated glass of lunch.

The suntrap of a garden was surrounded by plants usually only found indoors, or much further south, and we sat in the unaccustomed warmth and enjoyed a couple of pints of Cheddar Brewery’s Potholer, by far the best beer of the weekend. We had another look at Alison’s app, which had now concluded that we had walked too far and had resorted to drawing straight lines across the map. It had been free – sometimes you get what you pay for.

Francis leaves the Wookey Inn
From Wookey Hole a few hundred metres along Lime Kiln Lane brought us to Underwood quarry.  Screened by trees it was difficult to see, but we suspected the quarrying had rearranged the land shown on the map - it was certainly a long walk round.

A friendly local who had walked up the hill to sit in the sun accompanied us into town. The path through the Blue School grounds gave us an excellent view of the Cathedral, then we rounded the less scenic soon-to-be-completed Waitrose before finding ourselves the old streets of England’s smallest city.

Into Wells

There was some discussion about whether Wells really is England’s smallest city, Francis championing the tininess of Ely – well, he does come from Cambridge. Having googled it, I can report that Ely has a population of 20 000, Wells just half that, so the argument is settled. Both, however, are megalopolises compared with the Welsh cities of St Asaph (pop. 3500) and St David’s (1800).

We arrived at the excellent Glengarth House B & B to find Lynne and Hilary already ensconced.

Wells remains small enough to be dominated by its cathedral, as all medieval cities were, and before dinner we popped into the cathedral precinct. The first church on the site was built in 705 but most of what we see today is from the late 12th and early 13th centuries. The Gothic façade, one of the largest and finest in Europe, does produce an involuntary intake of breath as you walk under the arch from the Market Place, even though, as Mike observed, the towers at either end look like they need something on top of them.

The facade of Wells Cathedral

We dined in the Crown Inn from which William Penn once preached to a crowded Market Place, though it now seems prouder of its role in the film Hot Fuzz.

It was time for the cider investigation postponed from yesterday lunchtime. Draught Thatcher’s Gold has a light, clean apple flavour but is too bland and too sweet for my palate. At 4.8% alcohol it tastes remarkably like a soft drink, wherein, maybe, lies its danger. Only Brian persisted after the pre-prandial pints; ‘drink local’ is a fine concept, but I am afraid I took refuge in Chilean Merlot.

The menu was above the pub average and flirted with ‘pretentious food’ (see Dandly’s personal, idiosyncratic,unscientific and deeply prejudiced food classification system) but my slow roasted belly pork with a black pudding sausage was pleasing enough to easily qualify as ‘good food’. I cannot speak for other people’s choices.


  1. Another excellent day and a well-researched informative blog though some of those geography lessons learning about the Somerset coalfield were in retrospect quite tedious! I know most of that bit was in yesterday's blog.

    Its always nice to end at the B and B and not have to be asked to be picked up and I feel my navigation through the narrow streets of Wells made up for my blunder at the Avon-Chew confluence yesterday.

    Having set you the task of finding somewhere above average to eat, the outcome was excellent; I too enjoyed my belly pork and sausage!

  2. I am ashamed and embarrassed that you have chosen this as one of your 8 favourite posts. I no longer take my iPad for walks with me. I'm glad that, mainly, we don't share the same circle of friends, (apart from our co-walkers) as I wouldn't want people I know to see the offending photo!
    I went on a "mindfulness" walk last week, and was despairing at the number of people who were using their phone at every opportunity. It seemed ironic. I do know I have been known to be on the phone in the countryside as well, so I can't complain.