Well – this is a long way from Cornwall, both literally and metaphorically, but a much shorter train ride means I can fit in two days walking in North Somerset. I say metaphorically as most of the walk is up the eastern bank of an estuary. No salt spray from storm waves pounding majestic cliffs but a slow running strip of water snaking its way through chocolate brown mud banks and flat forsaken marshland.
I start in Bridgewater in Somerset, at the bottom of the estuary: a busy town with an enormous church and the tallest spire I’ve ever seen. For centuries the town prospered from the export of bricks and tiles but with the advent of the railways the river trade declined and in 1971 the docks were closed.
To the north and east of the town the acres of industrial estates and roads full of snorting HGVs are clear signs that some industries in the town are still alive and well.
I walk over the town bridge, trying not to breathe in the noxious air too deeply, following signs for not the South West but the England Coast Path. Unfortunately, one all important sign is ambiguous in its direction and after 15 minutes of walking up the main road I seem to be heading further and further away from the riverbank. Stopping for directions I am sent off across a playing field where the recent mowing has turned up all sorts of unsightly rubbish that has not been cleared away (why can that not be part of the job?), only to find myself stumbling along on a small path of broken up concrete and brambles and coming face to face with this.
Not the right way methinks……………
My next guide is a young welshman from Newport and his dog who points me in the right direction but after 10 minutes I realise I have walked a full circle back to the misleading sign! Oh dear.
My next attempt at getting to the riverbank is more successful. Although it is illogical I try crossing the bridge and half way across is a gap in the metal buffer where I can see a way down to the river and the trail. I scramble down the bank and turn right and I’m off!
The path now takes me round the back of the main road with the painfully slow moving river on my left. Later on I pass office blocks with people hunched over computers – I make a mental note to be more aware of my own posture when using a computer.
A little later I come to an information board where I learn how much more life and activity there would have been in Bridgewater in the Middle Ages. On this side of the river would be ship building yards and countless ‘beehive’ kilns producing bricks and tiles. “The air would have been heavy with the salty muddy tang of the river punctuated with the aroma of wild herbs such as fennel and acrid coal smoke from the kilns.”
Well there is none of that now and in fact the only working wharf is at Dunball which I can see in the distance. When I arrive there is building going on and I am struck by the combination of colours from the sands being used, together with the green of the algae.
After Dunball the path strikes out west following the deep curves of the river. At one point I am directed through the middle of an industrial yard and out the other side where my path appears to be blocked by fences cordoning off a big digger. I yell at the driver to tell me where the path has disappeared to and to his credit he stops the engine immediately, climbs down, and a tad shamefacedly moves the fences to give me access. On the other side the bank are two men in turbans and high vis jackets who watch me silently as I walk past, making me feel a little nervous.
From here on I cross fields and more fields, all empty – not even a herd of cows to set my heart racing. The sky remains obstinately grey……..but at least it’s not raining.
At the second turn off for a village called Paulett is a path marked on the map as White House Rhyne. I stop to read another information board which confirms a fact that myself and my sisters are very familiar with, having had it drummed into our heads by our parents. They had a house in Penarth in South Wales and we would frequently visit Swanbridge which is a hamlet on the mainland facing Sully island. At the start of the causeway over to the island is a big signboard warning of the dangers of getting caught by the speed of the incoming tide. And that’s exactly what happened, when I lured my little sister over to the island one day only to find ourselves cut off by the rapid approach of the tide. Fortunately, our waving and shouting attracted the attention of the lifeguard and we were soon rescued by boat and brought back to safety.
Up until now the sky has remained grey and slightly oppressive but suddenly the clouds part to reveal a promising patch of blue sky – hooray!
This point on the walk is also marked by the village of Combwich on the other side of the river – so close and yet so far as there is no bridge.
And more estuary walking – the isolation, the chocolatey mud and unremittingly flat landscape remind of the walks I did in Essex all those years ago.
I know I am now approaching a sluice where I can cross an artificial river (to reduce flooding in the area) but before that I come across something that is typical of some inconsiderate farmers. The sign says public footpath off to the right.
………and this narrow strip of ankle twisting lumpy ground is what one would have to walk on – the field has been ploughed as close to the edge as possible almost eliminating the path altogether. Hurrump!
Soon the sluice comes into view but when I arrive I have a sudden moment of panic when faced with a barred metal construction which doesn’t seem to offer me any way through. In fact the very narrow passageway for pedestrians starts in the other corner of the building – phew.
Here are a couple of photos of mud………………………….
Walking on I start to see signs of civilisation in the form of boats beached on the riverbanks – some of them a little worse for wear.
I am now approaching Highbridge. where I can cross the river and walk up the right bank of the inlet up to Burnham on Sea. At the end of the bridge I turn left and to my surprise come to what seems to be a dead end with a house on one side and a dense thicket of brambles in front of me. Stumped I start thinking that perhaps the path is no longer used and as such is completely overgrown – I start poking the undergrowth somewhat ineffectually with my stick. At this point the woman of the house, who must have been watching me, comes out and points me in the direction of a very narrow path just a couple of meters behind me. The whole episode makes me feel a bit silly.
Anyway, this path soon opens up to circle round the back of a holiday camp – I start to see people for the first time today.
By now I am very tired and hungry but the almost artificial colour of the water to my left stops me in my tracks.
Finally I walk into Burham which on first sight is not particularly inviting.
The pier is the shortest I have ever seen and there are lots of signs about keeping dogs off the beach.
I am pleased to see that a couple of dog owners are ignoring this rule which to me seems unnecessarily harsh, particularly at this time of year. I am also pleased to see a detectorist out looking for treasure.
This has not been the greatest of walks but as I sit with a beer later on I am party to the most wonderful sunset over Hinckley Point Power Station.
Distance: 18 miles (including the getting lost at the beginning)