LAST Thursday saw me attain my one thousandth mile since Gravesend, an achievement properly toasted with gin & tonic (one of the major food groups of walking, along with tea, bacon sandwiches and ice cream). I was joined in this endeavour by the man I previously referred to as ‘the Lemming’ although, on this occasion, he made no effort to fall off anything while I decided to give attempted plummeting a go.
North Somerset Levels
The Lemming and I met up at Yatton station, having cunningly coordinated our respective trains such that we arrived within minutes of each other. A late breakfast at the station café was considered and dismissed, not least because of the threat of heavy rain later: it made sense to make good use of dry weather while we had it.
We thus joined the B3133 and headed northwards towards Kingston Seymour, the village I’d intended to visit before Yatton last time.
We passed through the northern end of Yatton, known imaginatively as North End, where the pavement ran out. This could have been a problem since the B3133 was surprisingly busy but our route required us to turn off it onto an unnumbered local route named Lampley Road. It almost immediately conveyed us over a bridge that crossed little more than a mass of overgrown vegetation.
This was part of the old Clevedon railway branch, which split from the main line at Yatton. Or at least it did until the 1960s when a certain Richard Beeching killed it dead.
I’ve criticised Dr Beeching (later Lord Beeching) quite a lot since I believe his recommendations to slash the railways were deeply flawed and short-sighted. But in all fairness, they were only recommendations and Beeching did appear to genuinely believe what he was saying.
The actual decision to dismember Britain’s railways was made by Ernest Marples (Minister of Transport 1959-1964), who just happened to own 80% of the shares in Marples Ridgway, a construction company involved in road building.
This was too blatant a case of conflict of interest even for Parliament to stomach so he was compelled to sell the shares. Being a fine, upright gentleman and in no way dodgy at all he initially tried to sell them to a friend in a transparent ploy to enable him to buy them all back upon leaving office. When this was promptly forbidden by the Attorney General Marples sold his shares to his own wife. All perfectly above board then.
Marples then continued in much the same vein and ultimately fled to Monaco in 1975 after first having committed tax fraud on a massive scale (he allegedly owed thirty years’ worth of tax when he fled).
It’s good to know that it was a decision made on soundly economic grounds.
On the far side of the M5 we found Kingston Seymour, a small, quiet village through which we passed fairly quickly. Neither of us at any point almost fell in a ditch or pond full of duckweed, although we did notice how very easy it would have been to do so.
Historically, wading through Kingston Seymour would not have been unlikely. Quite apart from its inundation thanks to the Great Wave of 1607, when it was submerged under five feet of water for ten days (and flooding reached as far inland as Glastonbury), Kingston Seymour was often flooded up until the 1800s on account of sitting in the levels at more-or-less sea level.
Records indicate that the village was frequently stricken with ‘the ague’ after a flooding and, indeed, it would have been a perfect breeding site for malaria-carrying Anopheles mosquitoes. It still seems strange to think of England as having once been home to malaria; the disease was only eradicated here as late as the 1890s. What’s more, climate change and a fashion for reflooding wetlands may yet see it recolonise our shores.
Road to Clevedon
Neither I nor the Lemming contracted malaria during our visit that we could tell, and we quickly identified the right road we needed in order to leave the village.
A lengthy stretch of walking country roads followed, during which we had to dodge very few vehicles (a small Royal Mail van was one) and our travels were serenaded by reed warblers.
We decided against taking footpaths across fields, even though they would have shortened the distance, because the mud they were made of was sufficiently waterlogged that it was hard to judge if we’d need to be walking or wading. It was thus somewhat sooner than we had anticipated that we found ourselves crossing the Blind Yeo into Clevedon.
The Blind Yeo is an artificial channel constructed in 1949 to help alleviate flooding; it draws its waters from several rivers and channels, one of which is the River Kenn while another is the Land Yeo. ‘Yeo’ is an element in many river names in the area, deriving from OE ēa, meaning a stream or similar water feature, and is cognate with French eau.
I was all set to head into Clevedon along a main road but the Lemming pointed out a footpath that ran along the Blind Yeo to its mouth. This was a much better route to take, with its reeds and grasses and trees with surprisingly dead-looking leaves. It also meant that I reached my thousandth mile since Gravesend while looking out at the river mouth, as it meandered across an estuary of treacherous mud.
A footpath took us up onto a terrain feature known as Wain’s Hill, which was the site of an Iron Age hill fort. From there we slowly descended towards Clevedon’s sea front.
St Andrew’s Church
We passed on the way the rather lovely Church of St Andrew, which dates from the twelfth century and is Grade I listed. St Andrew’s is the final resting place of Arthur Hallam, the subject of the oft-quoted poem In Memorial A.H.H. by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, which is best known for these lines:
I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
’Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
Arthur Hallam was Tennyson’s closest friend and was himself a poet; he was only twenty-two when he died.
Just past the church was a lookout, built in 1835 by Ferdinand Beeston, a local timber merchant who later went bankrupt. A plaque reveals that the lookout was used in the mid nineteenth century by the Finzel family, sugar importers who watched the Severn Estuary for sugar ships arriving from the West Indies. It was restored in 2006.
Clevedon takes its name from OE cleve, meaning ‘cleave’ or ‘cleft’ and don meaning ‘hill’. It is listed in the Domesday Book as having eight villagers and ten smallholders; today it has approximately twenty-two thousand inhabitants.
It is notable for a particular style of pottery — ‘Eltonware’ after Sir Edmund Elton (1846-1920) — and for being the site of the first large-scale production of penicillin. It also has a pier.
The pier was built in 1869 for the then princely sum of ten thousand pounds. As is usual with such structures, it has since endured damage from storms (1899, 1910) and partial collapse (1970) — caused by stress testing for insurance purposes — followed by restoration (1984-6).
It is one of only two Grade I listed piers in the country, the other bizarrely being the burnt skeleton of Brighton’s West Pier. The poet John Betjeman considered Clevedon Pier to be ‘the most beautiful pier in England.’
The Lemming and I paused for lunch in Clevedon, having first promised ourselves that we wouldn’t lose a whole hour in so doing. One good lunch, several gin and tonics and a little over an hour later, we emerged from the pub with our schedule in tatters. The quinine in the tonic had fortified us against any risk of malaria, however.
Before leaving Clevedon we noticed this tree.
The route out took us past a high stone wall and in the shadow of an impressive building which I now suppose must have been part of Walton Castle in the suburb of Walton St Mary.
Walton Castle was built 1615-20 as a hunting lodge for local MP Sir John Poulett (Lord Poulett from 1627). Despite his Parliamentary origins, Lord Poulett sided with the King during the English Civil War, a decision which reversed his fortunes and cost him dearly.
The castle became derelict until it was purchased for the nominal sum of one pound in 1984 and then restored.
Path out of Clevedon
Something else that could do with a little restorative care was the path we were on. It started well enough…
…But soon reverted to type for the North Somerset footpath experience, being the sort of partly-overgrown path where carrying a machete would have significantly helped.
Even so, we kept to the path, declining such opportunities to head inland to a road as we were offered; the path was fun and slightly shorter but it was also slow going.
Taking a Trip
As the bank of the Severn Estuary rose higher, the path turned out to not have the most robust edge although its treacherous nature was partly hidden by the undergrowth. I found this out the hard way when I tripped over a root and put my foot half-on, half-off the outside of the path.
The mud immediately gave way beneath my foot and I tipped headlong forwards and sideways, pulled away from the drop into the estuary by off-balance centre of gravity — I habitually carry a satchel-like shoulder bag rather than a backpack and this is one of the reasons why. I was thus in no actual danger of falling in the water but I did somehow manage to tear up my shin on a patch of vicious soft mud.
Seriously. I struck soft and gooey mud with my shin and grazed it into a bloody mess. I have no idea how that worked.
Having established that I was okay, we pressed on down the path until we found a sidepath onto the shoreline next to a stream springing forth from a spring. There, I washed the mud from my hands while we tried to spot four tiny, fluffy ducklings which had been disturbed by our arrival. Their mother too seemed to be having trouble in locating them although they can’t have gone far; they will just have been hiding.
As fun as the path was we were both quite pleased when it finally spat us out into the suburbia of Portishead where we switched to walking the main road in search of a shop to sell us drinking water.
There was no such shop. The suburbia seemed to be endless.
Portishead is a rapidly growing dormitory town for Bristol (it’s also a 1990s band from Bristol but the band is named after the town). Its name means ‘port at the head of the river’ and is rendered as ‘Portesheve’ in the Domesday Book.
A fishing town until the nineteenth century, it then became more industrial gaining a power station and chemical works, both of which are long gone. It was also the home of ‘Portishead Radio’, British Telecom’s non-direct service for making phone calls to maritime vessels, a service made obsolete by INMARSAT. Being obsolete, this too has gone.
Portishead Branch Line
Something else long gone is the railway, the Portishead Branch Line from Bristol having been closed by the Beeching Axe. This may soon be reversed, however, as the commute into and out of Bristol by road follows one route (via the A369 and M5) which gets snarled up with traffic.
Some sixty percent of the line has already been reopened as a goods line, running between Bristol and the Royal Portbury Dock, which lies due east of Portishead. Plans to reopen the rest are in progress, with the first passenger trains since 1964 expected in Portishead by 2017. These plans are helped in that, unusually, the railway infrastructure mostly wasn’t torn up: even the tracks remain in situ although they will likely need replacing.
Eventually, in the very centre of town, we found a petrol station with a Waitrose shop where we bought water and other things. The petrol station is actually sat on the site of the old Portishead station; a new one will have to be built when the line is reopened.
Our route out of Portishead, after a brief rest, was initially along the A369, following signs for a National Cycle Route. This was signposted as route 26 on the signs but as route 33 on my OS map, which was printed in 2005.
Thankfully, the cycle route left the A369 at the first opportunity, carrying us through a rather pleasant and undoubtedly expensive suburb, with plenty of green spaces and a playground. This led in turn to what must be the old road to Portbury, a small country road with little traffic which crossed the old rail line via a bridge.
The road curved southwards, taking us into the tiny, picturesque hamlet of Sheepway before the cycle path left it, following a track of its own.
This was partly a good thing, as now we were safe from traffic and the road we had been on, though quiet, was also a bus route. But it was also disappointing as Sheepway had a certain charm.
Royal Portbury Dock
The cycle path started off as a path past a farmyard full of chickens and then through some woods before skirting the edge of the complex that forms Royal Portbury Dock.
Portbury itself is a village lying further inland which dates back to Roman times and was later held by Earl Godwin prior to the Conquest. The dock, meanwhile, lies at the mouth of the River Avon (Cornish avon / Welsh afon meaning ‘river’) and was built in the 1970s; it has the largest entrance dock of any UK port and handles mostly coal, aviation fuel and — most visibly — motor vehicles.
The path we were on led around a security fence that appeared to enclose a giant car park but, on closer inspection, all of the vehicles were new and without number plates, having only just been imported. It took some time to make our way past that car park; there were an awful lot of new cars.
Late Running on the Line
The Lemming and I were putting on a burst of speed now, as we looked to set to miss our planned train from Avonmouth (where our walk ended) to Bristol Temple Meads. That being so, there was one other train – half an hour later — that we could catch or we’d be missing our trains to Plymouth and London respectively.
The cycle path ran along next to the old railway line for a short while, although its temporary wayleave will have to be revoked when the line is reinstated. When this passed underneath a road bridge the lack of growth in its shadow revealed the hidden tracks:
We were now getting closer to the Avon, a significant obstacle which we would cross via the Avonmouth Bridge. This is a concrete road bridge built in 1974 mainly to carry the M5 across the river. Since pedestrians and unmotorised vehicles are not permitted on motorways, it was also constructed with footpath and cycleway on one side. It felt enormously high as we crossed it — sadly the only photo I took showed its railings more than the view — but turns out only to be 30 m above mean high water.
What County is This?
In crossing the Avon, we left Somerset and entered the City and County of Bristol, for Bristol is not only a unitary authority but is also a ceremonial county with its own Lord Lieutenant.
Bristol is England’s sixth most populous city and by far the largest city in the West Country. Originally, it was in Gloucestershire but its rapid growth and rise in importance saw it granted self-governing county corporate status in 1373, although it was still often counted as part of Gloucestershire by many.
The reorganisation of the English counties in 1974 put it in the newly created county of Avon, which incorporated parts of South Gloucestershire and North Somerset. Avon was never very popular however and became defunct just twenty-two years later, with Bristol gaining unitary authority status.
The part of Bristol in which we now found ourselves was Avonmouth, which unsurprisingly sits at the mouth of the Avon opposite Royal Portbury Dock. Avonmouth also has docks of its own — the first was built in 1877 — as well as industrial and residential areas.
WW1 Chemical Weapons
Avonmouth has the dubious distinction of being the centre of British chemical weapons manufacture in 1917, making twenty tons of mustard gas per day. The pressures of war and infancy of the industry led to 160 separate accidents and over a thousand chemical burns inflicted on workers at the plant. Ironically, the epic quantities of gas manufactured didn’t reach France until September 1918, just two months before the Armistice and thus saw limited use against enemy forces.
The Lemming and I made our way to Avonmouth Station (opened 1877) where we arrived with about ten minutes to spare. We duly caught our train to Temple Meads, being joined en route by a mutual friend with whom we had drinks and dinner.
Later, another train whisked me home to London.
1,000 Miles Celebration
The next morning, I was surprised to receive a kilo of Turkish delight in the post, courtesy of Alice, who had sent me one gram for each of a thousand miles. Om nom nom.
Measuring the Distance
I had originally expected this walk to be seventeen miles and we thought that our wild and overgrown walk had added distance. Actually, and non-intuitively given how it felt on the ground, we actually shaved half a mile off.
This time: 16½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,012 miles