|It’s six o’clock in the morning, and I’m the only person in this house that’s awake. My bag is packed and ready for a trip over the mountaintops of South Wales, but the forecast is looking uninspiring. Rain until early afternoon, which suggests little enjoyment for most of my walking window. Widen the forecast out though, and it looks like sunshine galore to the southwest. Hmmm.
A quick burst of complete replanning, frantic printing of different bus timetables and I’m off to Bristol to catch the “Mendips Explorer” and head into an area I’ve never been to before. A look at the Cheddar Gorge and Mendips West map opens up a huge amount of possible destinations, barrows seem to ooze from every km square around here. There’s also a decent amount of open access land, which promises a day free of the irritations of blocked paths and muddy farmland.
The bus climbs out of Bristol, offering a view of Maes Knoll before passing the Stanton Drew turning. I’m tempted, but not enough. The Priddy complex is only a couple of miles west as well, but I’m not in the mood for farms today. One connection later and I’m heading through Cheddar to a little strung-out hamlet called Sandford Batch, not quite on the hills but not right down in the low-lying vale either. A path heads eastwards into community woodland, scarred by quarrying and with an impressive limekiln left as a visible reminder of industry.
Further east the woods open out to fields and as the path starts to descend I’m rewarded with a view of my first objective of the day, Dolebury Warren. From here it looks like short climb, but my route drops right down into Dolebury Bottom gorge first, adding significantly to the amount of the steep ascent. The overcast morning is slowly starting to lift, so I shed my coat and fleece before starting on the uphill.
The approach is through woods, climbing fairly sharply although not quite taking the direct route up the scarp. I’m anticipating a slog but in fact the ramparts come into sight pretty quickly – after spending so much time in the Welsh uplands it’s easy to forget that the hills here are not very big, for all that they’re very steep-sided. The sun starts to break through as I reach the western entrance.
It’s immediately apparent that this is a first rate hillfort in great preservation. There are two lines of ramparts, the inner one much higher than the outer and built of stone blocks. The western entrance is at the lowest part of the fort, which continues to climb steeply towards the top of the hill a good 30 metres higher than where I’m standing. The banks are inturned and the entrance appears to be an original one.
I follow the rampart along its northern side, steadily climbing as it goes. The fetish for building shelters that has damaged so many Bronze Age summit cairns is in evidence here too, with the plentiful stone of the rampart obviously being too difficult to resist messing about. Actually, it’s a pretty windswept place. Although the sun is now out, when it occasionally dips behind ragged cloud there’s a serious chill and I’m quickly reminded that it’s still early in the year to be wandering around a hillfort in a t-shirt.
As the rampart climbs, the views open out wonderfully in every direction but east. The Severn is the main event, looking towards Steep Holm and Flat Holm islands that we got familiar with walking the coast path on the opposite side. I also recognise Brean Down
and assume the urban sprawl to be Weston-super-Mare. Almost due west a wooded hill with open interior is the neighbouring Banwell Plain hillfort.
The ditch between the ramparts is overgrown in places, but there is obviously regular clearance of scrub going on. A couple of dog walkers and a couple of walkers are dotted around the fort, but it’s a big place and there’s no sense of intrusion. Reaching the very top of the fort there’s another entrance facing east, also looking like it’s probably original. The views are now magnificent, right across to South Wales – if the cloud and rain lifted there, I’ve no doubt the Brecon Beacons would be readily visible. To the south the high ridge of the Mendips blocks the view, open moorland that will be my next objective once I leave here.
But first there’s the southern circuit and interior. On the south side the rampart is less built-up, but the reasoning is obvious as the ground falls very steeply away to a lovely wooded gorge below. Rowberrow church is visible across the ravine, and in a field beyond there is a sizeable round barrow that just manages to be obscured by trees no matter where I stand on the rampart. I head back up into the fort’s interior, which is heavily scarred and pitted. The fort’s name gives the reason away, as it was the site of a huge artificial rabbit warren in the 17th century. At the highest part of the interior, just inside the eastern entrance, there is a low curving linear feature with a square structure inside. This was apparently the garden wall and footings of the warren-keeper’s house. I wonder what it must have been like to live here, surrounded by rabbits and the ghosts of the original inhabitants. Whatever, it makes a great spot for an early lunch before heading east.
A final touch as I leave is the way Steep Holm in the Bristol Channel is framed by the eastern entrance. What a great place this is. I reluctantly turn away, hugely impressed by this great fort with its sweeping views.
To the southeast, the route drops gently towards the upper end of a valley. On the other side is a dense conifer forest that wouldn’t be out of place above the South Wales valleys. Somewhere over there the OS map shows a pair of cairns, which I’m intending to call in on before climbing onto the main Mendips ridge. The first thing that stands out is a large area of felling – the cairns are somewhere in it, which will either make them easy to find or impossible.
Luckily there’s not a huge amount of height loss to cross the valley at its head. Bridleways head off in several directions – to get to the first cairn I take the one heading west then a fork to the southwest, which slopes gently uphill into the felled area. The map shows the cairn at a bend in the track, right in the heart of the felling. I could be back in the Welsh forests here. Forestry clearance is a messy business, often leaving deeps ruts from the machinery and then a burst of vegetation as the tree covers disappears. This is no exception. I find the cairn right by the track, hidden at first glance by the high verges pushed up by logging vehicles. It’s in a sorry state, the edge has been damaged by the felling operation and it’s covered in a tangle of brambles and bracken. The only redeeming feature is a single silver birch, left to grow on the western side of the mound.
Once over the pitiful state of the immediate surroundings though, the location can be appreciated. The cairn looks down the steep-sided valley between Dolebury Warren
to the north and the high Mendips ridge to the south. As with many of the upland cairns of South Wales, there seems to be a definite relationship between watercourses and the placing of these Bronze Age funerary monuments.
I head back the way I’ve come to the junction of paths. The second cairn is also in a felled area, this time a narrow triangle of land between tracks. The OS map shows it as right next to a bridleway heading onto Black Down
. Unfortunately the felling here has left behind a deep tangle of bracken and water-filled ruts and ridges. I head uphill, but the track seems to follow a slightly different route to the map and after a while of fruitless prodding about in the bracken and tree stumps I reluctantly abandon the search. I’m sure it’s still here somewhere, but I won’t be the one to find it this time.
Before heading on to the open moorland, the map offers one more site: Read’s Cavern. Heading ESE from the junction of paths, the track follows the course of the stream, soon opening onto a small clearing with a seat. The cavern lies immediately to the north, where the fast-running waters, cold and crystal clear, disappear into the side of the hill. The cave appears to be accessible, but only if you’re prepared for a proper caving expedition. The limestone rocks around the entrance are liberally decorated with fossils of sea-creatures from impossibly distant epochs of time.
The entrance is very small and the water pouring in suggests an instant soaking. A sign fixed to the rockface above gives an emergency call-out number in case of difficulties. I’m not equipped either mentally or physically to go pot-holing on this trip, so I sit near the entrance for a while and watch the splash and sparkle of the water.
There are more barrows shown to the northeast, as well as another cave called Aveline’s Hole. I pass various deep sinkholes, glorying in the names Bos Swallet and Rod’s Pot. Some of these are huge scoops in the ground. As the path gives way to a metalled road, a proper look at the map shows Aveline’s Hole is actually on the other side of a steep gorge, so I reluctantly abandon any idea of a visit today. There are however three barrows (the OS shows one cairn and two tumuli) in an open area of common below the northern slopes of the moorland proper.
This area is deep with the brown stalks of last year’s bracken, which makes barrow hunting somewhat difficult, although not as much as it would be on a summer visit.
I start off looking for the cairn, the northern of the three monuments on the map. After foolishly hacking my way into and back out of a briar patch thinking it was the barrow, I realise that it’s actually a very prominent feature crowned with a stand of silver birch trees. On closer inspection it’s a beauty, lots of stonework and an crisp footprint (although no kerb as such). The trees are no doubt causing damage but enhance the atmosphere immensely, especially as the sun at its zenith is now beating down through a cloudless blue sky. Something of an unexpected highlight, and definitely worth the visit.
Heading south the other two marked barrows are less easy to find. The middle barrow is a low mound next to one of the many paths that criss-cross this open area. It’s misshapen and has hawthorn growing on it, assuming I’ve even found the right thing under all the bracken. I can’t find anything in the marked position of the southernmost barrow, although I think it’s likely to be somewhere near a single silver birch, as these trees seem to feature close to many of the barrows in this area. Either it’s deeply buried in bracken or the map has it in the wrong place.
By now I’m feeling the need to press on, with the biggest hill of the day looming ahead, so I don’t stop very long to search. It is worth pausing to look at the unfolding view of the limestone cliffs across the gorge to the north. Somewhere in that hillside is Aveline’s Hole and there appears to be a hillfort or settlement on the hilltop above it. A good reason to come back to the area anyway.
The climb up onto Black Down is not too bad, a good clear path running above West Twin Brook. The excellent views north across the Severn/Bristol Channel give plenty to admire on each pause for breath. At the top of the ridge, the path is very eroded and muddy and I’m grateful that we haven’t had huge amounts of rain recently. The top of Black Down is a sponge that would make for a challenging visit in wet conditions.
There are plenty of people up here and it’s easy to see why the main path running east-west along the top of the hill is so churned up and eroded. Unfortunately, the same is also true of the pair of barrows immediately beside the path. The northeastern one has been worn down to its stonework and is in a sorry state, crossed directly by the path. The northwestern barrow has fared slightly better than its companion, not being quite so close to the main line of the path. A sparkly slab lies on the edge of the mound, crystals catching the beautiful spring sunshine.
The erosion is a shame as these are excellent barrows, substantial and upstanding, with terrific views. I look down on a now-distant Dolebury Warren
and reflect that this walk is probably going to be a bit longer than I thought! Across the Bristol Channel, the hills and mountains of South Wales are still lying under dark clouds and I’m not in the least sorry I decided on the last minute change of plan this morning.
I head south across tussocky and damp ground to the possible third barrow in the group. This one is lower and difficult to discern under dense vegetation. So dense in fact that I startle and flush a deer from the side of the mound, watching it gracefully bound across the treacherously boggy ground.
Feeling irritated/damp I carry on to until the path leaves the open access land at the ruins of a World War Two bunker. A couple of fields later and I’m back on proper terra firma, on lanes and a farm track. I’m really close to Gorsey Bigbury henge here, just a field away. But I’m also tiring now and it’s getting on, enough to stop me from the effort of seeking permission from the farmhouse – one for another day then.
Back on the main path, the summit is obvious straight ahead. The map shows a big group of barrows and it’s coming back to me that Thelonious posted some photos a while ago. The going is not too bad as the weather has been dry, but would be horrible in wet conditions.
The first barrow (Burrington 11) is to the north of the path, another substantial mound despite erosion and probable excavation. From it the barrow that the trig pillar sits on obscures the linear group to the east.
The summit mound (Burrington 13) has obviously been resurfaced fairly recently with a new cap of stonework to protect it from erosion. This is the highest point of the Mendip hills and a fantastic viewpoint. As well as the views north and west that I’ve had for most of the day, there are now views south that take in Glastonbury Tor
as well as Exmoor away to the southwest.
It’s a well visited place as you’d expect, and while I’m here there are walkers, cyclists and horseriders at various times.
The linear barrow group (Burrington 14-16) immediately east of the summit is also cracking, with wooden signs warning visitors that it is ancient monument and to keep off to prevent erosion. I imagine that the summit barrow itself was always going to be the target for most visitors, so this seems a good way to compromise and keep the other monuments from further damage. Two more barrows (Burrington 18 and 19) lie to the south, providing an excellent spot to head away from the other people and admire the linear group profiled along the skyline.
On such a lovely day, with the wind and sun on my face, this is as good a place as I could wish to be. But by now it’s getting on for 3 o’clock, so I bid a reluctant farewell to the barrows and head east. The path has been resurfaced here and initially provides nice easy going after the boggier ridge. There is a last barrow on the south side of the path (Burrington 20) which sets me on my way downhill.
Eventually the path comes to the edge of the open access land, with fields laid out to the east and another path running north-south. Right at the junction of these paths is another barrow (Burrington 22), but it’s low and buried in heather, offering little in comparison with the group on the summit. I head north briefly to look for a final barrow (Blagdon 1). It proves to be buried under the fence line and badly eroded.
From here my path goes southwest, becoming increasingly wet and marshy. I’m soon hopping precariously from tussock to tussock, and it should come as no surprise to learn that one of the tussocks proves to be less solid than it looked. My tired legs refuse to keep me upright and I’m down on one knee, with an unpleasant feeling of cold, black water trickling into the top of my boot. Gah.
My route heads east again, passing one barrow on the map that doesn’t appear to exist anymore, a load of the cutest spring lambs you ever saw, and then the obvious mound of Rhino Rift barrow. It’s perched above the edge of a steep sided wooded ravine, which presumably is the Rhino Rift itself. The barrow is not round, rather it’s an elongated shape, higher at one end than the other. I’m not surprised to read Chance’s post that it has been considered as a possible long barrow, although it’s not that long.Another descent, this time into Black Rock gorge, which reminds me strongly of the limestone country of both the Gower and Peak District. I’m nearing the head of Cheddar Gorge now, and I’m not really sure what the pedestrian access is going to be like. It’s also getting busier, as families have come here to enjoy the beautiful spring weather. With this in mind, when I see a finger post marked “Cheddar” I decide to take it. There’s an initial steep climb into some woods, but then the horrific sight of steep steps ahead. I push myself up them, creaking and groaning at the seams now.
Finally at the top and a narrow path skirts along the north of the gorge itself, over exposed and uneven limestone. The scenery becomes spectacular, looking along the gorge through the cliffs at its end. A little stile with a sign warning of the drop gives access to a sloping grassy area right on the edge of the cliffs. The view drops straight down to the road, where miniature people and cars bustle far below. For the first time I can recall I’m vertiginous, not helped by the family of sheep of some ancient breed that scamper about the hillside around me. I beat a hasty retreat to the stile, pleased to put a wall between me and certain death. The path downhill becomes steeper and steeper and by now my feet are aching from the rough terrain. I had hoped to explore the gorge itself, but I’m exhausted now and just want to stop walking.
By the time I reach the village I’ve missed the bus and could do with having a lie down. This last section has proved to be very hard country, especially at the end of a 12 mile walk. But boy has it been rewarding. From the brilliance of Dolebury Warren, the long views of the southwest and Wales, the superb barrow cemetery on Beacon Batch and the spectacular scenery of the gorge at the end, this is definitely an area to come back to. Perhaps with a little more planning next time though. Adios Somerset.