A summer of celebrations and holidays!
A friend came to visit in July. Having visitors is always lovely, partly because it gives us the chance to check out some of our favourite places and share them with other people. One day we went up to Battle Museum and spent some time in the gorgeous Almonry Gardens out the back. A community tapestry to mark the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings was underway, so we all went and stitched a bit of history!
It was a year for anniversaries in Sussex. Brighton was celebrating 250 years of Jewish residency in the town, with a series of cultural events including lectures, concerts and exhibitions. One key event in the calendar was the unveiling of a Blue Plaque dedicated to Brighton's (then called Brighthelmstone) first Jewish resident, Israel Samuel. Israel Samuel is my ancestor and we attended the unveiling along with another two hundred or so spectators and various dignitaries. There were three direct descendents including me, my third cousin from New Zealand and her son who lives in the USA. We were treated very well as guests of honour, invited to a reception in the mayor's parlor, a special opening of the old synagogue and to lunch in Brighton. The Middle Street Synagogue is a beautiful old building which is no longer used for worship and is not often open to the public, so it was a real treat to be able to spend some time inside.
We had a weekend break with friends in the little town of Haddenham in Buckinghamshire. It was lovely to catch up with them and to feed the ducks in the pond on the green outisde the church. (Plus, we just spotted it in the most recent episode of Midsomer Murders - yes, I have seen every single episode ever, don't judge me.)
And then it was the summer holidays. Several weeks off in July and August has to be one of the best bits about working in a school! We set off to walk from the English Channel to the Bristol Channel with nothing but a backpack (and reservations at a number of B&Bs, haha!). I posted lots of photos at the time, but here are a few more from the walk - including some from the last day, which was actually the 1st of August. Shhh, don't tell!
I shall sign off with a very short compilation of video footage taken at various places over the month of July.
Our channel to channel trip included a few pretty long days of walking. One way of making a long walk more pleasant is to do some training. We didn’t do that. Instead, we opted for Option B: carry less stuff.
Pack lighter, go further
That’s the mantra of many ultralight hikers. The idea is that the less weight you carry, the easier it is to walk long distances. You’re less tired, less weighed down, less likely to injure yourself. And after this walk I’m inclined to agree (though having the money to convert to ultralight gear, or the desire to sleep in a half sleeping bag is another matter!). Although we could have done the long days with big packs, I think we would have been even more exhausted and much, much achier.
Our biggest weight saving came from staying in B&Bs every night. I figured that, with the exception of a few things, we only needed to pack what we’d usually take on a day walk. We didn’t need to bring any sleeping gear or shelter and most B&Bs provide soap, shampoo, conditioner, moisturiser and tea bags (though we packed some Earl Grey teabags, in case any B&Bs only had plain tea!). Because it was only four and a half days of walking, we embraced the stink and didn’t carry any extra clothes. We checked the weather and left our jumpers behind, deciding a t-shirt/shirt/raincoat combo would be warm enough. We also left our PJs out . . . rude! We relied on eating out or not being hungry most nights, so we usually only had to buy and carry snacks and lunch a day at a time. As we knew we’d be passing quite a few pubs and villages, there was no need for the trowel, toilet paper or much first aid. I figured the batteries on my camera and the dictaphone would last, so didn’t pack chargers or spares. In the end, we could easily fit all of our gear into one day pack (Dan) and one shoulder bag (Jonathan).
Thoughts on our gear
I found this review helpful after our walk across Wales last year, so I'm doing it again.
What didn’t we use? We didn’t use the water treatment drops. Although there was one day when we came close, in the end we just asked at a farmhouse to fill our bottles and they obliged - which actually made for a much more interesting experience. I didn’t really use my thermal top, though Dan wore his t-shirt. Because we had the voice recorder, I didn’t write very much in my little journal. We had a couple of teabags left at the end, too.
What did we appreciate most? Probably our biggest luxury was our daily thermos of tea. It’s not light, and the tea paraphernalia can get a bit bulky. However, a nice cuppa can make all the difference in a long day of walking - it can really pull you (read: me) out of a mid-afternoon slump. I also want to give big props to my shoulder bag - it’s a Stuffit Pram Bag, which a former boss of mine bought for me at a trade show. I love the wide shoulder strap, which spreads the load over my shoulder so that it never digs in.
What did we miss? I missed having a second, less stinky top - Dan wore his t-shirt to dinner in Honiton and when we socialised with our hosts after having showers. My thermal t-shirt doesn’t really work for that. Maybe next time I’d take a normal t-shirt or a short-sleeved shirt instead. Dan says he would’ve liked a set of undies and socks “just for evening wear”. How posh!
What did we not take and not miss? Jumper, thermal leggings, walking poles, waterproof trousers - pretty much anything not on the packing list and not mentioned above.
Because no trip report is truly complete unless there’s a map! We started the walk at Budleigh Salterton, near Exmouth. We mostly followed the River Otter to its source in the Blackdown Hills. We dropped down into the Vale of Taunton Deane, then headed up onto the Quantocks for the majority of the last day. Finally, we more or less followed the Doniford Stream to Watchet.
We didn’t follow any specific long distance route, though we ended up sharing the path with a good number of them at different points. I used my usual method for charting a course and booking accommodation and I was pretty happy with the route we took.
In terms of transport, we drove to Taunton and parked in the station car park. We took the train to Exmouth (I loved the section where the train line is so close to the edge of the River Exe that it seems to be travelling over the water) and a bus to Budleigh. At the other end, we took the bus from Watchet back to Taunton. This set-up worked well for us (apart from the terrible service from Buses of Somerset on the Watchet-Taunton leg). Thanks to Dan for organising transport! It was a simple thing to hop in the car back at Taunton and then head off to Wales.
Year of Sleeping Variously: B&B edition
Oh yeah! We're back on with this thing! So, over the course of our holiday, which included this walk, the canoeing trip, a day in Monmouth, a night in Malvern, a weekend in Birmingham and a few days in London, we slept at: 4 B&Bs (including one booked on Airbnb), 2 Airbnbs (the proper kind in a house), 2 campsites, 1 friend's house and Dan's folks' place. So there is plenty to choose from. For no particular reason, I'm reviewing Eastcote House in Honiton.
B&B verdict: 72%.
Previously in our Year of Sleeping Variously: tarp on a hill; tent in a garden; holiday cottage on a farm; tent at a campsite; cabin by a canal; budget hotel.
If you've got any questions about our gear or our route, drop me a line in the comments. Also, I love snooping at a good kit list, so feel free to link to one of yours!
A 100km walk from the English Channel in Devon to the Bristol Channel in Somerset. (It was a pretty long walk and this is a pretty long post. Make yourself a cup of tea.)
1. Budleigh Salterton to Otterton
At Budleigh Salterton the sun is hot, the ice cream is cold, the sky is blue and the sea is red.
My first thought (you know how your brain starts reasoning before you are consciously looking for an explanation) is, “There must be a dead whale.” But there is no dead whale. There is a giant penguin made out of coloured stones. The sea is red. Not the whole sea, but out past the small breakers, maybe twenty metres or so: red. People seem quite happy to be paddling and swimming in it. There is a bus as well as a penguin, beach art, stone art. Perhaps the water is red from the soil, from the cliffs of the Jurassic Coast. Iron in the earth, iron in the water. Perhaps it’s algae.
We stare for a while and lick our ice creams. Then we head down to the beach. It is a pebbly beach and the stones are so smooth and round I wonder if they’ve been trucked in from a factory. Each one I pick up has some interesting aspect: an unfamiliar pastel purple colouration, a thin line of white quartz encircling the end, a smooth pyramid shape, a web of white lines, thick bands of colour, an alcove of crystals (rock or salt, I wonder), a perfect oval, swirls of red on grey, spots of yellow in green, a skimming stone. It is a struggle to choose just two small pebbles each - one to carry to the Bristol Channel, one to take home.
The map says we’ll find the mouth of the River Otter just in front of the small headland to the east. We avoid stepping on crab shells and claws - a crustacean cemetery - and skirt around the long, dry bodies of dead dogfish, a kind of small shark with spotty fins and tail. The stones, larger at the top of the beach, smaller near the water, rub and squeak underfoot. We have plenty of time and only a short walk ahead of us this afternoon. Boots off, socks off, time for a paddle in the English Channel. Hello red sea, goodbye red sea. We’ll see saltwater again on the other side.
We turn inland, to the river. The lower reaches are tidal and the tide is out. We see a small estuary covered in grey salt marsh vegetation, a kayak heading to the open water, the river meandering blue and silver, surrounded by a rich rust-red mud. On the cliffs opposite, someone walks the South West Coast Path, turning upstream to the first footbridge. We see him again as we walk north along sun-baked tracks between high hedges, past glimpses of the river, of gulls, goldfinches and grey wagtails, a cricket match. A couple visiting from St Ives ask us if we’ve seen any kingfishers. “Not here. But along the canals, up around the Home Counties.” They’re yet to spot one in the wild.
Less than a mile from the sea and the river has changed almost completely, merging into the freshwater stream we will follow for the next few days. The water is clear and shallow, large grey fish flick and glide in the current and the stony riverbed looks almost golden in the bright afternoon sunshine. Along the margins, damselflies - demoiselles, with their electric blue bodies and coloured wings - dart between the shadows, coming to rest on the water weeds. We cross to the east bank and climb above the river. The road follows the valley, but trees block most of the view. Is it just me, or do the trees seem to grow taller down here? Is it that little bit of extra warmth, or less pollution, or simply fewer people to interfere with their growth?
This is the worst prepared I’ve been for a walk in ages. We haven’t done any multi-day hikes in months. We haven’t even done a long day walk this summer. “It’s OK,” says Dan. “The walk can be it’s own training.” Still, it’s probably lucky we’ve brought barely anything - just a day pack and a shoulder bag. A change of undies and socks, a few toiletries, an extra t-shirt, raincoats, maps and a thermos. Oh, and a retro mini-cassette dictaphone that Mags let me borrow to take notes, an experiment instead of using paper and pen. It takes us an hour or so to get to Otterton, where we visit the church - a big, solid-feeling building, out of proportion to the village - then head to the pub, our home for the night.
Before dinner, we stroll out the back, up a hill and down to a bend in the river where I go paddling. On our side there’s a pebbled beach leading down to the river; across six or eight metres of water, a cliff rises into the overhanging boughs of oak. It’s dark red, with a seam of yellow (sandstone?) running through it, sprouting green ferns near the waterline. I stand with the river around my calves, examining the cliff, the trees, the flowers and try to imagine where the water has come from. A small fish jumps; a flash of silver, and is gone.
The River Otter spins and tumbles over shallow pebble races, chuckling to itself. I decide I like it and make a voice note of this, cradled by the white noise of the rapids. “It’s such a cheerful river. It seems very clean. You never know, we might walk up it in the next couple of days and be like, That was a filthy river and I can’t believe that I put my feet in it, but at the moment I’m quite enjoying it.”
On the way back, a woman asks us if we’ve seen the beaver family up at the footbridge. We haven’t, but we will look out for them tomorrow.
2. Otterton to Honiton
I wake early and throw the window open. Crescent-winged swifts slice through the air high above the village, creaking and shrieking. The church bells strike every hour. After breakfast we head out, just as it begins to drizzle. By the time we reach the river, it’s raining. We don’t see the beavers, but then again we’re not very patient, waiting only a minute or two before abandoning the bridge for the shelter of the trees.
The river is lined with tall pink flowers. I don’t know what they are, but they’re not willowherb. They have a sickly sweet scent. I tell the dictaphone, “It might be OK to some people, but to me it smells like - we used to have this fly spray that was meant to be a nice smelling fly spray. It was gross. That’s exactly what these flowers are like.” Later, I look it up. It’s Himalayan balsam, an invasive weed that is slowly strangling many British rivers. I’m not sure if I’m glad I have permission to hate it with impunity or disappointed that I can’t use this as an opportunity to get over my first impressions and learn to love it - or at least learn how to not gag when I get a waft of it.
We spot a tall monument - we saw quite a few yesterday. “People in Devon really like their obelisks,” says Dan. “Or we’ve seen the same two from several different directions.” The rain switches back to drizzle, a rainbow appears and by the time we reach Newton Poppleford the sky is clearing. We walk though the village between high fences, apple trees nodding with unripe fruit, scruffy young blackbirds and mistle thrushes peering down at us. The rain has sweetened the air, clean scents wash around us as we pass each garden. We cross the river on a narrow, footpathless road bridge - a slightly more hair raising adventure than we anticipated. The church of St Gregory the Great is full of flower displays, past their prime but still lending their perfume to the building. Further upstream we are ushered into Tipton St John by the summery scent of honeysuckle.
We aren’t following any waymarked long distance path (a River Otter or Channel to Channel route, for example), but we join the Coleridge Link Footpath for a while. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in 1772 at Ottery St Mary, the next town along. I did no research before we left, and I don’t know much of Coleridge’s poetry, but when we return home I find his sonnet “To the River Otter”.
Dear native Brook! wild Streamlet of the West!
North of Tipton St John, we pass a derelict old mill and hear the thudding beat of water through some unseen mechanism. A wheel? Something on the weir? We end up having to retrace our steps because the path on the east bank has been washed away, which gives us plenty of time to wonder about the noise. A kingfisher darts away down the river as we cross the high footbridge. We follow the path along the west bank through plumes of butterflies until we find the source of the beat: a water screw.
In the churchyard at Ottery St Mary, we share a Sainsburys meal deal and punnet of strawberries, turning our collars up against a badly-timed rain shower. There’s some kind of event happening at the church, so we don’t go in. “Maybe a funeral,” says Dan. “They look like bouncers,” I reply. When we leave, a dozen military types in plain clothes - tan shorts and pastel polo shirts - are practicing their own specially coordinated walk between the gravestones.
The river curves north and then east to Honiton, but it’s followed closely for several kilometres by the A30. We head across country instead, down tiny lanes, past a house we recognise from Grand Designs, through fields of cows and up a short, steep escarpment that affords us fantastic views over the low hills of Devon. We can see more rain in the distance, moving slowly our way. We hope it will miss us.
The hilltop is another world, a cool, shady woodland of tall trees, moss, ferns, even taller trees, broadleaf and conifer side by side. Some of the old beeches are straight, some twist and curl, others sprout branches like splayed hands. The leaves gather the light like new gold coins, then scatter it across the path.
We take a short break for tea in Gittisham, where I finally get to take my boots off and cool my feet in a roadside streamlet. There's not much water, but it’s enough to shake me of my mid-afternoon mood slump. “The thing about having a break,” I tell the dictaphone as we climb out of the village, “is that even if you don’t feel good straight away, a little bit later you can tell. I do feel better. A kestrel!”
Near Honiton, we discover a permissive path to Roundball Hill. It’s not marked on our maps, but it looks like there’ll be some good views, so we take a chance. The views from the top are, indeed, very fine - over the rooftops of Honiton to the Blackdown Hills beyond. The slope down the other side is also very fine and I have fun rolling down it.
It’s been a long day and we’re pretty happy to jump in the shower and floomp in our private sitting room. Fancy. The only record I have of this time is me saying in a very creaky voice, “I am old and in great pain!” Later in the evening, I get philosophical. “There’s something very simple and honest about walking from this place to that place, because all you have to do is walk. There’s not really anything else you have to think about or worry yourself about. Just getting there. You just walk.” Deep. We go out for an unexpected dinner with a friend who lives in Devon. I ask her about the red sea at Budleigh Salterton, but she’s never seen anything like it. On the way back to our B&B, we see a kestrel flying above the buildings, south west along the line of the high street.
3. Honiton to Blackwater
From the dictaphone: “I’m having the kind of crap morning of walking that you will only really understand if you’ve had a crap morning while walking.”
First the map doesn’t match what’s on the ground - it’s not a road (as per the paper map) or a cycle path (as per the online version), but an un-waymarked, hedged-in path through some holiday chalets. We commit to it, but it gets overgrown, soggier and stinkier as we descend. “Ever wonder if you’re walking through the sewerage of a whole caravan park?” I ask Dan. Eventually, scratched by blackberries and stung by nettles, we dash across the main road. I’m hot and bothered. Then my boots get stones and twigs and leaves in them. My feet start hurting. My undies are ridiculously uncomfortable. Then it’s all uphill. “Everything’s crap!” I complain. Dan reminds me about my philosophy of last night - nothing to worry about, just walking. “Ugh! Stop being so reasonable!” I think.
Everything isn’t crap, in fact. It’s a clear morning, there’s a bird of prey flitting from power pole to power pole ahead of us and two guinea fowl lead us past a farm, drumstick thighs waddling humorously up the hill. Still, I’m acutely aware by the time we make it to the Iron Age fort and the trig point at the top of Dumpdon Hill that it’s taken us more than an hour and a half to walk just over four kilometres. Only another twenty five to go.
But there’s a fantastic view. And I know that holding onto my grumpiness is a waste of energy, so I take a deep breath and pretend to start the day all over again. This time, we begin with a nice downhill walk through farmland and thatched roofs into the River Otter valley. We pass Mohun’s Ottery along a driveway lined with honeysuckle; walk by fields of yellow-gold wheat; take a shady track alongside the fishing lakes and lodges of Otter Falls and soon enough follow the road into Upottery. After a quick visit to the church (one of the kneelers has an otter on it - the closest we will come to seeing an otter during the whole walk), we grab a soft drink at the pub and press on.
There’s a path down to the river, which is marked on my map as a cycle path and on the waymarker as a “county road”. It rapidly becomes a stream bed. I’m quite surprised to find a footbridge at the end - surprised, and perhaps a bit disappointed that we don’t have to ford the river! We make our way through a few more fields of long grass, butterflies tumbling around us, onto a sealed road. At the bridge, we stop to pick seeds out of our socks and I can’t resist jumping in. It’s deliciously cold. “My feet are going numb, it’s nice,” I tell Dan. Then, “I don’t understand! Why don’t you want to come in?!”
The river is noticeably narrower. It’s only a few metres across, easily spanned by pretty stone bridges and easily smothered - unless something is done soon - by Himalayan balsam. The valley is also closing in: there’s only a field-width of floodplain here, and even that will soon disappear.
We climb up and down the hills through the dozy afternoon. Birds drift in the distance. We surprise a hare and it lopes off down the road. It’s quiet. It smells of the countryside - barns, manure, hay, hot grass, cider. Big cumulus clouds drift overhead. It’s pleasant walking and a good day to be out.
When we rejoin the river, it’s no more than a little stream trickling through a lush, wooded valley. There are ferns growing on the side of the road and swarms of insects over the water. We don’t stop. “I’m dreaming of a really comfortable, cool bed,” I say. “Oh, and a bath. And a hamburger - vegetarian, obviously. Maybe a mango.” Dan tells me he’s dreaming about eating a watermelon and taking his boots off. “And paddling in the water?” I ask. (I still don’t understand people who don’t go paddling when it’s an option!)
The two Otterhead Lakes - reservoirs, really - are surrounded by a nature reserve, fed by the river and used for fishing. We pass a Forest School site and the remains of what looks like a walled garden. This used to be the landscaped grounds of Otterhead House, part of the Otterhead Estate. The house was demolished in 1952, after being used for storage by various water authorities and as medical storage in the second world war.
At Otterford we stop for a very late, very well-deserved lunch under two spreading yew trees in front of the church. Our meal comprises Mini Babybel and, according to the dictaphone, “the best crackers I have ever eaten”, supplemented by handfuls of tangy sorrel that I find growing in the church yard. We’re out of water and the tap at the church says theirs is not suitable for drinking. We have some purification drops, but decide it’s less hassle to ask at the nearby farmhouse. The woman there kindly helps out, and when she discovers that we’ve walked from Budleigh Salterton, she’s tell us that she’s filled our bottles with “River Otter water, filtered for bugs and things” and that the river rises on their top field.
A few minutes later, I’m recording again. “We’ve made it to the source, more or less,” I tell the dictaphone. “And as sources so often are, it is extremely underwhelming! It’s a very shallow, very narrow ditch full of nettles . . . in the middle of nowhere in particular. But we made it!” We congratulate each other, take a couple of terrible selfies and strike out for our B&B - still another six kilometres away.
On the way we pass Robin Hood’s Butts (four or five tumuli in a roadside field) and help rescue a lamb with its head caught in a fence. Actually, I can’t get it out, even after snipping through the wool that has wound itself around the wire, so we knock on the door of the next farm we come to. “Oh, that’s not my sheep. It’s [redacted]’s sheep,” the farmer tells us. “Stupid things.” I’m not sure if he’s implying that his sheep are more intelligent than that. He heads off with a pair of wire cutters. We climb another hill, enjoying the honey-gold light of the late afternoon and trying to ignore our sore feet. And then, finally, we were at our B&B, welcomed, allowed to shower and plied with tea and cake. After that, we sleep.
3. Blackwater to Seven Ash
An elderly woman is pottering around in her beautiful cottage garden. We saw her last night, and she’s out again today in the bright morning sunshine. She flags us down to have a natter over the hedge, telling us how long she’s lived there and asking where we’ve come from and where we’re headed. “I might have done that once,” she says. “I was a rambler!”
A long stretch of woodland walking takes us around the northern escarpment of the Blackdown Hills. Under the trees, the air is cool and refreshing. Small birds busy themselves in the leaves. In the areas managed for butterflies steamy warmth radiates from the grasses and flowers beside the path. We wander through the Sunday stillness. “I think this is the quietest it’s been for our whole walk,” I murmur into the dictaphone. “You can hear the leaves stirring. You can hear the hum of flies and bees. A few birds tweeting. The wind, when it picks up a bit. And very, very far in the distance, if you’re listening for it, you can hear some of the noises of human activity. It’s very tranquil.”
Here the track narrows and twists through wildflowers, here it broadens to climb through oaks or hazel, here it twists past ruined stone walls as they melt slowly back into the green light. And sometimes we turn a corner to find the world laid out before us, stretching lazily, hazily to the horizon. There’s a plain, the Vale of Taunton Deane, there are a few wooded ridges to the north east, there’s the bulk of what must be the Quantock Hills to the north. We debate whether this is our first glimpse of Wales in the blue distance.
We drop down into Corfe and follow the East Deane Way to Trull, through fields of maize and long, golden grass, over the M5 (“SO PEACEFUL!”), past hedges boiling with sparrows. It’s turning into quite a varied day. At Trull, we buy a mishmash of food from the little store: corn chips, apple puffs, chocolate raisins. Our plans for morning tea in a field are scuppered by acres of cow poo and, more to the point, the baking sun. Instead, we sit on a shady bank outside someone’s garden, watching semi-suburban life go by. It smells of cut grass, of the weekend.
At Stonegallows Hill (“Taunton’s execution site from 1575 to 1810,” reads the monument), we’re overtaken by two speedy walkers in their late 60s or early 70s. They tell us they’re on a pub crawl then leave us to eat their dust. We’ll cross paths with them later on, and discuss walking footwear (they’re wearing sandals), long distance walking (for fun and charity) and recommended routes (they love the Cambrian Way). Before then, though, Dan and I have an adventure with cows.
They’re small cows, young Jerseys, and they’re up the top of the hill when we enter the field. We’re maybe a quarter of the way along the path, which runs along the bottom of the paddock, when they start running towards us. We’re blocked in by a low electric wire, a small ditch of nettles and a hedge. “If we have to, we can jump the wire into the ditch,” I say to Dan. We pick up our pace. The cows pick up their pace. “Shoo!” I yell at them, and wave my arms. That slows them down, at least. Less chance of being pushed over and trampled. But they still come closer. We turn to face them and walk backwards along the path. Dan does his best impression of Gandalf: “You! Shall! Not! Pass!” We clap our hands and wave our arms. No joy. I open the OS map and flap it at them, which sends them back a few steps. They aren’t angry and they aren’t big, but they’re starting to hem us in - and they don’t have to be angry or big to do damage. We’re about two thirds of the way across the field. I crack the map at them again, yell something unintelligible, turn on my heel and high tail it to the fence. Dan scampers up a few moments later. The cows, clearly fascinated with our antics, follow suit. Safely on the other side, heartbeat returning to normal, adrenaline dumping out of my system, I laugh. One of the cows has a stripe of snot across its face. One of them has a nose ring. Other than that, they are, like all Jersey cows, very pretty.
After all that excitement, apple puffs aren’t going to cut it. We stop at the pub near the rail crossing at Allerford and share a ploughman’s lunch. Our shirts dry in the sunshine and wind, stiffening with sweat. Dan has salt lines where the straps of his bag have pressed against his shoulders, chest and sides. It’s good to rest, but the dictaphone reminds me: “Starting again is so hard. My feet are cold, and stiff, and so painful - owww!”
There’s the crunchy sound on the tape whenever I stop recording and start again. “I hope that when we listen back to this it isn’t just a litany of me complaining about how sore I am, and how achy I am, and which bits hurt, and why do we have to climb up a hill, and why is it raining, and why is it sunny, and why do I have to put sunscreen on, and why is it so hot, and why is the wind so cold. I hope it doesn’t sound like that, because it’s been quite nice, actually!” Crunch. “We went off track a bit. Thought we could get there along a dismantled railway line because it looked like a shortcut, but it just ended in nettle-y, brambly hell. Argh! So now we’re trying to find another way through, instead of backtracking and zigzagging through the fields. Which, probably, in retrospect would have been the more sensible option.” Crunch. “This was a crap decision.” We backtrack and zigzag along the proper rights of way.
The next hour passes in a blur. I’m so tired, I resort to reciting times tables under my breath. I can’t remember how we used to do it at primary school. Were the four times tables chanted as one-four-is-four, two-fours-are-eight, three-fours-are-twelve or four-ones-are-four, four-twos-are-eight, four-threes-are-twelve? I barely pay attention to our surroundings, so when we eventually stop in a lovely little wood, it feels like I’ve just woken up. I have no real recollection of taking off my boots or climbing in the tiny, cold stream - but by jingo, it’s nice! And never have apple puffs and a cup of less-than-hot tea tasted so good. I'm ready for my second wind.
The pretty village of Ash Priors is drenched in golden sunlight. The mortar in the walls and buildings is a dusty pink, perhaps from the local soil. We chat to a man out with his dog. “I walked everywhere when I was younger, all over. Too old for it now. I stayed in Youth Hostels. They were everywhere. Cheap. Don’t suppose there’s many left.” He says he once knew someone from Battle, back in his army days. He is also convinced that there is some conspiracy amongst the traffic planners in Bognor Regis which makes it impossible for the average visitor to be able to get to the beach. I think of the coast, of Budleigh Salterton. Is it really only three days since we were there? It seems like weeks. Dan picks a piece of shell out of his shoe. When did it get there? Where did it come from? We leave it in a field, under the watchful gaze of five whistling, whirling buzzards, for some future geologist to puzzle over.
When we arrive, footsore, at the B&B, our hosts lay out tea and cake and join us on the patio. It’s a gorgeous evening. House martins dart in and out of their nests under the eaves. We listen to the hoot of the steam train in the valley, and discuss everything from cloud spotting to commuting to cider.
5. Seven Ash to Watchet
It’s a grey day. From our room, we can see the hill we’ll be climbing first thing. It’s hard to conceptualise how high this hill is in comparison to more familiar hills when those familiar hills are not around for comparison. “Are the Quantocks higher than the South Downs?” I ask the dictaphone.
I come to this conclusion about three quarters of the way up, breathing heavily, sweating like a pig in the cool, muggy morning. It’s a great hike to get the blood pumping: up a steep track under twisty old oaks, then bursting out onto the high moor above the trees. To the south, beyond the Vale of Taunton Deane, some of the valleys are filled with low-lying cloud. To the north east, the River Parrett winds through a flat, grey landscape. We keep climbing. At our feet, yellow-flowered gorse and pink heather run downhill to pine plantations.
And suddenly, there is the Bristol Channel! The water shines silver, a couple of dark, capsule-shaped islands lending perspective. Somewhere beyond, Wales lurks in the cloud and smoky drizzle. At the trig point, we stop for more photos. (Check out Dan's Bubbli thing here!)
Two walkers come by and ask where we’re going. They are impressed that we’re aiming for Watchet. They’re even more impressed when they find out where we’ve come from. One of the satisfying things about being at the end of a long walk is that you’re almost guaranteed to get a reaction from the people you talk to. Today, it makes me consider not just how far we’ve come, but how small our local worlds really are. Fifty miles (eighty kilometres) by road is a significant distance, and the people we talk to on the Quantocks don’t seem to go down to the south coast very often. We brainstorm equivalents from our house: Arundel or Dover (we’ve been to both places, once apiece), Croydon (I’ve only ever seen it from the train window) or the Dartford crossing (we’re quite familiar with this!). Later, a dog walker asks us about OS maps. “Do they tell you where you can walk? I come up here all the time, but I wouldn’t mind going somewhere new. Oscar! Oscar! Come on!”
We’ve seen barely any people out walking over the last few days, but now we’re back on a popular section of trail. The Macmillan Way, Somerset Way, Samaritans Way, Quantock Way and Celtic Way all run along the Quantocks for a while. I can’t blame the walk creators for sending people up here. It’s super ridge walking: high, but relatively gentle once you’re up, great views on each side, ponies and sheep grazing in the heather, little birds catching insects above the flowers, Bronze Age barrows and cairns strewn around the place. The Drove offers some shelter, wide path curving beneath spreading trees. I can imagine people herding their sheep or cattle along here.
We ignore it as long as possible, but there’s no denying it’s about to rain. I don’t enjoy shrugging into my coat, but I’m soon thankful I bothered. We descend Bicknoller Combe, a steep, V-shaped gully, in a downpour. The stream beside the path is vital with water, grass stoops under the weight of raindrops, wet sheep peer down at us and our view over the valley vanishes. Lower down, under the trees, I pull my hood down to listen to the shushing of rain on the leaves. Water, water, everywhere. At Bicknoller, the pub is closed, so we shelter in the church porch to eat some chocolate coated raisins.
Following the waymarkers for the Coleridge and Macmillan Ways makes it easy to navigate along the valley, past signs to places like Stogumber, alongside the Doniford Stream, through friendly farmyards full of bantam chooks. The rain turns to drizzle and the steam trains pass by, sending up white plumes and hooting off towards Bishops Lydeard or Minehead. We take our coats off in suburban Williton and troop on through just a few more fields towards the end of our walk.
At Watchet the clouds are low and the tide is out. The Ancient Mariner stands, back to the harbour, dead albatross in one hand, bow dangling from the other, a noose around his neck leading to a noose around the bird’s neck. We walk along the harbour arm, past notices about entering the UK, over a thick yellow line with NO FISHING BEYOND THIS LINE painted on the concrete, past a sign about rabies prevention (animals that must not be brought ashore: duck, cat, dog, otter, gecko, monkey, kangaroo), to the little red lighthouse at the end.
Funny how we’ve come to a quiet corner of the UK, but here at the end of the land - in this small harbour, in this channel - is the same sea, the same water that touches every coastal harbour, bay, cliff and beach in the world. I send thoughts out across the horizon to friends and family, wherever they may be.
“On three. One, two, three, go!” Our pebbles, from a sunny beach on the English Channel, sink quietly into the grey-brown murk of the Bristol Channel. We turn back and head to the pub for a drink.
If you've made it to the end of this epic post, you deserve almost as many congratulations as us for making it to the end of our walk! If you're interested, you can check out our kit list and a route map here.
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