When the kids were tiny, a winter treat was a visit to the Greyhound Inn at Staple Fitzpaine to watch the morris men. First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
On this cold midwinter day the old grey stone Somerset inn still smelt and felt much as we remembered it from back then, a rich and heady mix of open log fire, furniture polish, beer, good food and a whiff of muddy boots. But I’d forgotten how the church tower stood tall behind its trees in a prickly welter of crocketed pinnacles and the goat-faced, humpbacked gargoyles that are known in this part of the world as hunky-punks.
We went up the long farm track past Staple Park and Staple Lawns, then turned south through the woods and began to climb the escarpment of the Blackdown Hills. The silver grey clouds over the hills parted reluctantly enough, and I felt the lift of the heart that comes with the first honest sun of the year warming a face too long chilled by the east winds of winter. The countryside dipped and rose in waves of grey and cream-coloured stubbles and olive-green pastures rising to the leafless woods on Blackdown ridge.
A buzzard flew down and landed on an oak branch, and we stopped still to admire its speckled breast and fiercely hooked yellow beak. The path led on among the trees, gradually gaining height, with a grand view opening behind us across Taunton Vale for 30 miles to the long blue bar of the Mendip Hills on the northward horizon. We crossed a string of former commons, now partly overgrown with well-managed woodland, in other parts still lying open and pimpled with the tussocky nests of yellow meadow ants. Boggy ground had invaded the small fields around the ruined farm of Britty, and there were the mossy remnants of old cart lanes to follow up to the sandy heights of ancient Neroche Forest.
Saxon kings hunted Neroche, and so did the Norman lords who superseded them. But the broad summit of the range with its wide views to all quarters must always have been a valuable strongpoint. When Robert Count of Mortain, half-brother to William the Conqueror, came to construct a castle at the top of the forest, he founded it on a great ramparted fort that Iron Age tribesmen built up here.
We went up through enormous earthen ramparts to find the motte or castle mound and the ruin of its baileys and ditches among widely spaced oaks and beeches. Between the trees we looked south towards the green hills of East Devon, and then made for Staple Fitzpaine with Somerset’s flatlands and hill ranges spread out before us, a feast of West Country landscape lying waiting for spring.
Start & finish: Greyhound Inn, Staple Fitzpaine, Taunton, Somerset TA3 5SP (OS ref ST 264184)
Getting there: Bus – Stagecoach (stagecoachbus.com) service 99, Taunton-Yeovil
Road: Staple Fitzpaine is signed from Bickenhall, off A358 Taunton-Chard road (M5, Jct 25)
Walk (7 miles, easy, OS Explorer 128): From crossroads by Greyhound Inn, follow ‘Park Farm’ road. In 150m, on left bend, keep ahead (262182). In ½ mile pass Staple Park Farm; keep ahead (‘Bridleway’ fingerpost, blue arrows/BA) through gates on gravel track (‘East Deane Way’/EDW) and Herepath Trail/HP. Dogleg round Staple Lawns Farm. In Oakey Copse, turn left (245185) on broad bridleway. In 1 mile turn right up Underhill Lane (247173). In 300m, opposite cream-coloured house, left through kissing gate (247169, EDW). Ahead along grassy ride, keeping close to fence on left, following EDW and yellow arrows/YA. In 350m go through a gate (248166, EDW), cross a track, through another gate (YA) and keep ahead. In 200m dip to cross a stream beside a wooden railing with EDW arrow. Follow main track uphill to reach T-junction of tracks just below conifers. Left here (EDW, BA) on path, to meet track above Mount Fancy Farm (251163).
Turn right up track; left into wood through gate (EDW). Follow surfaced bridleway, then main path (EDW, HP) for ½ mile to Britty ruin (258160). Right (EDW, BA) along lane. In ¾ mile cross road and on (267159, EDW) into trees. In 150m, track bends left; in 400m, at 3-finger post (271161), turn right (‘Castle Neroche car park’) up track to castle ramparts. Return to 3-finger post; ahead downhill (BA) along Green Lane. At road, right (270167); pass drive, then in 10m right up lane past former chapel. Through V-stile; follow hedge round to left; through another V-stile; ahead through 4 fields by stiles to cross road (274174). Down Crosses Farm equestrian centre’s drive opposite (fingerpost with YA). Over stile by barn; over following gate; through boggy field. Follow path round to right; in 100m, left at fingerpost, through bushes; follow path over rough ground to Perry Hall (seen ahead). Cross farm drive (271179); through gate ahead (YA). In first field keep hedge on right; in 2nd and 3rd fields, hedge on left; cross stream in dip (270183); ahead to Staple Farm on skyline. At road (268184), left into Staple Fitzpaine.
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Lunch: Greyhound Inn (good food, beer, cheer, smells) – 01823-480227; greyhoundinn.biz
More info: Taunton TIC (01823-336344)