The houses of Southstoke, built of the same pale silver and cream oolitic limestone as their Big Brother city of Bath just over the hill, were lightly dusted with powder snow on this cold winter’s morning.
First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Over the porch of the Church of St James the Great, a Millennium carving of the much-travelled Apostle showed him staring with seer’s eyes from the shelter of a pilgrim’s scallop shell. With one shoulder bare and a crust of last night’s snow for a collar, the hero of Santiago looked a little under-dressed for the weather. Not so the two young girls busy making snow pancakes outside the Packhorse Inn – they were kitted out like crimson-cheeked polar explorers.
From the ridge beyond Southstoke a wonderful vista opened out southwards over deeply cut valleys frosted to lemon yellow and ice green. A smoky grey sky hung low, telling of more snow on the way. I pushed my hands deeper into my pockets and went crunching down the slopes of Horsecombe Vale. The cattle in the fields moved gingerly, sensing the ankle-breaking hollows concealed below the ice lids over their own hoofpocks. Warmed by their sweet, cloudy breath, I skittered down through the woods to Tucking Mill.
The tree-knotted trackbed of the former Somerset & Dorset Railway led south to Midford. The clanking steam engines of the S&D had carried me to school in the long ago, and I used to look out as we passed over Midford Viaduct to see the abandoned tracks of the Somerset Coal Canal and the Cam Valley Railway snaking away below. Although the canal was killed off when the railway opened before the First World War, it is the graceful structures of the old waterway that claim attention as one walks the Cam Valley today – a packhorse bridge isolated in a field, and three long, narrow lock basins of beautiful silvery Bath stone, empty and ivy-strangled along a hedge. The bigger, blunter instrument of the abandoned railway eventually came striding in on a tall embankment, shouldering the canal aside into the woods and hurrying me on to Combe Hay.
A proper old lane, stony and tree-lined, led up behind the Wheatsheaf Inn to the crest of the ridge and the field path back to Southstoke. I looked out over whitened fields and blackened woods, a Breughelian scene already half obscured by newly falling snow.
Start & finish: Pack Horse Inn, Southstoke, Bath BA2 7DU (OS ref ST 747612). NB Very limited parking at Pack Horse Inn; please park considerately, elsewhere.
Getting there: Southstoke is signed from B3110 between Combe Down and Midford
Walk (5 ½ miles, moderate grade, OS Explorer 155): From Pack Horse, uphill for 50 yards; right along road. Just past Southstoke House, left through kissing gate (fingerpost) across field. Cross B3110. Descend fields of Horsecombe Vale (yellow arrows/YA); cross brook; follow path to Wessex Water plant. Right; just beyond Tucking Mill viaduct, right up steps (fingerpost); follow old railway to Midford station. Right to road; left through viaduct; cross B3110 (take care!); descend steps opposite Hope & Anchor PH (fingerpost); right along Cam Valley old railway and canal path for 2 miles to Wheatsheaf Inn, Combe Hay. Right beside inn, up lane for 3/4 of a mile to road; right on path (fingerpost) to Southstoke.
Online map, more walks: www.christophersomerville.co.uk
Lunch: Pack Horse Inn, Southstoke (832060; www.packhorseinn.com) – sheer rural delight.
More info: Bath TIC (0906-711-2000 – 50p./min);
Christopher Somerville will be talking about his latest book, Somerville’s Travels, at Topping’s Bookshop, The Paragon, Bath (01225-428111), on Thursday 7 January at 7.45 p.m.