MY CUNNING plan for the middle of last week was intended to involve my catching an overnight coach to Taunton and to grab a short nap in the process. It was a good plan. It was also a simple one.
And yet Von Moltke was still right.
The enemy, with whom contact caused the non-survival of my battle plan was in this case a young couple who got on the coach at Heathrow and sat behind me. They had clearly not seen each other for a while. They stopped short of anything that would actually get them thrown off the bus but still managed to make quite a lot of noise in their enthusiasm for trying to eat each other’s faces.
In a way it was quite sweet to see them get on the bus, their eyes shining in that special way that they do when you’re a teenager convinced you’ve met that one special person and that everything will last forever and no two people have ever been so connected et cetera, ad nauseum. But it kept me awake, which wasn’t favourite.
Out of Order
I had a little time to kill in Taunton, during which I discovered that the bus station toilets wouldn’t open until two hours after I’d caught my next bus. Better still a sign on them directed me to the very same toilets as an alternative that would be open. A superb piece of recursion that I quite failed to appreciate on account of biological imperative.
The Early Bird
Catches the Worm isn’t Valid
When I returned to the bus station, having successfully sought out another convenience, I found I was in a queue for the first bus (appropriately operated by First Bus) behind an old man who was sat patiently waiting.
The bus duly arrived and the Patient Pensioner discovered that his free bus pass wasn’t valid for another three hours. He took this well, shuffling off to do some more waiting.
‘I feel bad, now,’ the driver confided to me.
Queen Anne Statue
It was daylight when I returned to Minehead, but a grey, grim sort of daylight with a constant promise of rain. I disembarked in Wellington Square, near where I’d stayed on my last visit, and looked up at a marble statue of Queen Anne, surrounded by a Victorian canopy of a different kind of marble.
Her Late Majesty was looking quite regal and slim and not, for example, so immensely fat that her coffin was very nearly square.
The statue was sculpted by Francis Bird, who also worked on several decorative panels in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral.
As I wrote this, Wikipedia, taking its information directly from Minehead Town Council, claims that Bird sculpted it sixty years after his death as a gift to the town from former MP Sir Jacob Bancks, who was himself sixty-seven years dead when he donated it. Minehead Town Council may have meant 1719 and not ‘1791’ as per their site. Or else time travel was involved.
Even with a potentially time-travelling statue, it was still too early to be able to buy breakfast so I headed back down to the seafront.
There, I could see the wooded hill that I descended on my last walk. The same hill inspired Samuel Taylor Coleridge when writing Part the Seventh of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which begins:
This Hermit good lives in that wood
Which slopes down to the sea.
I could also see the current harbour, which was largely built at the expense of the Luttrell family, who dominated the area for centuries.
The first harbour was developed by Lady Margaret Luttrell in 1420 but by 1604 it had silted up and deteriorated sufficiently that James I rescinded the town’s charter, reverting it to a village under the Luttrells’ control. They then built the new harbour, which has endured.
Turning away from the harbour, I was confronted by the weird pavilion-like structure of Minehead Butlin’s, one of only three remaining Butlin’s holiday camps. This is the second one I’ve passed, the first being that in Bognor Regis. It’s always struck me as my idea of a holiday hell.
Minehead’s concrete promenade wasn’t the prettiest or most exciting path on which I’ve begun a walk but it wasn’t part of Butlin’s and that transformed it into something wonderful merely through the power of contrast.
The promenade soon ended and I found myself on a pebbly path at the top of the beach, surrounded by lots of bright flowers although I have no idea what they were.
Ahead, the Quantock Hills loomed alarmingly out of the mist, looking like an insurmountable barrier except that I knew I was basically sneaking past their end later on. To my left, was a vast expanse of mud and sand thanks to low tide. To my right were the Brendon Hills, which looked rather kinder and more rolling than the Quantocks although they’re not dissimilar in height.
Dunster Beach used to be the site of Dunster Haven, a harbour from Saxon times until the seventeenth century, when drainage and land reclamation turned it into meadows.
Half a mile inland was Dunster village, listed in the Domesday Book as ‘Torre’ (meaning ‘tor’). The current name may be a direct derivation, being basically Dunn’s Tor, Dunn being a Saxon who held local land before the Conquest.
After the Conquest, Dunster, Minehead and much of the area belonged to the De Moyon (or De Mohun) family, who then sold it to the Luttrells.
Dunster Castle was built by the De Mohuns and proved its worth as a stronghold. During the Anarchy, the twelfth century civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda, the De Mohuns sided with Matilda and Dunster was unsuccessfully besieged by Stephen’s forces.
The De Mohuns sold it to the Luttrells in 1376, although it was briefly confiscated from them during the Wars of the Roses (they supported the Lancastrians, a choice not popular with the Yorkists Edward IV or Richard III).
When the English Civil War broke out in 1642 the Luttrells supported Parliament and resisted a Royalist attack before deciding that it might be an idea to swap sides (the West Country was mostly Royalist apart from Bristol and Plymouth; Bristol was captured for the King in 1643). This proved disastrous when the Royalist army crumbled in 1645 and Dunster was besieged by Parliamentary forces under Robert Blake.
George Luttrell had no choice but to surrender and allow the government to slight the castle although he managed to persuade them to keep the main building s habitable while they pulled down the defensive outer walls.
The path into Dunster Beach had crossed the River Avill, a small stream rising in Exmoor. The path out crossed an overspill channel for the river, created to keep it small and to stop it flooding and washing away Dunster’s fifteenth century bridge. Only a small volume of water was flowing from the sluice that fed the channel.
Blue Anchor Bay
West Somerset Railway
After Dunster, the West Somerset Railway ran close to the path. This was one of the many lines cut on Richard Beeching’s recommendations in the 1960s but was reopened in 1976 as a heritage railway running steam trains.
At 22¾ miles, it is the longest of Britain’s heritage railways. As befits a heritage railway, it was using old-fashioned semaphore signals.
Path and railway both headed to Blue Anchor, a village named for a seventeenth century inn. The station isn’t particularly close to the inn of that name (which has seen better days) but inbetween them I managed to find a shop — near the entrance to a caravan park — and thus replenish my water and chocolate supplies.
The path out of Blue Anchor became a green, leafy woodland affair, which I always like. There were some gentle undulations but nothing too strenuous, the path climbing above cliffs that — had I been able to see them — would have shown an oddly greenish-blue hue. This comes from natural alabaster and became known as ‘Watchet blue’ in the sixteenth century.
Arriving In Watchet
Soon enough, the path left the woods and joined the B3191 on its approach into Watchet. Although road signs specifically warned cars of ‘walkers in road’ it was a bit hairy and a very nice man suggested I use the private road that he was pulling out of in order to cut an otherwise blind corner. I thus arrived in Watchet with my life and limbs intact.
Watchet sits at the mouth of the Washford River and is said to be where St Decuman died.
St Decuman is another obscure Welsh missionary to the West Country who arrived in the area only to get himself beheaded by a pagan local. The saint is then supposed to have put his head back on and carried on as if nothing had happened. The local church is dedicated to him; it is Grade I listed and dates to the fifteenth century.
Tea and Coughy
I paused for a rest in Watchet and found a café in which to enjoy a cooked breakfast and a cup of tea. A little old lady in there with her friends confidently predicted that it would rain within half an hour based on the nature of her cough. Her confidence turned out to be misplaced.
After breakfast I looked at the harbour, which was once the site of what was probably the only ever capture of a ship by a mounted troop of cavalry.
The ship in question was carrying Royalist reinforcements for the siege of Dunster Castle but the ship was caught by the ebb tide and stranded in the shallows, allowing a troop of Parliamentarian horse to wade out and force its surrender.
The current harbour has been rebuilt since then, a storm having washed away the original jetty in 1659.
Ancient Mariner Statue
A statue on the quayside is of an ancient mariner clutching a dead albatross, erected to honour Coleridge’s writing of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner while travelling through the town.
I availed myself of the chance to buy more water and a sandwich in one of Watchet’s shops and consequently just happened to be passing the station as a steam train left.
The Road to Doniford
The path out of Watchet to Doniford was in fact the road. This was fine until it left the town, after which there was no pavement so pedestrians had to share the carriageway with cars. The road looked straight on the map but was actually a series of blind bends with high hedges and I got to play ‘spot the local’ (is aware of possible walkers and knows how to handle blind bends) and ‘spot the tourist’ (thinks speed limits are optional because there aren’t cameras everywhere).
To be fair, the locals had the advantage of local knowledge, including having a clue as to what the road signs might say if they weren’t so shy:
The road carried me to the tiny hamlet of Doniford and a bridge over the railway line from which I could see Doniford Halt; the only new station built on the West Somerset Railway since it opened in 1976.
The Road from Doniford
The A39 was full of speeding lorries and I was very glad that it reached West Quantoxhead almost immediately. This gave me a short run of pavement and then the path joined the Quantock Greenway, a footpath running next to, but not actually on, the road. That was a brilliant development
West Quantoxhead is a small village at the end of the Quantock Hills. It is also known as St Audries, its church being dedicated to St Æthelthryth (also known as St Audrey). In the Domesday Book it was listed as ‘Cantocheve’ and belonged to William de Moyon.
Quantock Greenway & Other Paths
While I was relieved not to be walking the A39, I was mildly concerned that the footpath veered southeast as it left West Quantoxhead since the coast was veering northeast. Still, it was free of lorries even if it was wet underfoot — recent days of rain had fed a lot of small streams, some of which were using the path as the path of least resistance.
At this point, the West Somerset Coast Path (which I was following), the Quantock Greenway and the Coleridge Way were all the same path, which undulated as it made its way along the side of West Hill.
Just as I was starting to worry that I’d missed an exit and would end up in Holford, I found my path north, which was even more of a path-turned-stream than the others. Merrily, I splashed my way down to cross the A39, at which point the heavens opened.
The rain was two and a half hours late, if we’re going by the Coughing Lady forecast.
On the far side of the A39, sat in a field having a tea break and impromptu picnic were an elderly couple to whom rain was no deterrent. I left them to it and made my way into East Quantoxhead, where I didn’t get to see its Grade II* listed Church of St Mary (fourteenth century with a seventeenth century pulpit) on account of it being swathed in scaffolding.
Other things I didn’t get to do in East Quantoxhead were stop for a cup of tea and a slice of cake (the tea room was closed) or feed the ducks (the duck pond was drained). I did get to overhear someone regaling two friends with a duck pond related anecdote or part thereof.
‘And he was throwing the bread to the ducks with one hand like this,’ he was saying, ‘and holding his keys in his hand at the same time…’
I think we can all guess where that story was going.
I, meanwhile, was going to Quantock’s Head, the headland at the end of the Quantock Hills. There, I sat in the light drizzle eating my sandwich and looking at the strata in the low cliffs and platform cut by the waves.
Along the Coast
It was mostly a clifftop path beside open fields for the next four or five miles.
In the distance I could see the big, square, blocky structure of Hinkley Point nuclear power station while, looking out to sea, I could see the dull grey smudge of Wales hiding amid poor visibility and, slightly nearer, the equally dull grey shape of Steep Holm, an island in the Bristol Channel. It may have been damp but it felt pretty peaceful.
Lilstock RN Air Range
The control tower at Lilstock is not a coastguard watch tower but is in fact an air traffic control tower for coordinating naval bombing practice by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. Most days it is locked up, lonely and silent but some days each year it is fully manned as RN helicopters storm down the Bristol Channel blowing merry hell out of things.
Well, I say ‘blowing merry hell out of things’; actually they use inert ordnance but that doesn’t sound half so much fun.
Lilstock itself is a tiny hamlet, recorded as ‘Lulestock’ in the Domesday Book. It appears to have once been the port of the Saxon settlement of Stogursey (a village some 2 miles southeast).
A stone pier was built in 1860 to create a proper harbour but was then washed away by ‘a freak wave’. There is no sign of a harbour now, just a beach and an outlet for a stream.
The Right Path
There was also an angler stood on the beach who watched me miss where the path headed inland, so that I went the wrong way and ended up on the beach. Then he watched me walk back the other way, saying nothing each time. A walker coming the other way had plenty to say however, when I asked him (just to be sure) if I was back on the path.
‘Oh yes,’ he told me, ‘and good job too. If you’d taken the path to the left you’d have ended up on the beach with no way on but to start swimming.’
Now that I was on the right track, more fields followed and better views of Steep Holm and Hinkley Point power station.
Steep Holm is an island belonging to Somerset. Now uninhabited, it was previously occupied by a Palmerston fort as was the nearby Welsh island of Flat Holm.
The sixth century saint, cleric and historian Gildas is said to have lived on Steep Holm and visited St Cadoc, who was living on Flat Holm as a hermit.
Gildas wrote of the Battle of Mount Badon, a British victory over the Saxons often attributed to King Arthur, although Gildas wasn’t clear who led either side. He also wrote approvingly of British war leader Aurelius Ambrosius while castigating several British rulers for their sins. One of these was King Constantine of Dumnonia, the British kingdom that once included what is now West Somerset, along with Devon, Dorset and Cornwall.
Nuclear Power Station(s)
Hinkley Point is home to two nuclear power stations: Hinkley Point A was a Magnox Reactor and is now closed (operated 1965-2000) while Hinkley Point B is an Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor commissioned in 1976 and currently operated by Electricité de France (EDF). There is also a proposal to build a third station, Hinkley Point C although the government has yet to announce its final decision, which is due in the next few months.
I was just thinking that I was making good time and would be soon passing the power station when I found the path blocked off and a long detour away from the coast and around the power stations, adding a good two miles to my walk.
The reason for this was construction work preparing the ground for Hinkley Point C. It seems that even though the government has not made its decision yet, EDF have still secured planning permission and various necessary powers in order to prepare the site for when they get their expected ‘yes’. I guess that either means a decision has been made, of sorts, but not announced yet, or they’re risking a ton of money on a project that might not happen. They’re on a pretty safe bet, though — we need the power and even if we didn’t, EDF is underwritten by the government of France.
Whether nuclear power stations in the UK should be built, owned and operated by a company the majority of whose shares are owned by the government of another country is an interesting question in itself.
Wind Farm Forbidden
Amusingly — in a dark sort of way — while the construction of Hinkley Point C looks sure to go ahead, planning permission for the building of a wind farm at the site was ruled out because it’s too dangerous. Which sounds wonderfully ludicrous.
A little investigation reveals that the danger of which the council was afraid was actually that a turbine blade might shear off in the high winds that make it an attractive site for a wind farm. More specifically, they were concerned that a wind turbine blade might shear off and hit the nuclear power station, which really wasn’t built with Sudden Windmill Attack in mind.
Security Van Man
I took a photo of the detour — or so I thought, I actually took a photo of some rain on my camera — and headed off along the detour by the fence, shadowed by a security van moving about ten feet behind me.
I got fed up with this less than surreptitious surveillance after about a hundred yards and turned round to bid Security Van Man a cheery good afternoon, which he wasn’t expecting. He freely admitted he hadn’t known what to make of me: he’d seen me taking pictures but didn’t think I looked like a walker (I use a bag with a shoulder strap not a rucksack, and I didn’t take my walking poles).
Once he’d decided I probably wasn’t a terrorist, anti-nuclear campaigner or an enraged local, his attitude brightened considerably and he was actually quite helpful regarding my detour options. He and his colleagues still watched me all the way round though.
An Enraged Local
Halfway round the detour, I met a local woman out walking her dog. She had some very choice opinions on EDF, who she felt had run roughshod over local opinion and who had been cavalier about closing footpaths but not so keen on setting up alternative routes. She was pretty angry.
I finished traipsing my way back to the coast, the detour meeting up with an official footpath that would prove to be a bit of a warning. Let’s just say that Somerset County Council appears to believe that all you need do to designate a footpath is put up a sign with an arrow on it. If it’s waist high in vegetation and you really need a machete to traverse it then that’s your problem.
Also, good luck with the machete, the carrying of which will almost certainly contravene the Criminal Justice Act 1988.
Bridgwater Bay (Again)
The concrete path tool me to the hamlet of Stolford (meaning ‘stile ford’ from OE stigol and ford). The path now became something of a track, with reclaimed fields on one side and salt marsh on the other. Somewhere beyond the salt marsh was Bridgwater Bay, which contains the remains of a submerged forest dated to 2500 BC.
The Somerset Levels, with their backdrop of the Quantocks in one direction and the Mendips in another, put me in mind of Kent but with Cornwall as a backdrop.
The unmistakeable call of a cuckoo rang out as I traipsed along in the rain.
The path joined a road and took me to Steart, a tiny village about which I was unable to learn anything much.
Steart sits on the Steart Peninsula, forming the west bank of the River Parrett’s estuary.
A footpath — the Parrett Trail — runs down the side of the river and I now joined this, first following a muddy track through the levels before finally reaching the Parrett.
The Parrett Trail was a grassy path atop the bank or dyke that kept river and farmland separate and I stood atop it considering how difficult it would be to cross the river with an army, given the wide expanse of treacherous, deep, soft mud.
An Ancient Border
The reason why this was even a consideration is that in 658, after a British defeat at the Battle of Peonnum, the Parrett became the border between Dumnonia and Wessex.
Certainly, it looks like a difficult terrain to cross with an army of Saxons and that’s before you factor in a lack of drainage and dykes which would make the Somerset Levels and Moors nothing but marsh for miles.
With my head full of such thoughts I made my way upstream, watching the village of Combwich get closer and closer.
Pronounced ‘Cummidge’, Combwich was the site of an ancient ferry crossing (but not a modern one, alas).
It was listed in the Domesday Book as ‘Comich’ and its name is a combination of ‘comb’, as in cwm or valley, and ‘wich’ (OE wic) meaning a trading settlement.
Combwich had a pub, called the Anchor, and I needed both a drink and a sit down. I had planned to walk 26 miles, which is about my limit, and thanks to the detour I had done 28. And it felt like it.
My problem now was that the nearest accommodation I had found was three miles away, just south of Cannington. I really didn’t want to walk three more miles.
I had just about raised the energy to start slowly plodding, when a local running club ran into the pub car park, dripping equally with sweat and rain. On a sudden whim, I hopefully asked if they knew of a local taxi firm and was bowled over by the answer I got which was that one of them would give me a lift. He also offered to give me a lift back in the morning if I wanted it, and advised me the best route to walk if I didn’t. It was an instance of pure generosity and it perked me right up.
I didn’t know quite what to expect from where I was staying. I had tried to book a room in an inn but it was full, so they had booked a room for me on a nearby farm. It turned out to be a beautiful early Tudor farmhouse and quite the most awesome place in which I have ever stayed.
This was cemented when the owner, having shown me to my room, offered to go and make a cup of tea because I seemed to need one. I had tea and coffee facilities in the room but no, off she went, coming back with a teapot and cup on a tray along with two slices of chocolate cake. Just because.
I slept like a log that night, tired and happy with thoughts of accomplishment and of the kindness of strangers.
This time: 28 miles
Total since Gravesend: 944½ miles