BY MEANS of the time-honoured method of not actually going to bed, I was up bright and early on the last day of June and so caught the first available train back to Bristol. There I met up with ‘Alice’ and together we caught another train to Weston-Super-Mare.
Open for Business
The weather was sunny (albeit with rain threatened for later) and there were people about and shops open, which together made Weston an altogether more pleasant place that it had been a fortnight before. We availed ourselves of the shops to purchase foods one does not normally categorise as breakfast, which in my case meant a custard tart and some Turkish delight.
Munching merrily, we made our way to the sea front near to the optimistically-named Grand Pier, which was built in 1904 as a cunning plan to tempt paddle steamer passengers into town. The paddle steamers had been docking at the older Birnbeck Pier, at the top end of Weston Bay, and the passengers hadn’t been venturing any further into town than the end of the pier they had docked at. Given Weston’s subsequent growth as a resort, this ploy presumably met with some success.
The Grand Pier met with fiery destruction in both 1930 and 2008 but was repaired and rebuilt.
Glentworth Bay Marine Lake
We wandered along the seafront at a leisurely pace until we spotted what appeared to be a low bridge or raised path cutting off a little corner of seawater so as to make an area set aside for recreational purposes of some sort.
The pathway turned out to be atop a low dyke or causeway and the enclosed area was termed the Marine Lake, built in 1928 so that day trippers could paddle in what had been Glentworth Bay, no matter the state of the tide which goes out almost a mile at that point).
The causeways link the tiny tidal island of Knightstone, which was home to medicinal baths from 1820. Over the years it gained lodgings, a bandstand, diving stage, slides, boating, a music pavilion and a colonnaded walkway until pretty much everything was destroyed by a severe storm in 1981. It is now a shadow of its former self.
From the causeway we regained the mainland and stepped up onto the narrow and surprisingly quiet coast road, which winds around the headland that separates Weston Bay and Sand Bay. The road is actually an old toll road, and marked as such on maps, although no toll is currently collected. This may, however, explain its surprisingly light traffic.
A small island, Birnbeck Island, lies just off the headland, linked to it by an old and disused pier surrounded by old railway-style buildings, which presumably were linked to the old seafront tram network which ran 1902-1937.
Birnbeck Pier looked sad and derelict, as befits a disused pier. It was built in 1867 with the hope that day trippers arriving via paddlesteamers could be tempted further into town than just Birnbeck Island. Alas, they were not.
The pier and its attractions were ravaged by series of storms and finally closed in 1996. Although derelict, it remains a grade II* listed building, which means that its owners are obliged to spend a fortune preventing its further deterioration as best they can.
We followed the road around the tip of the headland, which is also the tip of Worlebury Hill, a wooded hill rising from sea level to 109 m with an Iron Age hill fort, Worlebury Camp, sited atop it.
Kewstoke Toll Road
We stayed near the bottom of Worlebury Hill, dodging traffic on a road dotted with speed limit signs saying ‘25’. This struck me as odd because they’re usually a round number such as 30, 40 or 50.
This unusual, low speed limit was no doubt prompted by the Kewstoke Toll Road’s appalling safety record. The fact that it is winding and frequented by buses and coaches, which often have to straddle both lanes to corner, that it has no safety barriers and that it sits above a cliff over a beach with a massive Bristol Channel tide range all help to ensure that it’s crashes are a frequent feature of local news. The speed limit is a deliberate attempt to keep people on the road instead of flying off it at a tangent.
For pedestrians moving between 3 and 4 mph the leafy road was quite pleasant but did involve dodging the odd bus. We kept this up for a while until Alice spotted a footpath running parallel to us but slightly further up the hill. She wondered if we could get to it and I espied a bus stop, which seemed likely to provide an access point. And so it did.
The path was broad and mostly level and entirely free of buses, which made it pretty easy going and quite pleasant. Leafy trees loomed over us and birds twittered away in their branches. We passed a series of large ramps of earth and sand forming a small circuit for kids with mountain bikes, although the kids were actually all sitting down, chatting and merely looking at them.
The path led us round Worlebury Hill and out of Weston Woods where we rejoined the road into the village of Kewstoke. Although technically a separate village, Kewstoke forms part of the same continuous conurbation as Weston-super-Mare, the two having run into each other over time.
There, we paused to enjoy tea and cake for our elevenses. The café at which we stopped turned out to have the best ginger cake I have ever eaten anywhere and some signs with kerning so bad that the typesetter should be shot.
Still, the ginger cake eased away all ills and frustrations and we looked out over the vista of Sand Bay and realised with shock we’d done less than three miles so far.
Choosing the Church Path
Our plan, which had the benefit of being very simple, was now to continue along the coast road along the edge of Sand Bay. It was a good plan but one which we abandoned.
As to why we abandoned it? It wasn’t because of any difficulty achieving it. There were no bars to our progress, no obstacles to deter us. No, we just got distracted. We had spotted another footpath on the map which appeared to be a church path and, for some reason I’m still not clear on, we both preferred to walk that instead.
It wasn’t a bad choice at all.
Fellow Devotee of Ginger Cake
So, having finished our ginger cake — and having reluctantly concluded that buying more ginger cake would be little more than gluttony — we prepared to set off.
We were immediately accosted by another customer who had just arrived with, as he told us, the intention to eat ginger cake. His purpose in addressing us wasn’t to agree about the amazing ginger cake, however, but to tell us where ice creams might be purchased along our route. We took due note of his information, for ice creams are an important food of walking, and than headed further into the village to find the Church of St Paul.
St Paul’s Church
St Paul’s Church in Keystoke dates from the twelfth century with a tower that was added in 1395; it is grade I listed.
A reliquary was found there in 1849, which was presumed to have been removed from nearby Woodspring Priory for safekeeping during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The relic contained in the reliquary purports to be the blood of Thomas à Becket.
The Church Path
A fairly ordinary suburban road led past the church and then past a playing field in which was a child’s slide cunning made to look like a dumper truck and this, for some reason, amused me greatly. The footpath led off from a corner in the road, squeezing past someone’s house and garden before becoming green and leafy.
The green and leafy woodland section of the church path didn’t last all that long because it soon broke out onto a flower meadow, whose floral beauty was only marred by a holiday park on its far side.
We marvelled at the buttercups and clover and various other meadow flowers and Alice admitted it wasn’t what she’d expected from a church path, insofar as she’d expected more path and less traipsing directly across someone’s field.
I, meanwhile, had expected a dead straight path that was probably badly delineated and only intermittently waymarked, drawing on my sole previous experience of such a path, namely the Zennor Coffin Path. I got what I expected, only prettier.
Sand Bay Beach
The church path, being straight as an arrow — you don’t want to negotiate corners while carrying a coffin — completely failed to avoid the holiday camp, thus maintaining the Kewstoke tradition of collisions. We used its access road to return to the coast, where we looked back towards Birnbeck Island and pier and noted how close it still was.
The tide was out, exposing over a mile of mud and making the sea look very distant. We ambled along a path parallel to the road, passing by the sand dunes (the sand was imported from elsewhere to form sea defences to complement a concrete sea wall in a rather more attractive fashion) and then through the upper zone of an area of salt marsh.
End of the Road
At the end of Beach Road, we were expecting to find a National Trust car park at which would be toilets and, according to the man in the café, an excellent purveyor of ice cream. We found the car park but the toilets were derelict and cordoned off (and fortunately not needed), while the only purveyor of ice creams was a fairly standard-looking commercial ice cream van. We decided to forego ice creams. The weather decided to rain.
A flight of steps and a wooded path led up from the car park to the fields atop Middle Hope, where Alice insisted on taking a photograph with me in it.
Admiring the View
We stood there for a while, taking in the view, while the skies above us rained intermittently and lightly.
Away to the southeast we could see that the rain on the Mendip Hills was of the more torrential variety and we may have indulged in some Scahdenfreude, although only after first assuring ourselves that it wasn’t heading our way.
Looking northeast, we could see along the Severn Estuary as far as the Severn Bridge. We could see it; my camera sadly could not.
Something else we could see, as we ventured along, was a large number of cows who reacted to us with the most common, and by far my most favourite, bovine response to walkers: utter indifference.
Something that didn’t react with utter indifference was an elderly man clad in a fluorescent yellow jacket and a cycling helmet. He had been wondering aimlessly about — so much so that we wondered if the cows had stolen his bicycle — but our levity was soon arrested when he made a bee line for us. His earnest conversation had that edge of desperation that suggested someone very lonely, coupled with a failure to recognise personal space that helped suggest why.
The man was a bit of an amateur geologist, and when I say ‘amateur’ I do, of course, mean ‘largely making it up’. He gestured excitedly at the cliffs of Middle Hope and proceeded to tell us breathlessly how this was ‘the only volcanic site in all of Britain’, which was very much untrue. It is true that Middle Hope’s origins are volcanic, but so are large tracts of Wales and many, many other parts of the island. Although not in his world, obviously.
Geology is Tough
He had a rock in his hand which we waved about and thrust under our noses, telling us it was tufa. Now, I’m not a geologist and I freely admit it’s one of those areas where my knowledge is pretty weak. Even so, what he was saying sounded a bit off to me. Tufa is a type of limestone so ‘this must be tufa, it certainly isn’t limestone,’ was probably not his most correct sentence of the day. Volcano man had confused tufa with tuff, a rock made from tephra (i.e. volcanic ash).
We nodded and smiled and did our best to escape the man while he did his best to try to bind us in deeper conversation. For one awful moment, I thought he was going to walk with us but somehow we managed to escape.
I felt slightly sorry for the lonely, barking mad Volcano Man but not nearly sorry enough to spend another minute talking to him.
St Thomas’s Head
The cow-strewn path led us along the length of Middle hope to St Thomas’s Head, where further progress is barred by an MOD base of some sort (and, beyond that, an inconvenient lack of land).
A vague trail led off to our right and we followed it, passing near the mouth of the River Banwell and down a hill leading back to the North Somerset Levels. On our right was Woodspring Priory, once an Augustine priory dedicated to St Thomas à Becket.
North Somerset Levels
Founded in the thirteenth century by a grandson of Sir Reginald FitzUrse (one of Becket’s murderers) the priory became a farmhouse after the Dissolution of the Monasteries and is now rented out as holiday accommodation by the Landmark Trust; it is Grade I listed.
Its barn, range, gatehouse and various other surrounding features date mostly from the fifteenth century and are also listed.
With the weather switching randomly between light rain and sunshine, we followed the path until it led us to a narrow road linking the priory with Weston, which we followed.
We followed the road until we found the turning for Collum Farm, near where, according to the map, a footpath led across a field. A handy signpost also suggested this. That turned out to be the only indication and, thereafter, nothing on the ground gave so much as a hint.
We found ourselves striding across grassy fields, searching for the way onwards. A woman walking the other way gave us some directions which were sufficiently lacking in detail that trying to follow them led to us coming to a full stop at a ditch.
‘Ah,’ we said. ‘That’s too wide to jump over.’ And so it was.
Escape to Ebdon
Undaunted however, I quickly reasoned that the farmhouse we could see ahead of us had to somehow connect with the field. We therefore followed the field boundary until we found ourselves a gate. This led onto a farm track that eventually led us to the village of Ebdon, where we set about looking for a pub.
The woman who gave us the ditchless directions had told us to turn right when we reached the road if we wanted to find the pub. This we did and went for some distance without finding it before giving up hand going the other way, hoping to find one elsewhere.
Acquiring further directions had us turn round again and go back down the right-hand path just slightly further than we had the first time. Along the way we passed Ditchless Directions Woman who cheerfully pointed out the pub.
A gin and tonic and a burger proved quite restorative.
Taking the Road Route
By now we were a little behind schedule and lacking confidence in North Somerset’s public footpaths. The next village to which we were heading was called Wick St Lawrence and while footpaths led there according to the map, we couldn’t see any sign of them on the ground.
We thus resolved to stick to the road, which hardly had any traffic, first crossing the late eighteenth century Ebden Bow Bridge across the River Banwell.
Wick St Lawrence
Wick St Lawrence lies near a creek with the memorable name of Slutspill and was heavily inundated by the Great Wave of 1607. It has a fifteenth century village cross which lost its actual cross in the mid seventeenth century, during the English Civil War. The cross is grade II* listed.
Icelton and Bourton
I had intended that we take a footpath across country to the hamlet of Bourton but, since the footpaths were not obvious and the road was serving us so well, we stuck with something that was working.
Unfortunately at about this point I started to feel quite unwell, as a combination of no sleep, recent insomnia and illness all combined to make me feel nauseous. Even so, it didn’t diminish from the general loveliness of the hamlets of Icelton and Bourton, about which I can find no information whatsoever.
Crossing the M5
Just south of Bourton, the road crossed the M5 motorway via a weak bridge with a weight limit of 7½ tons. Since neither of us weighed more than that, we stood on the bridge for a moment, watching the traffic pass underneath.
Beyond the bridge, we passed through the hamlet of West Hewish and over the Bristol to Exeter railway line before our quiet country road met the rather busier A370. Fortunately, being a main road, the A370 had proper pedestrian pavements.
Reconsidering the Plan
The plan from here was to take a turning to East Hewish and then a series of footpaths and roads to the village of Kingston Seymour, where the walk would officially end, followed by a two mile walk to Yatton, where the nearest station was.
By this point, however, I was feeling quite poorly and Alice had had enough of walking so I was giving some serious consideration to significantly changing the plan. This was tipped over into definite resolve when the skies suddenly opened with the kind of torrential downpour we’d earlier seen from a distance. One moment we were walking beside the A370, the next we appeared to be underwater. It wasn’t mere rain; that was obvious: rain has gaps between the drops.
The downpour was over fairly quickly but it left us utterly soaked to the skin, clothes clinging to our limbs, footwear squelching on our feet. Large puddles on the highway led to random drive-by splashing too.
Executing Plan B
Time for Plan B. This was to keep walking along the A370, changing sides at one point because the pavement was submerged, heading past the East Hewish and Puxton turnings until we reached a distinct right-hand bend in the road. There, a much shorter footpath led directly to Yatton according to the map. Given the number of footpaths wed not even seen, I wasn’t entirely convinced.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘If we pass under a power line it means we’ve gone too far.’
The Gang Wall
The quagmire that was the path led to bridge across the River Yeo plus a couple of bridges across drainage channels that required scrambling up banks of slippery mud in order to cross them.
It then plunged into some leafy woodland not represented on my OS map, forming a lovely, magical, straight leafy path that would have been absolutely delightful were it not ankle-deep in mud. This was the Gang Wall, a Mediaeval drainage bank built before 1382 to separate the drainage areas of Yatton Moor to its west, and Congresbury Moor to its east.
The Gang Wall seemed to go on forever, to the point where I actually started to wonder if we’d somehow found a different path. But then, at last, it suddenly crossed an off-road cycle route (Route 26, following the old Cheddar Railway Branch) and we found ourselves in Yatton.
Yatton dates back to at least early Norman times and there is evidence of nearby Roman and Iron Age settlement. It grew in the nineteenth century with the coming of the railway, being the location of a junction between the Bristol to Exeter line and the Cheddar and Clevedon branch lines (both branch lines closed during the Beeching Axe).
St Mary’s Church
Its church, St Mary’s, dates from the fourteenth century and is grade I listed; it is known as ‘the Cathedral of the Moors’ on account of its size compared to most village churches.
We made our way to the railway station which seemed to take a long time to get to, Yatton being spread out along the B3133. There we sat in a pub and rested, able to see the station but with no intention of using it; a mutual friend was coming to collect us and dinner in Bristol was to follow.
This time: 14 miles
Total since Gravesend: 995½ miles