An introduction to A-roads….
I had set my alarm, so got up and made myself presentable enough to be in company at a breakfast table in time for 08:00am. I noticed what a sunny morning it was outside and talked to Stuart and Judy, mainly about their garden and the home-grown produce they had on the go, including the preserves that were on the table in front of me (the fig jam was particularly delicious) but also about how modern and stylish their home was. An Australian couple soon wandered in and we got chatting. They were over here visiting local relatives and enjoying a bit of sight-seeing. I guess, at some point, they must have found out that I am a nurse, because the husband told me that he had had a tumour removed from his spine a few years previously. I listened as he told me about the operation and all the difficult rehabilitation that he had endured afterwards. I could detect the emotional undertones from him and was reminded, as one is when hearing another person’s story, how lucky we all are to enjoy good health and how we take it for granted until something as terrible as cancer enters our lives. There but for the grace of God, we say.
Soon, it was time to leave this wonderful place and such agreeable company and make my way into Ilchester, to pick up the Roman road south. The day was sunny and warming up, so that I applied sun cream after going into a post office to send home some more of my used maps. It took a while to get my bearings in the street, deciding which of the roads out of Ilchester I had to take, but I had a chat with a local and then used my map to confirm that I was heading out on the Roman road. The traffic of Ilchester soon gave way to the fields and brooks of the countryside, albeit viewed from a very busy A-road. In fact, quite a bit of today’s walk was to take in these busy highways and I was, at times, alarmed by how close cars and particularly lorries whistled by me at speed. I didn’t enjoy walking along them and by the looks on the faces of some of the drivers, neither did they. At times, I only had a thin strip of grass verge to walk on right next to the road and sometimes, intrusive vegetation forced me out onto the road itself, so that I had to hop on and off the verge when I could, to avoid being squashed. This was a period of unease which took me on to a camp-site near Chilthorne Domer, where I had stayed three months earlier. I stopped and sat in the sunshine on a bench outside The Halfway House Inn, reflecting that I hadn’t met so many people on this trip as I had back in June. I came to the conclusion that it was because I had been able to complete the journey, so far, without too many problems. I hadn’t had to rely so much on the milk of human kindness as I had back then; hitching lifts, being invited into homes and catching public transport. This was because my feet, although sore, hadn’t folded on me. I was feeling fine; full of good food, enjoying the warmth of the day and contemplating rattling some more miles off before the evening.
The lane that never was….
I started out again after a few minutes, along the Ilchester Road on rising ground as I approached Coppits Hill. I soon encountered a problem that had confounded me on my last visit. My map clearly told me that there was a lane off to my left, opposite a lane on the other side of the road going up and around the hill. I found the hill lane, could see it on the far side of the road, but there was no sign of the lane I wanted to take. This was despite me standing on the corresponding spot on the map where it ought to be. It wasn’t a little dirt track heading off to Lostville, either; it was a proper, tarmac B-road. I searched around, as I had done earlier in the year, but the hedge line to my left remained unbroken. Previously, I had blamed sloppy map-reading, but today I was being thorough and still couldn’t find it. It simply wasn’t there. I took a guess that it may be more hidden than the map showed it to be, so climbed over a gate and into a shaggy field. There was no sign of anything resembling a road and the terrain just became wilder ahead. This wasn’t the place, but it was high up and afforded me a great view back north. Against the blue of the sky, I could just make out a sliver of something sticking up from a hazy horizon. It was the Mendip transmitter I had stood beneath, made almost invisible by distance. I wondered how many horizons back was my little home in Bridstow; the place where I had begun this journey a week ago. The clouds were flat and ragged and travelled sparsely on more elevated platforms today and around me was feral growth and the bleached carcass of a dead tree. I was not where I should be, so turned back and climbed onto the road once more. I knew that I needed to walk through the hilly, marshy area off to my left at, naturally enough, Marsh Hill so decided to guess a route through. I suppose that I must have thrown away about an hour in the process of this; wandering about on rough pasture which took me up and down and then brought me to a stop in front of impassable fences or un-crossable rivers. When I’d finally got through to the Marsh Hill area, I found myself stuck in a savage little valley that was filled with a bewildering array of sheep, wire fencing, shrubbery and streams. I resorted to using my Maps app again to find where I was in relation to my OS map and walking route, then my compass to orientate myself once more. I finally found a way up out of the trough by scissor-stepping over electric fencing and wincing at the anticipation of receiving a shock to the scrotal area, then toiling steeply uphill until I eventually made the glad discovery of a dirt path through the bushes. Feeling triumphant, I was convinced that I was again on my official route and followed this path on a steep bank, until I could get down onto a lane some thirty feet below me. Even then, I walked the wrong way down this lane before realising my error and finding another route off to my right and upwards once more. Finally, I passed something I recognised. Marsh Hill Farm was along my postcode route and the track I was on took me beyond it and to the outskirts of Yeovil.
Yeovil’s good in my book….
Whilst planning this route, I had taken time to do a bit of background reading on a lot of the villages, towns and cities that I’d be passing through. was included in this and I discovered that it was a place that had been fairly unlucky in terms of disasters, having three major or serious fires tearing through the town in 1499, 1620 and again in 1643. Its fortunes and population were improved and expanded during the 1800s, when Yeovil became a centre of the glove-making industry. Bringing us right up to date, in April 2006 Yeovil became the first town in Britain to trial a controversial system of biometric fingerprint scanning in nightclubs. Individuals wishing to gain access into clubs were initially asked to provide their personal details into a central system. This included a photograph and index fingerprint. After this, each entry into one of the participating premises required a fingerprint scan. If the system was successful at reducing crime and violence in Yeovil, it was to be introduced into other places in the UK. The very fact that Yeovil was chosen for such a scheme, indicates that it must have been a pretty hairy place to consider going out socialising at night. This seems to be backed up by a folk band called Show of Hands, who wrote a song called, ‘Yeovil Town’ about the violence and criminality they experienced after doing a gig there. Finally, the England cricketer spent a lot of his childhood in Yeovil; not that I’m suggesting that this enhances its reputation for violence, of course.
I reached a road, but immediately cut across green stuff again in the form of Hollands park and it was here that I saw, for the first time, the transmitters on Rampisham Down that I would have to pass by and which, I knew, were the beginning of the end of my trek south.
A pint at The Black Horse, Yeovil
My final county….
As pleasant an interlude as this was, I had miles to cover so downed my drink and got to it again, after tweeting my progress of the day. I left the pub garden and joined a main road; a conduit through the busy, noisy streets. I had to cross this, waiting for a gap in the constant stream of traffic before cutting up another road to the right. I entered a small shopping mall, one of those which contain a modern, gleaming aluminium statue back-dropped by a flyover and from here; I entered a quieter area of Yeovil. There appeared to be a row of bungalows on my right and a steep bank to my left, which was a flank of Summer House Hill. Two elderly ladies sat in the sun on a porch and watched me march by and then I was alone. I attempted to climb the bank where it met a wire fence, but found the path upwards too steep and in any case, it led me nowhere, so I slithered back down and continued along the path. I soon entered a children’s park with colourful slides and swings at the base of Constitution Hill, which bordered I began to climb steeply again in an area that was quite wild and pretty, up and to the top of Constitution Hill and then onto Two Tower lane, where I joined the Monarch’s Way route. This took me onto the A37 Roman Road and an hour or so of walking that I definitely did not enjoy. Frankly, it was horrible as for a few miles, I had to endure more high-speed traffic flashing by me near enough to reach out and touch. For the first time, I had real concerns at my decision to use A-roads as part of my postcode routes and made a mental note to look at all my routes on return home. I had more than half a mind to alter them all to take them away from such busy and potential death-traps. Frequently coming across the squashed and flattened carcasses of various animals didn’t help and neither did the occasional pitiful shake of the head I was getting from some drivers bearing down on me. I was walking on nothing but a thin grass verge by the side of the road, until a lorry driver sounded his horn at me and indicated a path on the opposite side of the road, near a place called Lower Key Farm. I had been making my way along, head down and unaware of this opportunity to get a few feet further away from the constant stream of speeding vehicles. The only bright spot along this stretch of the walk was coming upon a road sign that informed me that Weymouth was twenty-five miles away. I didn’t have to walk as far as Weymouth; I was closing in on the coast. However, it seemed to take an age for me to cover this part of my walk and it got worse when I had to negotiate a blind right-hand turn on a bridge over a railway line on the Dorchester Road but, finally, I was able to escape the road and hop over a stile into a field by a triangular wedge of trees near Whistle Bridge.
As I made my way up a moderate incline, I angled away from the A37 so that the traffic noise that had assaulted my ears for what seemed like hours, gradually faded to a background hum and the more pleasing sounds of birds and silence enveloped me. I never would have thought it, but I was actually pleased to be in the company of foraging cows again.
Quiet Lane, East Chelborough
Best hosts of the week….
I walked for another half an hour as the day was just starting to turn to a mellow evening and I came upon the Benville Bridge, at a point where the lane reached a T-junction. I was weary and needed a light moment and this bridge provided it in the form of a notice. It was painted on an old iron plate screwed into the brickwork of the bridge; informing anybody crossing it that, should they wilfully cause any injury to the county bridge, they would be found guilty of felony and transported for life! I found this to be excellent as I took a right at the crossroads and made my way towards Benville. I had realised that I wasn’t going to reach Rampisham Down today, so was hoping to stumble across a camp-site or, at least, somewhere likely to pitch my tent. My map told me that there was a pub ahead, which I thought was just the job. I had just passed Benville Bridge Farm, when a car headed towards me and then drew to a stop beside me. Perhaps I had been looking more confused than usual, or just tired, because a nice lady wound the window of the car down and a rather plummy voice asked me if I was alright. In turn, I asked if there was a place to camp in the area and she confirmed that I should walk a little further up the lane, where I would reach a pub called The Talbot Arms and be able to seek help from the patrons there who, she said, were lovely people. At the mention of a pub my ears and spirits had both perked up simultaneously and I thanked her and hurried on. I suspect that on any given walk, one will happen upon a place and meet people who help make the trip a memorable one for all the right reasons. Rich (Richard) and Mary are two such people. My evening at The Talbot Arms is a happy and pleasurable memory that I will always have with me. They are a warm, funny and giving couple and if, by a remote chance, you find yourself in Benville, Dorset I urge you to enjoy their hospitality and company for yourself. You will have a great time and will swiftly find yourself parting with any unwanted sobriety. As I pushed the door open and entered the bar, the lively chatter and laughter for some reason made me aware of how dirty and shabby I was. There were half a dozen or so folk standing together at the bar, apart from a guy in a wheelchair who looked to be in his early sixties. I ordered a drink and this guy asked me where I was walking. His name was John and he proved to be the catalyst that got me a pitch in the pub beer garden for the night. He was engaging and lively, with a full head of white hair and a direct, honest gaze. He seemed genuinely interested about my endeavours to get to the south coast from my front door. We chatted as we supped our respective pints and when he learned that I was looking for somewhere to camp for the night, he took the lead.
“Mary will let you set up in the beer garden – she’s the one to talk to,” he indicated Mary, who was serving behind the bar.
At his prompt, I approached Mary and she agreed that it hadn’t occurred to her, but it would be fine for me to set up camp. I thanked both her and John and immediately went into the garden to find a likely spot, as I was aware that the light was fading fast. One thing was for sure; I was setting up my tent on the most manicured and level piece of ground of the whole week. It was like pitching on a bowling green. I was about halfway through the task when John manoeuvred himself out of the pub and wheeled himself across to me.
“I’m just off, so I wanted to wish you all the best for tomorrow,” he said.
We shook hands and I thanked him for his help and then he and his wife got into a car and drove away. I was subsequently to learn from Mary via email that John passed away suddenly, two weeks after I had met him. All of his friends and loved ones around Benville were shocked, as was I. He was just a great bloke and even though I had only spent a bare hour with him, he left an impression and I was very sorry to hear about his death.
After John left, I finished setting up camp and getting myself into a more presentable shape and then re-entered the pub. I had another pint and ordered some food from Rich, who immediately went off to cook it. I ate in leisurely silence, content to listen to the local news and in-jokes of the lively couples who I had seen earlier and who seemed to be very friendly with Rich and Mary. By degrees, the couples said their farewells and left until there were but a few patrons left. I moved myself to a stool at the bar and ordered another beer. Rich allowed me to put my phone on charge and then we chatted about my journey south from Herefordshire. I ordered another beer and attempted to pay for it with a tenner, but Rich waved my money away and wouldn’t, in fact, accept any money from me for drinks for the rest of the night. We drank and we talked and Rich’s story as a landlord mirrored many that I have heard before. He started in rough, inner city pubs in London (I thought I’d detected an accent) and then, after time served, was able to demand more refined and rural pastures in which to work his trade. At some point during this, Rich asked me if I liked single malt whisky. Anybody who has had a half decent acquaintance with me would chortle at this and I assured him that I did, indeed, enjoy a wee dram of the good stuff. He looked inordinately pleased with this and, casting a swift and furtive glance at Mary, leaned in towards me.
“Have you tried Glenlivet?” he said.
“Yes – many times,” I affirmed.
“Ah! But have you tried fifteen years old Glenlivet?” he further ventured.
I admitted that I wasn’t sure about that one and Rich winked at me conspiratorially and wandered off a trifle unsteadily to the far end of the bar. He returned with a bottle of the good stuff and once more waved away my attempts to offer him money, instead pouring me a good wallop and urging me to try it. Now, I don’t know whether I was rather tipsily caught up in this moment of reverence or whether the fifteen years old Glenlivet does have a pedigree of its own, but it was good. It was damned good. Rich poured himself an equally generous measure and we continued to put the world to rights. He pointed out a couple at the other end of the curved bar.
“See the bloke with the scars on his face and arms? That’s Mike and those are burn scars. He got them four years ago, when a gas canister blew up whilst he was inside a shed with it. The skin was hanging off him, but he’s a tough bastard. He had to be air-lifted to a hospital for emergency treatment and it was touch and go for him for a while, but he wouldn’t let them put him on a stretcher. He insisted on walking to the helicopter with all this skin just hanging off him. He still gets a lot of pain from it.”
Mary had joined us and we continued to chat until I noticed that it was 01:20am and I’d better be getting to bed.
“It’s a pity,” said Mary, “You could have stayed in our spare room at the front, but somebody is using it just now.”
I thanked her and assured her I’d be okay in the tent and Rich told me to make sure I came in for a bacon sandwich before I set off in the morning. Mary agreed that she’d cook it for me. We bid each other goodnight and I crept into my tent in the chilly early hours. I briefly tweeted about my good fortune at meeting these wonderful people and was asleep in no time aided, no doubt, by the considerable amount of booze that I’d taken, free of charge.
God bless Rich and Mary.
See Route on ......