Back at the very end of October, before we went into our last national lock down, I spent two days based in Bridgewater (I do love a Premier Inn, always reliable) for a very mini solo hiking adventure in the Quantock Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. I used my weekly blog (Weekly Blog Episode 42) to chat about it at the time, and I promised that I’d return to this weekend in order to share the routes for the two short hikes I ended up doing in the area.
If you have never hiked in the Quantocks, as I hadn’t until that weekend, you may not know that it is actually our first designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty here in the UK. IT was given the title back in the 1950s thanks to its distinctive cultural and spiritual heritage. I chose this as the location for the simple reason that I don’t recall hiking there before, although I know I’ve visited, and while the weather really tried to stop me having fun, the Quantocks turned out to be everything I wanted and more.
I planned and intended to do Trail Magazine’s What a Lot of Quantocks 25 mile route over two days (with a little extra to turn it into a figure of eight based from the car park at Dead Woman’s Ditch so I could easily do it in two days rather than one long day). I had looked at the official “Quantock Greenway” route around the AONB, as I’m a sucker for a waymarked long-distance path, but a friend and some research told me that this didn’t really show off the best of the area, so I chose the Trail Magazine route instead.
I was excited to get some proper hiking miles under my belt in a year which has very much been about short walks from home. But as seems to be typical with me, and with 2020, the weather had other ideas. As with my trip to the Lake District in the summer (Weekly Blog Episode 16 and Episode 33), a massive storm rolled in and battered the area. Storm Aiden was full of strong winds and very heavy rain, local National Trust properties closed for the day, and there was a travel warning. It also made for particularly unpleasant hiking conditions, and so I made the call once there to do some shorter walks instead.
In the end I did a short hike from Dead Woman’s Ditch and a half-day wander from Holford, both wet but wonderful. I also played tourist a bit too, with time for a visit to Watchet, an ancient and rather delightful little harbour town where the skies were clearer, and finished up with a quick visit to Clevedon on my way home. But anyway, those walking routes.
Hike 1: Dead Woman’s Ditch and St David’s Well
Being the stubborn person I am, I headed to my planned car park at Dead Woman’s Ditch and started my day by following the Trail Magazine route I’d planned. It seemed like a good place to start; there are a lot of footpaths criss-crossing the Quantocks, and having this route in mind meant I at least had a direction in which to head at the start of the day.
Of course, it wasn’t long before I deviated from my set route and made it up as I went along. The weather was just atrocious. Wet, windy, muddy, wholly unpleasant.
They say there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothing. I’m not sure who “they” are, but I both agree and disagree with this statement. I was as prepared as I could be – my best head to toe waterproofs, and my reasonably new but already trusted KEEN Targhee III boots (more on those later).
The bit that’s missing from that statement is “and bad decisions”. The fact is that I was here to enjoy myself, not test my reliance. Apart from the risk of falling branches from the wind and getting wet through to my knickers, I wasn’t particularly unsafe hiking in Storm Aiden, I was certainly within my outdoors skillset. It was, however, beyond the boundaries of type two fun.
Once I’d reached the Quantocks car park, where I was surprised but pleased to find the toilets open given that most places have closed their public facilities during the pandemic, I decided to shorten my route and see what interesting features I could find in the woodland.
I wandered along footpaths and bridleways through beautiful woodland, and even with the rain it was utterly wonderful. There is just something about woodland in the rain; the moss is brighter, the ferns are greener, and the scene is moodier. I did play path or stream quite a bit along the way, there was a whole lot of water everywhere, and I maintain even two months later that shortening my route was the right choice for the horrendous conditions.
I walked through Quantock Combe to St David’s Well, an ancient but undated stone well at a spring. One of the Holy Wells in Somerset, it’s deep in the woods, and likely to have been built to service pilgrims and merchants walking through the area. I imagine it would fit well in a Thomas Hardy novel, even more so now I have learnt it is apparently haunted. The well is marked on the OS Map, and is well worth searching out if you are walking in the Quantocks, it’s a rather beautiful and unusual sight in the woods.
My made-up route then took me through Great Quantock Farm and up onto the Macmillan Way West. This 100-ish mile waymarked route can be joined to the Macmillan Way-proper to make a 346-mile route from Barnstaple to Boston. At some point I should use the Macmillan Way to walk home, especially seeing as it passes so close to my now home in Gloucestershire. It’s on the list. The routes have been created to help raise funds for Macmillan Cancer Support, a charity you know I support (read about the Graham Homes Memorial Ride), maybe this is something I should start planning.
By the time I reached the lane at Crowcombe Combe, having walked just three or four miles, I was completely drenched and ready for lunch. My final mile, therefore, took me across open moorland back to Dead Woman’s Ditch. This was a completely different landscape than the rest of the walk, which had been deep in managed and ancient woodland. On a better day, the views would have been much bigger, I’m sure, but the wild and rugged scenery of this part of the Quantocks was still picturesque.
What I ended up with was a really lovely 4-ish mile circular route from Dead Woman’s Ditch that I would gladly walk again and recommend to you if you’ve got a couple of hours to spend in the Quantocks AONB. A reasonably easy going (although very muddy when I went) wander through woodland and across moorland, with plenty to see along the way.
Hike 2: Holford Combe, Hurley Beacon and Alfoxden Park
The following day, the weather was still very unsettled, and I was still drying out, so my second day in the Quantocks was spent doing an intentionally shorter walk. A friend had suggested the Holford area already, and I found a 6.5mile circular route from Holford thanks to the Discover Routes feature on OS Maps created by Country Walking magazine.
And I’m so glad I did. The path through Holford Combe was just the most beautifully wonderful path to wander along. It might have not rained that morning, but it was so wet underfoot, but that just didn’t matter. I didn’t see a soul as I walked through the ancient woodland and made deliberately slow progress along a wide and fast flowing stream, crossing it a few times (there are fords marked on the OS Map), and taking all the photographs. It was so peaceful and charming, exactly what I needed.
Once I reached the end of the valley and headed up a steep bank through the woodland, I found myself leaving the shelter of the trees and out in the open heathland of the Quantocks. Frog Hill could not have been more different to the Combe – open, wild, very windy, rugged, and with feint views of the sea in the distance.
The ground was completely waterlogged, and my games of footpath or stream became more frequent and much harder to work around. I really wished I hadn’t left my gaiters in the car boot (what did I say about wrong clothing and bad decisions?!). Even with that, the scenery was exactly what I love – big, rugged, empty.
I walked around Wilmot’s Pool, which did invite me in for a dip on this occasion, and up to the 358metre high trig pillar, not the highest in the Quantock Hills AONB, but not too shabby (I lived in Lincolnshire for 20 years, remember). My route then headed along another stretch of the Macmillan Way West towards the coast, but before I picked that up, I took a short there-and-back detour to Hurley Beacon to see what it was.
One of the reasons I love having a “proper map” is that features are marked which spark interest. A lot of the time unless you Google it ahead of time there’s not enough information to know what’s there without going to see, and so that’s exactly what I did. Hurley Beacon turned out to be a massive Cairn, a huge pile of carefully placed rocks standing just 2m high but 24 metres, with views in all directions.
Dating back to the Bronze Age, it was originally a Bronze Age burial mound and fire beacon – definitely another scene from a Thomas Hardy novel. It would have been surrounded by 12 additional Cairns (some of which remain), also burial mounds, and was a very highly regarded place to be buried in the Bronze Age. A worthwhile detour, for sure.
I followed the Macmillan Way West to Bicknoller Post, an actual post which would have been a useful boundary marker and navigation aid in years gone by, and then headed gradually downhill and back into woodland.
The final section of this walk went through Alfoxden Park, which is where William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy lived for a year in at the end of the 1700s. It looks like someone has moved in and is working on the large but crumbling house, I hope that it can be restored as it must have been a stunning place back in the day. I reckon I can be pretty certain that the paths I walked on this particular Sunday morning had been trodden by Wordswoth over 200 years ago, inspiring him to write something rather more poetic than this blog post. I don’t know about you, but I found that thought quite special.
With the detour I added, this was a seven-mile half-day walk with everything I wanted. It was honestly one of the best short walks I’ve done for a long time, certainly in 2020, the combination of sheltered woodland, fast flowing streams, open heathland, and views of the sea, made this ideal. If you’ve got just half a day in the Quantocks, this is the hike you should do.
My KEEN Targhee III Hiking Boots
You know I love a good pair of hiking boots, and this seems like an excellent opportunity to tell you about the KEEN Targhee III boots I’ve been wearing a lot this autumn and winter. I’d already been wearing my Targhee III boots for a fair few miles before this weekend away, including on walks up my local hills and in Shropshire (Weekly Blog Episode 41), but it was on these two short walks that I really put them through their paces and confirmed my opinion of them.
The Targhee III hiking boots (here at KEEN, here at Cotswold Outdoor), the waterproof version, were a present from KEEN to celebrate their 15th anniversary earlier this Autumn. And I have to say, there is a reason that KEEN have been making these boots for 15 years; they are excellent.
These are a lightweight, waterproof, and large fitting hiking boot with a massive toe-box area and a reasonably low ankle height designed for any kind of hiking you choose to do. They are grippy enough, flexible around the foot, bouncy underfoot, and have a nice big toe box great for keeping your feet happy all day long. They are not heavy-duty full leather hiking boots like my Meindl Bhutans (and are half the price…), but as such they do a different job, and have proved to be excellent for hiking in muddy woodland, up winding hill paths, and across open moorland.
These two hikes in the Quantock Hills AONB might have only been 11-12 miles combined, but the conditions really were quite tough, thanks to Storm Aiden and the unassuming but completely waterlogged terrain. These boots held up very well; they dealt with the rain, cold, mud, slippery leaves (my nemesis!), precarious water crossings, steep climbs, rocky sections, gravelly bits, and everything else. While I wouldn’t choose these for winter mountain conditions or serious scrambles, I will pick these up for pretty much everything else. It’s great to find something you can be confident in.
The latest iteration of the Targhee are more eco-friendly than before, and it is great to see KEEN take this seriously. Outdoors industries are getting better. There are no PFCs in the water repellent coating, in favour of an eco-friendly alternative, and the inner lining and sole an anti-odour treatment that utilises a safe, naturally occurring probiotic proven to be just as effective in odour control as the chemical alternatives.
If you are considering the KEEN Targhee III for your next hiking boot and have any questions, please do ask, I’m happy to help if I can.
Next Time in the Quantock Hills
I reckon I manged to get a teeny taste of everything the Quantocks has to offer; ancient woodland, open and rugged heathland, and views of the sea. The different views and terrains fit together like some sort of strange puzzle of mismatched scenery that comes together in an absolutely perfect photograph. And yes, even accounting for Hinkley Point Power Station dominating the landscape. I admit I completely fell in love with the place, what a gem.
There is no doubt that I will be back in the Quantocks for more walking as soon as it is deemed appropriate. If you’ve got route suggestions for me then please send them my way and I’ll add them to my list.
With huge thanks to KEEN for the gift of the Targhee III hiking boots. This is not a sponsored post.