Getting away from it all ....
I slept well and woke at about 08:30am. A quick look out of my window over the floating harbour revealed a sky that was light grey with cloud cover. I had a shave and set about packing my gear back into the rucksack and folding my tent away, also taking the time to mummify my feet with a roll of tape I had bought the night before. The downstairs lobby had a selection of postcards and I bought a few and then left the hostel and stepped out onto a street bustling with people on the way to work, or considering some early shopping. I remembered that the supermarket I had shopped at last night also ran a post office, so wandered there and posted two of my used maps back home.
I took a few moments to sit near the fountains at the Marina and use my iPhone to find out where I was and how to get back onto my path south. I’d already ruminated over my itinerary and knew that I was getting way behind, so I’d decided to just head for Chew Magna and then see how far past it I could get by day’s end. I constructed an on-the-spot route which would take me through Bedminster and back onto the walk proper and set out at just after 10:00am. I strode through suddenly sunny streets and past Bedminster station, finding that I was okay on main roads as these were clear on my OS map. It was the side streets that complicated things and had me working hard to keep going in the right direction. I did manage to lose myself on two occasions due to poor map reading and a map scale ill-equipped for urban street walking. The second of these errors had me heading east for twenty minutes before I admitted to myself that I had screwed up. It was infuriating to have to turn around and pass all the malingering workmen on a dug-up stretch of road, who had watched me pass in the opposite direction not long before. A little further along, I popped into a hardware store on a main street. I was after Gaffer tape, which I felt would be more suitable wrapped around my blistered feet than the cheap stuff I was currently bound up in. I felt that it was a poor show indeed that a hardware store was out of Gaffer tape; surely a product to keep well stocked up with? So, it was back out of the shop to do some more street-pounding.
The Avon in Bristol
I was soon amongst the streets of Headley Park and then moved through Bishopsworth and into a less savoury part of Bristol. I had worked in Hartcliffe a few years previously, which was an estate I was fast approaching, so I was familiar with the area and that it contained its fair share of urban crime. It was a council estate akin to many in the UK and I used my coat to cover my camcorder from sight, having already decided not to brandish it about in time to film my own mugging. There were plenty of folk about, including youths from local schools who had been turned out for lunch break and although I couldn’t help but draw curious stares in my hiking gear and wearing a large rucksack, I remained mostly a five second diversion. There was just one occasion as I walked through Bishopsworth and passed vehicles motionless at traffic lights, when a young guy in his car did a double-take as he clocked my gear when I marched by. Loud music was pumping out of his system and I was peripherally aware that he had ducked down, so that he could see me properly from under the line of his car roof. I carried on walking, but turned my face towards him so that I could watch him. He stuck his thumb up at me in greeting and I nodded once and then turned away, not wanting to encourage any kind of interaction and happy to leave him behind.
At one point, it suddenly began to rain heavily and I had to stop to put my waterproof gear on. This became pointless within two minutes when the rain stopped and the sun began to beat down, so that I overheated and had to change again. Once into Hartcliffe itself, I had further trouble finding the street I wanted to take me past an academy building and then a track which was to take me off the main road and through the back streets of the estate. I passed the same hot dog van three times as I searched back and forth and my stomach began to growl at me to stop for lunch, but I wanted to do this once clear of Bristol and onto Dundry Hill. After a frustrating period of lost wandering, I spied a tiny path sneaking along the side of a car repair garage and onto higher ground. I took it and was taken upwards swiftly, walking by the bottom of gardens and through groups of terraced houses. The track was steep and I became breathless, willing the ground to level out. This occurred shortly afterwards and I was taken onto a tarmac path which led me to another estate, or a higher continuation of the one I had walked through below me.
Low ebb at The Pelican ...
The sun suddenly became so fierce that I sat under the shade of a hawthorn bush and applied factor 30. I shouldn’t have bothered, as within minutes of this dark clouds swept over and it began to tip down again. I had trouble finding the course I had marked to begin my ascent of Dundry Hill, mainly because it looked more significant on my map than it was in reality. It was revealed to be a meek, single file line over a paddock, but I was immediately fond of it. Without preamble, it sped me away from concrete, people and buildings towards a bank of ferns and the beginning of woods on the flank of the hill. I had had enough of walking through a city and its outlying estates. As I climbed Dundry Hill on a dirt path winding through dripping foliage, I was aware of how quiet it became and I savoured it. I continued a steep and tiring ascent along the path, which twisted irrelevantly about as it took me upwards. I had no idea by now whether this was the route I had ear-marked back home; instead I used my compass to find any path heading south. Finally, I broke free of tree cover near the top of the hill and walked across an open paddock lined with traditional British hedgerows. I was now at a prominence of about 560ft above sea level and I stopped for a few minutes to look back north. Bristol spilled out around Dundry Hill, receding to middle distance with the well-worn estates I had negotiated that morning and back further, where the Clifton Suspension Bridge spanned the Avon gorge. Even further towards the horizon and beyond the city, I could still make out the two far off towers of the Severn Bridge that I had walked beneath two days before and finally, on the horizon and lying low and bruised against a stormy sky, lay the Forest of Dean hills that I had descended from. I was starting to get a picture of the miles I was putting away.
A stile took me from one field to another, one which was more open to a cutting wind and seemed to be a part of North Hill farm. I walked downhill through the farm and began to make my way down the south face of Dundry, a journey which was initially made easier when I joined a lane. This took me through the scant dwellings of East Dundry and then the lane seemed to peter out into very boggy ground, a wet earthen path which crept beneath a tunnel of Hawthorn and small trees. Some had fallen over and come to rest at a forty-five degree angle against trees on the opposite side of the path, so that I had to crouch down and scramble beneath them with my backpack catching on branches. I was picking my way forward in the poor light, when a branch got caught under my foot and tipped me forward. It was, to my knowledge, the first time I had ever taken a tumble on one of my walks and it was unfortunate that I had chosen to do it in the middle of a pool of mud, leaves and water. I landed on hands and knees, emitting a startled sound; the kind that appears in speech bubbles within cartoon strips, “Ooof!”
I was alright and I picked myself up, swearing quietly as I scraped mud off my hands and trousers. My map had caught a fair amount of the stuff, too; Felton and Potter’s Hill would never look the same again. I continued forward more warily and reached a rivulet of water, which ran across the way ahead so that I took to hopping from stones to fallen branches in an attempt to keep dry; a silly thing to do, since my socks were already at a stage where they could be wrung out.
Looking back to Bristol from Dundry Hill
I passed through a kissing gate and stepped down onto a tarmac lane, which would take me into the heart of Chew Magna and onto the high street; the place I wanted to be in order to get inside a pub I had used when there back in June. It was easy on the map, all I had to do when reaching an obvious crossroads was take a right and I’d be there. I have no idea why I carried straight on at this juncture, possibly because I became distracted by the first person I had seen since leaving Bristol; an old gent tending his garden. What I do know is that I made myself walk around the perimeter of the village, using the B3130. It was an unnecessary diversion on feet that had become sore again and I must have cut quite a dejected figure, as I hobbled into (‘The Pelly’ to its locals and a smashing pub) on South Parade at 4:00pm and ordered lemonade. I also asked a young and very obviously pregnant barmaid if she knew of any camp sites in the area. She didn’t and suggested I could walk on to the village of Bishop Sutton, as she thought they might have one. I had previously decided that this would be the best option, but thanked her anyway. I took my drink to a table in a corner of the room, well lit by high windows, to consider my position. It seems to me now, that The Pelican Inn had the misfortune to house me on two occasions when it could be said that my spirit and motivation were at their lowest. In June, my walk had already failed in its true sense because of the onset of painful and blistered feet and I had had to get there by bus and taxi. Now, in September, although I had walked from my home in Herefordshire to this place in north-east Somerset, I found myself in exactly the same situation. If there was a low point of my walk, then this was it. I was despondent and found myself toying with the idea of jacking it all in again. I was getting increasingly behind schedule and my feet were throbbing painfully and looking like they might break down once more. The trouble was that they were so wet all of the time. I thought of home and of a hot bath and my own bed. In an effort to take my mind of such pleasant fancies, I took my boots and socks off and draped the latter surreptitiously on the furniture in the bar after wringing them out, trying to dry them because both sets of my walking socks were now wet. The dressings and tape on my feet were saturated and hanging loosely and came away with a slight tug, revealing a few blisters which, fortunately, hadn’t yet broken down into open sores. I spent about twenty minutes supping lemonade and putting on fresh dressings and tape, being watched with interest by the young barmaid who broke off her fascinated examination of my feet only to answer a phone call. Foot maintenance completed, I had a good talk with myself and decided that I ought to at least try and see the day out. I was still able to walk and knew that I would feel utterly wimpy once back home, if I capitulated just because I was having a black moment. Besides; my feet were bearing up well, considering they had spent a lot of time being forced to march on concrete over the past twenty-four hours. I shuddered as I forced one of the damp pairs of socks back on, but then laced my boots and emerged once more onto the main road running through Chew Magna.
Hazards of a home-made route ....
It would be great to report that all went swimmingly from here and that I yomped energetically onwards with fresh determination. This may have been the case, if I’d been able to find the little path I could see on my map; one that would take me through a row of houses and across a weir to the fields beyond.
Time after time, I traipsed up and down the same alleys and avenues between residences and each time I came across the dead end of someone’s garden. I wasted about half an hour in a fruitless search and was aware that the day was ticking away from me again. Finally, I gave up and looked at my map for an alternative and then marched back down the high street, past The Pelly and took a right at a fork onto Denny Lane. I followed this south through Chew Magna and then turned right as I was leaving the village, onto fields and what the map told me contained public footpaths. They did and I could see that I needed to follow the tortuous route of the weir I should have crossed earlier. The ground became boggy around this babbling waterway, so that wooden footbridges had been installed in places to help folk progress. In other areas, though, the wettest summer in a hundred years had turned pasture into paddy field and I was soaked again, immediately. I was also lost and try as I might; I could not get onto the correct side of the weir no matter how far down I followed it.
More valuable time was lost stumbling through bracken and sodden grass and in the end; I simply had to retrace my steps almost back to the outskirts of Chew Magna. Suddenly, I had a bit of an outburst and swore fluently at the weir, the wet ground, my map and the minutes ticking away on my watch. Sod this lot; I got my compass out and held it out, watching the red part of the needle orientate itself to the north and then lining myself up on the white part pointing south. I looked up along its line and saw a field, electric-strip fencing and a farmhouse. Okay, that’s the way I was going so I strode resolutely forward, boldly climbed over three electric fences, crossed the farmhouse garden and suddenly came across a stile in a hedge. This deposited me back onto Denny Lane and also immediately back on route; I could have remained on it one and a half miles back and saved myself another paddle and a session of anguish. On the other hand, I was suddenly enthused by my quick solution to the problem and made a mental note. In future; if in doubt, just whip out the compass and walk south.
A Muddy Track by East Dundry
I stepped forward onto a sweeping tarmac drive in front of what looked like an administrative building and a set of public toilets. A lone vehicle was parked, abandoned. The day was breezy and overcast and it had rained on and off for much of the afternoon, the surface of the lake unsettled and being whipped up into lines of foamy crescents by the stiff wind. There were a score or more of Black-Headed Gulls sitting in huddled, social groups on the lawns and fences around me. I set off on well-kept, gravel paths between mown lawns along the east side of Chew Valley Lake. It was all as neat as any park, with several crossing paths and information boards about the local wildlife and how this man-made reservoir (for this is what it was) was built back in the 1950’s at the cost of drowned farmland. Nestled in the foothills of The Mendips, it was formed by the building of a dam on the River Chew near Chew Stoke, which is where I was presently standing. Its maximum depth is only 37ft and when water levels recede during dry spells, old hedgerows, tree stumps, roads and even a bridge can be seen.
As I walked, the far shore dropped away and I could see beyond the flat expanse of the lake to the long line of part of the Mendip Hills, which formed a ridge as a pleasing backdrop to the scene. It took me about an hour to follow the contours of the shore, occasionally passing through copses, or by picnic tables which had been set up to provide the best views across the water to Denny Island, an emerald swathe of trees sat about half a mile offshore which had its own jetty. I also saw a bird-watching hide and remembered harbouring hopes that I would have arrived early enough in the day, so that I could have sat for an hour and ticked off a few new bird species. I had to smile at this; there was not a chance of stopping, as I had decided that I wanted to camp in and I needed to do so within the next hour or so.
I chose a point about halfway down the east side of the lake, at a place called Hollow Brook, to leave the shore path and get back onto the road. This was easier said than done and I soon discovered that high, impenetrable hedges kept me away from the road, which in any case was elevated some dozen feet above me. I had to loop around on one of the paths and head back north until I found a fence low enough to chance my arm and scramble over. I was reunited with the artery leading to Bishop Sutton and was delighted to discover that it was due to take me near a caravan and camping site on the fringe of the village. I had found my potential home for the night.
A Bishop’s sanctuary ....
Bath Chew Valley was a Godsend and so was the lovely woman who runs it with her partner. I entered a modern, clean booking office and helped myself to an imperial mint from the complimentary dish set out on the booking desk. There wasn’t anybody about, but a small notice invited me to phone a mobile number and when I did so, I could hear a ringing tone coming from deeper into the building. Presently, a bustling figure came into the office from what I assumed were living quarters and a lady smiled pleasantly at me. Yes, she said, I could camp for the night. Champion, I thought and money exchanged hands. I asked her about laundry facilities and when she discovered that I didn’t have much to wash; she offered to do it for me in her own washing machine. What a wonderful woman. I was so taken by her friendliness that I introduced myself by name and she told me that she was called Diane and that I was to make myself comfortable.
I hastily threw my tent up and put my phone on charge before dashing off to the shower room. Ah, the bliss of hot water on a tired and wet body. Even better, Diane had informed me that pub was only several hundred yards away, down a few lanes and onto the main street going through Bishop Sutton. Should I feel the desire, there was even an Indian restaurant at the top of the road. My evening lay set out before me. Freshly scrubbed and clutching my phone charger and blank postcards, I stepped through a garden gate and down onto the artery road for a third time. This actually occurred at a blind corner and Diane had warned me to venture onto the road with some caution. This was advice I did well to take because, as I stepped out, so a car hurtled around at a fair whack and whooshed by in front of my face.
Chew Magna Lake
Still deep in thought, I decided to make my way back to my tent as my sleeping bag was calling. It wasn’t long before I was wishing it would call a bit louder; I was taken completely unaware of how black the night was. There was no street lighting about and the lanes I had to negotiate, I did so in total darkness. Under the blanket of the night, each lane looked as alien as the next and I suddenly thought about how absurd my situation was as I wandered to and fro. I couldn’t be any more than a few hundred yards from my tent, but it may just as well have been pitched in the Outer Hebrides. I stopped in the middle of one of several back-roads and looked up to the inky sky as I pondered. How many turns did I take? In which direction? Two lefts? Three rights? I was, horribly, starting to eye up the local hedges to see if I could find a suitable bed for the night, when I recognised the rather tall, steeply-angled roof of a house. I had walked towards that from the artery road, which meant……I turned around and exhaled in relief when I found the artery behind me.
Five minutes later, I was tucked up and wondering what all the fuss was about, but it had been a close thing. I felt warm inside my sleeping bag, more so because the wind was buffeting the sides of my tent and sending occasional spatters of rain across the stretched flysheet. To such sounds, I drifted off to sleep at about 11:30pm.
- Bristol was an experience my feet won't forget. I'm on top of Dundry Hill and looking at my next target, the Chew Magna lake.
- I'm safely ensconced in my tent, listening to the bluff wind haranguing at my fly sheet. Last couple of hours spent in The Red Lion pub.
- Wrote out some postcards, sneakily charged my phone and discovered a new bitter I like from Bath, called Gem.
- Feet are bearing up, given that they are constantly wet and gave been in contact with a lot of concrete over the past two days.
- Tonight, Bishop Sutton and tomorrow the Mendip Hills and me sobbing as I tackle gradients all day. I'm way behind schedule - 15 miles or so.
- At this rate, I'll be turning up at work next Saturday still wearing my reeking walking gear and knocking residents over with my rucksack.
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