I made up my own route to walk coast-to-coast across the West Country

·9 min read
Hilary Bradt walking in Devon
Hilary Bradt walking in Devon

Did you know it’s National Walking Month? Me neither, but it makes it extra appropriate that I had chosen May to “burst out of Covid”, and from my home in east Devon head for the Bristol Channel.

Also – and everyone knows this – from May 17 we are allowed to eat indoors, making pub-focused walks even more attractive in our irrational May weather.

Long-distance walking is addictive. Having done three national trails recently I wanted more, but I wanted it local because of Covid restrictions, and anyway as I near my 80th birthday it’s nice to sleep in my own bed.

And there it was: look at a map of the West Country, or indeed of the whole of Britain, and it hits you in the face. The peninsula that makes up Devon and Cornwall, along with west Somerset, has been squeezed into a narrow waist at my home town of Seaton. So that’s the next walk: a new self-devised coast-to-coast route from Seaton’s seafront to Watchet in Somerset (“To watch what?” asked a friend, mystified, when I told her.)

Town centre of Seaton in Devon - Terry Mathews/Alamy Stock Photo
Town centre of Seaton in Devon - Terry Mathews/Alamy Stock Photo

It’s 33 miles as the crow flies but could be double that using footpaths and lanes. The trio – Pippa, Penny and the two dogs – will base ourselves at home for the first four days, using two cars to shuttle between start and finish, and have rented a self-catering place in Watchet for the last part.

I’ve had enormous fun devising the route along three Ordnance Survey maps, through three Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, visualising the bluebells and lemon-green leaves of May, ignoring the tightly packed contour lines, and the weather forecast. Perhaps it’s significant that my phone’s predictive text changed “self-devised walk” to “self-deluded …”

We’ll see. You’ll see.

Day 1: Seaton to Wilmington

10.1 miles

A totally successful day, from low tide for the walk along Seaton’s beach to finding a bench for our picnic in the warm sun by the River Coly. For the first five miles I was on familiar ground. Holyford Nature Reserve, our local bluebell wood, was a haze of blue and bursting with birdsong. Wild east Devon, which manages this wood, prides itself on its bird-friendliness, with nest boxes and a variety of trees and vegetation to provide habitat for a range of species. It certainly pays off.

Footpath through Holyford Woods adorned with bluebells - James Osmond/The Image Bank RF
Footpath through Holyford Woods adorned with bluebells - James Osmond/The Image Bank RF

Both Bonnie, a collie-mix, and Thurza, a labrador, take their duties seriously and race back down the path to check on the old lady if I lag behind.

Day 2: Wilmington to Howley

11.8 miles

Not a good day. It started off beautifully because I’d routed us through woods which I know as the best in east Devon for wild daffodils. These have now given way to bluebells, and some prints in the mud showed that a deer had preceded us. I’d booked a pub lunch in Stockland, and we planned a direct route on footpaths but in this sparsely populated farming area they were little used: tummocky pasture which took ages to walk across, usually to the wrong gate, while battered by a hail storm. We reached the pub just before the kitchen closed. “Outdoor dining” doesn’t really conjure up the image of sitting hunched against the icy wind, eating once-hot, soon-cold chips. I had a surge of longing for pub normality: a comfy chair by the fire, drifting to the bar for another drink … yes, that can't come a moment to soon!

Dog walk through Devon's rural countryside
Dog walk through Devon's rural countryside

Crossing the River Yarty into Somerset we found our chosen footpath blocked off, the signs removed, and a field of frisky cows being serviced by a very large, protective-looking bull. A local resident said the farmer was “a bit awkward” and owned all the land in these parts. Indeed he did. For the rest of this day we climbed over padlocked gates, crawled under electric fences, and diverted around more bouncing cows. An unintentionally very long day.

Day 3: Howley to Staple Hill Plantation

7.3 miles

A hard morning with more footpaths blocked by cows behind electric fences, and the alarming prospect of crossing the A303. But after that the farmland ended, the woods and flower meadows began, and a scattering of early purple orchids revived our spirits before a gourmet lunch at the Candlight Inn in Bishopswood. Marginally less cold. We were now in the heart of Somerset’s Blackdown Hills and in the late afternoon joined the East Deane Way, a national trail. Bliss! Well-marked, well-used, passing through mixed woodland of beech and oak up to Staple Hill, the AONB’s highest point.

Day 4: Staple Hill to Trull, Taunton

8.3 miles

The East Deane Way is a circular route of 42 miles devised by the Taunton Deane Ramblers. They’ve done a splendid job with good waymarking so the trail is in regular use. Today we walked along broad tracks through Staple Park Wood and the enticingly named Piddle Wood, picnicking in Corfe, a compact village whose sweet little church has a pyramid top to its tower. The excitement of the day, certainly for Bonnie, was crossing the M5 on a footbridge. So many cars to bark at – she was ecstatic.

Day 5: Trull to Hestercombe Gardens

8.5 miles

We missed a trick at Trull. Its waterfall (actually a weir) has rejuvenating properties. If only I’d had a splash I might have found I could hop over stiles.

Stone structure in Hestercombe Gardens - Alex Moy/Getty
Stone structure in Hestercombe Gardens - Alex Moy/Getty

The West Deane Way passes through Taunton’s shopping area and then a pleasant walk along the River Tone to Hestercombe Gardens, one of Somerset’s most notable, although at the end of a long day’s walk all I wanted to do was sit down and eat cake. Established in the 18th century by the splendidly named Coplestone Warre Bampfylde and later developed by the horticulturist Gertrude Jekyll and the architect Edwin Lutyens, Hestercombe normally has plenty to enjoy including an art gallery and restaurant. Both should be open after the latest round of restrictions lift.

Day 6: Hestercombe to the southern Quantock Hills

8.3 miles

Briefly joining the West Deane Way we had quintessentially English views across the fields and multicoloured trees to the church tower of Kingston St Mary, and walked through a field of yellow rape. Then up and up to the top of the Quantock Hills, England’s oldest AONB. I don’t know why this 12-mile-long lump of heathland, shaped like a bread loaf, criss-crossed by trails and cut by deep, wooded coombes, is not better known. It’s gorgeous.

View from Quantock Hills towards Blackdown Hills - acceleratorhams/iStockphoto
View from Quantock Hills towards Blackdown Hills - acceleratorhams/iStockphoto

We left the West Deane Way and joined the Macmillan Way, a 290-miles trans-England trail which runs from Boston to Dorset, and includes the full length of the Quantocks. We passed through sheltered woodland before reaching the highest point, Will’s Neck, at 384m (1,260ft) and teetering down a precipitous descent of 174m (570ft) to the car at Triscombe. Poor knees.

Day 7: southern Quantock Hills to St Audries Bay, Watchet

8.8 miles

The final leg, into the teeth of the Arctic wind, but with grazing Exmoor ponies and far-reaching views over Somerset’s patchwork of fields: brown, yellow, and all shades of green, with our goal the Bristol Channel glinting on the horizon.

St Audries Bay in West Quantoxhead, Somerset - Jez James/iStockphoto
St Audries Bay in West Quantoxhead, Somerset - Jez James/iStockphoto

We didn’t actually finish in Watchet – we did much better and followed a “To the Beach” sign to St Audries Bay where parallel lines of sea-smoothed rock are intercut with tide pools and sand. Off with the boots and into the water, then a hurried retreat from the fastest moving tide in England. And that glorious, smug feeling of accomplishment that has you planning the next long walk.

And there we were. We’d walked 63 miles in a week, we’d seen sublime scenery looking its very best in the May sunshine, the dogs had had the time of their lives, and we managed to dodge the proper rain. Now that “outside dining” and B&Bs can be reserved for warm weather, this sort of self-devised walk will be even more enticing.

Cheers: four pub walks to tackle

Not only is May National Walking month, but, as of Monday, we can venture into pubs in England once more, too. Richard Madden reveals some of the best walks that marry the two great British institutions.

Broadway Tower, Cotswolds

4½ miles

Start/finish: Crown and Trumpet Inn, Broadway

Explorer map: OL45

A Cotswolds classic for a very good reason. From Broadway’s delightfully eccentric pub, head up Church Street to the war memorial and right along the High Street. Follow the Cotswold Way (CW) Acorn signs up the 700ft climb to Broadway Tower. Loop back along Coneygree Lane turning right (north) at St Eadburgha’s Church and back to the village.

Broadway Tower, on Broadway Hill - RussellJGordon/iStockphoto
Broadway Tower, on Broadway Hill - RussellJGordon/iStockphoto

Three Villages Pub Crawl, Chilterns

3½ miles

Start/finish: The Frog at Skirmett (thefrogatskirmett.co.uk)

Explorer map: 171

This is a starry route, with three of the loveliest villages in the Chilterns (Skirmett, Fingest and Turville), and three of the best watering holes (The Frog, The Chequers and The Bull and Butcher). Follow the Chiltern Way east opposite The Frog and loop around through Adams Wood, up over the hill and down across the valley into Fingest. Continue along the Chiltern Way through Turville before heading south, crossing Dolesden Lane into Great Wood. Follow in a loop around back to Skirmett.

Perranuthnoe to Porthleven, Cornwall

9 miles

Start/finish: Victoria Inn, Perranuthnoe

Explorer map: 102

This is a cliff walk to rival the best. It begins with St Michael’s Mount before continuing around Cudden Point to Prussia Cove. Around the headland at Praa Sands is one of the longest stretches of white sand on the south Cornish coast. This route is not circular, but there are frequent buses from Porthleven back to base. The 12th-century Victoria Inn has some of Cornwall’s best pub food.

Long stretch of beach at Praa Sands - lleerogers/iStockphoto
Long stretch of beach at Praa Sands - lleerogers/iStockphoto

Long Man of Wilmington & Litlington White Horse, South Downs

9 miles

Start/finish: Plough and Harrow, Litlington

Explorer map: 123

Variety is the spice of life but also of a good walk. This one has plenty, from a charming river walk to the Long Man of Wilmington and the Litlington White Horse. Follow the river north from Litlington until you are opposite Alfriston. Then take the path onto the Downs towards the Long Man. Continue on the Wealdway towards Jevington, through Friston Forest and along Charleston Bottom. Head north to Litlington at Charleston Manor, where there are views to the White Horse.

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