Posts Tagged ‘Quantock Hills’

Yesterday, I had too much of this trying to get here.

motorway traffic jam

I make no apologies for taking a picture at the wheel. We weren’t going anywhere. We were stationary on the M4 motorway that runs from east to west across southern England. Or west to east, depending on where you’re heading.

The traffic cleared after a while but the two-and-a-half-hour journey had been so extended by then that the dog needed a walk. Realising roughly where we were, I decided to see if I could also fit in a glimpse of a starling murmuration on Shapwick Heath on the way home as it was almost dusk. So I turned off the motorway and promptly got lost. With a satnav. They’re only as good as the information they are fed, which, if I’m the user, can be sorely wanting.

Nyland Hil

Anyhow, I eventually found myself on a road running along a kind of narrow, raised causeway with a water-filled ditch on either side and decided to stop to let Nora out of her misery. All she did was go mad with sniffing and then squat down and arooooo at another dog because she was spooked.

These ditches are called rhynes (rhymes with ‘seen’ not ‘rhyme’, annoyingly). They make up part of the ancient drainage system that criss-crosses the low-lying Somerset Levels to keep the area useable and productive. This is the area that was so badly flooded last winter and you can see why.

sunset over a rhyne

It’s a complex patchwork of fields and waterways, dotted with windblown trees and little basic bridges to let livestock and tractors in and out of fields. There are no hedges – you don’t need them – just gates standing alone at the roadside.

drainage ditch at sundown

You can see for miles. Here’s Glastonbury Tor on the horizon.

Across the levels to Glastonbury Tor

The hills are the first slopes of the Mendips.

lichen-covered gatepost

The Levels have a peculiar beauty, very different to the surroundings with which I’m familiar up here in the Quantock Hills. There’s something quite elemental about an area that only exists because of the constant monitoring of water levels and small adjustments to outflows and inflows. Not sure I’d like to live here with the risk of flooding but there are some really pretty old villages in the area.

lichen and barbed wire

I did see a medium-sized murmuration but I wasn’t in the right spot, so I’m going to go back and have another try soon. I think I’ll take a look at a proper map first.

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When I first moved here, my neighbours had opened permissive paths and bridleways across their land as part of the Countryside Stewardship Scheme. We could do a circular walk across their land, over hills and past ponds right from the front door without driving anywhere first. Since then, their old age and the austerity of the last few years have meant that the Council-run scheme ended and the paths fell into disrepair and were closed.

On the positive side, the closure of our most walked local route has meant I’ve been trying to discover new ways across the land nearby. Being a bit more adventurous and going in new directions is always a good thing.

We found a lovely walk the other day through the wood on the brow of the hill that I can see from my kitchen window. I haven’t found a way through the trees to a spot from which I can see the cottage yet, so lots more scope for exploration here.

woodland

labrador retriever

path through woods with dog

woods

winter sunshine through trees

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What’s better than good friends, good weather and good exercise?

The views up at Will’s Neck, the Quantocks’ highest point (about 15 minutes’ drive from Spring Cottage) were fabulous at the weekend. As clear as clear can be. When it’s like this, you can see Exmoor to the south and the Bristol Channel and the Welsh coast to the north.

Apparently Will’s Neck is a Marilyn or a type of ‘relative hill’. I find this hilarious.

I don’t know why more people don’t come up here, although I’m glad that they don’t. Even on such a lovely day we only passed about ten people all morning.

It isn’t always like this at an altitude of 1,261 ft (384 m) – for reference, Spring Cottage itself is at 210 m (I talked a lot of rubbish about this to my friend at the weekend and got my Imperial and metric measurements completely confused). It’s often shrouded in low cloud and drizzle up here, and it can be very windy, like the last time I was up here, when it was possible to believe that you were completely lost. And not everyone was having good weather either, as we could see in the distance below.

I took these pictures with my phone, which is rather unpredictable. I’ve kind of given up taking my DSLR out with me these days, particularly when I go to places I’ve been before. Perhaps it’s time for a smaller camera?

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After such a miserably wet day, yesterday evening turned out quite nice, so when I saw deer up in the field, I grabbed the camera and my keys and dashed out to photograph them.

I’m so glad I did.

The light was gorgeous and it completely made me remember what a glorious place this is.

And why I am here.

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At long last, the weather was fine and springlike this weekend, after about five weeks of grey skies and rain.

Saturday

I dropped by Nether Stowey car boot sale this morning – the first of the season – which was rather lame. A very poor turnout of sellers; about half as many as usual. I should think most people were so delighted to have some good weather for the first time in weeks, that they had other activities on their minds. I must keep going though as I’ve had such good things from there in the past: a huge fireguard, a tin bath, a great set of Hedgerow china for a song, and this Lloyd Loom linen basket/stool.

Entertainingly subtitled: ‘a Lusty product’.

I’ve finally done it up with some oil cloth from Norfolk Textiles (I’m obsessed with oilcloth) and some braid from V.V. Rouleaux and it now looks like this. I scrubbed it thoroughly but didn’t repaint it, as I wanted to keep its slightly worn appearance. But I find I neither like it particularly nor have any use for it, so I’ll probably give it away.

When I got back, I set to strimming the roadside banks, which is the perfect situation to encounter neighbours. (Round here anyone who lives within a half-mile radius is considered a neighbour as there’s no-one immediate.) I met two women passing today for the first time: one who lives in a house called Witches Barn (not sure about apostrophe) and the other, on horseback with two dogs running free (so brave, or perhaps, foolish), who is newer here than I am, which makes me feel better.

Having chatted with them, I thought, it really is a bit like The Archers, with local people being up in arms about a new anaerobic digester and various planning applications. “Where’s it all going to go?” One of them wanted to know. Where indeed? Into a big lagoon of slurry, possibly at the farm down the lane. Oh joy. It smells bad enough from time to time, as it is.

Then I lay about on the grass in the sun, listening to the birds and the tractor in the field next door, and weeded for hours and hours. Now I ache from bending and kneeling, as well as from wielding the strimmer.

Sunday

This morning I went riding: sunshine, swallows flying up high, the ground finally drying out after weeks of rain, sparrow fledglings chattering noisily in the bushes, carpets of bluebells in the woodland for as far as the eye could see, the countryside really starting to brighten as the trees thicken with leaves and rape fields come into flower. And, when we got to Cothelstone Hill, the sheer pleasure of a rare, clear, 360 degree view from the Seven Sisters. Fabulous.

It was all great until Marmalade – a rather inappropriately named black and white mare – got thoroughly fed up with me while we were trying to close a gate (easier said than done on horseback) and suddenly took off at speed straight into a tree branch that caught me on the head, back of the neck and shoulder. You’re taught to bend forward when encountering an overhanging object; if I hadn’t instinctively done that, I would have been thwacked straight in the face. Thank goodness for riding hats too, although the impact rammed mine down so hard that one my eyebrows feels bruised. Anyway, I’ll live.

I find myself thinking that this place is has marvellously healing powers for the weary mind and soul, if not the body.

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I had the Boy staying this weekend. He makes me go for proper walks, which is something that I don’t do much on my own. So, with rain clouds gathering, we headed off to Triscombe, where usually I just potter around the nursery, for a circular walk around the old quarry near Will’s Neck.

We stopped for a sandwich and a half of Quantock Ale at the Blue Ball Inn and then set off, first on the obligatory wild goose chase, and then on the proper route.

The first thing we came across was a whole, huge area of woodland that had been felled due to disease (phytophthora – not sure which kind – the trees we saw that had been felled were all pines).

The land here is owned by the National Trust and I’m not sure if this is usual when trees are felled, but the ages of the trees had been recorded across the trunk of each. It’s food for thought to see so many trees cut down like this.

Will’s Neck is the highest point in the Quantocks at 384 metres and certainly worth the climb. We only passed a couple of people on foot near the triangulation point at the top and, near the Triscombe Stone car park, some very polite mountain bikers, but for most of the two-hour walk, we had only birds or sheep for company.

This is definitely a place to bring keen walkers as it’s much less manicured than, say, Cothelstone, and is a great combination of woodland and heathland, steeped in a sense of history with an old drove road, ancient beech trees, fabulous birdsong and magnificent views.

The walk we did is described here in detail by Martin Hesp with a downloadable guide. I can confirm that the views are stunning, even on an overcast day, and that the climb is very steep – both going up and coming down (obviously). As he says, on the return to Triscombe, you do indeed feel like walking should give way to flying (or sliding). It’s not entirely clear in the picture above, quite how steep the gradient was, but we did wonder whether we were actually on a path at all at that point.

There’s a good long bit which is level, though, and there’s lots to look at, so, if you’re in the company of sympathetic companions, who don’t mind you stopping to marvel at flora and fauna and take a million pictures, it doesn’t feel hard going at all.

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Haven’t you ever wanted to go somewhere where it’s quiet enough to hear a person speaking in a field half a mile away? Where you can hear birds and animals walking through the undergrowth, even in the daytime? Where owls can keep you awake at night with their calls? Where you can get up at dawn and hear the world come alive around you as the sun rises. Where the night sky is bright with stars above the darkness of the tree canopy? Where sometimes the cloud is so low that you feel like you’re looking out of an aeroplane window? Where ponies graze freely amongst the bracken and ferns? Where views stretch for miles around and you can see both Wales and England at once? Well, maybe not the latter, but you get my drift.

The Quantock Hills are a very special place. I found myself here more or less by accident. I’m in incomer, an arriviste, but I love this place and I’m boring as hell about trying to get everyone to love it too. Only 45 minutes from Bristol, about half an hour from Bath, an hour from Cardiff, a couple of hours from London down the M4 and M5. It’s here for all of us to share if we live in the South and West of England. Blah, blah, blah.

The land is open and walkable for miles and miles around, with little pockets of agriculture where there are hedgerows like you wouldn’t believe. People care about the land here. It’s proper countryside. There aren’t accountants and bankers behind every bush, commuting to work. It’s full of people who live all their lives here. It’s England. Just as real as the inner city. And sometimes with Scottish cattle.

Lest this is starting to sound rather twee, it’s not. The mud is thick and red and runs in great gravelly rivers down the lane outside my house. The wind rattles the windows as the gales blow in off the Atlantic. The pubs and local shops are are shutting as the economy turns against them. And I ride (because rural people haven’t got cinemas or shopping malls to go to nearby) at stables that employ a person of colour who has a disability. True story. This is not The Archers or Midsomer Murders. This is real. It is the country. Our country. Even if you never come here, you need this to exist. Because once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.

Somerset County Council wants to sell off some large parcels of land in the Quantocks for very little cash. They say this will raise money for schools and hospitals but the amount being talked about is less than £1 million because the land is not worth much to anyone – you can’t develop it or change its use because it’s a protected area – an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). But sadly that doesn’t mean it’s safe. ONE MILLION POUNDS sounds a lot but to even a medium-sized organisation, it’s not much. It’s a sum that would get swallowed up by the Council in a matter of a couple of weeks’ expenditure.

You might ask why it’s endangered if use of the land is protected. Well, in private ownership there would be no duty to maintain paths and walks. No respect for plants on the marine heathland (the last bit remaining in the UK) that need to be cropped by horses (not sheep) in order to flourish best. No coppicing and maintainance of woodland so that the trees that grow here are those that are meant to be here; those that benefit the local wildlife the most. There could be a return to the mass conifer plantations of the early days of the Forestry Commission in the 1920s.

You can do something. You can sign the petition at 38Degrees. This is the organisation that made the government abandon the forest sell-off; that’s put pressure on energy suppliers to lower their tariffs and not make vast profits in the face of the fuel poverty of hundreds of thousands of people.

It takes about two minutes. Please help and please pass it on to others.

Thank you.

Postscript: The petition is now closed. 20/3/12

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