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…..

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Watchet, Dunster and Dunkery Hill: Day 23 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).

As if trying to upstage sunny Tuesday, Wednesday skipped the misty start and went straight for the blue skies.

Our start was a little less slick as first we needed to place a car at the end of the walk near the top of Dunkery Hill on Exmoor. This involved a lengthy drive, a diversion around closed roads and some epic reversing on narrow lanes where passing places were few and far between. Setting off back to Watchet we saw an Exmoor stag sitting in the gorse barely ten metres away. It was the only one we were to see.

The Somerset section of the walk
A little later, weighed down by a ‘full English’ we set off up the coast road generously protected by the kind people who organise the signs at the Somerset Highways Department.

Those nice people at Somerset Highways think about us as we leave Watchet (photo, Francis)
Expecting to follow the road for over a kilometre before joining the coastal path, we happily encountered a 'permissive’ path on the edge of Watchet and were able follow that and then the official path almost all the way to Blue Anchor.

The Coastal Path, Watchet to Blue Anchor

Daws Castle sits on the cliffs outside Watchet. Francis missed it as his binoculars were trained on a bird flapping across the sea but fortunately Mike was able to describe the ruined battlements, towers and turrets in great detail. Named for the 16th century owner of the field, Daws Castle is Iron Age in origin but was rebuilt by Alfred the Great in 878 as a defence against Viking raiders.  Except in Mike’s imagination it is now a barely discernible earthwork.

Sometimes the path followed the cliff top, sometimes it traversed the edges of field, many of them sprouting a spring crop of caravans, but usually it stayed in the belt of woodland in between. It is not a pretty piece of coastline but Francis managed to photograph the best of it.

The coast west of Watchet (photo, Francis)
Approaching Blue Anchor the path has suffered severe erosion and we were directed inland on an irritating and time-consuming diversion, but it was better than falling in the water.

The Blue Anchor, Blue Anchor
We reached the road by the 17th century Blue Anchor Inn which gives its name to the village. The rest of the village and the inevitable West Somerset Railway station is a kilometre away along a seaside promenade.....
The promenade, Blue Anchor
(there were fisherman, honest, even if none of them are in this picture!)
.... lined with static holiday caravans on the landward side. Fisherman stood along the prom dangling their lines in the water.

Static caravans, Blue Anchor

At the end of the prom the road turns inland and we carried straight on along the stony beach. We spoke to a fisherman on his way home, pleased with his morning’s catch of three dogfish. Soon after, we paused for coffee.

Coffee on the beach near Blue Anchor
I was happy enough with my photo, but someone (who?) suggested I should use the ‘delay’ function and include myself in the picture. I found a suitable rock, put the camera on top and lay on the shingle to line up the shot,….
Lining up the shot (photo, Alison)

…pressed the shutter, leapt to my feet, like a greyhound from the trap….

Like a greyhound from the trap (photo, Alison)
Not convinced? If greyhounds lived to be over 60 and grew to be 100Kg this is exactly how they would move.
….and took up my place. Alison found this amusing and decided to document the proceedings. Whether my resulting picture was worth the effort is a moot point.

And was it worth it? Probably not
The original plan had been to follow the path where it turned inland, but instead we stayed on the beach for a further kilometre before turning up Sea Lane towards Dunster. This route was a tad longer but avoided walking 600 metres along the A39.

Sea Lane heads straight to Dunster and provides good views of Conygar Tower.

Conygar Tower, Dunster
The ‘Riverside Jubilee Path’ runs round the edge of the village of Marsh Street beside the River Avill and leads to an underpass beneath the A39 from where it was a short step to the High Street of 'medieval' Dunster.

'Jubilee Riverside Path', Marsh Street

Dunster sets out to attract tourists, so the Yarn Market square has been reduced to a quaint carpark. To be fair the village has many attractions, most notably a Norman castle on an outcrop to the east, a still functioning water mill* and Conygar Tower on another outcrop to the west. Conygar means Rabbit Garden, and the tower may look brooding but is merely a folly, built in 1775 by a man with more money than taste.
Yarn Market, Dunster
It was a little early for lunch but it was our only opportunity for refreshment and the afternoon promised to be strenuous, so we made a brief stop.

As we sat in the pub garden the church clock struck one. As one single 'bong' was obviously not enough it launched into a tune that seemed familiar but no one could recognise, complete with the occasional mid-phrase pause that mechanical systems specialise in. It went on for five minutes.
Light refreshment to the sound of bells, Dunster

The rise from sea level to Dunster at around 70m had been painless. The afternoon started with a climb onto the ridge behind the village which involved an ascent of over 200m. The path through the woods around Grabbist Hill (again part of the Macmillan Way West) was well-made and for the most part gently graded and we gained height easily. After a couple of steeper sections we emerged onto the ridge and followed it for some three kilometres to Wootton Common.

Climbing Grabbist Hill

To the north we could see Minehead and had a good view of  'Butlin's Minehead', one of the three surviving Butlin's Holiday Camps.  Despite the warm sunshine the sea beyond was hiding in the mist.

Minehead, Butlin's Holiday Camp is on the right with the 'medieval' awnings
Low dry stone boundary walls, often with a hedge laid on top are a feature of the area. One such wall ran beside us on the ridge. Like many others it no longer serves any function and beech trees, once part of the hedge but no longer managed, are reclaiming the wall for nature.

Dry stone wall overwhelmed by a beach tree (photo, Alison)
Wootton Common is a tree covered knoll at the western end of the ridge. It is the highest point and a pleasant enough spot, but hardly my idea of a common.
Approaching Wootton Common (Is Francis photographing Minehead or watching a bird?)
We were now at 295m and planned to finish at the car park on Dunkery Hill, the day’s high point, just below 450m. The fly in the ointment was that between Wootton Common and Dunkery Beacon we had to descend to the village of Wootton Courtney at around 100m.
Starting the descent to Wootton Courtenay (it got steeper!)

The path descended steeply through the trees, and then over fields. Alison suggested that treating ourselves to an ice-cream in Wootton Courtenay would be a good plan, and by keeping this in the forefront of my mind I was able to ignore the pain in my knees.

Wootton Courtney basked pleasantly under the unusually warm April sun. The Post Office is now a community run post office and general store and Alison heartily approves of such enterprises, but perhaps not when they as are resolutely closed as this one was. The village boasts 250 residents, a vineyard and a pottery, but no other retail outlet so we went ice-creamless.
Alison looks at the community notice board, Wootton Courtenay
(It probably says when the wretched Post Office is open)
We took the minor road down to the hamlet of Brockwell from where the Macmillan Way West starts the climb up Dunkery Hill.

At the day’s end a climb of over 300m is hard work (and calling it 1000ft sounds even worse) but stings in the tail are a traditional part of these walks. We climbed through the belt of trees quite quickly, but the last two and a half kilometres, on a stony moorland track through gorse and heather was more challenging.

Through the belt of trees, Dunkerley Hill (photo, Alison)
I engaged bottom gear and got on with the long slow grind. The others soon left me behind, but Mike dropped back and kept me company (thanks, Mike). Like many such paths there were frequent false summits, one every hundred metres for part of the way. 'What do you think we'll see when we get to that one?' Mike asked at one point. 'A stony path heading upwards through the heather.' I said and, would you believe it, I was right. And again and again and again.
A stony path upwards through the heather to another false summit, Dunkerley Hill 
Looking back was more encouraging, Wootton Courtenay seemed a long way back and a long way down, so we were definitely making progress.

Wootton Courtenay seems a long way back and a long way down
Eventually we emerged onto a flatter area with a higher ridge above. At the top of the ridge we could see sunlight reflecting from the windscreens of parked cars. Briefly it looked like we might have to dip down before the final ascent, but thankfully the path skirted the end of the combe before turning to climb across the face of the ridge at a much gentler gradient than it had appeared from a distance.

It had been hard work, but the top of Dunkery Beacon was now scarcely a kilometre away and a hundred metres above us; it would be easy when we were fresh in the morning.

Returning to Watchet we drove back through Blue Anchor. The same fishermen were lounging against the promenade wall, but the tide was long gone and they were dangling their lines in thick mud. I presume they were just reluctant to go home.

Having investigated Watchet's top two restaurants the day before, we again had to walk only fifty metres, though in a slightly different direction, to restaurant number three. Trip Advisor comments had tended to praise the size of the portions rather than the quality though, to be fair, The Star serves good quality pub food  (with a few pretentious touches) at reasonable prices. Battered cod comes as 'medium' or 'large' and one comment referred to the fish sticking out over the end of the plate. Brian proved this was no idle boast. Mike went for a medium, not because he is less of a trencherman but because (to nobody’s surprise) he wanted to leave space for a dessert.
The cider is cloudy, the cod overhangs the plate. Brian looks happy. Star Inn, Watchet
It had been a hard day, 20 km with a fair amount of climbing, but it had also been varied with beach, village and moorland sections, and the sun had continued its unseasonal but very welcome warmth. Another top class day.

*Lynne visited the castle and the mill where she bought some muesli. I had a bowl for breakfast today (16/04/15). It was fine, if rather ordinary.



  1. I did feel a bit mean photographing you returning to the group photo, but I'm glad you seemed to think it was amusing, and I like the comparison with a greyhound springing from a trap. To be picky, the dry stone wall overwhelmed by a beech tree is in the woodland near Brockwell, although we did see similar on all 3 days, so it could have been anywhere. Another good day. Thanks for this record for posterity.

    1. But I want you to feel mean!
      If I couldn't laugh at myself I would have to be very careful about some of the other things laughed at.
      Sorry about misplacing the photograph of the beech tree, but as you say we did see plenty of similar sights all through the 3 days, so I feel I can leave it where it is without serious misrepresentation.

  2. And I would like to enter a spot of pedantry! The fisherman I talked to had not caught anything that morning but three dogfish the previous evening, Butlin's Minehead is now actually called Somerwest World, the bird I saw flapping across the sea was a magnificent peregrine falcon which to me beats some dismal castle ruins and I heard nothing familiar in the Dunster church clock dirge and remember begging for the cacophony to stop. Perhaps I'm getting miserable as I get older but it was another excellent day's walk and is reported by a very amusing blog. Thanks.

    1. Butlin's Minehead was renamed Somerwest World from 1986-98. Since then it has been called Butlin's Resort Minehead.
      St George's Church carillon plays seven 'well known tunes' on a weekly rotation at 1, 5 and 7pm. That none of us could recognise the tune says something about us - or about the carillon.
      Yes, you are becoming a miserable git as you get older. I recommend you stop working - sometime around late June should do it - and organise a winter trip to Australia.