First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The Celtic tribe known as the Durotriges were expert builders of hilltop forts. The stronghold they dug and mounded on Ham Hill is a remarkable structure. It encompasses more than two hundred acres of south Somerset hilltop within a huge L-shaped enclosure of steep-sided double ramparts. On this windy winter morning the views were sensational, taking in dozens of miles of low-lying farmland bounded by blue and grey hill ranges – Mendip, Blackdown, Quantock and the Dorset downs. The local sandy limestone, known as hamstone, is a glorious deep gold, much prized by builders down the centuries.
A hungry buzzard wheeled and mewed overhead as I followed the brambly ramparts south off the hill through lumps and delvings of many centuries of quarrying. At the foot of the ridge lay the quiet green valley of Witcombe, where mown paths led north again past the grassy outlines of a medieval village, abandoned when sheep farming became more profitable to landlords than the arable husbandry of the peasants.
On the far side of the ridge I found a path edged with emerging daffodils. Last autumn’s beechmast crackled underfoot as I dropped downhill towards Montacute. The village lay below in clear wintry sunshine, a perfect composition, church tower, cottages and great Elizabethan mansion all glowing in golden hamstone.
A quick pint of Palmers and a bowl of leek-and-potato soup in the conversational, dog-friendly Phelips Arms, and I made for the tree-smothered tump of St Michael’s Hill beyond the handsome old Cluniac priory gatehouse on the western edge of Montacute.
‘Mons Acutus, Mont Aigu’ – the abrupt profile of the hill gave its name to the village. Legend says that the Devil appeared in a dream to Tostig, standard bearer to King Cnut, ordering him to dig on the hill. A blacksmith was told to get on with it, and promptly unearthed a life-size crucifix of pure black flint.
The Norman castle built on the summit was replaced by a chapel, itself supplanted in 1760 by a phallic folly tower of hamstone. I climbed the steep holloway to the summit and got a memorable prospect over sunlit lands where Blakean shafts of rain radiated out of the clouds as though to spotlight hidden treasure below in the gleaming floods of winter.
How hard is it? 5 miles; easy, but steep climb up St Michael’s Hill
Start: Ham Hill Country Park, near Stoke-sub-Hamdon TA14 6RL (OS ref. ST479168)
Getting there: Country Park signed from Stoke-sub-Hamdon (signed off A303 between Ilchester and Ilminster)
Walk (OS Explorer 129): Return to road. Left; pass right fork (478166); in 100m right to fingerpost (‘Monarch’s Way’/MW); left, following uppermost path (MW) for ¾ mile to T-junction (485159). Right downhill (‘Liberty Trail’). Near bottom, left (486154, ‘Witcombe Lane’); up valley; across road (492163). Follow footpath (fingerpost) above Hollow Lane; in 500m left along Hollow Lane (497166) into Montacute. Left down South Street (499168); at church and King’s Head PH, left (497169). Through gate; right (‘Hedgecock Hill’); follow MW up St Michael’s Hill. In 200m fork right (494168); in 50m right through gate; left up steep holloway, then path to summit tower (494169). Return down path; at purple arrow fork right; path descends to field. Ahead; in 100m sharp left (494170, purple arrows) downhill. Through gate; keep ahead; left beside stream. In 200m right (491169, stile, MW); in 30m left; follow track. In 250m, gate onto open ground (489169). Follow wood edge; in 700m right (481166, gate); right past circular stone; fork left on MW to car park.
Lunch/accommodation: Phelips Arms, Montacute TA15 6XB (01935-822557, phelipsarms.co.uk)