«il to 27th June 1998 88 days i The planning stage of this journey encompassed a period of 12 months. Fitness We set ourselves a fitness program to ...»
From the office window there is a close and splendid view of a beautiful old church which has a naturally bonsied 300 year old yew tree growing in the mortar of the tower. The sofa bed is, however, lumpy in the extreme and I have to put my head where my feet are
Things have so far worked out well. Let us hope that we are watched over for the rest of our journey for we have only just begun. The kindness and generosity of those we have met along the way warms the heart and lifts the spirits. No bad news on this journey.
We walk through the churchyard in a veil of light snow and head towards the Blackdown Hills. The Blackdown Hills are a mid-range group of hills lying on the border of Devon and Somerset. “This sure beats working” Philip comments through a misty exhalation. His face smiles, though because of his cold face, his mouth turns only slightly.
Through a farm and then we strain up yet another very steep muddy hill past the Culmstock Beacon. Before electronic communications hilltop beacons were used to pass messages of imminent danger or news of celebration. England’s hilltop beacon sites were kept prepared, fuelled and manned and used to pass the signal from hilltop to hilltop, community to community. Culmstock Beacon, on the top of the Blackdown Hills, is an ancient beacon site, the beacon is built from local Chert stone and is a protected Ancient Monument. At Culmstock Beacon we reach the ridge way that will take us along the top of the Blackdowns and then we turn down into the Vale of Taunton. The sky clears to a patchy blue and the wind is again a northerly artic in our faces. We feel like explorers on top of the world as we follow a bridleway across the yellow gorse covered hilltop. Lots of mud and then into a dense wood and Somerset.
Again the countryside changes as we enter another county. Somerset is more wooded and has a rustic and soft beauty. Trees grow in long lines from high, mossy and dark wet earth mounds that line the lanes and tracks. These must once have been hedges. There is a fairyland quality to our surroundings, somewhat fey and whimsical with a gentle eeriness. Wisps of mist and high keening yowls would not be out of place here. We come out of the woods onto a road and the clouds mate and give birth to large flakes of snow.
The flurries turn to fast and furious. What fun! The Harrier Pub is ahead and our minds fill with visions of a bowl of hot soup and a fire to warm our toes. Open fires are a homespun saga of comfort and rest. From cave dweller to modern man, the fire in the hearth is home. Coal and wood are in our genes.
The Trull Road dips down the hill towards Taunton. This town holds so many wonderful memories for us, for here in the 80’s we escaped with our then young children from the constraints of our own world in Sydney and for three years lost ourselves in the flowers, hedges and soft rain of Somerset.
It is so lovely to see Maureen and Peter again. We inspect the pond and the summer house. The children, Tracy and Simon, now grown come by to say “hello”. We sit in the sun room and look out over our old cottage. Time it passes. There is much catching up to do and the evening wears almost to morning before we say goodnight. The years apart have little bearing on the connection of friends and we are sad to say farewell.
It is two miles walk back into Taunton. A visit to the Post Office is a waste of time for our maps have not arrived. We can’t wait around, we have miles to walk so we post our used maps and buy more for the next part of our journey (we will have to mark out our route again on these), some provisions at Marks and Spencers and off we head along the Taunton and Bridgewater Canal to the north east of Taunton. Steady rain falls about and on us (what a surprise!!) and the early part of the walk is rather depressing and unattractive. We stop under the shelter of a small concrete bridge where we make our morning coffee and eat some of the shortbread biscuits we bought. Food has a cheering quality on a grey day such as this and the hot mug warms my hands. A mother duck and five ducklings join us and we scatter some crumbs for them. A chilly spring for baby ducks.
We leave the canal at Creech St Michael and walk through the village of Ham to the east bank of the River Tone. The walking along this part of the Curry Moor Trail is level but is made tricky by the knee high wet grass, and still the rain comes down in great pelting sheets, dampening spirits and making the walking even more arduous and unpleasant.
We can feel the rain running into our boots. Even our waterproofs can not keep it out. We are so cold and so wet. This is definitely the worst day so far. We plod on, heads down and rain rain rain all around. There is nothing much to say about this day as it is dreary in the extreme.
Evening approaches and we detour into Stoke St. Gregory in search of B & B. We are thwarted at every turn - away on holidays, renovating, full.....and so it goes on. The local shopkeeper gives us the phone number of a woman at Stathe. This is en route so we head off, and around us the evening is drawing in, dark and dismal. The prospect of camping is a woeful one, even if we could find somewhere to place our tent. All the fields are under crops and probably inches of water by now. We trudge on through the rain and the north wind blows. At the first phone box Philip rings but the phone answers with the tone of a fax machine so on we go. Another phone box stands ahead and Philip crams himself in 24 with his pack to make the call. Eileen answers “Yes, just around the corner, come in the back”. Relief swamps my already soaking self!
Short steps (the phone box is actually within view of the farmhouse) and we stand before a beautiful 18th century Grade II listed red brick farmhouse with stone sills and a flat roofed wooden columnar porch. No B & B sign, but this is it. Stathe Mead says the sign.
We walk in the back entrance past the out buildings and leave our wet gear to drip and drip in the drying room. My eyes are everywhere as Eileen walks us through her home to our bedroom for the night. We enter through an imposing panelled door and there amid the warm dry air is big brass bed. Downstairs Eileen has fire crackling and leaping with heat in the great hearth in the drawing room. We sit our skin happy to absorb the warmth.
A cup of tea in hand we feel the homeliness that settles us deeply into the softness of the sofa. Golden harmony is between us. The bathroom is bigger than the bedroom and the bath could hold a family. Changed and renewed we come back down for more tea and Eileen’s homemade stilton cheese and bread. “This dreadful weather has some benefits Philip”, I say, knowing that if it were fine we would be camping.
Smoked salmon, scrambled eggs and more homemade bread sitting at a magnificent table made of 300 year old elm. Unfortunately we have to enter the day and walk on.
It is brighter outside and the sunlight filters through weakly. Our legs stretch out as we stride across the Somerset levels, 250 miles of flat, wet land, the summer land of winter floods. Nowhere on the levels is above 25 feet above sea level. The sea is kept back by a coastal clay ridge. The sea once covered these levels but retreated around 3,500years ago.
In Prehistoric times islands (hill tops or tors) rose from the waters and Prehistoric man built wooden trackways to travel from one tor to another. Iron Age villages have been excavated near Meare and Glastonbury. Glastonbury Lake Village was a thriving community for hundreds of years and its remains have been well preserved in the peat.
The Romans farmed here too but the Saxons made the biggest impact and came to this area for the rich grazing and fertile lands. They chose the Tors as the site of abbeys and monasteries such as Glastonbury Abbey, the remains of which can be seen today.
The flooding water was managed by using small fields and ditches called Rhines, straightened river channels, cut into the land forming a pattern of glistening lines. These reduce the amount of water lying on the ground and beside them are clear dirt paths to follow. The levels are rich in wildlife such as otters, dragonflies, butterflies, water beetles and migrating birds. The flora and fauna include many that are rare or endangered elsewhere. All this can be appreciated as we slowly tread our even way towards Aller.
Spring is finally wakening the world of green and we can see tiny violets peeping out and the green buds on the trees are promising soon to burst bright leaves. Relaxed and feeling far from the world, we sit on an old log and have morning coffee absorbing the damp green smells of life renewing itself. “I am loving these days Philip” I say. Philip raises his head “I believe this is going to be the best thing we ever do” he says. “We will never take the tourist bus.” Yes, we are enamoured with the gentle footsteps on the land for this is what it is all about, this is freedom in a beautiful world. Early bluebells nod in the breeze and promise is in the air. Promise of beauty. Happiness surges, we really are on our way. We are following Spring north through beautiful Britain.
Further into the woods we come to an area cleared of trees, the skeletons of those trees, trunk and wood, lie in neat piles in even rows. Here Philip finds me a fine walking stick, long, straight and strong to help me hold my balance in the many quagmires along the route.
We leave the wood and walk on and on by fields and through villages with cottages of grey stone flecked with yellow and neat walled gardens. Down into a valley threaded with hedges on green grassy ground and across Somerton Moor then steeply up Watton Hill from where there is a fine view of the small town of Street.
We have jobs to do in Street, a ’to do’ list to complete. I volunteer and Philip sits with our packs and waits.
“I saw a tea shop up the road” I say “Sounds good to me” Philip replies. Later we trudge on along a lane on South Moor to Glastonbury.
In surreal abruptness, Glastonbury Tor rises from the flat expanse of the Somerset Levels in a rather incongruous manner, more like a watercolour impression of nature than nature herself. As we approach Glastonbury our eyes are drawn to the 500 feet, conical form of the Tor and the ruined chapel atop it which looks like an outlandish chess piece on a patchwork board of hues of green. There is no doubt that it has a numinous presence that is perpetuated by the legends that encircle it. The curious, the devout and the crazy make pilgrimages here to see the Abbey and the first Christian altar in Britain or to try and absorb some of the mystery of King Arthur, the symbol of British unity against the Saxons, and Guinevere who are said to be laid to rest here and of course to climb the magic Glass Isle, Avalon, that is Glastonbury Tor.
The last mile or two of each day’s walking is the hardest.
We almost drag our feet as our minds have already tuned to the end and a long rest.
Finally we arrive and the standard is high and the facilities excellent. Up goes the tent and dinner is soon cooked and with the setting sun the cold rises from the ground and we crawl into our tent and curl up in our sleeping bags insulated against the frosty night.
And so we sleep here beneath the shadow of the mystical tor. What dreams will this night bring, close to the earth of a place so mythical and magical?
The Holy Grail “Stories of a sacred vessel dear to the Celts became entwined with the story of Christ's Last Supper and the Christian Holy Grail which inspired quests and crusades across England, Europe and the Far East.
The Glastonbury and Somerset legends involve the boy Jesus together with his Great-Uncle, Joseph of Arimathea building Glastonbury's first wattle and daub church. These legends gave rise to the continuing cult of the Virgin on the site of the present Lady Chapel and inspired the title 'Our Lady St. Mary of Glastonbury,' which is still used today.
After the crucifixion of Jesus lore has it that Joseph of Arimathea (who according to the Bible donated his own tomb for Christ's interment after the Crucifixion) came to Britain, bearing the Holy Grail - the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper and later by Joseph to catch his blood at the crucifixion.
When Joseph landed on the island of Avalon, he set foot on Wearyall Hill - just below the Tor. Exhausted, he thrust his staff into the ground, and rested. By morning, his staff had taken root - leaving a strange oriental thorn bush - the sacred Glastonbury Thorn.
For safe keeping, Joseph is said to have buried the Holy Grail just below the Tor at the entrance to the Underworld. Shortly after he had done this, a spring, now known as Chalice Well, flowed forth and the water that emerged brought eternal youth to whosoever would drink it.
Intertwining the myths and legends of Glastonbury Abbey's history, it is widely believed that finding The Holy Grail Joseph is said to have hidden was years later the purpose behind the quests of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.” www.glastonburyabbey.com
Our first really sunny day! Not such a good night’s sleep, the chill got in. But when sleep finally eased beneath my eyelids there was no room for dreams amid the weariness.
Shake away expressions of lassitude for the day is bright and energetic!
Off we go again, walking over hill and dale. We leave Glastonbury, cross a bridge and head north east along a lane lying straight like a ruler across Queen’s Sedgemoor. Now we again walk on land that is level, dotted with farms and criss-crossed with channels of water. The water sits in its channels beside the lane looking rather dead and green and a breeding place for tadpoles, fish and the insects they consume. The winter floods seem a distant thought. It is a civilised terrain, a haven for birdlife and the walking is pleasant.