Hike Northbound through Britain with Daryl May
Click for Southbound hike
Axbridge Square facing my hotel. The Tudor building on the right is known as King John's hunting lodge, and is now a museum
DN13 Axbridge Sq lores cropped
Days N1 - N14                                                               English West Country
Day N13 - Bridgwater to Axbridge
    Day N12          Meet Arthur Bourke-Stewart                 Day N14
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Southbound Home
Monday, April 2, 2007
April 1 was a rest day

Time of departure: 9.15 am
Time of arrival: 7.00 pm
Place departed: Bridgwater, Somerset
Place arrived: Axbridge, Somerset

Miles: 20.2
Cum miles: 211.2
Percent complete: 22.8

Bed sign Old Oakhouse Hotel, Axbridge  *
Cost for bed and breakfast: 46 ($92)

  Overview of both hikes


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Sadly ending my visit to John and Alison Gilbert, John drove us back to the same point on the Taunton-to-Bridgwater canal where we had stepped into his car a day and a half earlier.  From here we hiked into Bridgwater's pedestrian high street, where I bought some "moleskin" from Boot's the Chemist. Alison had recommended moleskin for my blisters.  It's a new product, at least to me, being a rather thick sticky plaster, which adheres to the skin to protect it from chafing. This morning I also put on some thin (ladies') nylon socks under my wool outer socks. The theory is that the socks will rub together rather than the foot and one sock.

We also addressed my other bugbear - the heaviness of my pack. On John's calibrated scale, it weighed just 21 lb including one full water bottle, not counting a 3-lb bellypack that I also carry. This is quite comparable to the lighter packs of other long-distance hikers, and it made me feel that I probably hadn't much excess to shed after all.  With this reverse logic, I decided to continue with my current load for the time being.  My shoulders did not get any say in this decision, though - in work parlance - they were the most important stakeholder.

John is editor of The Stockland Gatepost, as fine a local newspaper as any in Britain, and expressed interest in publishing some of this journal, which later he most kindly did.  However, the connection between his paper and my hike extends beyond the journal.  In fact, my hike to Bristol and beyond would have been shortened if I had been able to ford the River Parrett at Combwich Reach, which is down-river from the road-bridge at Bridgwater. Here the river is tidal, and as aerial photographs confirmed, at low-tide sandbanks replace all but a very narrow waterway. To find out whether the river was indeed fordable, The Gatepost asked advice from its readers. Now, in few places in the world would a reply emerge from such a question that could surpass the helpful, interesting and learned reply that Yvonne Haggett wrote for The Gatepost:

“I’m afraid that Daryl would be ill advised to attempt this crossing.

“A century ago it would have been a simple matter to cross from Combwich to the Pawlett Hams either by ferry or by using a causeway. Old maps show that the ferry crossing was from Combwich Common near the end of Ship Lane to the White House Inn (now gone) on the Pawlett side. A few pieces of timber on the bank mark the position of the old landing stage. The Parrett brings down a lot of mud and silt which gets deposited on the river banks, into which anyone on foot could sink, so that even if one could find a boatman willing to ferry Daryl across, without a safe landing stage disembarking would be at least unpleasant and possibly dangerous. It is known that the poets, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who at the end of the eighteenth century lived at Alfoxton and Nether Stowey respectively, would use the ferry on their way to Bristol. Being impecunious poets, they walked rather than taking the stagecoach and by using the ferry they certainly shortened the distance they had to hike.

“The position of the causeway is less certain, but is believed to have crossed the river diagonally to a point near the White House Inn from a point downstream from the ferry crossing on the Combwich side. As far as it is known, it was fordable on horseback or on a horse-drawn cart and was probably last-used during the 1920s. However, it should be noted that the bed of the river is constantly changing, with newly scoured troughs and newly deposited mud and sand banks, so that it is unlikely that it would be a safe way to cross the river even if one were certain of the exact line of the causeway.

“As for the railway station Daryl mentions, although a number of schemes to link the villages on the west-bank of the river to the railway were proposed, none of these ever came to fruition. The only bridges ever built downstream from the Town Bridge in Bridgwater, as far as I am aware, are the recently built Saltlands Bridge on the Northern Distributor Road, the Black Bridge and the road bridge alongside it, all in Bridgwater itself. The oldest of these, the Black Bridge was a telescopic bridge, built in 1870 to a design by the famous engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, to link the Bridgwater Docks to the railway line and was originally used by horse-drawn wagons. The sections slid back on to the Eastover bank to allow shipping to pass up to the East and West Quays. The Black Bridge was closed in 1957 and its mechanism destroyed but still exists as a pedestrian bridge alongside the road-bridge linking Northgate and The Clink. Sadly, it is no longer possible for ships to dock at either of the Bridgwater Quays or the Bridgwater Docks themselves, and sea-going ships terminate their voyages at Dunball."

With thoughts of sinking into the mud, or having my electronics irrigated by the river, I took Yvonne Haggett’s advice in The Gatepost, and crossed the Parrett at Bridgwater, where sane people do.

John and I then hiked a good few miles together, before we parted ways. It had been a great visit for me - fun and restorative, and so nice to meet old friends. John and Alison had been a focal point for the preceding walk and not just for my stay with them.  When John turned back to Bridgwater, I felt quite alone.

The weather was exceptional today - like summer - and the route lay across a portion of Somerset that almost resembles Holland - low-lying, flat land with drainage canals and irrigation channels.  It was almost too warm as I passed Brent Knoll on my left at about lunchtime, a 450-ft-high conical hill incongruous in these flatlands.

I was hoping to find accommodation no later than in Lower Weare, which was on my route, but it turned out be a sorry, one-horse type of village without an accommodation sign of any sort. Instead I went on to Cross and, finding nothing there either, had to sidestep about a mile to the charming village of Axbridge. A publican at Cross suggested that I take a shortcut across the meadows to reach Axbridge, but he must have had a wicked sense of humor.  When I arrived at Axbridge – by road – I looked back across the meadow which he had pointed out. Never had I seen what I saw now: cattle frisking around with boundless energy and an agenda that I could only guess at. It wasn’t an agenda that I wanted to get in the middle of.

Axbridge turned out to be a charming old place, with more than its share of leaning-out and leaning-in timbered buildings bordering narrow roads. In summer, the old town-square must be a lively place, with sit-out tables in view of the old buildings. It’s not far from Cheddar, of cheese fame, with its less-famous but striking gorge. Tourism and agriculture seem to sustain the economy.

Before I started on my hike, I thought the solitude might provide an opportunity to reflect on life, pursuing the deep thoughts that we so often have no time for in our busy lives.  Sadly, these thoughts turned out to be elusive. Hiking is not necessarily “busy”, but external stimuli constantly intrude on the senses, except occasionally when one enters the so-called “hiker’s trance”.  But now, perhaps because my visit to friends had invigorated my social life, I had thoughts and conversations swirling in my head. And thus I happened upon a fictional friend, one Arthur Bourke-Stewart, who occupied a special place in my mind from Axbridge to John o’Groats.

I met Arthur Bourke-Stewart, who is from nearby Lower Weare, in the lounge of the Old Oakhouse Hotel in Axbridge, where we shared a table as he drank a premium bitter and I drank an ordinary one. Arthur was dressed rather ineptly, not even graceful in “British grunge”, but sporting a too-wide lapel, strange red-tinged trousers, and incongruous footwear in the form of sandals even in winter.  I tried to call him Art but he asked me to call him BS "for short”.  He was bemoaning Lower Weare’s inferiority to Axbridge.

BS: Axbridge has three nice pubs, four places to stay, charming architecture, and a famous medieval square.

Me: Yes - and Lower Weare?

BS: Lower Weare has a petrol station, no pubs, nowhere to stay except that folks sleep illegally in their cars on the grass verge next to the filling station – dumping beer cans, I might add.

Me: And what would you like, BS?

BS: I would like Lower Weare to have some nice restaurants, a grand hotel and perhaps even a convention center - you know, something to put us on the map, bring in the money . . . maybe we could even host a British Medical Association convention, all those big-spending doctors and all.

Me: So you need to improve your image for starters, perhaps?  Get the place known a bit?

BS (enthusing): I know, I know.  But those image-makers - they charge a hundred grand, just to give you a few ideas!

Me: You know, BS, I might be able to come up with some ideas - even in the next few minutes.  Would you buy me a beer if I came up with something that would get you into the newspapers for free?

BS: Yes, yes, yes.  And I'll buy you two beers if you have an idea that could fill a new convention center with big-spenders like doctors!

Me: Well, what if you changed the name of Lower Weare to something more prestigious?  Perhaps with historic associations?

BS: Go on.

Me: Well, you know how Newcastle-under-Lyme sounds better than just Newcastle? And Weston-super-Mare sounds better than just Weston?  And Kirkby-in-Ashfield sounds better than Kirkby?  And Kingston-upon-Thames . . .”

BS: Yes, but what would we change Lower Weare to?  And it's got to get us into the newspapers, remember!

Me:  Well, I was thinking of a fine Saxon word for its historic associations.  Something we could fit right into Lower Weare, and everyone would be struck by it. Instant fame, you might say.

BS: And the doctors, don't forget!  For the extra free beer, of course.

Me:  Of course, BS, of course.  I haven't forgotten the doctors for a second - or the second free beer.

BS: And so . . .?

Me: Well, I'm sure you are aware of local history in these parts, and King Yorunda, a Saxon with a name like that.  He captured Axbridge on behalf of the people of Lower Weare, and brought all their riches - and women - to Lower Weare in days of yore. You do remember old King Yorunda?

BS (unconvincingly): Yes, of course!  Wow, we need a King Yorunda again - to sort-of wipe out Axbridge, and bring all of its business to Lower Weare!

Me:  Exactly, BS, exactly.  And a medical convention, too!  For the second free beer, that is.

BS (impatiently): Yes, yes. So what's the plan?  King Yorunda is dead these last thousand years.

Me:  But we can bring him and Lower Weare to life, BS!  By using his name!

BS:  OK, so spill it, please.  I like the idea - but what's the plan?

Me (looking down at my empty beer glass): Very simple, very simple.  We just make use of Yorunda in your town's name.

BS:  And the town's name is .  .  .?

Me:  Lower Weare becomes Lower-yorunda-Weare.

I never did get those free beers. And I made sure I was gone before Arthur Bourke-Stewart showed up at the Old Oakhouse Hotel next day.

The Axbridge hotel could have had a nicer room - basics like functioning lights, a tea tray with milk, an alarm clock that wasn't dead, drapes that covered the windows . . . not that I’m greedy for luxury when I’m tired. Fortunately, its bath was fabulously long and deep.

As on other evenings, when my head hit the pillow I was quickly asleep.
    Day N12                     2007 and 2008 Daryl May                         Day N14