A Merry Christmas to one and all! My own festivities don’t begin until later in the day and so, I find myself with some time on my hands. It’s been hard committing to sit down and write here recently with so many other ‘important’ things going on that have needed attending to but I feel that beginning to ease this morning and I’ve decided that now is a fine time to sit down and write about my walk on the eve of the Winter Solstice.
If not to the Mendips then, where else could I go but to the Quantocks? 🙂
This wasn’t ever intended as being one of those 16-20 milers that I was doing back in the summer. There’s less daylight available at this time of year and I’ve been very slow at getting up on Saturdays recently. I was also suffering with a cold (my first proper one of the year) but that wasn’t going to stop me from getting outdoors.
That was all I craved; the freedom to breathe and to experience the Quantocks under a different climate.
It began in Holford; a village I’m becoming overly familiar with, having started walks from this point on three previous occasions in 2014. But for where I walked in a clockwise direction around the hills then; this time, I decided to try and anti-clockwise route, with an initial climb through and up out of the combes that border the northern line of the hills.
Much of this route was going to start of very familiar, albeit in a mirror-image to what I might have seen on at least one prior occasion.
Before this year, I’d not considered that the Solstice might actually define the beginning of winter. We had some cold patches in November and I’ve seen photos of snow much further north. But down on the Quantocks, there was a lot of brown and orange holding on for the final day of autumn.
Does this also mean that the Summer Solstice, in the latter half of June, marks the starting point of summer?
Leaving Holford, I continued westwards along a route that is marked as both the Quantock Greenway (North) and also the Coleridge Way – each time I found a waymark post, I made an effort to capture each QR code with my smartphone. However, I had to wait until I could return home (with a reliable data connection) before I could scan and decipher each one.
In any case, I think that Christopher Jelley’s Story Walks are withdrawn from the wild before the colder months arrive. But I can always look again in the spring.
I’d wrapped up almost as if I was preparing to brave the Arctic Circle but as far as December weather goes, this was almost a mild day. The sun broke through on regular occasions. There was no serious threat of rain. But a cold wind burst south from the coast each time I found myself devoid of vertical shelter.
There aren’t many combes I’m too familiar with on these hills and I’m not going to be investigating them all at this time of year. But Smith’s Combe was as delightful as ever to walk through. Water runs down and beneath your feet but it’s not at all like the marshland-esque experience I was half-expecting.
Instead of climbing up this combe and towards one of the highest points, I continued along the lower edge, following Perry’s Combe past the plantation and in search of the deer park.
Entering the photo below from the right-hand side, I could only see one further path uphill and to my left. To the right and a short distance through the gate was the A39.
I was hoping to find a path directly opposite (left in the photo) that would take me around the northern edge of the deer park but I couldn’t see it then… Looking now, I think it may just be visible, climbing up the bank beside the fence but it wasn’t clearly signposted.
So, I began climbing a little sooner than expected and without a clear channel for the water to course along this time, it was spreading everywhere. This was very nearly wellie-walking territory!
As my feet found reassurance further up the hill, I realised I had walked this path once before – on my very first outing to the Quantocks, back in April. This hill was a killer back then and it seemed to continue only for at least an extra 10 minutes… I hadn’t done any walking prior to this one for 3 weeks so, I’m not sure why I found it so ‘manageable‘ on this occasion.
Glancing right to the deer park as I climbed, I passed one gate that was sealed with warning signs (‘No Admittance‘) while the act of tree clearing and deforestation could be seen without question. It didn’t look as though they were clearing the entire land but a large percentage appeared to have vanished from the centre, near the brow of the hill.
Moving around to the south-eastern entrance to the deer park (St.Audries), you could see that the only currently accessible paths were very clearly defined. Other signs warned of a risk to your safety and I was pleased to see an actual OS map affixed to the sign board – normally, the best you can expect in such an area is a colourless sketch without rendering and only the bare essential of footpath designation.
I decided not to enter the park on this occasion as it looked as though the path would lead me too far astray from my next destination:
I reached the trig point just as a small group of others were departing.
At this point, I could only recall having passed a couple of residents in Holford and one dog walker in the combe who even said himself that they always walk the same route and never see another soul. From one of the high points of the Quantocks, I could see that others were about after all.
It came as little surprise because there are often people to be seen or heard up on the higher parts and I thin it’s the same within any region. Where someone can drive and park their car, they will often take that option to their advantage. Less are as adventurous or determined as myself…
From here, I had a choice.
This wasn’t a part of the walk that I had planned in advance. All I knew was that I needed to get back to Woodlands Hill before dark and that I would like to try a slightly unknown route. This was quite exciting, as I’m comfortable navigating these high points without much guidance.
After passing both Bicknoller and Halsway Posts, I found a place to stop for lunch, on a stile that leads up to Hurley Beacon (Fire Beacon) from the north. It remained windy and exposed but I had a seat (of sorts), my bum was dry and it would be some distance yet before I could have found shelter.
Despite stopping for only ten minutes, I noticed a distinct increase in traffic passing by – horse riders, mountain bikers and a small family of walkers.
From here, I continued south slightly with an aim to turning east on on my way towards solid ground.
But as I passed the ‘main entrance’ to Hurley Beacon, I decided to climb the stile and take a look. Not only that but, for some reason, I ran, without stopping, to the cairn to be found at the top.
It says that there are over 100 monuments (including cairns and hillforts) just like this across the Quantock Hills. I feel like it would take an entire lifetime to find them all!
As I made my way towards a distant car park near Dead Woman’s Ditch, the quantity of water inland seemed to increase. Pools cropped up every few metres although, it has to be said, that conditions were not as dire as the bog I experienced on top of the Mendips a few weeks ago.
This road would lead me back in to Holford and it’s perhaps one feature of these hills that makes them feel so ‘homely‘ to me – there seems to be at least one narrow road at least every couple of miles. These hills remain accessible for all.
I only imagine that you could walk the Yorkshire Dales or parts of the Lake District, absent from signs of civilisation for days… Maybe one day I’ll get to find out for myself!
By now, I was in to the final hour of dalylight but there wasn’t much further to go.
I follow the road as far as Walford’s Gibbet and then took a familiar path that would lead me to the top of Woodlands Hill. This time, however, the path ahead was strewn with timid wild horses.
As I left the trees for a clearing, I could look left and up towards Danesborough hillfort to see a couple of stags looking back at me!
On the return to my start point, as I made my way down through the trees, I spied several more deer – although, this shot came out a little more blurry than the last.
That wraps up my final Quantocks walk of the year on what was very nearly the shortest day of 2014. From here, the days shall only continue to grow longer and I intend to keep getting outdoors, whatever the weather.
Thanks for reading and all the very best for 2015!