Obstructions, off-route and an orchard….
It was a little before 07:30am and a chilly morning when I roused myself; aware that I had left my mobile phone in a public area. It was fully-charged, so I started the morning routine of tending to my feet, gathering up my still-damp clothing and eating a breakfast bar. I also filled my water camel from the sink before packing my tent away, as people began to stir and emerge torpidly from their caravans and tents. After this, there was nothing else to keep me static and I set out at 09:40am just as it started to spit with rain. This didn’t last, but my walking day got off to a bad start. I had noticed on my map that I could take a short-cut across a couple of fields to get me onto Slough Lane which, in turn, would lead me nicely back onto my postcode route at Redlake Farm. The first stile didn’t present me with any problems and I marched directly across the field to its far end. The second stile, however, brought back all the not-so-fond memories of the early part of the walk. It was a screen of thick brambles and took me a while to kick and tug my way through, often having to stamp down everything in my path before I could venture forward. Once through, I was deposited into a trench that was waist-high with nettles. It was an L-shaped trench and I had to fight for every metre I moved forward, so choked with these stingers was the whole thing. I finally clambered out onto the lane in an early black mood.
It appeared that this little interlude was to set the tone of the morning’s walk. It was okay just after the farm, for I was on Pennard Lane and was swept along without fuss. However, after about a mile I cut across country again, through fields on slightly rising ground. Every stile that I had to negotiate was effectively hidden and blocked by that winning formula of nettles and brambles. My hands, arms and legs had been clearing up since leaving the low, marshy land around Easter Compton in favour of Bristol’s city streets, but they now gained fresh scratches and itchy, stinging lumps as I battled through obstacle after obstacle. I was frustrated and decidedly grumpy by the time I had struggled uphill through wet grass to a main road and a farm I had to pass through. Manor Farm is owned by people I will never become friends with. There is a clearly legitimate walking route through it and beyond it, up to the summit of Pennard Hill. In their wisdom, they have decided to padlock the main gate so that the erstwhile walker has to climb over it, laden with a backpack. Since the gate stands at about five feet high, this was not a joyous prospect. Initially, I wasn’t even sure that I was on the right path, so secure and forbidding was the farmyard. I walked up the road a little to look for my route up the hill, also stopping to shed some waterproof layers as the sun had made a quick, smiting appearance. Losing patience, I went back to the gate. I couldn’t see anybody about and noticed that there was a gap beneath the gate that I may be able to squirm under, if I shed my backpack. It was a nuisance and I was storing up a lot of venom should anybody appear to challenge me, but I did manage to crawl beneath the gate and walk across the concrete yard, taking a left up a very steep and baked-mud track which then began to curl around to the right as it climbed. I was soon above treetops and rooftops,
West Pennard from Park Hill
I ventured forward again and it didn’t take much time and map-twisting to realise that I’d strayed from my route and was making my way around the crown of Pennard Hill, rather than over it. It was a minor nuisance which brought a very pleasant bonus, as I was suddenly presented with a view that made me stop again. I was sharing a bit of pasture with several cows and looking down on the village of A handsome selection of evergreens was clustered around the equally handsome façade of the 15th century church of St Nicholas. One of these trees was a venerable specimen that almost matched the height of the church’s tallest steeple and looked to be of the species called the The steeply-sloped roofs of the village dwellings poked up here and there between thick clumps of trees. Fields and hedges lay behind the village in an orderly retreat until they merged with the green swathe of Norwood Park. Overlooking all of this was the prominent mound of the some two and a half miles from where I stood, atop which sat St. Michael’s Tower; an ancient pillar of stone that looked sturdy even from a distance, despite the occurrence of a strong earthquake in 1275 which has deprived it of its roof. Lost or not, I was suddenly pleased to be on this hill and gazing at the spectacle before me and I was moved to tweet a photograph of what I was seeing. For some reason, I then decided to tell the cows that were noisily grazing around me that I was off-route, but pretty sure that a descending track in front of me would put things right again. I received an indifferent and herbivorous silence in response, so began to step down Pennard Hill at an angle. My endeavours to turn off to the left were thwarted by the natural run of the hill and a large hedge, which effectively cut off any inclinations in that direction. As it was I was shepherded, without fuss, nearer and nearer to St. Nicholas’ church and through its aged graveyard and then spat out onto Breech Lane at a place called Lower Southtown. From here, I re-joined my route at Knapp Farm and took off down a field to another farm, named Upper Woodlands.
Crossing Bradley Way lane, I entered my first orchard of the trip and was pretty soon sorry that I had done so. On the face of it, it all looked very simple; after all, the orchard was set out in a fairly geometrical way and all I had to do was follow one of the ruler-straight tracks through it and out the other side. In practice, I soon discovered that the Romanesque spirit of the path quickly lost its resolve and dithered about through the trees, as if unsure of its purpose in the universe. Worse, it decided it had better sort things out and so it split into several more tracks; the better to explore the orchard and present the unwary walker with seemingly identical choices. I was constantly faced with such mini-quandaries and found myself wandering around as if delirious. Then the sky suddenly wearied of its burden of water droplets and so released them upon the ground below. It was heavy rain, too, so that I quickly had to shove my map away under my coat to prevent it becoming a papier-mâché glove. To get out of the orchard, I finally had to head for the nearest hedge border and follow it around in an anti-clockwise direction as the rain seethed down and I growled and swore at the apple trees. It took an age before I found a break in the hedge and was able to stomp irritably out onto another lane, which ran along in company with the tiny Bradley Brook. I made another error of complacent stupidity at this point. The rain had abruptly ceased, so I retrieved my map from the inside of my coat and forgot that I was holding it upside-down. Thus, I spent five minutes walking the wrong way along this lane before realisation dawned when I reached a T-junction that shouldn’t have been there. I turned on my heel in hot exasperation and retraced my steps, determined to be more careful. Such promises, it seems, are easily broken and I was almost amongst a hamlet called West Bradley before I grasped that I shouldn’t be there and should, in fact, be halfway across some fields to the south. My route took some working out, but it was a mostly pleasant downhill walk. You note that I say mostly pleasant. This is because I became reacquainted with two things. The first of these was fields of cows and the encumbering obstacles they created in the form of chopped-up platters of wet mud. Besides this, they were being altogether too inquisitive once more. The second familiarity was feet that were starting to throb and feel tender again, not helped by having spent all morning being soaking wet. Together, they were making the day’s walking a hard task, reinforced as such by stiles that were wildernesses of toothed flora. On reflection, let me sum up the walk as being partially pleasant up to this point.
At the whim of the weather….
The traverse of about half a dozen fields brought me to a narrow road called Tilham Street, which seemed to be an outlying tendril of Baltonsborough off to the west and where I rested briefly and sat out another quick rain shower, watching a young fellow wheelbarrow a load of some kind from one place to another. Once the rainfall had tapered off, I began to trudge along the street but had gone no more than a couple of hundred metres when the heavens opened again with a vengeance. Such was the downpour that I immediately sought sanctuary on the drive of Tilham Farm, scrabbling in my rucksack for my waterproofs whilst a small dog yapped enthusiastically at me from the lounge window of the farmhouse. I changed whilst keeping a dubious eye on the door, in case an irate occupant should come out armed with something pointy that might say bang. Encased in noisy PVC, I had not long walked on when the rain was cut off as if some celestial being had twisted a dial and the sun began to blaze down with a hearty gladness. In no time at all, I was sweating inside my clothing and starting to hyperventilate. I spent the next hour changing in and out of my Berghaus coat at the whim of the weather’s eccentricities and actually became faintly amused at the timing of it, convinced
Middle Drove - an old cattle road
I sat down against a metal-barred gate and sucked my wet feet out of sodden boots, wringing my socks out and draping them over one of the bars of the gate. I set my footwear out in the sunshine and then burrowed into my rucksack for a lunch of pre-packed fruit, seeds and nuts. Sighing with pleasure and a relief to be off my tender feet, I sat upon the springy turf and leaned back against the gate. A young girl on a horse rode towards me. She was wearing braces on her teeth and her smile of greeting flashed viciously at me as it caught the sunlight. I smiled back and asked her if I was in the way, at which she shook her head and passed me by, smiling again. In the silence, I ate and glanced about contentedly for half an hour and then decided it might be time to move on. I put on dry socks and wet boots and made my way out of Manor farm, down a turf track and by a few scattered buildings which seemed to be the whole of Southwood. I then took off over fields anew, going south as always and walking alongside the Southwood plantation; an anvil-shaped block of thickly-planted trees. A diminutive brook ran across one field and forced me to sheer off to the east for a short while and then I was able to continue south on an unremarkable little track by the name of Chapelfield Lane. My stroll along this brought me to Dial’s Gate Lane and suddenly, I had reached the village of West Lydford and it was here that I stopped, briefly. Actually, I stopped to rest on the old 17th century (restored 1846) Mead Lane Bridge, which spanned the River Brue. A soft drizzle had but recently ceased and the daylight was still a little wan with cloud cover. A large Weeping Willow was leaning over, seeming to hold its branches, festooned with many narrow leaves, just above the inert surface of the Brue. The relatively modern St. Peter’s church lay set back from the far bank of the river. West Lydford is part of Lydford-on-Fosse, which straddles a walk called The Fosse Way; an ancient Roman road which linked the cities of Lincoln and Exeter. I turned and walked to look over the other side of the bridge. Here, the stream had pooled languidly and a lone fisherman was sitting on the wet bank in silent contemplation. The whole scene was a little melancholy, a feeling emphasised by the silence. I took a photo or two, one of which I sent on its way to Twitter, and then I walked on quietly.
Cutting out the frills and tassels….
West Lydford became via a few more slick-grassed fields and the B3153, which directed me left. I turned south again on the Lydford Lane track and it was upon this that I abandoned my planned route for the day. There was a growing sense of urgency within me to get to a place to stay for the night, with no more fuss or diversions. Sitting comfortably at home with a steaming mug of coffee at hand, high hopes and no worries about how time was being eaten up, I had constructed a route in favour of taking me through the Babcary Meadows Nature Reserve. To do this, I had airily swept my mouse across the online route-builder to take in a short section of the Macmillan Way West, then constructing a sharp switchback which would send me waltzing across the reserve. This, I felt, was no longer a valid luxury. Instead, I opted to cut out some distance and remain on Lydford Lane and so marched resolutely onwards. If this was supposed to save me time, then I quickly discovered that my improvised route had a few tricks up its sleeve. The lane dipped downhill and before long, I could see that a body of water lay across my path. What I first thought was a minor flood, given the awful summer we had all ‘enjoyed’, turned out to be much more. It was as deep and as wide as a brook and I stopped dead in front of it. It appeared to flow down from a field to my right, had swamped the lane, then gurgled and ran out of sight to my left. My map told me that there was a ford around here – perhaps this was it, bloated and redirected by weeks of rain. Footsore and fretting about my tattered timetable, I became seriously irritated and wasted a few more seconds berating and swearing at the obstacle in my path. Once I had accepted the situation, I began to look at the hedgerow on the right as a means of grasping onto and using to haul myself over. The trouble was I would still have to wade across a few feet of water before I could reach the hedge. It was silly in the extreme; my feet were already wet and it wouldn’t matter if I was to do the Russian Kalinka down the length of the ford but, fastidiously, I tried to pick my way across to the hedge. It made no difference and the water sloshed over my feet to soak joyously into my socks. I crossed the flooded lane and walked on, noting the point at which I would have turned off towards the nature reserve and then going forward until I had reached
From the old bridge at West Lydford
Luxury at The Liongate…
I sat down against the wall of The Walnut Tree pub and hotel, after trying its door and discovering it to be closed. Using my iPhone, I found the number for the place and rang them. Yes, they did have a single room for the night. How much, I asked. Ninety pounds, they replied and so I said goodbye. I tried several B&B’s in the area, all unsuitable in one way or another, and then phoned one in the Roman town of some three or so miles away. At £60 the room at the wasn’t cheap, but the guy on the phone was really friendly and in my despondency at my second failed attempt south, I felt the need for a hot shower and some comfort. I took a taxi to Ilchester, which stung a bit as the guy at Liongate gave me a number of a taxi firm based in Yeovil and I ended up paying £13 for a trip of a few miles. However, I was given a fantastic welcome by my hosts, Judy and Stuart. They were fellow hikers and showed a great interest in my walk and also promised to find out just how far away I was from the coast. My room was sumptuous, with a huge bed and a bathroom with a walk-in shower. It was what Judy called a ‘wet room’ and even featured a bidet (which, rather than for what it was meant for, I used to detect where the puncture was on my air mattress). In short, I was happy; doubly so when my iPhone sprang into life again, after long periods during the day where it had had no signal.
This was a turning point in the day for me and probably one for the rest of my walk. I asked my phone to compute my route from where I was to where I was headed, at Chesil Beach. When the answer came back, I dared not believe it at first. I had estimated about forty miles and had been seriously wide of the mark as, no matter how many times I put a fresh request in, my Maps app insisted that I was only twenty-five miles away. Twenty-five miles! I had two days left to walk that distance – a doddle! The walk was still on and this was confirmed, after I had showered and changed and Stuart met me in their kitchen to tell me that it was twenty-five miles from here to the south coast. I was suddenly buoyant in mood again. I was also hungry and my hosts were able to tell me that it was only a short walk to several pubs that served food. I chose The Dolphin Inn and it was very busy, with a lot of young people drinking in there. I felt quite out of place and tatty in my tracksuit trousers and checked walking shirt, but enjoyed a lovely steak again and a couple of pints before wandering back to The Liongate. Bless Judy and Stuart, my laundry had been washed and dried for me. I attempted to fix the puncture in my air mattress before going to bed; half-an-hour spent applying several patches and it still deflated meekly within minutes. God knows what I had pitched my tent up on, way back in Bream, but it had done some damage. Instead, I put my phone on to charge overnight, made myself a hot chocolate drink with some cookies and went to bed, attempting to watch the James Bond film ‘Casino Royale’ but with my eyes slipping shut barely halfway through it. My body was telling me to cut the crap and go to sleep, so I did just that.
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