Adventures on the Southern Coast to Coast Walk

Our contributor NIGEL HEATH, puts on his walking boots and ventures out on the scenic southern coast...

Our contributor NIGEL HEATH, puts on his walking boots and ventures out on the scenic southern coast…

Landmarks can be very frustrating because they often take hours to disappear from view, if you are a cross country walker.

And so it was the day after my friend Peter Gibbs and I set out to follow the coast to coast route and Somerset’s mighty Mendip Hills transmitter came into view.

But surely the 192 miles coast to coast walk runs from St Bees, Cumbria, across the Lake District, the Pennines and Yorkshire to Robin Hood’s Bay, readers might point out.

Yes this is true but we were following the alternative coast to coast path across southern England from Weston-super-Mare on the Bristol Channel to Dover.

Ahead of us lay a wonderful 283 miles trek across magnificent country packed with sights of interest, though quiet water meadows and ancient woodland, traversing limestone and chalk downs and encountering many picturesque villages and bustling market towns along the way.

But all that lay in the future as we topped the first of many hills ranges and saw the pencil slim Mendip Transmitter in the distance ahead of us.

We were now following the West Mendip Way from Weston to the medieval market town of Wells with its magnificent Cathedral built between 1175 and 1490 and here we picked up the East Mendip Way to take us across the hills to Shepton Mallet.

And it was only when that 293 metre high transmitter finally slipped below the horizon on a golden autumn afternoon that we truly felt we were on our way.

Just outside Shepton Mallet we stopped beside some cottages at the edge of a field and were pondering the route when up popped a villager who had been gardening behind a wall and pointed out our route.

It was the first of many small kindnesses shown to these gentlemen of the road by those we happened to meet along the way.

A days walking through gentle, rolling Somerset countryside brought us to the army town of Warminster and from there we skirted the southern edge of Salisbury Plain by way of a series of prehistoric hill forts to drop down and stay in the Wiltshire village of Heytesbury at the end of the tranquil Wylye Valley.

Then followed a wonderful days stroll through quiet meadows beside the river Wylye and far from the madding crowd namely the busy main road linking Warminster with Salisbury on the hillside above us.
On this morning we were sitting outside St Marys, Wylye enjoying a coffee when a local told us of an impoverished village Jack the Lad who went off to seek his fortune.

Apparently on returning in a coach and four and finding his mother and sister in paupers graves, he ordered the local stone mason to build them a fine tomb but then went off to the Napoleonic wars without paying!

We were now on the Imber Trail which neatly links the East Mendip Way with Salisbury and stopped for the night in Wilton, a small town of rich heritage dating back to Saxon times and where carpets have been made since the 18th century.

From here it was a short walk into Salisbury and we jostled with crowds of tourists wandering through its ancient streets and clustering around its 11th Century Cathedral like bees around a honey pot.

It was all a little disconcerting but only served to enhance the sense of peace which followed as we strolled away from the city through quiet water meadows.

We had now reached an important milestone as we were beginning the Clarendon Way which passes from Wiltshire into Hampshire and runs for 25 miles over the low hills of the Test Valley to link with Winchester and its ancient cathedral.

Another two glorious days walking along quiet lanes, through undulating countryside dotted with woodland and small villages brought us out in a clearing above Winchester and we paused to check our map.

A family wandered into view clutching a single sheet map of a local walk and were obviously lost. “Excuse me. Can you tell us where we are?” asked the mum. “Yes, You’re in Hampshire,” Peter replied. “But don’t worry I’m sure we can help,” he quickly added.

After exploring Winchester, visiting the cathedral and staying overnight, it was time to hit the trail again. We picked up the River Itchen, east of the city and followed it to the watercress beds at Alresford, site of the famous Watercress Line and so on to wooded Selborne, home of the Rev Gilbert White, one of the nation’s first naturalists.

The way now led us to picturesque Hazelmere and the start of The Greensand Way which runs105 miles across the Surrey Hills and on to Kent, the Garden of England.

I was surprised at how wooded Kent was and that we were able to walk for miles through orchards without meeting a soul.

It was on this section that we passed through the Chartwell Estate, home to Sir Winston Churchill from 1922 until his death in 1965, and I fell into a deep ditch hidden by long grass and ended up tortoise like on my back with my rucksack underneath me. Thank goodness there was no water in it!

It was also on this section that we got soaked in a sudden down poor and fled to the shelter of a nearby railway station to put on dry clothes. Peter said it gave a whole new meaning to the phrase: “change at Pluckley.”

We caught our first glimpse of the sea on a chalk escarpment at Adlington and followed The Saxon Shore Way through Hythe, Sandgate and Folkestone and along the top of those famous white cliffs, passing its moving memorial to ‘the few,’ and so on to Dover.

But my abiding memory of those last 70 miles was passing two small boys in a country lane one evening.

“Where are you going Mr?” one asked. “All the way to Dover,” we replied. There was a pause. “Yer Joking aint yer Mr.”