There’s a lot more to Somerset than scrumpy cider, cheddar cheese and the Glastonbury Festival. It’s a county of contrasts: moorlands and marshes, castle and caverns, cheese and strawberries, gorges and tors. With a variety of landscapes, extraordinary buildings, fascinating wildlife, and history round every corner – not to mention some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet – Somerset is simply asking to be explored. This selection of 40 circular walks will help you make the most of the uplands and lowlands, woodlands and wetlands of Somerset – ‘the land of the summer people’.
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Ah, Somerset! Even the name brings on a warm glow, conjuring up images of apple orchards, thatched cottages and wildflower meadows. Somerset is all of those and more. It’s the home of cider and the Glastonbury Festival. It is the place where King Alfred burned cakes and defeated Danes, and where, some say, King Arthur held court at Camelot. It is a land of history and heroes, of moorland and marsh, heritage railways and hi-tech helicopters, of beauty and mystery in equal measure. What other county in England can boast such a variety of scenery as Somerset? And there can surely be none with such extremes of topography. At one end (literally) is the great upland wilderness of Exmoor, at the other the pastoral tranquility of the apple orchards.
The geological violence of the Cheddar and Ebbor Gorges is but a stone’s throw from the wetlands of the Avalon Marshes. Climb to any summit in the Mendip or Quantock Hills, or a mound like Burrow Mump, and the view extends over billiard-table-smooth flatlands to the next hill or range beyond. It is an extraordinary landscape with no fewer than five ranges of hills, a National Park, dramatic coastline and one of the most extensive flatland expanses in the country. Who could fail to be charmed by villages with names like Stogumber, Westonzoyland, Mudgely or Hornblotton? And when the names are double-barrelled, they sound like members of a pre-war varsity cricket team: Nempnett Thrubwell, Haselbury Plucknett, Peasedown St John, Norton Malreward, Sutton Montis, Shepton Mallet and Huish Champflower (with Rodney Stoke to drive the bus). There are endless places to go and an extensive network of paths and byways to help you get there. Whether you are a casual walker out for a stroll or an experienced hiker planning a day in the hills, Somerset has something to suit. The locals are friendly and the facilities are excellent. What’s more, you’re never too far from a refreshing glass of cider or cream tea when you need one. Somerset in a nutshell? Warm, welcoming and waiting to be explored!
Britain’s oldest complete human skeleton was discovered at the turn of the 20th century in a cavern in Cheddar Gorge. Cheddar Man, as he’s become known, lived at the end of the last ice age and DNA testing has revealed that his direct descendants are still living in the area some 9000 years later. In Cheddar Man’s day, much of Somerset was disappearing under rising sea levels, creating a vast expanse of shallow saltwater. Slowly it turned into saltmarshes, then became cut off from the sea. Four thousand years after the death of Cheddar Man, it had been transformed into a great freshwater lagoon, its pools and channels rich in fish, fowl and wildlife. Neolithic man built wooden walkways to travel between patches of dry land – examples have been found which date from around 3000bc, the woodwork largely preserved by the peat into which it eventually sank. Early man has left his mark all across Somerset, in hillforts like Dolebury, Ham Hill and Cadbury. Ancient earthworks are scattered over the county: barrows, mounds, and stone circles. Evidence of Roman occupation can be seen in the magnificent remains in Bath and in the Roman roads which have survived, notably the Fosse Way. The Romans extracted salt from the levels and mined lead from the Mendips. It was several centuries after the Romans’ departure, incidentally, that the first documented use of ‘Somerset’ occurred: the 9th-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded the Sumorsaete as a people living in the area in 845ad. That century, the marshes came to the rescue of Alfred the Great by providing a safe haven from the Danes until he was strong enough to defeat Guthrum’s army at The Battle of Ethandun. In the centuriesthat followed, Somerset was no stranger to warfare. In 1642, the first shots of the English Civil War were fired in Somerset, when Royalists ambushed a contingent of Parliamentarians near Street. The last battle ever fought on English soil took place at Sedgemoor in July 1685, when the Duke of Monmouth’s rebel ‘army’ was defeated. His supporters were then rounded up and summarily tried in Taunton by Judge Jeffreys. In what has become known as ‘The Bloody Assizes’, the guilty were sentenced to death or transportation. The Industrial Revolution, which so changed the Midlands and northern counties of England, had less physical effect on the South West, although its impact was far reaching. Cottage industries withered away with few sizeable factories to replace them. The wool trade, so important to Exmoor in particular, moved nearer to the mills in the north. Leadmines in the Mendips were exhausted and it had become too costly to take iron ore from the Brendon Hills. Coalfields in the north of the county were hard to reach and the costly canal built to service them was soon killed off by the railway (which was in turn closed in the 1960s’ Beeching cuts). Somerset today is not without its industry but essentially it remains the rural, agricultural economy it has always been, although today tourism also plays a major part.
Walking in Somerset
There is no better way to enjoy the Somerset countryside than by walking through it. With thousands of miles of public footpaths, an endless variety of quiet country roads and an increasing amount of ‘open access’ land, there is plenty of scope to devise the perfect walk. Somerset is criss-crossed by long-distance routes like the South West Coast Path, the Coleridge Way and the River Parrett Trail. On the whole, footpaths are well marked from public roads, although many signposts are broken or concealed in the undergrowth. Waymarkers are commonplace and the colours used on the arrows or posts denote how they may be used: footpaths, shown in yellow, are restricted to walkers; blue indicates bridleways, which are open to cyclists, horse riders and walkers, and red marks a byway which can also be used by motor vehicles. Good boots are advisable for all routes and essential for some, particularly the Cheddar Gorge walk where the paths are both rocky and steep. It is important to keep to the established routes and not to stray onto private land, although if the right of way lies across a field of crops and is unclear, it is better to walk around the edge of the field until you can rejoin the path. Some stiles are showing their age and, while they are gradually being replaced by gates, you will almost certainly have to cross stiles during your time in Somerset. Check each for its structural integrity and slipperiness before putting your trust in it. Nettles and brambles can make walking in shorts a painful experience so it is sensible to wear long trousers when venturing into the Somerset countryside. Avoid climbing over walls, leave gates as you find them, and, of course, take your litter home. If you are walking with a dog, keep it under close control, avoid livestock and make sure you clean up after it. Finally, always make sure that someone knows where you are planning to walk and when you expect to get home.
Beware of ticks
Ticks are a national problem, but Exmoor is a hotspot. Ticks lurk in long grass, bracken and woodland; their bites are painless but can cause Lyme Disease which, if left untreated, can have very serious consequences. Sensible precautions include keeping your skin covered, tucking your trouser bottoms into socks, and wearing shoes or boots rather than sandals. It is a good idea to use insect repellent on clothing and exposed skin. Check yourself and your companions – human or canine – for ticks at the end of the walk. Remove any attached ticks with a removal tool designed for the purpose (available in all outdoors shops) as soon as you can. Don’t let the thought of them put you off your walk, but do be aware and take precautions.
Wildlife and nature
You only have to count the number of nature conservation designations in Somerset to realise how special it is; there are 127 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), 70 Nature Reserves, 15 National Nature Reserves, 11 Special Areas of Conservation, four Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), two Special Protection Areas and a National Park. Collectively they cover a host of different habitats, from coastal saltmarsh to floodplain grazing marshland, from upland heath to lowland meadows and almost all of it is under some form of threat. A combination of climate change, farming practices, unsympathetic development and pollution has caused the recent disappearance of several species, such as grass-of-Parnassus, pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly and red grouse.Somerset is home to seven species which are threatened with global extinction and more than 200 ‘priority species’ on the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, such as the water vole and hairy click beetle. Britain’s largest wild animals, red deer, which have roamed Exmoor since prehistoric times, are also feeling the pressure. They’re being hunted by poachers cashing in on the increasing demand for venison. Exmoor ponies, on the other hand, have made a comeback since the post-World War II years when there were fears for the breed’s survival. Determined and careful management has seen numbers increase and the future now seems more secure. Other successes include the large blue butterfly which died out in Britain in the 1970s and has been successfully reintroduced. Common crane, missing from England’s wetlands for centuries, are back, and the decline of the bittern, once down to just a handful of males, appears to have been reversed. The organisations which look after the Somerset countryside and habitats, many relying on volunteers, are doing a marvellous job. Information boards, which can be found at many sites and reserves, are well worth studying and local tourist information offices and Exmoor National Park centres have leaflets and displays to help you get the most from your visit.
Somerset is one of England’s larger counties, yet it has one of the lowest population densities and bus services are thin on the ground as a result. Where applicable, this guide provides information about the nearest bus stops to allow you to join the walk. Bus services do change and it is advisable to check routes and timetables before setting out. Similarly, where train stations are convenient, they are mentioned in the notes preceding the walk. For car drivers, this guide will direct you towards free parking where it is available and, where it is not, to a car park where a modest charge may be required. Some car parks have height restricting barriers. If you park at the roadside, do not block access and keep clear of passing places.
Using this guide
Every walk in this book begins and ends at the same spot. With a single exception they vary in length between 4km and 14km, making them suitable for a morning or afternoon’s outing. The exception is Bath’s tunnels and canals route which is more of a full day outing, although there’s a choice of lunch stops conveniently placed close to the halfway mark. In country areas, public transport is sporadic and, as many people may be arriving by car, postcodes have been included to help find the start. Remember that postcodes are approximate only and the codes given will get you as near to the start as the technology allows. Although the routes can be generally described as ‘moderate’, some are tougher than others and a couple involve very steep slopes. Where a route involves any sections of unusually steep ground, it will be mentioned in the notes which precede each walk. The durations given are based on the time it took the authors to walk the route and should be taken as a rough guide only. Similarly, the sketch maps are merely indicative of the route and terrain and should not be relied on for navigation. Having the relevant Ordnance Survey map with you is not only good practice, it can also help interpret your surroundings and, as OS maps show rights of way, allow you to vary or extend the route. Finally, lefts and rights are given according to the direction of travel.