First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
It’s not every day you celebrate your 300th ‘A Good Walk’ for The Times, and Jane and I wanted to make it something really special. Our good friend Alan came up with a tempting-looking route through the deep leafy combes and over the brackeny brows of the Quantock Hills – Wordsworth and Coleridge country. A sight of the sea, a proper draught of moorland air. That was just the ticket.
We set off from Beacon Hill, nine walking buddies talking nineteen to the dozen as we dropped steeply down under sweet chestnut trees to Weacombe. From there a long track led south under scrubby banks flushed purple by the overnight emergence of thousands of foxgloves. From the depths of Bicknoller Combe we looked up to see the western sky a slaty blur of rain. Soon it hit, and soon it passed, leaving us shaking off water like so many dogs in a pond.
Up on Black Ball Hill a faint sharp hooting carried to us on the wind. A steam train on the West Somerset Railway was panting its way down the valley towards Minehead, but locomotive and carriages stayed hidden from sight in the steep green countryside.
We sat on the heather among Bronze Age burial mounds to eat our sandwiches with an imperial view all round, north over the Severn Sea to Wales, east to the camel hump of Brent Knoll, west into Exmoor’s heights. By the time we’d brushed away the crumbs, serenaded the skylarks with mouth organ tunes and descended among the trees of Slaughterhouse Combe, the sun was backlighting oak leaves and pooling on bracken banks where bilberries and star mosses winked with raindrops.
Thunder ripped across the sky, a last sulk of the weather gods, as we walked west up Shepherd’s Combe – a favourite ramble of William and Dorothy Wordsworth and their friend and fellow poet Samuel Coleridge. A bank of sundews lay pearled with rain, their tiny pale flowers upraised on long stalks above sticky scarlet leaves. One minuscule blob of a sundew’s insect-trapping mucilage is capable of stretching up to a million times its own length. Biomedical researchers are looking for ways to exploit that remarkable property as a platform for healthy cells in the regrowth of damaged human tissue. This is the sort of thing Jane knows.
We climbed to Bicknoller Post on its wide upland with a wonderful prospect north-west to the stepped flank of Porlock Hill and a sea full of shadows and streaks of light. Our steps quickened along the homeward path – not to unload nine souls full of immortal verse, but to beat the clock into Holcombe for the cream tea we suddenly knew we’d earned.
Start: Beacon Hill car park, Staple Plain, Hill Lane, West Quantoxhead, Somerset TA4 4DQ approx. (ST 117411)
Getting there: Jct 27; A39 (Bridgwater-Minehead); at West Quantoxhead, just past Windmill Inn, left (‘Bicknoller’). In 350m, left up Hill Lane (‘Staple Plain’). Continue for ⅔ mile to car park at end of track.
Walk (5½ miles, moderate, OS Explorer 140): From NT Staple Plain info board walk back through car park. Don’t go through gate of left-hand fork of tracks, but turn left downhill beside it (green NT arrow), steeply down through trees. At bottom (117408), right on grassy track. Continue to descend, keeping downhill at junctions, for 500m to cottage beside track (111408). Left (‘Quantock Greenway’, arrow with quill), through gate and up track. In 200m, through gate; in another 150m, go over cross-track (113404) and continue SSE beside Haslett Plantation.
In 500m, arrow post points right (115399); but go left here (east) and continue up Bicknoller Combe, keeping ahead over all crossing tracks. In 1 mile, reach top of ascent at crossing of tracks from Bicknoller Post, Paradise Combe, Bicknoller Combe and Slaughterhouse Combe (130398 – just west of ‘302’ on map). Keep ahead on stony track towards Slaughterhouse Combe. In 200m, just past low wooden post on left, fork left onto less obvious grassy track with some ‘kerb’ stones at its entrance (131397) – as a marker, look half right to see two trees, one on either side of the stony track you have just left.
Follow this grassy track east over brow of Black Ball Hill, past tumulus (134396) and descend. After 600m, look for fork; take right-hand path. In 100m it swings 180o to the right (138397), descends SW for 250m to meet stream (137395) and bends left to descend for ½ mile to bottom of Slaughterhouse Combe (143401). Left along bridleway WNW under Lady’s Edge and up Sheppard’s Combe for 1 mile, ascending to Bicknoller Post (128403). Right (north) along broad stony track; in 200m, fork left; in 50m, left again to meet The Great Road track (126407). Left, descending to car park.
Accommodation: Rising Sun, West Bagborough, TA4 3EF (01823-432575, risingsuninn.info) – excellent, well-run pub
Info: Taunton TIC (01823-336344)