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…..

Monday, 6 May 2013

Wells to Glastonbury, 'The Moutain Route': Day 18 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).

The road sign outside our B & B said ‘Glastonbury 5 miles’. And indeed the A39 flies straight as an arrow across land as flat and green as a snooker table, if rather more criss-crossed by water courses. So that was it, then, a hearty breakfast, an early start and we could be finished in time for coffee.

But it was not like that. All walks need a destination, and ours was certainly Glastonbury, but the destination is secondary to the journey. Along the eastern edge of the Somerset Levels a couple of small hills swell out of the flat land, and others obtrude from the higher country inland. It was through these hills that we walked, heading southeast until our intended destination lay ten kilometres to the west. Only then did we turn towards the landmark of Glastonbury Tor. Calling it the ‘mountain route’ might be the tiniest of exaggerations, but it would keep us busy all day.

As we prepared to set out we welcomed Heather, Francis and Alisons’s daughter, who arrived to walk with us as she had in 2011 (Day 11: Perrott’s Brook to the Round Elm Crossroads) and 2012 (Day 15: Old Sodbury to Swineford)

Ready to set off from Glengarth House, Wells
(L to R Heather, Alison, Me, Brian (largely hidden) and Hilary

We left Wells through the recreation ground, its wrought iron gates surmounted by the words 'Mary Bignal Rand 1960-64' as though they were a memorial to a dead child. Born Mary Bignal in Wells in 1940, Mary Bignal Rand is alive and well. She came back from disappointments in the 1960 Rome Olympics to win, gold (long jump), silver (pentathlon) and bronze (4 x 100m relay) in Tokyo in 1964. She was granted the Freedom of the City of Wells in 2012.

Beside the recreation ground is the modest ‘stadium’ of Wells City FC of the Western League where 100 paying spectators is considered a bumper crowd.

Wells City FC
Photographed through a hole in the fence.

Beyond the football ground we hit open country and made a gentle descent to the little River Sheppey. Crossing the river we turned southeast towards Wellesley Farm over fields that had been ploughed and then baked in the sun. As no field head had been left we were faced with dusty and treacherous footholds, as Francis found to his cost. I did not laugh – but that cannot be said of everyone.

Footbridge across the River Sheppey

We rejoined the Monarch’s Way at the foot of Worminster Down, one of the hills that rise gently from the surrounding levels. Most of the climb was across a grassy field made interesting by the antics of a small herd of young cattle who charged around in tight formation like bovines on a mission, though what mission none of them seemed to know.

Worminster Down
The cattle are about to charge in from the right

On the broad summit we passed close to a possible hill fort, spotted on aerial photographs but not yet investigated on the ground. If there was little to see yesterday on Burledge Hill, there was nothing to see here.

The descent was through thick woodland. Passing a wooden cabin where an old man seemed to be living as a hermit, we picked our way downwards. As so often happens in woods there were plenty of paths to choose from, most of which petered out after 50 metres or so leaving us to crash downwards through the undergrowth or backtrack to try and find the correct route. Eventually we emerged from the woods at a stile, which indicated we were on the right path, if only at the end.

Descending through the woodland
Worminster Down

We made our way to the village of North Wootton where we climbed up the side of Pilton Hill, only to climb down it again a little further along. I am quite happy to climb a hill to get to the other side or just to reach the top, but this manoeuvre left me bewildered. Our footpaths have come down to us from medieval times or even earlier, and whichever ancient thought this was a good route had clearly been on the cider.

Approaching North Wootton
The oaks are only just coming into leaf

Appropriately we then passed through a cider apple orchard, surprisingly the first one of the weekend. Had we arrived a week later (or had spring arrived on time) the trees would have been in full blossom. Even so, I still find the military ranks of straight trunks rather pleasing.

Cider apple orchard, North Wootton

From here we continued south, on the Levels for once, until the foot of Pennard Hill, where we finally turned westwards towards Glastonbury Tor.

Heather and dandelions
Summerland Meadows

Pennard Hill is a sizeable hog’s back swelling up from the Summerland Meadows.

Up Pennard Hill

We paused halfway up to look at some locals….
Some of the locals, Pennard Hill

 ….and then a little higher up to look back at the Glastonbury Festival site. The structure in the centre of the photograph is the part completed Pyramid Stage. In eight weeks these empty fields will be occupied by over 100 000 people and it occurred to me that from where we stood you could doubtless hear the Rolling Stones and pay nothing. Brian pointed out you could hear them for the same cost but in rather more comfort watching it on television.

The Glastonbury Festival site
from Pennard Hill

Once on top of Pennard Hill it was a simple walk along the ridge before we picked up Cottles Lane and descended to West Pennard and the Sun Inn where Lynne joined us for a glass of lunch. She had spent the morning hunting her ancestors, her mother’s family having lived in this area before migrating to South Wales during the late 19th century industrial boom. The brother of one of her great great grandfathers had lived in West Pennard.

A glass of lunch at the Sun Inn , West Pennard

The first part of the afternoon was a straightforward walk across level ground towards the Tor, which had been a distant landmark since we topped the Mendips and was now becoming closer and apparently growing larger.
Glastonbury Tor gets closer...

Inevitably such a strange and striking landmark has attracted a range of legends. Some claim the identification of the tor with the Isle of Avalon goes back to Romano-British times but, more likely it dates from the discovery in Glastonbury Abbey of the bodies of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere in suspiciously neatly labelled coffins in 1191. Marketing is not a new invention, and medieval monks could lay it on with a trowel. Joseph of Arimathea visited Glastonbury, they claimed, and as proof you can see the cherry tree that miraculously grew where he planted his staff. He came with a companion, more than likely, a young Jesus…

‘And did those feet in ancient times
Walk upon England’s mountains green?’

asked William Blake many years later, knowing full well that the answer was ‘no’.

....and closer

It comes as no surprise to learn that the Holy Grail is also buried somewhere on the Tor (probably between Lord Lucan and Shergar) and it is also the home of Gwynn ap Nudd, Lord of the Underworld and King of the Fairies.

With all this magic in the air we approached with trepidation. There is a more prosaic – but perhaps more accurate – story, that the tor consists of layers of clay and blue lias with a cap of hard midford sandstone bound together by precipitated ferric oxide from the waters of the Challice Well. The surrounding soft sandstone has eroded away leaving the tor standing 170m above the Summerland Meadows. Before these meadows were drained it really was an island (though perhaps not the Isle of Avalon) in a sea of wetlands.

The path rises gently to the foot of the tor. On a sunny Bank Holiday Monday hundreds of people were climbing up and down it and there was an ice cream van parked at the bottom. I took advantage of it.

There is a concrete path all the way up - and down on the other side - to prevent erosion. From the top there are fine views back over where we had been, and westwards over the Levels and the low Polden Hills to the dark bulk of Exmoor our target for next year.

Looking back to Pennard Hill from Glastonbury Tor
The tower on the top is the remains of St Michael’s Church. The first church on the site was built by the newly Christianised Saxons, probably to keep Gwynn ap Nudd in his place. It was replaced by a medieval stone church which was destroyed in1275 by an earthquake – a rarity in these geologically stable islands. A third church was built and maintained until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in1539 after which it was quarried for building material so now only the tower remains.

Th Tower of St Michael's Church, Glastonbury Tor
We descended into the streets of Glastonbury. It is a strange town, half hardnosed marketing, half New Age vagueness. If you need to buy healing crystals or get your aura sorted, Glastonbury is the place to come. Having said that, some the streets round the south of the town or rather mundane…

Glastonbury, mundane streets
…at least until you look back at where you have been.

Looking back

On the western edge is another small hill called ‘Wearyall Hill’. It is a low ridge providing good views of the town and the tor (and the industrial estate, but best not to look there) and popular with those out for a stroll in the bank holiday sunshine. It’s not really big enough to live up to its name, even at the end of three days walking, but it provided a pleasing finale.

Glastonbury from Wearyall Hill, the ruins of the abbey are to the right of the picture
A lake survived at the foot of the hill for many years after the Levels were drained. It was into this lake that Sir Bedevere threw Excalibur after the death of Arthur so that it could be reclaimed by the Lady of the Lake.

9th and 10th century sources of dubious reliability mention a Romano-Celtic kinglet called Arthur who, in the early 6th century, resisted the invading Saxons, fought heroically at the Battle of Mount Badon and was killed at the Battle of Camlann - the locations of Badon and Camlann are unknown. Everything else is legend, mostly made up by Geoffrey of Monmouth (1110-1155) who gathered together all the stories he could, dreamed up a connecting narrative and presented it as a History of the British People. He was not highly regarded as a historian, even in his own time, but he did create a story that has kept on giving right up to the present time.

Lynne and Hilary were waiting for us near the Pomparies Bridge [update: It looks like 'Pomparies' but crossing it next year I discovered it is actually Pomparles] over the River Brue which divides New Age/Arthurian Glastonbury from the less exotic town of Street, more famed for its outlet shopping centre (where Hilary had spent much of the day) than its legends.

The end, at least for this year

If the Lady of the Lake and all her elves preserve us from Gwynn ap Nudd and his goblins, we shall reassemble at this spot next year for a further exciting instalment of the South West Odyssey (English Branch).


  1. So, we completed a good three days' fine west country walk. For a change, I was at the back in the woods and still remain bewildered that the routefinders at that time ignored the orange arrow tied to a tree to indicate the way and continued blundering through the undergrowth.

    Wearyall Hill was a really good finale despite its excellent view of Tesco.

    I don't know yet where we are going next year but I don't think we'll reach Exmoor.

    1. I've never seen a footpath way-marked by a cardboard orange triangle tied in a tree. I did not think that was what it was then, and I am not convinced now, even if it didn't point down the wrong path we took. I did not even think it was worth mentioning in the write-up.

  2. Well, it turns out that it did point down the right path but it was not clear and clearly was not tied there by a County Council Footpath Officer! Not worth arguing about but perhaps one of your readers may venture into that wood and find the information useful!