► ACROSS THE ISTHMUS – A WALK ACROSS THE SOUTH-WEST PENINSULA IN JUNE 2016.

This is the story of a walk I took across the south-west peninsula isthmus in June, 2016.

The south-west peninsula ‘isthmus’ is the neck of land which separates southern England from the Devon/Cornwall peninsula, and it is almost exactly 33 miles across. I fancied walking across the isthmus using a route of my own devising, which, with all the twists and turns would mean a stroll of at least 50 miles.

Having planning the route carefully, I bought my train tickets, and on the 20th of June, off I went. My plan had specific goals:

  • Locate exactly where the ends of the isthmus are.
  • Walk in the night – I’d never done this and wanted to try it, having met someone a few weeks beforehand who was keen on night walking.
  • See how easy it was to travel light – just a few clothes, stuff needed for hygiene, food, water, a camera, and a handful of other essentials.
  • Find out how far could I walk in one day.
  • Discover how practical it is to follow a home-made route like this– a hodgepodge of footpaths, bridleways, permissive paths, farm tracks and minor roads.

20 June 2016 – AXMINSTER TO BEER.

Catching the 09:00 train to Axminster on the 20th of June, I occupied myself by sketching odd things during the journey down. There was no conversation on the train, people being plugged into their mobile phones, buried in books or newspapers or just not being willingly communicative.

Arrived Axminster at 1 p.m., I stepped on to the platform and took the first of what I estimated would be a 150,000 footsteps. I wandered up to the main road through the town to have a look at the scene. Nothing remarkable, but felt good and quietly exciting to have finally got there. Walking back through a small industrial estate by the station and squeezing through a narrow alleyway, I was immediately in the countryside being stared at by farmyard cows. The walk had begun.

The weather was good and there was no rain the first day. From recent indundations, however, there was still plenty of water running off the fields such that some minor roads were running water courses.

My first goal was to reach Beer Youth Hostel, where I would spend the night. Although theoretically an easy day, I kept up a rapid pace, anticipating possible hold-ups, delays or diversions to my intended route and possible loss of my bed.

Passing Doatshayne Farm (SY280952), I noted a sign by a small cage with eggs in it and an honesty box, reading:

EGGS! We have re-homed 20 ex-caged hens So apologies if you get the odd pale yolk in your box. Hopefully they will be back to full health after some TLC. Thanks.

One of the many styles I encountered. Many were in good repair, like this one above Sellers Wood Farm (SY280939) others were rotten and slippery with moss and algae, or in places where the landowner wasn’t so bothered about their preservation crossed by barbed or electrified wires, hidden away in impenetratable thickets or lying in decayed fragments on the ground.

Higher Bruckland Farm (SY282932).

One never quite knows what is going to be beyond the next gate or style. At a spot called Higher Lane (SY267909), the route turned out to necessiate ploughing through an acre of fern jungle – a machete would have been useful – but then emerged through some ancient but clearly well-to-do metal gates to run beside the grounds of an ancient manor house. In walking a route like this, rather than a recognised long-distance path, one encounters such an entertaining variety of landscapes and challenges. Both kinds of walking have their values, of course. I’m not advocating one over the other.

Green Lane (SY277916). The pools of water turned out to be a sign of things to come.

Came across a relic of the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001. The farming community organised something called Green Wellie Support Day. This notice at Parsonage Barn (SY262906) was still readable, amazingly, 15 years after the event.

I could hear the waves crashing half-a-mile inland, but it was only when right above Seaton that the sea came into view.

Spent a very comfortable night at Beer Youth Hostel.

21 June 2016 – BEER TO MONKTON WYLD.

Started out at 3 am the next morning.

Beer village, 3:15 am

Seaton sea front at 4 am. Light already. One has the entire place to oneself walking this early.

Sign by Seaton Gold Course.

The Lyme Regis Undercliffs were beautiful, a winding footpath with curiosities around every corner and orchids growing on the cliff top – I identified a Pyramidal Orchid, a Spotted Orchid and (I think) a Greater Butterfly Orchid. Although a five-mile cliff-top walk, the sea is rarely visible, just occasionally through the dense woodland.

After 3½ hours walking through the Undercliffs, Lyme Regis suddenly appeared. It was 8:30 in the morning but there were people playing bowls already. I remember there being some interesting odds and ends between the boulders along the coast, all sorts of natural and industrial sea debris, but my main interest was finally seeing the inward curve of the coast as I approached the southern point of the isthmus, still one mile away, seeing in reality what I’d studied as a map feature for so long.

Standing at the precise point of the southern apex of the isthmus – the low cliff is a soft mudstone, with the coast here being gradually being eroded away.

My last view of the English Channel.

Having spent some time on the beach, at 10:30 a.m. I turned inland.

My home for the second night was the independent hostel accomodation at Monkton Wyld Court. This, I discovered, was a commune. The dozen or so people who live there managing their own water supply, farming organically and recycling as much as possible. Some of the people were temporary volunteers, but for the others it is their permanent home. Their key principles are sustainibility and mutual respect.

They make an income from educating others in their land management methods, running part of the house as a travellers hostel and selling surplus produce. Any surplus income is divided amongst the people as their ‘stipend’. As the only guest, I was invited to eat with them and had a rather luxurious room all to myself.

22 June 2016 – MONYTON WYLD TO BRIDGEWATER MOTORWAY SERVICES.

Started off the next morning at 03:15, walking by torchlight and the light of the moon.

Hawkchurch church porch, 03:45 am, breakfast – an orange.

And then it rained for four hours. I rather enjoyed this, strolling happily along with umbrella deployed.

Shangri La! Stocked upon sandwiches.

Thanks to Sainsburys and the like, never went hungry on the whole walk. Carried water as well, but in reality drank mostly tea and coffee – almost every village shop I passed had a coffee machine.

Arrived, very soggy, in Chard town centre at 9 am. Bought a fresh shirt in a charity shop and felt (and looked) better, and then took a short excursion to a spot called Snowdon Hill, a small prominance just west of Chard – couldn’t resist scaling this little Snowdon, having done the bigger one several times.

My plan for this day was maybe to walk all the way to the Bristol Channel and sit out the short night on the beach, listening to the waves and watching the moon slowly sail across the sky.

The highest point of the walk was Combe Beacon (ST294122), a small hill outside Chard with a triangulation pillar on top. From there could see the Bristol Channel coastline, now only twenty miles away and the end point of my walk. I though at the time I might reach it with no more sleeps, but a couple of unexpected hiccups plus general fatigue were to modify that idea.

The end in sight.

First I got lost, sort of. Trying to take a shortcut to reach a track called Belcome Drove – it only meant crossing a single, empty grassy field – I found myself in a maze of stoutly barb-wired fences with surprisingly few gateways, and spent what seemed an age going backwards and forwards trying to find my way across what was only a few hundred yards.

Then came Fresh Moor, the valley between Combe Beacon and Buckland St Mary – and it was very fresh indeed! Numerous times I stepped on what looked like a safe clod of grass only to find my leg disappearing into deep, muddy slime. Thankfully I’d packed several thick pairs of socks. Once the water had squidged out of my boots, on went a dry pair.

The woodland at Castle Neroche (ST270162) was a lovely place and especially welcome after the trials of Fresh Moor. I rested on a tree stump realising that I was now feeling pretty much worn out. I slowed my pace, ate something, and gently carried on.

The significance of this photo is that it is the half way point between coasts – the precise point being the cat’s-eye in the foreground (ST 30097 19082).

Reaching Hatch Beachamp I was now on the lookout for accommodation. There was none. This was the case throughout the walk. When I walked across south Wales about twenty years ago, there were bed-and-breakfasts everywhere. Not here. The couple of places I did find said no vacancies, or perhaps they just didn’t want the trouble of a late-evening, bedraggled-looking walker to deal with.

Fortune smiled. In the middle of nowhere I came across a quality hot food van, ‘Layz Rick’s’. They gave me a huge bundle of chips with some delicious chicken strips. I felt I could go on all night with that inside me, and, indeed, that’s exactly what I had to do. I’d have continued without the food, of course – just the few small very snacks in my backpack – but the energy the meal gave was a great boost.

I knew of a farmhouse near a place called – I’d better not say – which offered accomodation, but the man there, in spite of a sign declaring vacancies, said his wife was out and he was busy preparing for a wedding party. He offered me a shortcut across his land which I took, and found it was interesting because of some curious remains which I later learned belonged to the Chard Canal, a venture of the mid 19th century which has lain derelict (and waterless) for a century and a half. The bottom end of this short cut was not so great as an overflow of slurry from a cow shed was covering the path.

I decided to use the River Parrett path. The walk fortunately coincided with a full moon. With that and a torch for the darker bits, this night-time walking went fine. I’d occasionally have a 15-minute or ½-hour rest, then carry on. It’s an interesting experience – owls hoot, things rattle in the undergrowth, the occasional startled bird sounds a warning as I pass. The eyes can play tricks, with distances being very deceptive – passing through one village I was certain I could see some white ponies shuffling about behind a fence, but when I reached the point there was nothing there. An illusion produced by the beam of my torch and my tired brain trying to interpret the flickering light and shadow. I’d seen them so clearly, even heard them gently snorting in my head. I’ve read since about how some extreme atheletes such as ocean rowers, high altitude climbers and long-distance runners can experience hallucinations, but just accept it part of the experience.

After a long tramp I was back in civilisation, sort of – the motorway services on the M5 by Bridgwater. This was four o’clock in the morning and VERY welcome. While physically reasonably fit – I’d done some long walks around Southam in the weeks beforehand – the soles of my feet were now really painful. After each stop, starting to walk again felt like walking barefoot on pointed cobbles. My plan at this point had been to lounge about in the town for a few hours, have a wash somewhere then do the final stretch to the north coast, but the lure of a shower and a bed was too strong. It was excellent, although extravagantly expensive – £88 – considering I was there for just a few hours.

23 June 2016 – BRIDGEWATER SERVICES TO STEART.

After a few hours sleep felt much refreshed. My camera and phone batteries had recharged. Pocketing all the complimentary tea, coffee and sugar packets I could find, set off again at eleven in the morning. Getting out of the services was surprisingly challenging – they’re designed for cars, not pedestrians – and I started off in the wrong direction. It took me an hour trying first one road then another, eventually finding myself back on track.

The Bridgewater Canal in the town centre (ST300364), a pleasant green spot.

The beams across the impressive Victorian canal-works which run through the town have the following carved on them:

NAVIGATORS / SINEW AND BONE / CRACK OF THE HAMMER / IRON ON STONE / RED QUANTOCK / WE CAME AND WENT / OUR LEGACY / A BOAT / COMING CLEAN / THROUGH THE HILL

[I later learned that this was part of a community arts project of the ?1990s, the lines of the poem being decided by school children.]

I navigated largely using GPS. When walking years ago all I had were maps and a compass – GPS being non-existent. Some good memories are of conversations with complete strangers, sharing coffee or chocolate bars and discussing what we’d seen and which was the best way to go. Now people are more often than not staring into their phones or shuffling through their music tracks with a frustrated look on their face, managing a mumbled ‘hello’ at most. Modern life.

Close to the end now, and with plenty of daylight had some long rests to ease the feet. Made the mistake of trying to use my umbrella as a walking stick and broke the handle off. Thankfully there was no more rain. Wandering through the grounds of Gurney Manor Mill was passed by a young boy driving a tractor, who kindly gave me permission to take a short cut across the land.

Coombwich village was a friendly place. The woman in the Post Office offered to fill my water bottles without me even asking, and they put their post office stamp in my notebook as a souvenir. An elderly lady in the shop who overheard me talking about my walk, a sponsered affair to benefit a dementia care charity, and gave me a £5 donation. I started to decline but she insisted, saying her husband had died with dementia and she thought it was a very good cause. Thank you, Betty of Coombwich.

A short walk out of the village and suddenly there it was – the Steart peninsula with the Bristol Channel just beyond. Fantastic.

I arrived at six o’clock in the evening. It was a good feeling to reach here at last, having stared at the point on the map for so long. I spent a couple of hours exploring and enjoying the sights and sounds of the beach, a mixture of shingle, sand and mud.

A small log washed up by the tide happened to point more or less precisely to the location of the isthmus northern apex.

The sky then started to do some magic tricks. There was a curious effect as the sun was setting – a sort of ribbon-like cloud high up caused a fan effect above the nearby Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station. [I have since seen this elsewhere and believe it to be caused by the sun shining through the ripples of a high-altitude aircraft vapour trail.]

A little later for a short time there was a sort of rainbow high up in the ice crystal clouds.

There was a beautiful sunset – I couldn’t have asked for a better finish to the walk.

My plan to sit on the beach listening to the waves as the moon sailed past turned out to be a romantic fantasy. With Stert being so flat, a keen, chilly breeze whipped across it. Plan B had been to shelter in one of the bird hides, but they were all locked and in any case were constructed in such a way that the wind whistled straight through them – perhaps to discourage people from doing exactly what I had been planning.

So, plan C … I said goodbye to the Bristol Channel and started plodding back inland. It was a long slog. I was very tired and the soles of my feet were aching more than ever, but I decided to take the roads, thankfully almost vehicle-free, for simplicity of route-finding even though the hardness of the tarmac was extraordinarily painful to walk on now. The knowledge that there’d probably be some quality food and drink at Bridgewater helped a bit.

24 June 2016 – HOME.

I arrived in Bridgewater town centre at three in the morning and sat on a bench enjoying NOT walking. There was a drunk shouting in the distance. I finished off my sandwiches and found a 24-hour petrol station and ordered a coffee through the window. Another passer by (not the drunk man) did the same. The attendant disappeared for ages, the man said he was always ‘doing that’, and we joked about what might be going on in the back room.

I’d had ideas of walking to a relative’s house about fifteen miles away that day, but seeing that there was a train departing for Bristol at 6 am, took that, then one to Birmingham, and then one to Leamington Spa and was soon home. My souvenirs were two miniature jam pots with a bit of water and piece of pottery I found in the mud on the English Channel side and water and a patterened pebble from the other.

[I kept the jam pots for a couple of years, but then the water went strangely black, so I discarded it, but still have the bit of pottery and the pebble – it would be nice to return them one day, perhaps repeating the walk with a few minor alterations and completing it in one single, continuous effort.]

The answers to my questions:

  • The north and south apexes of the isthmus are at grid references SY 35723 93090 and ST 25150 45180, and are 33.03 miles apart.
  • Walking at night was good. Lovely and quiet, although I did have the advantage of beneficient, mild weather conditions. Might not be so much fun in the cold, wind and rain.
  • The lightpacking worked fine. Being mild weather, I didn’t need much. Having walked with much heavier packs, it was a pleasent change to have something so much lighter.
  • The length of my route between the apexes was 60 miles. With other bits of walking I found I’d walked almost exactly 100 miles in 3 days and 15 hours, the longest day being Monkton Wyld to Bridgewater, a smidgen under 40 miles.
  • Self-designed routes? The way-finding was largely fine, although the northern third was a little more difficult, some paths poorly maintained.

[I did get blisters under the webs of my big toes, but they were not serious matters – I remember them stinging when having to plod through some slurry. When I got home, I also found I’d picked up what I was later told was probably a deer tick sitting just below by navel. A tiny thing, I thought it was a little scab at first. Googling what to do, I cautiously removed it, a surprisingly difficult job, and on NHS telephone advice went to A&E. A nurse cleaned the small wound and I was put on antibiotics. While I’d kept myself well covered while walking, this one had got in at the waistline where my T-shirt was flapping open, perhaps while I was cat-napping lying in the grass. Lesson learned!]

June 2016 [minor amendments December 2022].