Lockdown has just been eased and I’m heading north up the M5 to meet up with Mark; he’s an old climbing friend from the 80s and we’ve had some great times together and some real adventures too (including an ill-fated attempt to cross to Lundy in a second world war landing craft with a group of Royal Marines in a force 9 gale). I enjoy walking with Mark as he’s enormously knowledgeable about the landscapes we visit, and I always learn something new.
I arrive at the car park at King’s Wood, near Cheddar, bang on 10:30 – unfortunately Mark’s been waiting half an hour as I told him I’d be there at 10:00… Still, it’s a sunny day and he’s gracious about the misunderstanding as we set off through the woods, heading along the West Mendip Way towards Crook Peak. The woods are beautiful, ancient and deciduous, but marred by many, many sickly ash trees – suffering from ash dieback – that Mark says will be dead and gone in a year or so, leaving the woodland less lovely than now.
Pretty soon we pass one of my pet hates; dog shit on the path and then, worse, black bags of the stuff by the side of the path or hanging from branches. Mark hates it too, and grumbling about people who behave like this takes us out of the woods and up onto Wavering Down.
It’s beautiful up here – a broad gentle ridge leading west with great views in all directions. It’s gentle walking and not too busy, so we move on quickly – grumbling all the way. People who allow their dogs to chase sheep; the recent antics of Dominic Cummings and then the farce that is the Johnson government get us as far as Barton Hill from where the meaningless phrase ‘social distancing’ takes us to the rocky outcrop at the top of Crook Peak – our furthest point for today.
We’ve been going an hour and it’s hot, so we sit and drink water – Marloe the dog finishing most of mine – and take in the exceptional views. Behind us to the east is the ridge we’ve walked, Cheddar Reservoir and the Mendips. Ahead, beyond the M5 below us, is Brean Down, the Bristol Channel with twin islands Flat Holm and Steep Holm and then Wales. To the south west, following the coast, we can see the Quantocks and then Exmoor, but best of all, to the south are the Somerset Levels – a great flat expanse of fields stretching as far as we can see and punctuated, abruptly, by the miniature peak of Glastonbury Tor – a really remarkable view.
After a while we head off, retracing our steps initially, before leaving the track and following a small path contouring round the southern slopes of the ridge, muttering now about the state of modern climbing and climbers and then, vehemently, about the unneeded fingerposts, indicating footpaths, which seem to be springing up everywhere. The heat has a thundery feel to it and to our right we can see squally showers tracking across the Levels, but none come this way, so we stay dry.
We see a few (remarkably few, Mark says) butterflies – mainly meadow browns and a few marbled whites. The hillside looks like typical limestone country with bare knuckles of stone poking through the grass, but Mark points out heather and gorse, which would typically only grow on upland areas such as Dartmoor or the North York Moors. We’re actually walking through a rare ecosystem known as limestone heath formed when a loess (a deposit of wind-blown dust) coated the landscape with more acidic soil some time in the geological past, allowing the anomalies we’ve seen today to flourish.
We push on (chuntering about the rapaciously invasive nature of bracken if left unmanaged, and about the vile ticks it harbours), and, at Cross Plain, turn right and follow a sharper ridge south to its end. We head back on ourselves, down steeply and into the woods below us. Here the most notable trees are the small-leaved limes which form the boundary of the woods. They’ve been repeatedly pollarded for generations (the vertical poles thus produced being used for animal fodder) and have become twisted into grotesque shapes – ‘The Old Men’ Mark calls them.
The path’s easy now and we’re pleasantly shaded by the bright green of the lime leaves, so, with dark mutterings about the unnecessary and very visible nesting boxes nailed to trees around us, and all prominently numbered, we make our way back to the cars, and on to Mark’s garden for a cold beer and some lunch.
A lovely walk (in an area that’s new to me) with an old friend, and the world put to rights – all in a little over two hours.