Today has been a day off from walking and, under all-too-familiar circumstances for 2014, the weather is largely to blame for that. There’s also the fact that my boots are still soaked from last Sunday’s walk around England’s smallest city! But for its minority and the synonymous cathedral; on a personal level, Wells is going to become somewhat of a milestone for me, as it marks the starting point of a 30-mile long slog I’ve signed up for, following the West Mendip Way back to Uphill on Sunday 1st of June.
This is yet another that can be found in and amongst the Walk West series.
With all the rain we’ve endured so far this year (particularly in parts of Somerset only a few miles to the south), I selected this route as a walk that was likely to cover more dry ground than most others in these books. For one, it starts in the centre of the city, leading you through the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace. I was half-expecting to have to pay a fee to walk through here (it is very grand) but I’m pleased to report that is simply not the case. This is a space that can be enjoyed by daily dog walkers and tourists alike.
I was so confident in being able to locate the car park that I didn’t plan the car journey as I might do for many other walks. I’ve walked close to Wells and through Wookey Hole before; I’ve driven out to Shepton Mallett… So, I was rather shocked when I arrived in the first pay-and-display site that I came across, to discover that it was going to cost me almost double the £2.70 as quoted in the text of this walking guide… I parked in the wrong place and, setting off from my car on foot, I left it up to my sense of direction to lead me towards the Market Place. Priory Road was the only street name ahead of me and it didn’t appear to be stated on the supplementary street map… Using my nogging, I keep my eyes open and my head high, looking for the peak of the cathedral and, well, I got where I needed to be without having to sweat!
Following the moat that surrounds the castle grounds, you cross a road before ascending up Tor Hill, which is looked after by the National Trust. While the palace grounds are spectacular in their own right, you only have to look the other way to witness the delights of the Somerset countryside.
Leaving the woods, I was greeted with my first seriously muddy stretch, which would then set a precedent for the remaining 8 miles to come.
I believe I was following the East Mendip Way by this point – at 19 miles long, I’m considering walking this as a warm up for the trek to come in June… I haven’t yet figured out how to avoid walking another 19 miles on the return stretch!
But my route required a diversion that meandered around the perimeter of a golf course, before descending sharply through woodland, to emerge beside a stream and what has to be one of Britain’s largest stone stiles!
Now, I was following the trail of a permissive cycle path (I’d never heard of such a thing). Sadly, I didn’t get to cross the slab on this occasion but the walk ahead was welcoming with its dusty gravel, not to mention the blue skies overhead.
Crossing another road and through a pair of gates (one large, one small), I was gradually heading in to a combe that follows a river north, leading me to access Pen Hill, which is famed for housing a giant TV transmitter.
As Geoff states in his guide; this looks to be about 2 miles long. Taking in to account my average walking speed, I anticipated that I would emerge out the other end in about 30 minutes. When you’re walking alone on ground that becomes increasingly saturated, every footstep is felt, as each second seems to pause before making way for the sequential arrival.
After passing the former lime kiln, I decided to cross the first footbridge I noticed but, when I realised I was heading away from the water, it struck me that I was meant to continue ahead and so, I returned to the wetness.
By now and thanks to some divine or miraculous intervention, my toes were still dry inside my worn boots. Up ahead, I could see the width of the river increasing. Any footpath I was supposed to be following, well, I don’t think it was supposed to lead me over leaning tree trunks and up along mud verges but I did everything I could to avoid the running water in the pressing hunt for a circular stone structure that would indicate a junction where I would need to continue along a different path.
In my head, I knew that it would’ve been wise to have turned back, walked back across that stone footbridge, to have re-climbed the hill with abandoned vehicles and to have plodded on along tarmac.
But I was defiant and, as it would soon turn out, rather daft in my persistence. As the footpath vanished and a second stream of water intertwined with my guide, that was it; any feelings of warmth and comfort between my toes was about to be stricken from my soles.
After having dashed, jumped, slipped and burst my way past much of the overgrowth to get this far, I spotted a second crossing, with dog walkers casually strolling downhill from my right. But a wooden sign urged me to continue ahead in order to reach Pen Hill. Again, I should’ve listened to my conscience and take a diversion as it wasn’t going to get any drier up ahead.
It felt like I was late in reach the stone structure, above. In fact, it was almost as if I had missed the intended sighting and that this was a secondary spotting not identified within Geoff’s instruction… I’m sure you can see the hand-rail of a footbridge just slightly beyond in this photo. What I failed to notice at the time, was that it was a footbridge leading me to the right path leading up to a major road and Pen Hill.
So, where did I end up?
Well, I continued following the river. I knew that, for the majority of this stretch and, for however many fractions of an hour I continued to struggle across presumably private land; there was no longer a footpath to follow. Sounds of passing traffic had been absent for some time. You know you’re going wrong when you’re clambering beneath a barbed wire fence in desperate search search of ‘the other road‘. Then, I sighted what I had hoped was a wooden sign; stating the prohibition of fishing within the area… But as I leaned over the cross-fence to take a closer look, there were no words to decipher; only the image of a chicken, carved out of wood… Then, two more were spotted, only a few yards away…
“Hello? What you doing, sir?” I heard, as a rotund figure made his way down the hillside towards me.
In a mix of panic and frustration, I responded “I’M LOST!” There was no other way to explain myself.
I feared he was an errant landowner ready to take action against me but, worse than that, he warned me that I had crept on to a firing range (hence the wooden chickens). That was when I noticed the rifle at his side. I saw a fright within his eyes greater than the fear lying in the pit of my stomach, even after he told me of the other armed with shot guns, only further up the field. A part of me wanted to give up and to request that he simply put a bullet right between my eyes… I briefly contemplated what it might’ve been like to have been ‘accidentally‘ struck by the shell of a shotgun… Because I knew that back-tracking and trying to find the correct path wasn’t going to be easy.
From here now, I could see that the tower I was aiming for was now almost 2 miles away and to the west. I could blame a lack of waymarking but my judgement was poor. With a bit of trespassing and traipsing vacant fields nearby, I inadvertently returned to the point of the stone circle in seemingly less time that it had taken for me to almost get shot. As I stopped to breathe for a moment, that was when I finally noticed the footbridge and soon got myself back on the right track! As I climbed the hill, I could hear the roar of passing cars growing stronger. I didn’t fancy tip-toeing past another boggy patch, so I took an ‘off-road’ diversion, jumped a small wall and finally, after however-many hours, I was there, beside the A39!
That’s the path from which I was supposed to emerge. I wonder how differently I might have fared had I walked this route in reverse? Having crossed over the road and feeling all sorts of pain in my muscles, it was time to stop for lunch along the roadside wall. At the same time, I was fully aware that I had only 1 hour left on the parking ticket resting on my dashboard… But if I kept on pushing, I hoped that I could return only one hour late. There was always that chance that the parking inspectors wouldn’t look too closely, too soon.
This elongated trek around the transmitter was most unwelcome, for its many millilitres of mud. It can be as tiring as walking on sand. With heavy legs and a tiring body, I just wanted to give up.
This walk is only about 9 miles in length but for all the aches and pain I felt in the hours and days to follow, I must admit that it scared me. A sharp shock to my system, thinking of the Mendips walk that’s more than three-times this length… At least I don’t expect to get lost in June and I certainly won’t be walking (or suffering) alone either.
That was to be my last climb for a while and, when you’re up high, there’s only one way you can go and that’s downhill, towards the village of Wookey Hole. But not before passing a field level fields with spectacular views over southern Somerset, not to mention the submergence of the Somerset Levels.
Below, you can see the extent of the flooding that has plagued the Somerset Levels this winter, more so than any previous year on record.
To put this in to perspective… I would guesstimate that the length of this “river” is somewhere around five-times greater than the width of Chew Valley Lake! It is horrific.
Heading down the hill, I felt a great sense of familiarity as I’d walked around this area previously, with Ebbor Gorge set only in the opposite direction. Following the Monarch’s Way footpath, I arrived in Wookey Hole.
I knew I wasn’t far from Wells and with the clock ticking. Some of these paths were identical to ones I’d followed during the participation of a group walk last July, which began a little further north in Priddy.
After one final waterlogged field that really pushed my dehydrated limbs to their limits, I found myself returning through civilisation and across a school field before reaching the pristine streets of the city.
While I had horrendously lost my way back in the woods earlier, my navigational senses served me well following the unknown streets of Wells. This included an impromptu visit to a church but I did not pass by the grand cathedral on this occasion. Even if my legs could’ve carried me that far, I’d have felt embarrassed with the lashings of mud running up beyond my knees.
I was quite chuffed to have returned to my car only 55 minutes late and I am pleased with the quality of the photos from this walk, taken directly from my smart phone, without any doctoring.
Thanks for reading. Always be sure to pack an OS map, a compass and a spare pair of socks!!