Days 25 and 26 – rest days

Making it to Wales felt like something of an achievement (and marked very nearly 25% of LEJOG) so I opted for a rest day while we moved the caravan from our campsite near Bridgwater to a a great site near Hay on Wye with fabulous views of the Black Mountains. 

The following day proved to be filthy weather and I opted to take a second rest day and spend some much-needed time with the kids. We went to a food festival at Hay and spent inordinate quantities of money on Welsh cakes, cheese, chorizo (yes really), jam and pies, before staggering back to the caravan. The chorizo in particular was really excellent and has formed the basis for several packed lunches!

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Day 24 – Clapton in Gordano to Chepstow

This was never going to be one of the most beautiful or enjoyable days on the trail; as the book puts it, once you get to this point the Avon, Bristol and the Severn all stand between you and Wales and there aren’t very many optional ways of going over/round them, so this will be a short post.

I diverged from the suggested route, which goes through every scrap of greenery possible between Easton in Gordano and the Severn Crossing. My original plan was to head straight for the side of the Severn using the cycle trail (no 410) which runs over the bridge, then follow the waymarked Severn Way up to the bridge to Chepstow. The first part of the plan worked well, and the cycle trail made for fast walking, albeit a bit hard on the feet – it’s relatively pleasant but there’s a limit to what you can do with industrial estates and built-up housing.

The bridge over the Avon was the first hurdle. It’s surprisingly high up, and the footpath goes next to the traffic; the closer I got the scarier it looked. At the foot, there’s a hammer and spanner sculpture commemorating the work to strengthen the bridge. I hoped fervently that the work had been successful and walked as fast as I could until I was safely back on dry land.

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The Severn Way south of Severn Beach proved to be completely impassable. Having waded through waist-high brambles for a bit, I was completely unable to see the line of the path to the river; I turned back and ended up trudging round the industrial warehouses near the docks, with enormous lorries zooming past, feeling dusty, tired and cross. Right at the end I found a short stretch of green track, leading me round the power station.

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I opted to walk on the road up to Severn Beach, where the Severn Way turns into a very walkable track with great views of the Severn and both bridges – just what I’d had in mind in the first place! Passing under the M5 bridge was great, with the huge concrete arches stretching out into the distance.

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As I approached the Severn Bridge it started to cloud over, and once I was on the bridge itself it started to rain. The bridge is huge – it took me about 35 minutes to cross it – and feels extremely rickety, with patches of tarmac worn away and the walkway shaking every time a lorry passes. I dared to take a (very grey and rainy) photo from the middle of the bridge but couldn’t bring myself to linger. A bit more walking and I was in Chepstow – I had made it to Wales!

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Highlights: An entertaining if slightly barmy man who told me about his working past in the car depot whilst waving around a 6-foot piece of metal pipe; a slow-worm coiled in disused railway tracks by the Severn Way; monumental engineering and natural beauty in the Severn estuary.

Day 23 – Cheddar to Clapton in Gordano

The suggested route for today goes from Cheddar itself to Easton-in-Gordano (near the Severn Crossing) via Cheddar Gorge and the Mendips. Whilst this would undoubtedly have been a pretty route, it is also a fairly roundabout route, going in a counter-clockwise ‘C’ shape up through and around Cheddar to come back towards the coast, and there was no way I could walk 27 miles in one day without a much earlier start than is possible with kids and caravan. After much scrutiny of maps, I decided to take a shortcut route which by my calculation would cut around 8 miles off the suggested route.

I started from the Cheddar reservoir, and for the first mile was accompanied by Arran and the kids (Isaac in a baby backpack), which was a real treat. I then waved goodbye to the family and headed for Axbridge, which turned out to be a very pretty medieval market town with half-timbered buildings, then turned onto the track which runs up a disused railway line from Axbridge to Yatton.

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The Strawberry Line (so-called because the railway used to bring early season Cheddar strawberries to Bristol) was a great walk and I was glad I’d decided to take a more direct route. The track was fast and easy walking, bordered by green hedges and with views over fields and hills, with the odd information board offering interesting titbits about the railway and local wildlife. It starts fairly high up in the hills, with a pitch-black tunnel through a bluff where Judge Jeffreys ordered public hangings after the Bloody Assizes, and runs in more or less a straight line up to Yatton.

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There is a great stop at Sandford, where you can have a cup of tea sitting in a railway carriage looking out over the hills. I spent far too long having a break and discussing my journey with a group of friendly and interested men who were there for the railway museum.

The track doesn’t follow the old railway line continuously and at one point goes through one of Thatchers’ apple orchards (the cider not the ex-PM); the apples looked lovely but the warning notices about spraying and ominous lack of any other plant life made them very un-tempting.

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From Yatton there was a long hot walk up the road to Kenn, then along some rhynes (river ditches) to Cadbury Camp, an Iron Age fort on the brow of Tickenham Hill with amazing views back across the valley.

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After that it was simply a question of crossing the motorway. However, I am really terrified of motorway footbridges and this was the second time I had had to cross the M5. I didn’t dare close my eyes but did walk across the six lanes of thundering traffic looking only ahead and reciting number series (counting backwards from 100 in 7s) out loud as a distraction tactic.

Safely over the motorway, I was rewarded by a deer standing on the path, about 10 feet from me and only a wooden fence away from the traffic; I didn’t manage to get a photo before it bounded away but felt it was a good omen. A short stroll through fields of horses before meeting the family and heading to Clevedon for fish and chips, which we ate by the seafront. Clevedon is lovely, with strings of lights hanging above a Victorian-looking promenade, and we were able to watch some teenagers sailing dinghies in the late afternoon sunshine. I’m not looking forward to tomorrow’s walk, through the outskirts of Bristol (and two long footbridges!) but am definitely looking forward to heading into Wales.

Highlights: butterflies and heritage on the Strawberry Line; chatting about LEJOG with another walker over a picnic lunch; wishing I had a sunhat; the view from Cadbury Camp; fish and chips by the sea.

 

Day 22 – Bridgwater to Cheddar

A long flat day today, through the Somerset levels. It’s not an area I’ve ever walked before, and given the flooding earlier this year I was a bit worried that it would still be underwater/boggy or blocked in places. But I needn’t have worried – lots of crops growing and green grass in the fields, cows and sheep grazing, and very straightforward walking mostly on (very straight) roads.

Bridgwater, like Bideford and Barnstaple (perhaps towns starting with B?) doesn’t seem like a place to linger, and despite getting lost when a solicitor telephoned and distracted me, I was soon out of town and heading towards the Levels, passing over the river Parrett (I think) and through the pretty villages of Bawdrip and Cossington.

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Then onto the Levels. The landscape is curiously foreign looking – it’s so flat it looks as if it has been ironed, and only field hedges and the occasional house or barn can be seen, with the rolling Mendip hills beyond. It reminded me a bit of La Mancha in Spain, which Arran and I drove through a few years ago, but without any windmills and with a lot more water!

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The foreign feel was added to by yet another day of unbroken sunshine, making the road walking feel tougher and longer than it actually was, and by the odd stand of poplars near a farmhouse. Apart from the lovely Huntspill River, the water was all in narrow ditches between fields and it was very hot indeed.

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I was glad to stop for lunch in the wonderfully named Sexey’s Arms in Blackford. The barman did deflate me a little by nodding towards my trail guide, saying ‘Ah, I see you have the book. We had a guy in here last week who was running the whole thing’. Just goes to show, there’s no point in competing!

The route into Cheddar goes over some gentle hills; my route through one field was blocked by cattle, who stood so close to the gate that I didn’t dare either open it or climb over, but I managed to find an alternative route through nearby fields of stubble and rough pasture. At one point the path went round the edge of a field of nearly-ripe barley; like so many cliches that turn out to be true, it really does move in rolling waves.

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The end of the day brought me (via a farm track where the right of way was blocked with a caravan, an electric fence and a dog) to Cheddar Reservoir, where I met Arran and the kids. A pleasant day’s walking, but I’m not sure I would go out of my way to walk it again!

Highlights: Turning the corner out of a street in Bridgwater to find myself all of a sudden in open countryside; huge blue skies, with small fluffy clouds; the cool shade of occasional willow trees next to the road; another great pint of Exmoor Gold (becoming a firm favourite); mirages on long straight stretches of tarmac; a long cold drink at the end of the day.

 

Day 21 – Monksilver to Bridgwater

Today’s route went along the main ridge of the Quantocks. I’ve not walked in this area before and it was a lovely introduction – ridge walking is always nice and this was another rewarding day. There was a fair amount of road walking to begin with, on a road which on the map looked tiny and quiet but which seemed to be the main commuter route between Monksilver and everywhere else – a lot of pressing myself into the nettles and brambles at the side of the road and praying that I wouldn’t get flattened. A few fields, and then just before the railway I encountered a field with about 20 bullocks in it, who saw me and started running towards me for no apparent reason. They were joined by more bullocks from the next field, until there were 30 or so, all cantering towards me with no sign of slowing. Just as I had resigned myself to being trampled (my feet and knees in no condition to outdistance a healthy bovine), the herd all drew up short, about 10 feet away – it was only then that I noticed the tiny electric cord fence between myself and the animals. Weak with relief I scuttled past, to cross the railway line and enter Bicknoller.

Bicknoller is a lovely village with a great little shop – it would have been even better if the lady behind the till had spoken to me rather than continuing to gossip to her friend uninterrupted – and I sat outside and drank orange juice and water until I was ready to continue. From Bicknoller the route climbs rapidly (up the imaginatively named Hill Lane) through a wooded combe and then onto the Quantocks ridge itself. There were great views back over the valley and wild deer and ponies grazing on the slopes.

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A lovely walk along the ridge, before coming into a grove of mature beech trees on the National Trust land at Crowcombe, before a short climb up to Wills Neck (the highest point on the ridge), with more stunning views which my phone doesn’t do justice to!

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The rest of the day was a bit of an anticlimax, and it was hard to come down off the ridge and descend towards Bridgwater knowing that ahead lay a long flat day on the Somerset levels. There was a bit more road walking, mainly my choice to save time, before coming into Goathurst, which is a very pretty village but one where virtually every cottage seems to have at one time been a functional building: ‘The Maltings’, ‘The Chantries’,etc. I had a brief water-and-boots stop before heading towards Bridgwater on a footpath through fields.

However, in what I am now coming to realise is something of a pattern on this trail, the route into Bridgwater at the end of the day petered out in a network of featureless flat fields and stream crossings. I have christened this end-of-the-day path-finding, which seems often to involve getting lost/nettled/brambled/sunk in ankle-deep bog, the ‘Andy Robinson Shuffle’, in honour of the writer of the End to End trail! The right of way was blocked at several points by electric fences; when I did manage to locate the footpath, which proudly proclaimed that it had been established by the Sedgmoor Walking Society, it was almost impassable, consisting of deep ruts hidden by waist-high grass and reeds. I staggered around, cursing, before emerging into open fields, at which I gave up, abandoned the map and used my Blackberry’s rudimentary mapping system (it only shows roads, but at least you know where you are heading!) to find my way into the centre of Bridgwater. All in all though, a satisfying day’s walking, and after a steak and a large glass of wine I felt ready to tackle the onwards route to Cheddar and the Severn.

Highlights: Being up on the ridge again, for the last time until Wales; the very beautiful beech trees at Crowcombe; the little girl near the Quantocks car park who was wide-eyed when I told her I had seen ponies and deer; a glimpse of the very improbable Temple of Harmony just outside Goathurst; passing by a signpost to ‘Luxury Yurts’ on one side and ‘Reindeer Chalets’ on another at a glamping farm; the relief of walking on grass again after a few miles of roads; narrowly missing being run over by a team of cyclists; feeling hot, dusty and tired at the end of the day.

 

Day 20 – an unexpected ‘rest’ day

I hadn’t planned a rest day today, and was looking forward to another productive day’s walking. However, the estate agents rang to say that they had potential tenants to rent our house in London until the end of August – an offer too good to miss, as the rent covers the mortgage and most of our camping fees for the time we are away. We decided that Arran would go back to London for the day to sort out the house and I would have a day with the kids, who haven’t seen much of me recently. 

We had a very enjoyable day, swimming in the campsite pool in the morning and then going for an extremely short walk to the next village in the afternoon. I don’t ever under-estimate the effort and energy required to look after two small children (although Arran makes it look effortless) but by the time we had had dinner and I had managed to put both kids to bed, I was completely exhausted, and collapsed into bed myself with the next instalment of the Cazalet books. For those wondering, walking 20 miles is in some ways much less tiring than full-time parenting…

Day 19 – Dunkery Beacon to Monksilver

I was feeling energetic and positive after yesterday’s relaxing rest day, and looking forward to a good day’s walking through the Brendon Hills. It was another very rewarding day’s walking – down off Dunkery Beacon on a bridleway through a sunlit forest, through Wheddon Cross past some wistful animals, then up to Lype Hill, the highest point on the Brendons, where I stopped for lunch and to enjoy the amazing views.

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The path then followed a ridge walk down into Kingsbridge, a small village full of very pretty ‘chocolate box’ cottages. I stopped at the Royal Oak for a pint (a lovely pub, with friendly barman and an excellent cool pint of Exmoor Gold) before heading uphill again towards Roadwater. In the lane on my way out of the village I came across a lone sheep which had clearly escaped somehow from the field behind it, and spent an enjoyable 20 minutes trying to persuade it to rejoin the other sheep. Gate safely closed I went on my way with a sense of virtue (whilst secretly worrying that I had put it back into the wrong field). The afternoon was spent walking through fields and hedgerows, some with surprisingly exotic foliage including bamboo and some rhododendrons still in bloom.

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I say ‘walking’, but the path was often difficult to follow and in places was completely invisible, and many of the field edges were overgrown with nettles and tall grasses – unsurprising at this time of year, but proving to be a real problem for me, as my legs and arms were covered in nettle rash and hives and I was sneezing my head off! I had a restorative cup of tea at the edge of a ploughed field before heading down into Monksilver, where I headed immediately for the Notley Arms. This is clearly a pub known for its food (the menu looked expensive but very tempting) and the other patrons were smartly dressed – I felt sweaty and conspicuous in my damp tshirt, grass-covered leggings and muddy boots but the lovely barmaid didn’t turn a hair.

Arran and the kids turned up while I was halfway through my pint and we ended up having dinner at the Exmoor Forest Inn, where the friendly staff found us a room to ourselves and the kids played with the two resident dogs.

Highlights: Commiserating about horseflies with an actual rider (the first I’ve seen on a bridleway) coming down off Dunkery Beacon, the long shady path through the woods, the amazing vista and ridge walk from Lype Hill, cool grass underfoot in the pub garden at the end of a long hot day.

Day 17 – Bratton Fleming to Dunkery Beacon

This was a good day’s walk, one of the best so far on the trail. Another late start, mainly because I’m behind schedule and so our campsite this week is close to Bridgwater, making for a 90 minute journey to the drop-off point. It was cooler this morning, which came as a relief after the heat of the last few days, and when I began walking the Exmoor hilltops were covered in low cloud. That burned off quickly, making it hot work climbing up to the moors, but giving me amazing views all day.

Most of today’s route was a long slow climb to Exmoor, mainly on bridleways, with a bit of road walking – it was all very remote and until I got to Exe Head I didn’t see another soul.

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Challacombe, the last village before you get onto Exmoor proper, was very pretty and extremely quiet – a quick climb up on a stony track and a couple of fields of grazing animals, and I was onto South Regis Common and the first moorland. There was a fresh breeze and some wispy clouds, but otherwise no sound apart from the skylarks and my boots. After passing a small reservoir, the going underfoot became mixed, with some boggy patches – I am very glad that I did this part of the route in late June after three weeks of dry weather!

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Exe Head (the source of the Exe), which I had been looking forward to seeing, was an anticlimax – a dribble of greasy-looking water through a field of cows – and I trudged on towards Black Pitts. I got to Warren Farm by about 3.30, feeling tired and discouraged, and stopped for a sit down and a look at the map. Rummaging in my pack, I discovered the thermos of hot water that I had packed and somehow completely forgotten about! Half a litre of black tea and an almond slice later I was a new woman, and decided to try and press on to Dunkery Beacon – the next point on the route at which Arran could pick me up, but by my (somewhat erratic) reckoning about 9-10k of cross-country walking. I headed past the farm and onwards with renewed determination.

Pushing on was an excellent decision. The walking from Warren Farm to Dunkery Beacon was flat or gently uphill; the paths were generally much better, and I made much faster progress. The last stretch, up over Rowbarrow and on to Dunkery Beacon itself, was one of the most rewarding walks I have ever done, with views down into the valley behind me and over to Porlock, and wild ponies grazing in the afternoon sunlight.

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The view from Dunkery Beacon, at just before 7pm on a clear day, was astonishingly beautiful. I could see for about 25 miles all around me, including where I had walked over the last few days and the onward path for the next few days going over the Quantocks and up towards Bristol and Wales. My phone camera is totally unable to do it justice:

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I was completely alone on the top, apart from a couple of butterflies, and there was no sound but the wind. It was a genuinely moving experience. I was pleased and relieved I had managed to accomplish my target despite tired feet, and for the first time it was possible to see just how far I have come. I was very reluctant to come down, but managed to time it so that I met Arran as he drove into the car park. Home in time to read Rowan a story, get Isaac to sleep, have a shower and do the washing up. Tomorrow is a well-earned rest day.

Highlights: Boots scrunching on loose stones on the path; the old packhorse bridge out of Challacombe; managing to encourage a whole herd of cows with calves to move off the path; the line of mature beeches at the start of South Regis Common; the brisk wind on top of the moors, with a vast clear blue sky overhead; an improbable Victorian-looking couple who appeared out of nowhere on the moor just before Exe Head, she dressed in ankle-length skirt and stout boots and he in blazer and light-coloured trousers; pork pie for lunch from the local farm shop; the view from Dunkery Beacon in the evening sunlight.

 

Day 16 – Instow to Bratton Fleming

For those wondering, the route over this and the next couple of days does follow the End to End trail guide, but for various reasons (mainly the logistics of combining my drop-offs and pick-ups with the needs of two small children, which limits the hours available for walking) I got out of sync, so my start and end points were different to those given in the book. Although my stopping points were largely driven by timing, rather than the need to find accommodation, it has worked very well in terms of nice finishes to each day.

I rejoined the Tarka Trail at Instow and hot-footed it towards Barnstaple. The day was another scorcher (I had no rain at all between day 1 and crossing the Severn Bridge over three weeks later) but the heat matters less when you’re on the flat. It was just past high tide and the estuary looked extremely picturesque, but as I came round the bend after Instow, the landscape was dominated by the sight and sound of military ships (two hovercraft and two landing craft) zooming round and round in seemingly pointless circles.

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I initially thought this was some sort of commemoration exercise for D-Day but, on asking a very posh local walking her dog on the embankment, she told me in an exasperated tone of voice that they were just exercising, and had been doing it non stop for the last fortnight. I was sympathetic, as you could hear them from about two miles away.

I stopped for a coffee and macaroon at the excellent Fremington Quay Cafe, and sat looking at my map and shamelessly eavesdropping on the conversation between a father and adult daughter at the next table. The daughter had clearly been on a lengthy and exotic holiday, but over the 20 or so minutes that I was there she had nothing good to say about any of it – the fish at the buffet had been cooked in a foreign way, she hadn’t liked the sunshades,etc etc – and I rather wondered why she had gone. I headed on to Barnstaple, where I bought lunch (another pasty, as I was running out of good pasty opportunities!). I was tempted to buy the next instalment of the Cazalet Chronicles, which I started on this trip and to which I have become shamelessly addicted, but decided it wasn’t worth carrying the extra weight.

Barnstaple, like Bideford, seemed like somewhere to pass through quickly. I foolishly answered my phone whilst wandering through and promptly got lost while dealing with two work calls, but once I regained the route it was charming – through quiet back streets and quickly onto green trails through the very pretty Yeo Valley.

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I met nobody at all until the trail came out opposite the spectacular rail viaduct at Chelfham, where a woman in green wellies walking her dog looked extremely startled to see me emerging from the footpath onto the road. A short road walk and then a gentle climb up through the hills.

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All went swimmingly, until I encountered a field of cows. This obviously happens a fair bit, on a cross-country walk, but I have to confess to being genuinely frightened of them. Well, cattle generally – it’s something about how big they are and how stupid, and the cow-related variation on Murphy’s law that if the footpath goes through a field with cattle in it, they will inevitably be standing/lying right across the path, preferably as close to one or other gate as they can get. Plus, I am finding that while cows with calves will generally give you a wide berth, bullocks (or whatever you call young male cattle) seem to want to get as close up as possible. This herd (barely more than calves, if I’m honest) were standing about six feet away from the gate, and I was worried that they would seize the opportunity to escape through it, but also simultaneously worried that if I annoyed them in some unspecified way they would turn as one, rush the gate and gore me, so it took me some time to get them to move away from the gate far enough so that I could open it (barbed wire on top so no climbing over even if I were given to doing that sort of thing) and then go through the field.

Cattle crisis over, I headed for a long steep uphill climb towards Bratton Fleming, a pretty village with amazing views back down over the hills towards Barnstaple. It was extremely satisfying, having toiled up the road and bridleway, to look back over the countryside and think ‘I’ve walked that, all the way from the horizon’. I carried on out of the village and met Arran halfway along the road to Challacombe, which was my stopping target for the day.

Highlights: Fremington Quay (really great coffee); a lovely ‘green tunnel’ just north of Barnstaple; the incredibly pretty Yeo river; climbing out of the valleys towards the Exmoor hills.