UPON waking in an enormous room in an early Tudor farmhouse (very early Tudor – it was built in 1486, the year after the Battle of Bosworth Field) my thoughts were, in order, ‘wow’ and ‘I’m hungry’.
The farm I had stayed at, Blackmore Farm near Cannington, now comprises bed & breakfast accommodation and holiday apartments, but dates back to the Domesday Book, in which it was listed as the manor of ‘Blachamore’. The farmhouse is therefore relatively new compared to the farm on which stands; it was built for Thomas Tremayle, Serjeant at Law (a now-obsolete type of senior barrister) who got himself knighted three years later.
For some reason, by about 1600 it had ceased to be regarded as a manor, merely as a rather splendid farm.
Blackmore Farm won an award from the AA last year for the ‘Best Guest Accommodation in England’ and I can see why.
I sat at the long table to be fed a sizeable breakfast while the gentleman opposite made intermittent small talk about the weather (it had rained all night) and the excellence of Blackmore Farm.
We were soon joined by two old ladies — they were by their own admission ‘born before the war’ — who were visiting their ‘aged aunt’ who must therefore have been at least ninety. The ladies moved their place settings further down the table so as not to disturb us with their chatter but then engaged us in lively conversation anyway.
In truth, they were sharp and engaging and I actually delayed my walk by half an hour because I was enjoying our chat. I learned that one still drove her Morris Minor (a car that ceased production in 1971), while the other commented that my experience with the security guard at Hinkley Point the previous day reminded her of her time at Greenham Common (she had presumably been a CND campaigner in the early 1980s).
Rain and a Ride
While we were talking, the heavens opened with sufficient force that the rain was bouncing four feet off the ground but fortunately this lasted for only about ten minutes.
Resigned to getting wet, I settled my bill and prepared to walk the three miles back to Combwich only to be told by the proprietor that her husband was due back any minute and that he’d be delighted to give me a lift.
So far as I could tell, she was right on both counts and he chatted merrily about various things as he drove including the proposed new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point. It was mostly strangers that objected to it being built, he told me; locals were used to having nuclear power on their doorstep.
River Parrett — West Bank
Mr Proprietor kindly deposited me outside the Anchor in Combwich, leaving me once again bowled over by the generosity of strangers. West Somerset has been by far and away the kindest and friendliest place I have walked through so far.
With the rain half-heartedly spitting I made my way back to the banks of the Parrett, which looked like a giant muddy scar tearing its way through the countryside. I considered again that this had been the seventh century border between the kingdoms of Dumnonia and Wessex.
The west bank of the Parrett is nominally the Parrett Trail. I say ‘nominally’ because Somerset’s attitude of ‘We put up a sign that makes it a footpath’ was clearly in evidence again.
The vegetation, a challenging mix of long grass, thistles, nettles, clover and other plants, varied from shin height to waist height most of the way as far as Bridgwater. Not only did this make me wish once again for a machete but also, thanks to the rain, it was all soaking wet. Five minutes after setting off. so was I.
It wasn’t long before my legs and feet had soaked through sufficiently that even my normally waterproof walking boots had given up and turned absorbent.
Cannington Brook Clyse
A mile and a half later, I came to a sluice (locally known as a ‘clyse’ or ‘clyce’) where the Cannington Brook meets the Parrett.
The Cannington Brook flows out of the Hawkridge Reservoir, which is fed by several Quantock streams, and passes through the Ashford Reservoir and the settlements of Spaxton and Cannington.
As I continued onwards the weather decided to demonstrate its repertoire, giving me an exciting variety show with imaginative combinations of wind, sunshine and rain. In the distance, I was able to watch smugly as what looked to be an enormous volume rain dropped on top of the Quantock Hills. And then, as I watched, it fell in front of the Quantocks. I knew what was coming next. And yet, twenty minutes later I was taking my coat off because the sunshine was warm.
My feet were still soaked though.
I was squelching merrily along when a roe deer suddenly leapt up out of the cereals growing in a nearby field and charged off into the distance like, well, a startled deer I suppose. I was pretty startled too. The funny thing is, if it had sat still I’d have passed within fifteen feet and never spotted it at all.
Gaunt’s Farm & Pawlett
The river meandered about quite a bit so that I was puzzled at one point to look up and find that the Quantocks and Hinkley Point (both visible in the distance) were not where I thought they’d be.
On the opposite bank, I passed first Gaunt’s Farm and then the village of Pawlett, which dates back to the Domesday Book. At one point the village had a landing point, Pawlett Pill, on a narrow creek off the Parrett. In 1475, the tenants of Gaunt’s manor were obliged to scour it in order to keep it navigable.
The pill has long gone; its creek is now part of a drainage channel or ‘rhyne’ (pronounced ‘reen’) with its mouth blocked by Canham Clyse.
The rain returned in earnest as I reached a sharp turn in the river opposite Dunball on the outskirts of Bridgwater. With the cold and the wet, the short distance into Bridgwater town became quite miserable and seemed to take forever. Huge buildings blazoned with the trading name of the Morrisons supermarket chain peeked over the top of trees. Wm Morrison Supermarkets plc owns a massive distribution centre in the town.
Bridgwater takes its name from OE brigg meaning ‘quay’ and Walter of Duai, who held it after the Conquest.
In 1202, William Brewer gained the lordship from King John and built both a castle and a friary. The castle was to see quite a lot of action for Bridgwater turned out to be something of a hotbed of rebellion…
When Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester launched his rebellion against Henry III in 1264 (the Second Barons’ War), the castle quickly became a rebel stronghold under the Mortimers. Then, when the barons rebelled again in 1321 (the Despenser War — a revolt against Henry III’s grandson, Edward II and his favourite Hugh Despenser), the Mortimers once again made it a rebel stronghold.
They had lost it by the English Civil War but that didn’t stop Colonel Francis Wyndham, a personal acquaintance of Charles I, from establishing a Royalist garrison there. When Parliament besieged it Wyndham’s wife, Lady Crystabella Wyndham, took a musket shot at Oliver Cromwell but missed and killed his aide de camp.
Parliament had the castle slighted after the war but Bridgwater wasn’t finished with violent dissent. Rebel troops in the 1685 Monmouth Rebellion fortified the town just prior to their defeat at the nearby Battle of Sedgemoor.
In addition to being full of treachery and rebellion, Bridgwater has long had a history of manufacturing and trade. It has been home to industries producing goods as diverse as cloth and cellophane and its town centre shows some of its past wealth. In particular there is the Corn Exchange built in 1834 and extended in 1875, which incorporates part of the 1791 market hall.
Near to the Corn Exchange stands the statue of Robert Blake, Parliamentarian General and General-at-Sea (as the Commonwealth of England called its admirals).
Blake is probably the most impressive admiral England ever had, even more so than Nelson, with victories against the Dutch, Barbary Pirates and Spanish and then becoming the chief architect of English (and British) future naval supremacy.
Parliamentarian heroes were not exactly flavour of the month after the Restoration however and poor old Blake was largely forgotten. But not in Bridgwater (ooh, those rascally rebels!), where they not only have a statue but a museum and seemingly quite a lot of pride in their (should be more) famous son.
Cake and Crosswords
I sat in a café in Bridgwater, eating cake and wrestling with the Times crossword while I rested and dried out (the latter assisted by my quietly removing my boots and stuffing them with the rest of the newspaper in order to absorb the water.
When I went outside again, the rain had stopped and the sun had come out and the pavements were already dry.
The path out of Bridgwater was less than exciting, taking the form of the A38 dual carriageway.
All in all the A38 was soul-destroyingly boring except for two unexpected bright spots. One was a 1930s art deco office block apparently called Crypton House and the other, as I reached Dunball on Bridgwater’s outskirts, was this:
Just after the sign I passed the sluice where the Kings’s Sedgemoor Drain — an artificial river built 1791-5 to divert the River Cary and help prevent it from flooding — ends. I took an excellent photo of my finger while pointing my phone in the river’s general direction.
I was now in Dunball, the only part of the old Port of Bridgwater to remain in commercial operation, which is to say it has one quay which ships sand and other stone-related products.
This meant that, as I picked my way past the otherwise derelict wharves and warehouses, I was being blasted with a localised sandstorm as a stiff breeze picked up the sand and tried to skin me with it. Coupled with the bright sunshine, it made for brief, unexpected and entirely surreal miniature desert experience.
River Parrett — East Bank
Not far from Dunball, I passed the first of many pillboxes that had stared across the river at me on my way upstream. This part of the country had a series of defensive lines built, linking with the ‘Stop Line’ — a chain of pillboxes and earthworks that stretched from north coast to south.
Whether they’d have had any effect on an advancing Wehrmacht is open to discussion but there are certainly enough pillboxes that have survived to this day.
I couldn’t help but find it oddly amusing that the pillbox was defending the old Saxon bank against invaders assumed to have landed on the old Dumnonian side. Especially when you consider that some of the Wehrmacht soldiers would also have been Saxons, hailing from Saxony.
The path down the east bank — the bank not designated as the Parrett Way — was considerably easier going as it was short grass almost all the way, except where it turned into a farm road, which was even easier than that.
Its public footpath credentials were somewhat marred however by a number of stiles which involved one step board and then a high enough fence that it had to be climbed and not stepped over. But these were still better than a couple of fences I found, where the main gate was padlocked and there was no stile at all. I got quite adept at climbing over fences by the end of it.
Cows — Calm, Cowardly and Curious
Several fields contained herds of cows, which treated me to a variety of reactions. Most ignored me completely. One lot, which was particularly flighty, all ran away at first sight. Another got up and came over to take a good look.
They weren’t threatening, merely curious, but even so cows are pretty big when they’re only a few feet away. These cows followed me slowly right across the field, carefully maintaining a distance slightly longer than my arm.
Riverside Waypoints Revisited
I passed by the village of Pawlett, where the path diverted around a house on the riverbank. The village was classified as a ‘defended locality’ on the Taunton Stop Line, which helped explain all the pillboxes. It was also the site of a wartime experimental research station, which was looking into the best way to bring down enemy barrage balloons.
I also passed by Gaunt’s Farm, which had one of the fences that needed climbing over. And then, not long thereafter, I found myself looking back across at the sluice gate of Cannington Brook.
Sheep Will Be Sheep
Just past Combwich, I encountered a field of sheep, which made a nice change from the cows.
Most of the sheep were off to my left at the water’s edge, while a handful were in front of me and one or two to my right. As I approached, the sheep on my right took fright and legged it, charging off across the field. The sheep on the path in front of me followed their flockmates to my right. And then, sheep being sheep, all the others followed them too.
The net result of this was that, in order to escape from me, almost the entire flock climbed onto the path and paraded itself before my eyes. Sheep that wouldn’t otherwise have been anywhere near me made a special effort to come almost within touching distance.
They’re special, sheep.
The Pawlett Hams
I was now making my way around the fields known as the Pawlett Hams (‘ham’ meaning enclosure’). Back in the twelfth century, these were assessed as being the richest 2,000 acres in England. They looked much like any other field to me.
Looking ahead, meanwhile, I could see the extraordinary flatness of the Somerset Levels and Moors with the isolated hill of Brent Knoll rising in the distance.
My next major obstacle was the Huntspill River, a long, straight artificial river dug in 1940 in order to channel water to an armaments factory at Puriton. It meets the Parrett at a large sluice, upon which the path snakes around the back of a hut set on top of it.
Just before I reached the Huntspill, however, I passed a couple of bright round signs, hand-made by writing in permanent marker on round plastic lids of some kind.
‘If cattle are thought to be stuck in mud please tel. [number], not the fire brigade. Thanks,’ they read. This suggest that that happens, if not a lot, then often enough to be annoying.
The River Mouth
I was getting tired now and was more-or-less ready to reach my destination and sit down. As I approached the mouth of the Parrett, I passed Steart on the far bank and could see Burnham-on-Sea ahead.
Unfortunately, between me and Burnham-on-Sea, which is where I was staying, lay the mouth of the River Brue. I was thus forced to turn inland and head upstream to Highbridge, where I could cross it.
Highbridge has been occupied since Roman times. It has possessed a bridge since the fourteenth century though I actually crossed over an impressive early Victorian sluicegate (‘the Clyce’), which is all that remains to mark that the town was once the seaward end of the Glastonbury Canal.
From there I made my way into the centre of town and sat down near a clock and an old (disabled) water pump.
Heading to my Hotel
When I felt ready, or at least as ready as was possible, I set off on the two mile walk back downstream to Burnham-on-Sea.
There I was staying in what had been the town’s first hotel. It was certainly cheap and cheerful. My small and very basic room was costing me exactly the same as my night at Blackmore Farm and, to be honest, it fared pretty badly by comparison. But then, in all fairness, pretty much anywhere would.
This time: 20½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 965 miles