Sunday 31st May 2015
My aim for this year was simply to complete the same distance, albeit with a little more confidence and less loss of direction along the way. I’d have been happy to have shaved fifteen-minutes from last year’s time. As our two coaches left Uphill for the centre of Wells and a 7.45am start, the grey skies were there to suggest that this wouldn’t be the best day for rushing about.
Beginning from the centre of Wells, it was quite similar to my experiences in 2014, with the exception of the fact that people were wrapping up in waterproofs! Most of the runners set off and away from the crowd; keen to complete the linear course in an unthinkably quick time.
I wasn’t far off the head of our herd of walkers early on and, as we neared Wookey Hole, there was a near-incident with a gathering of curious cows – this is where I learned that while some people are happy to run long-distances across mixed terrain, show them a farmyard animal and they’ll halt in their tracks! 🙂
We passed an optional checkpoint, with the convenience of public toilets near by. Soon after that, it was time to face the ever-gruelling climb up the never-ending steps of Ebbor Gorge.
At the end of July, I’ll be leading a walk through these parts and I’d just like to take the opportunity within this sentence to assure people that we will only be walking down these steps! 😉
From the very top and closing in on Higher Pitts Farm, we could look back to see the sky beginning to clear over the Quantocks.
From here on, it was more mist and persistent rain. We wouldn’t be climbing again for perhaps another hour, which was a relief for people like myself, wearing waterproof over-trousers.
Visibility was looking priddy poor as we made our way towards… Priddy.
This gentleman with the red backpack (below) would become my nemesis for the event.
We were pretty well matched for pace throughout the walk; overtaking one another every now and again. I remember losing him at a further check point, when I sensibly stopped for my lunch. I can’t quite describe the feeling a few hours later, when we both made eye contact as he was climbing in to his car, as I plodded on for those final steps, in anticipation of my latest medal.
Looking back as we neared Durson Drove, which would lead us towards the centre of Priddy, a second team of runners were making steady progress.
A little further ahead and a mass of us came to a stop. Waymarks clearly showed us the way but there was no visibility beyond 100m at best. Neither was there a clear footpath etched in to the ground.
I took it upon myself to be assertive and to lead the way forwards, before we eventually crossed over a road. Having walked the route a year earlier, I quickly gained the confidence of others and, even though I was a few degrees off in my trajectory, we were able to progress along worn paths.
There was another moment of confusion (not to mention a lack of waymarking) when we needed to turn left and descend the hill along a road and in to Draycott.
We correctly went left while a few others went right but we all made it to the check point at around the same time.
I’m quite certain that, on last week’s walk, the Draycott checkpoint, stationed right alongside the A371, was only optional, as I noticed a number of ‘cheaters‘ (rightly of wrongly) who took an alternate path behind trees that maintains height close to the ridge. Thus avoiding the inevitable and unforgiving climb that was to follow.
Walking downhill may sound simple but it can actually be quite tricky and painful on both your knees and shins. For this reason, I chose to jog down this road, alongside the man in blue, who a full-time runner in 2014. Within the final five-miles of the event, I tried this again but realised that it was then a bad combination of wet socks (which causes friction) and sore feet.
Batcombe Hollow lies at the heart of what I maintain to be the most challenging aspect of the entire Mendip Challenge. You begin climbing straight up the valley in the centre – and, sure enough, those unaware of the waymark pointing right will continue all the way to the top… But the West Mendip Way (the only public right of way in this direction) actually turns right to climb up, over and around the hollow.
Back at the checkpoint, I’d already removed and packed my waterproofs away. My walking stick helped but I never would’ve made it much further with all the added heat building up around me. Rain had already passed. It wasn’t quite sunny enough but a T-shirt and shorts were the way forward.
Above, I’m looking down over the hollow, less than halfway up the entire climb. You see, it’s a relentless and almost never-ending stretch that sees you heading for the top-left corner of a field… Even when you reach that gate or stile, you then have a little further to climb in the same direction! But after that, it begins to peter and level out as Cheddar Reservoir comes in to view.
Nearing Cheddar, it was only a little further ahead from here that I made my biggest error last year, while following and walking with a group of others, as this was one of the few stretches of the West Mendip Way that I hadn’t walked in advance.
Last year, we’d made the mistake of heading in to Mascall’s Wood and going off on a meander that took us down a dead-end path. This year and all alone, I was able to navigate my own way along the correct and intended route, eventually climbing up through Bubwith Acres Nature Reserve (I couldn’t even recall seeing that sign in 2014).
After all the exertion to get this far, I huffed and puffed my way up this hill, making several brief stops in fear of over-working myself. This was when Nemesis suddenly caught up behind me! I was certain I’d lost him in the fog back in Priddy?! From here on and down to the road that divides Cheddar Gorge, I would count the seconds between the sound of one gate closing behind me and then, as it closed again upon Nemesis’ arrival! Much like you would see a flash of lighting and count until the thunder roared, to determine its distance from you in miles.
This stretch towards Longwood Nature Reserve and past Black Rock was very familiar, as I’d passed through hear with the walking group only weeks before.
By now, I was in to the final twenty-mile section of this walking. People beginning the challenge from Cheddar Gorge would’ve started at around 10am and two-hours after us thirty-milers. I’ll bet even the first group of runners would’ve had a job to catch up with them.
By now though, the rain and mist had cleared.
It was almost plain-sailing from here until Rowberrow. Yet, as we arrived at the checkpoint tent (my Nemesis having somehow nipped ahead of me), the volunteers and First Aiders looked far from comfortable, with a cold wind cutting straight through their overhead shelter.
As we neared Shipham and the next checkpoint, I found myself walking behind another ‘veteran‘ to this annual event and, in myself, a lapse of concentration (with thoughts of an impending stop for lunch) lead me to miss a left-turn opposite a pink cottage. My rival had already departed and presumably along the correct path. As another group reached the same state of hesitation, we worked together head downhill past houses to follow the road to our next stop.
As we neared this tent, guess who happened to pass my vision, heading over the busy road and on towards Winscombe ahead of us??? Yep, that tortoise clearly didn’t need a lunch break and I was his hare, ready to settle down for a good fifteen minutes and also too readjust the lacing on my boots (which I had also done at two or three previous checkpoints).
Winscombe Drove turned out to be the muddiest stretch of the entire thirty-miles – in fact, I think I said the same thing last year. Crossing the A38, I took some refreshments at the King’s Wood checkpoint, where a woman very kindly held the gate open for me and from there, it was onwards and upwards again.
Climbing up from those woods requires a significant effort and then, you have to push yourself harder to reach trig point at the top of Wavering Down.
Last year, I made the (strictly optional) climb up to Crook Peak, with the West Mendip Way continuing just alongside its northern edge.
This year though, in the spirit of saving time and energy, I gave it a miss, which means I haven’t been up there since one evening towards the end of 2014… Which is quite staggering, to think that I must’ve visited this hill at least four times on other occasions the year before!
We were soon crossing over the M5 and on towards Loxton, where our final climb would await.
I maintained a consistent pace with the three guys pictured above, as we sequentially overtook other participants on the way up, who were presumably walking either the ten or twenty-mile routes.
It took a long time to reach the top of Bleadon Hill – much longer than I had recalled from last year – but the feeling was worth it; the sensation that we were getting ever closer and, in the mean time, while we couldn’t rush it, we could rest somewhat assured in the fact that the hills (bar one) were all but behind us.
I imagine it’s a time where complacency can set in. But when I looked at my watch, realising that I had only five-miles or less to go, I gained a strong sensation that I might be able to knock a little more off my time from last year.
I lost site of the two guys with coloured backpacks; I guess they were willing to push themselves that little bit harder. While I was wary of the fact that my weeks-old walking boots were still to be properly worn in (not to mention the pains I’d experienced around my ankles).
I then shot past a group of ten-milers – what was nice about this was that, later that evening, I spotted them on Twitter and, again through social media, I was able to reconnect some of the walkers I’d help guide through the mist in Priddy. One guy had come from as far as Barnstaple to take part this year.
It must’ve been in Bleadon, if not crossing the border in to Uphill, that we encountered this flight of wooden steps, with one tread definitely missing, which would’ve created an obstacle for many participants on the day.
I trust it’s an issue that’s already been reported to North Somerset council and that a repair is to be carried out ASAP, so that we can all continue to enjoy this area of countryside with less of the risk.
For the final mile and a half, I found an extra bit of steam and gave myself a push, eventually catching with these two army-guys who were walking the twenty-mile route – one of whom suggested I should join the Commandos, as they regularly walk thirty-miles at a time.
So, having started at 7.45, I made it back to Westhaven School at 17.15. That’s nine-and-a-half hours of walking – one whole hour less than my time in 2014! I cannot tell you how chuffed and impressed I was with that. There’s also the feeling now that I don’t ‘need’ to walk this distance again. Being so satisfied with my current record, I have no intention to try and beat it. Maybe next year, I’ll drop down to walking twenty-miles?
It’s fair to say that it seemed as though there were a few less participants compared with last year but then, this did also clash with the 2015 Bristol 10k. I still spotted bib numbers in excess of the number five-hundred, which is always good to see.
Until next Saturday then, when I attempt to walk thirty-one miles across Exmoor!!
Thanks for reading. A huge thanks must also go again to Weston Hospicecare for organising another superb event.