Welcome to LEJoG Day 18… what a load of Quantocks

Day 18 pre-amble

So you’re a keen walker and music lover. Your next blog post is dedicated to a walk through the Quantock Hills. Thus far you’ve indulged in a few punning titles for posts, taking care to explain or deconstruct but never apologise. What potential title would spring to mind for today?

It might well be this. Let’s face it, if you really wanted a punning title, this is unimprovable. But it’s already taken, so there’s little to be gained from asking the grey matter to come up with something comparable. You’ll always know someone got there first and did it better. Instead, time to reflect and pay a small tribute to the man behind that title.

He is Mr Stuart Maconie, former NME writer credited with one of the great abiding urban legends, ubiquitous talking head on nostalgia-fests (I’m genuinely fond of his contribution to ‘I Love 198x’ when it talked about Wham!“, because he was absolutely spot on) and long-serving BBC Radio broadcaster. And a writer of many thoroughly enjoyable books providing insights into the people and customs of Great Britain.

I didn’t read that particular book until 2018, almost a decade after starting on his oeuvre. You might just notice a theme as I lay the other titles out in order of when I read them: Cider With Roadies, Pies and Prejudice, Adventures on the High Teas, Hope and Glory, The People’s Songs, The Pie At Night, Long Road From Jarrow. And finally Never Mind The Quantocks.

Actually, apart from those puns, walking or travelling the country is another common theme: ‘Long Road From Jarrow’ follows the route of the Jarrow March eighty years later in order to review the state of the nation. Three of the other books have subtitles “in search of…” either the north or ‘Middle England’. ‘NMTQ’ consists of Maconie’s columns from Country Walking magazine. He also writes for Cumbria Life and is the president of the Ramblers.

I’d say he was one of the quiet inspirations behind my hobby, helping me to see it as a satisfying and even adventurous pastime, and confounding this kind of stereotype. (0:45)

My favourite of his books, however, remains the one which appeals more to the historian I was rather than the walker I became. ‘Hope and Glory’ selects one day from each decade of the 20th century and explains how it helped shape modern Britain. It’s really convincingly and engagingly written, full of unexpected educational digressions that you wouldn’t expect to find in a more academic survey, and there’s a carefully-maintained balance between anger and joy, optimism and cynicism.

Given the changes wrought in Britain since its publication in 2011, I can’t help but wonder which two dates the author would choose from each decade of the 21st century were he to extend the survey. My bet would (sadly) be on this one and (inevitably, I’m afraid) this one. I suspect a number would plump for this, but its status as some kind of halcyon moment when all of us came together has been overstated. Also it can easily be linked to both of the events chosen. For instance see this piece, and note the date of this announcement.

Even ‘Hope and Glory’, though, is part travelogue and invokes the mentality of the walker at the end of its introduction:

‘These were the days that made us, and these are the day trips to find them. Should we do a flask? And are you sure you’ll be warm enough in that coat?’

And here’s the end of my introduction for today. Yes it was misty on those Quantocks, hence my failure to resist a mild pun even though the ultimate one had been claimed by Mister Maconie.

LEJoG Day 18 (Sunday 27 May 2018)

Sampford Brett to Bishops Lydeard (13 miles)

Cumulative: 244½ miles

Facts: Time on walk: 4 hours. Average speed: 3.25 mph. Weather: Early morning rain, wet ground; very misty on Quantocks, brightening later. Warm, cloudy afternoon.

Practicalities: Just started walking after leaving by the front door. Charles and Martine kindly allowed me to leave my car outside. After the walk, caught a bus from Bishops Lydeard back to Sampford Brett and drove back to the Lethbridge Arms. My accommodation was close to the bus stop at both ends.

The walk

Start: Old School House, Sampford Brett, 10:50am. End: Lethbridge Arms, Bishops Lydeard, 3:20pm.

For those following the route carefully, the first thing to note is that the Old School House is right on the Macmillan Way West, and I will be following that long distance path for all bar the last 45 minutes (around 2½ miles) of today’s walk. So here’s a link to a very useful site which shows the route of long distance paths across the UK. In this case the red line shows the Macmillan Way West: you can enlarge the map for additional detail. I will pick up the route-finding again when I leave the path.

My Bank Holiday weekend was due to end in Bridgwater. I have not chosen the most direct route from Minehead, because I wanted to maximise my time on the Quantocks. This is the only reason I stayed in Bishops Lydeard, which is otherwise too far south and the first real outlier on my route. If you are more interested in moving quickly, I recommend following Day 12 in Andy Robinson’s End to End Trail. He still visits the summit of the Quantocks at Wills Neck. My route is exactly the same between Bicknoller and a point just SE of Wills Neck. Where Robinson contours Lydeard Hill and heads E toward Goathurst, I proceed SE to Cothelstone Hill.

The first mile out of Sampford Brett is a blend of fields, minor roads and farm tracks. The first break from this comes when you cross the line of the West Somerset Railway, shortly before the A358. A steam train just happened to be passing as I approached, necessitating a wait of a minute or so. It was too close for a good, evocative photo. My only record of the moment is a single carriage that can’t even be identified as being attached to a steam-powered locomotive. So I’d click on the website link if you want something to fire your imagination.

After crossing the A358 you are soon in the charming village of Bicknoller. Here begins a long climb alongside Bicknoller Combe to the main Quantocks ridge. Now, an OS map will tell you that the height atop the ridge (at Black Ball Hill) is 315m. This is really quite puny compared to the Peak District or Lake District. But let me tell you, this feels like a much steeper, harder climb than that. I’m not claiming it’s Jacob’s Ladder on Kinder, or Dollywaggon Pike on the way to Helvellyn. But it left me “puffed out” as they used to say at school.

I think this is also the first time I used my compass on LEJoG. There’s clearly no need on the South West Coast Path (sea on your left!), but on gaining the ridge there were two issues: heavy mist and a lot of different paths on the ground. If I’d trusted instinct alone I would probably have carried on too far east rather than heading SE. Anyway, as plenty of walkers will attest, there’s little to beat some sustained ridge walking after a decent climb. The only problem in this particular instance was the mist obscuring the more expansive views I’d worked hard to attain. A minor shame, for this could well be the only time I visit the Quantock Hills.

It’s very difficult to go wrong with navigation and the walking is easy, passing Hurley Beacon on the way to Crowcombe Park Gate. The route between Crowcombe Park Gate and Triscombe Stone is much more enclosed by trees. This was unfortunate as the skies had begun to brighten. Just after passing a car park and gate near Triscombe Quarry, there is a right hand fork which takes you to Wills Neck, the highest point in the Quantocks. This is where I had lunch at about 1:15.

Wills Neck trig point - highest point in the Quantock Hills

The trig point at Wills Neck

Exmoor ponies, Quantock Hills, LEJoG Day 18

Exmoor ponies, shortly after leaving Wills Neck

More open country walking follows, past the Bagborough Plantation and Lydeard Hill. The mist had dissolved and the views were now green, pleasant and much more extensive. Can I say this? It’s my blog so I’ll go ahead…

The Quantock Hills Area of Natural Beauty is undoubtedly attractive. However, I did not find it exhilarating in the way I do the National Parks, and particularly mountain regions. Also it paled in comparison to large parts of the South West Coast Path. I guess the more walking you do, the more you learn about what really inspires you. It’s not a value judgement – I certainly don’t regard my taste as superior. More “live and let live” I suppose. If this is what you look for, great: it’s just that I’d done Skiddaw, Blencathra, the Newlands Horseshoe and Scafell Pike not two weeks earlier and felt like I wanted more.

Shortly after parting company with Robinson near Lydeard Hill, you rejoin the road at Birches Corner, heading for the four-way junction near Park End Lodge. Almost immediately after crossing into the eastbound road, take a footpath on your right which ascends to the top of Cothelstone Hill. In sections this is as steep as the earlier climb out of Bicknoller, but it’s much shorter. The views from here were actually better than those from Wills Neck. By now it was also much warmer than any other time today or on Saturday. I could hear a race announcer, a sound which became much clearer as I descended from the hills after a short stop. Must have been the first two races of this meeting.

That descent is where I left the Macmillan Way West in order to reach my accommodation at Bishops Lydeard. In all honesty I’m not sure if it’s worth the trip just to ensure you get a full day in the Quantocks. Nothing at all wrong with the village or the Lethbridge Arms. Be warned though: once you’re out of the hills you have a couple of miles on roads. Although mainly straight, they have no verges and are not really wide enough for two cars and a walker to share comfortably. Walk facing the traffic (on the right… it still surprises me how many casual walkers don’t do this) and be prepared to push yourself into the hedge when a car comes towards you.

The only navigational issue you might have is right after leaving the Macmillan Way West, when you need to descend via the more direct (i.e. steeper) green dotted line on the map rather than the red one. As you can see there are a lot of paths on the ground at this point and a compass will really help. Once on the road, follow it SW through Cothelstone, go straight across at the crossroads and follow that road for just over 1 mile into Bishops Lydeard.

After the walk

Once I’d caught the bus and driven back, I got hold of tomorrow’s bus timetables. Really couldn’t afford to miss one on a Bank Holiday, with a long drive back home to come. Ate a very good chicken and chorizo salad at the Lethbridge Arms. Noting this was on draught, I decided to neck a pint.

What other verb was I ever going to use there, mister?

Postscript – My Listening Pleasure

Natural sounds only: no music or podcasts today. Playing this would have been taking the theme too far.

Picture (27 May 2018) shows a marker post for Halsway, on the main ridge heading SE across the Quantocks. Chosen for the backdrop, to illustrate the mist which had descended on the hilltops and which dominated the view until around 1pm.

Next: Day 19 (28 May 2018)… in which the first LEJoG existential crisis is faced down.

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