The two Harptrees ....
I slept well, despite being aware of some heavy rain showers in the night, waking fairly early at 7:15am. I poked my nose out of the tent to see that there was a blue sky and a chilly nip to the morning. This lent an air of alacrity to my ablutions as I scampered quickly over to the shower room to wash, re-dress my feet and change into my freshly laundered walking gear. It was pleasant to smell summer meadow conditioner on them, rather than the sour bite of stale sweat mixed with a lost despair. I had been thinking about my lack of progress again and came to the conclusion that tomorrow, or the day after, I was going to have to abandon my resolve to walk the whole way and catch a bus or train south. I was running out of days and had to be at work by the coming Saturday night. It was bad news, but I saw no other option than to motor down to Yeovil or beyond and then hoof the last dozen or so miles to the coast. This was not what I had wanted and it gnawed at me, but choices were limited and I didn’t think that I could make up the miles on foot, particularly after yesterday’s poor effort. I’d need to get more than ten miles under my belt today.
I walked to the village high street, going into the local store to post another used map back home and buy some food and drink. I also did a little filming before starting off on my walk at 9:40am. There were some high, gossamer-like clouds in evidence but it was a bright morning with a cool nip to the air, which was given more intent by a sharp wind. I took the main road out of Bishop Sutton, one which ran to the south-west and took me past buildings typical of any village; a library, the local school and a small fire station.
Before long, I had left the last dwellings of the village behind and instead started to come upon farms and small patches of woodland. Chew Valley Lake was off to my right and the road I was on matched the curves of its eastern shore but, although close to it, I didn’t get a glimpse of its waters until I was right at its southern tip, at a point called Herriotts Bridge. The road I was on kicked right and went over this bridge, but I carried more or less straight on and joined a lane which took me away from the reservoir and past higher ground on my left, called North Widcombe. I took a right on a track that took me over fields and past the end of Herriot’s Mill Pool, before merging into another lane. This one climbed steadily, crested a rise, then curved downwards again as the lane became hemmed in by an avenue of trees. I entered a belt of woodland and pushed through thin screens of bushes, several times finding that I had become draped in strands of spider webs, which stuck to my eyelashes and irritatingly tickled my cheeks. The brightness of the day was shut out and I marched along a corridor of chilly shade, which deposited me at
East Harptree Wood Hill
It took me a few minutes of puzzled map-rustling and then two or three strolls up and down the street, before I located an innocuous little alleyway which took me out over fields and past Bungalow Farm. There was a guy out walking his dog, who noticed me clutching my map and asked me where I was going. I kept it simple and told him that I was heading for asking him if I was going in the right direction. He confirmed that I was, before launching into an enthusiastic description of a local walk he had done and seemed very proud of. He pointed it out to me and I saw a long strip of woodland which, he told me, was a Site of Special Scientific Interest. He was keen to get me walking on it, not really taking it on board when I told him I already had my route worked out. In the end, it was easier to pretend earnest interest; stroking my beard and nodding seriously as he jabbed his finger towards the ridge and traced his route. Duty done, he waved happily at me and wished me luck. East Harptree is situated on considerably higher ground than its Western namesake and I toiled upwards on a grassy slope, going beyond the near end of Harptree Combe and casting a guilty look behind me, in case the man and his dog were still around to castigate me for not doing his walk.
East Harptree was pretty enough. I had read about a local labourer, a man called William Currell, who had gone out in November 1887 to find the source of a spring and had ended up putting his pick through a pewter vessel containing Roman coins. I walked down into the village and through it in no time, leaving its main street and beginning to go upwards again as I started a gradual ascent of Smitham Hill.
Onto the Mendip Hills ...
To my mind, this was me entering Mendip country for real and tackling one of its hills for the first time. I actually converged on the end of the dog walker’s route at Harptree Combe as I angled across a field and joined Western Lane, itself part of the route. I left the lane almost straight away, joining Monarch’s Way by taking a left very steeply uphill by a spur of East Harptree woods. I was quickly out of breath and grateful to reach a stile, stopping to haul myself over and take stock of what lay on the other side. As I stepped down, I discovered that I was within a hundred metres of a female delicately grazing in front of the woodland. She raised her head and regarded me for a few seconds, before unhurriedly trotting into the protective veil of ferns and trees behind her.
Cheered by this, I continued my climb up Smitham Hill, first removing my coat and stowing it away as my exertions had caused me to sweat. I neared the top and looked back the way I had come. The view was splendid. It was definitely a spot to do some filming, as the height I had gained (about 215m) allowed me to look over the wooded ridge of Harptree Combe and away to the north. Chew Valley reservoir now lay approximately three miles back and was an irregular fringe of blue above the trees. Far behind the reservoir, a patchwork of woods and fields made up a long ridge which ran for miles from east to west. Dundry Hill, my escape hatch from Bristol, was part of that line. Enormous tower heads of clouds glided ponderously above it all; each stacked precariously like untidy piles of laundry. I was getting chilly as I stood there, but suddenly felt very grateful to be out walking and far away from my job and life back home.
It was just before midday and I decided to walk on for another hour or so and then consider finding a place to squat and eat lunch. From fields and hedges, I moved onto a dirt track which in turn brought me to a proper road, one which if followed back north plunged down Smitham Hill and became the vertebrae of East Harptree. I walked the other way and had an excellent view over the village, as the ground fell away like a landslide to my left.
I had been having snatches of songs in my head again all morning, softly singing out half-remembered lyrics as I strode along. I was currently singing, of all things, the Bee Gees’ ‘More Than a Woman’. It all came down to walking alone, having nobody for company but me and not engaging in sustained conversation. The mind sought out its own entertainment. One thing was for sure; there was no way I’d have been singing a Bee Gees song if in the company of my usual walking companions. As I walked, I was also noticing how easier it had been to locate and pass over stiles today. It seems that the local farmers and authorities take more care of walker’s routes around these parts than in the Forest of Dean or Bristol.
A dog called Brian ....
I carried on, becoming aware of two young ladies walking towards me on the road. They were accompanied by a scruffy and joyful-looking dog, who I could swear I had just heard one of the girls call ‘Brian’. This struck me as funny in a vaguely Pythonesque way. I turned off on a track running past Pitt Farm and then came to a halt. I wasn’t sure of the path I was on and was aware of the girls regarding me as I consulted my map and looked around. As it happened, they chose the same track to wander onto and passed by me silently. I walked back onto the main road and began to move, but then became convinced that I had been on the correct track after all, so turned around again. The girls had been talking quietly with each other but became silent when they realised that I was following behind, after having previously been walking away. An impression of discreet watchfulness coupled with apprehension began to emanate from them. I wasn’t surprised; we were in a quiet, rural spot and they had a shabby character doubling back and walking on their heels. I didn’t know what to do to put them at their ease and to make matters worse, we entered a fringe of woodland and the scene became even more secretive. Brian the dog didn’t look at all like he was capable of coming to their rescue, should I suddenly begin rubbing my thighs and gibbering at them. My own feelings were of embarrassment and I was glad when a gate came to my rescue.
Beck and Woodland near Wells
“After you,” she said, in English lightly touched with what sounded like a French accent.
“Thank you,” I answered, wittily.
With the sparkling dialogue complete, I moved in front of them on a wave of relief. I was no longer a sex pest. I walked swiftly to put some distance between us and was rewarded when the view opened up around me. It was suddenly very impressive indeed. I was on one side of a crescent-shaped hollow which formed part of Smitham Hill, itself part of several low, rolling hills in the area. The pasture fell away to my left in galloping, greedy leaps towards East Harptree. I walked along the full curve of the hollow and gazed appreciatively about me. Abruptly, there were female cries of distress.
Startled, I looked back. Brian was tear-arsing down the field towards a distant clump of woolly sheep. This was not going to do anything positive for his life expectancy should the local farmer be out and about, so I turned away and walked on before I could witness a tragedy. I will never know how that scene played out and I’m glad of it, although thankfully I didn’t subsequently hear any distant gunshots.
The morning had worn away into afternoon as I passed over the expanse of rural scenery; crossing stiles, finding gaps in hedges and going through gates that were in various states of disrepair. I thought to myself how easy and enjoyable I was finding today’s walking, despite being in hilly country. I compared this with how I had felt yesterday, squelching into Chew Magna on wet and sore feet and thinking about going home. It gave me a little insight into the transience of our more negative compulsions and not to react too quickly when things felt at their worst. If I’d have given up, I would not now be taking pleasure in today’s journey.
I was still on the Monarch’s Way route and had considered stopping for lunch, but the wind remained abrasive and I would have been exposed up on the hilltops, so I had decided to wait until my walk took me to lower ground. First, though, I was taken upwards again along something called the Greendown Batch on Niver Hill. I tweeted my brother, telling him that I wished he was walking with me today, as he would love the scenery. He tweeted back, saying that he’d love the scenery but not the hill-climbing. I smiled. Fair enough.
I rounded a thicket of small trees at the summit of Niver Hill and then began to go downwards, so that I advanced along the base of another mound called Eaker Hill. The descent led me to a lane at about 1:45pm and I found a likely spot for lunch at a junction of roads where the Red Quarr smallholding stood, as if monitoring the traffic as it sped by. Sunshine was spilling over the road and in front of the farmhouse and I sat at the bottom of its front garden on a little bank of grass, where I could benefit from the late summer warmth. I took my boots off and let my feet bask, spreading my wet socks out to dry and then generally watching the world pass by as I ate.
A diversion on Penn Hill ....
I was content to remain idle for about half an hour and then decided that it was time I was moving on. I was on the A-road for only a few metres, long enough to negotiate a tricky, blind corner around the farmhouse and I then turned off it in order to climb a stile and enter a field. This was not easy, as the ground at this point rose and fell in short, choppy waves and there was a lot of debris lying about in the hollows, such as bleached tree branches and crude lumps of concrete. It looked like it may have been a farmer’s dumping ground and provided me with a mini assault course as I entered the field. Once in, the ground continued to undulate although it also raised itself ten to fifteen metres as it took me towards a fence border. The grass here was wild and unruly, belts of it coming up to my thighs and resisting my progress so that I was breathing in dog-like pants by the time I had reached the fence. There was supposed to be a way through this barrier and onto rugged terrain over more rough pasture, but I walked back and forth for the whole length of it before I found the way through.
I was in the next field when I became aware that I was being watched and turned to see a herd of about thirty cows, regarding me with far too much familiarity. They turned out to be ‘followy-cows’ and would not leave me alone, falling into step with me and showing a bovine gladness that was entirely unwelcome. At one point, they split into two groups and took turns to harry me. I made genial conversation with them and stood the attention until they were almost stepping on my heels. Finally, I turned around.
“Look – bugger off!” I told them.
One of them snorted and stepped back a pace, but she was the only one to give ground. She appeared to feel shamed by her timidity in front of the others, who had all expressed stoic solidarity. It was no good; I was going to have to get out of this field. I considered my options and it was simple. My route proposed going across three areas of open, scrubby ground before I was to go back onto the B3135; one of the roads by which I had eaten lunch. It was an old Roman road and it was running beside me now, as I stood there engulfed in beef. I quickly hopped over a sturdy stone wall and dropped onto the road, waving a cheerful goodbye to my bemused entourage.
The road was arrow straight and began to turn steadily downhill as I walked. I suddenly found a bright yellow tennis ball nestling in the grass verge and picked it up, contemplatively. If I rolled it ahead of me, would it stay true to course on the ruler-straight road or bumble back onto the side? I under-armed it heftily forwards and watched it skip and bounce away, straight down the middle. The descending gradient kept it moving for a couple of hundred metres and it somehow evaded the passage of several high speed vehicles, before it began to lose momentum on the gentle incline. I caught up with it and passed it by, turning back to watch it meander off to the left side of the road as it dribbled to a halt. Well, that was the afternoon entertainment done with.
I reached a prominent crossroads at a trio of farms and took a right onto the tree-lined A39 (the Bristol Road). This was another Roman road and took me onwards for about twenty minutes in the uncomfortable proximity of speeding cars. My feet were a bit achy by now and it was not a part of the walk that I was going to look back on with fondness, but at 3:30pm it did at last bring me to Penn Hill and the
An Unknown History
I then stared up and up at the long, rearing length of the transmitter in quiet admiration. It was a very light grey and a great, hissing sigh came from it now and then as the wind soughed and tugged through its construction. Its surface was irregular with several protruding plates of metal that looked like radar dishes. At even intervals all the way to the top, round metal baskets encircled its central column like crows nests. I set my pack down, lay with my head propped on it and lined up my camcorder on the giant transmitter. Shallow clouds scurried by behind it, giving the illusion that it was falling towards me and making me momentarily dizzy. As I was filming, two calves came wandering over and stood just a few feet from me, regarding me with long-lashed and docile eyes. Their mother bellowed anxiously in our direction every now and then, but they ignored her and looked in no hurry to leave. It was me who got up and wandered away after a few minutes. I strolled back down the hill and considered my way ahead.
All’s well that ends Wells ....
The city of was but three miles away and I was due to clip an estate along its eastern edge. I re-crossed the A39, clomped down a slope and then went along a straggling line of oak trees. I was funnelled into a cleft between Brior’s Hill and Horrington Hill, called Biddle Combe. It was heavily wooded with a mixture of deciduous trees and the path I found myself on was flinty and hard. A length of telephone wire extended across the higher ground to my left and two small birds of prey were alternatively perching on it or doing a circuit of the sky above. I thought that they were a pair of Hobby’s but didn’t get a good enough view to be certain.
I entered deeper into the woods and just touched the tiny village of West Horrington, then veered away and walked alongside a stony brook. A footbridge no more than six feet long crossed it; a two-plank affair with a single hand rail that ended amongst a pile of rocks on the other side. I stopped at this place to examine the remnants of a small stone cottage, which stood right on the lip of the stream. It had a solid, rectangular stone doorway which gaped emptily at me. Whatever door had filled this space had long since been taken or rotted away. Irregular stonework made up the walls, which curved away in a circular sweep. Dark green ivy rambled and trailed over the structure and the top of the walls were heavy with ferns and long grasses, which hung over the front like an unkempt fringe. The pressed-mud floor inside was lit from the sun above, showing me that there was no intact roof. There was no way to know how long it had been since this place had been inhabited by people, but it seemed like a considerable amount of years. I left it behind and trudged up a small hillock, coming abreast of Beryl Wood and sweeping downwards again to cross a slope of Knapp Hill. This lowered me onto Bath Road and towards the fringe of Wells.
It was now about 4:45pm and I must have been getting tired and losing concentration, because I made another of those silly and obvious errors. My map clearly said that I had to carry straight on at a roundabout I encountered, but instead I turned right and began to walk towards the city centre. I strode purposefully on for about ten minutes, finally realising that I had messed up. I studied the map to try and nullify the mistake. If I could cut through the estate I was in, I could intersect my route as it reached the disused Torhill Quarry
Waymark to Wells
I remembered my experience with the last golf course I had crossed when entering Bristol and grimaced. It was a sure thing that navigation wouldn’t be easy and I wasn’t even sure I had approached it at the point I had marked on the map. The golf course had been built on the site of the old quarry and it was a stiff climb up to it. I was soon on neatly trimmed lawns again and quickly found a winding path on the side of the fairway, getting a few looks from the one or two players about, but being left alone. I managed to find a place near my route called Strawberry Wood and tramped around the edge of it, still climbing a high gradient. Once at the top of what had evidently been Tor Hill, I went through a couple of stiles and crossed a neat lane, which was part of Walking down the other side of the hill, I was silently pleased that I hadn’t got too lost.
On reaching the brink of Wells earlier, I had switched my IPhone off to conserve a rapidly draining battery and now decided to switch it back on, so that I could confirm where I was via GPS. I was suddenly in receipt of several messages from my brother, each of them injected with a little more urgency than the previous one. Apparently, my global positioning had put me at the general hospital in Wells and hadn’t moved since. He had begun to conjure up gloomy scenarios that involved me and the speeding bonnet of a car, so I quickly messaged him to say that I was fine and still happily walking along.
Up and Down ....
I came down from yet another slope, one that was part of Constitution Hill, before making out across fields again. The afternoon was wearing on and despite my tiredness, I began to hurry. I wanted to camp on familiar ground and so was heading to North Wootton and the Greenacres camp-site I had used in June, which was still over two miles away and had Worminster Down between me and it. It wasn’t helpful that I lost my way a few times and was forced to backtrack through fields of crops that were knee high, until I got back onto my route. I got to Manor Farm, which was an outlying building of Dulcote village, finding that I was on a path that was making its way around the bottom of suburban gardens. I passed a young boy, sat on a bench with his dog at his feet and began strolling towards Dulcote, and then saw that I wasn’t meant to go there. As I turned back, the young boy smiled at me as I passed him again, mutely understanding that I had gone wrong.
I strode out across a bridge that spanned a railway track and a road. It guided me onto a lane, which then branched in two directions before me. I was to take neither, but rather needed to head out across a field of corn. Before I would be able to start out, though, I had to wait for a farmer in his huge tractor to exit the field by way of an open gate. Meanwhile, a man in his car was attempting a three point turn where the lane branched. He became aware of the monstrous vehicle behind him, which the farmer had begun to edge out of the gateway. His movements on the steering wheel became fretful and he must have de-clutched too quickly, because his car jerked forward and stalled. The man held hooked hands in front of his face, which contorted in what looked like a scream. All of his windows were wound up, so only a muted roar came out of the car, but it was quite a curious sight. I can only imagine that he had experienced a bad day and that this was the final straw, because his reaction seemed extreme. He became aware of the pantomime I had witnessed and offered me a smile, as if to say that it was all okay, before driving off in a spurt of dust. The farmer’s tractor then clattered out of the gate and he waved his thanks for my patience.
I made my way down the steep field and had another fine view ahead of me, as I was on raised ground which overlooked a few farms, roads and contoured hills. The Mendips had not disappointed today. I carefully consulted my map as I worked my way through the agricultural fields, passing Wellesley Farm, walking over another lane and completing a journey up a track squeezed between the low mounds of Twinhills and their woods. It was a short but vicious climb and I soon had to remove my coat again because I began to sweat heavily. I largely bypassed the woods, but then went under a canopied track which drove almost treacherously downward as part of Beech Covert. I was never entirely sure of my way, as the path began to writhe and twist through the wood. I decided to stick to what I supposed to be a main path and luck was with me, because I was brought out onto Worminster Down without fuss.
The way opened out as I broke clear of trees and climbed a little, marching at a brisk pace on sinuous ground and not sure if I was lost or not. I stepped onto another wooded track, which was as steep in its plunge down as the climb had been upwards. In my haste, I half feared a slip and tumble down the path of what I hoped was the final descent. I broke clear of trees and suddenly saw blue smoke curling into the air before me. Somebody had cleared an area on the Down and set themselves a fire. A pile of branches had been broken up and were just beginning to burn well. Walking past the fire, I saw the slim figure of a man striding up the track towards me. He looked like he was also hiking and had chosen to camp in the woods. He had dreadlocks hanging to his waist.
“It’s been a lovely day for it,” he said, seeing my backpack and tired face.
“Indeed it has,” I replied.
We grinned at each other as we crossed on the path. “I hope tomorrow’s the same,” he called back over his shoulder. I glanced back after a few moments as he sauntered easily towards his fire. I could see no sign of a tent and could only assume that he was doing it hard core.
I walked deliberately off my postcode route once at the bottom of the Down, heading onto the lanes of and turning several corners until I came to Barrow Lane and the It was 7:10pm as I made my way to the booking office at Barrow Farm. The guy remembered me from my last visit, mainly because he had given me a sewing kit when I split my old walking trousers from groin to knee. I managed to get a pitching place, erecting my tent as twilight stole over me and darkness began to fill the corners and hedge lines of the field. I also took a welcome hot shower, though was unable to get my clothes laundered. I settled for laying them out in an open-fronted shack, which seemed to serve as a kiddies play area, library and food storage facility. I spread my gear over a plastic slide, a doll’s house and a couple of small chairs, using a shelf of books to place my socks out whilst a couple of fridges whined thinly in the background. I also took advantage of a spare plug socket to juice up my phone and charger overnight.
I realised that it was getting chilly as I returned to my tent and tucked myself into my sleeping bag. My hands felt cold. I ate a sausage roll and listened to the far-off clatter of a helicopter in the dark. It was an isolated, lonely sound but I found that I wasn’t homesick and was still enjoying my walk. I settled down and drifted off to sleep; pondering on how far it was to the coast and thinking of the three days I had left in which to get there.
- Bloody spiders! I only have to walk through the thinnest screen of bushes and I come out looking like something from Cocoon.
- A pleasant morning's walk in sunshine and a cool breeze. Forgot to say - I took my first fall yesterday. Branch got caught under my foot.
- Over I went, face-first and into wet mud. I was liberally doused in it and so was my map. Larksome.
- Bet the neighbouring Cows had never heard such language. Or, possibly, herd it? Now in West Harptree, heading for East Harptree.
- Gordon Bennett. Can certainly tell I've hit the Mendips. Resting, partway up the first hill. Lungs, heaving. Complexion, Mottled purple.
- With many miles ahead, the mind goes on as much of a ramble as the feet. I've had snatches of songs suddenly pop into my head.
- It's as if my brain has tuned into a local radio station for a while and then the signal fades and the song-on-a-loop goes.
- In this manner, I've had Skeelo, Coldplay, Betty Boo. Currently, the BeeGees 'More than a woman'. I mean - what the f**k?
- Thanks (Mark). Wish you'd been with me today - you'd love the Mendips and open countryside, with views for miles around.
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