Harri was woken at about 6.30am when a dog called Nicholas came to investigate our tent (his owner quickly ordered him away, hence Harri knowing his name). After stealing Harri’s camping pillow at some point in the early hours, I was still sleeping soundly and missed all the excitement.
Waking up in a field of long grass, damp with dew, was a completely new experience. Our tiny Vango tent doesn’t allow for much inside activity so Harri was already sitting on his sleeping mat eating breakfast (dry porridge again) when I finally emerged to another sunny morning.
Last night, in the depths of misery, we’d discussed abandoning our walk and catching a much earlier bus to Taunton or Bridgwater, where we’d have the rest of the day to kill before catching our pre-booked evening train back to Newport.
Now, after a good night’s sleep, the idea seemed rather defeatist. We were miles behind our original schedule; there was no way we could reach Minehead by teatime, it was true, but to abandon our hike completely on day five no longer seemed such a great strategy.
Harri suggested that instead of giving up altogether we concentrate on reaching Watchet, eight miles closer. IT meant we’d have to return to West Somerset later in the summer but would mean ending our trip on a more positive note (and would be more practicable in terms of outward and return travel arrangements).
I glanced up at the blue sky and slowly nodded; whichever way you looked at it, I was facing several miles of walking with very sore toes so we might as well be heading in the right direction as wandering aimlessly around a large town.
The advantage of having such a tiny tent is that it takes very little time and effort to put up and down. Within an hour of rising, we’d packed everything and we were on our way. Unfortunately, there was no choice but to follow Hinkley Point’s perimeter fence and almost immediately we were joined by a third security van; this time we ignored it.
With the nuclear power station behind us, we were finally able to appreciate the beauty and tranquility of the Quantock Hills and the Jurassic coastline. We could see Minehead clearly in the distant, but we weren’t tempted to change our minds. Eight miles is a long way and we weren’t walking at our usual speed; the last thing we wanted to do was miss our train home.
I’d like to say there was a spring in our step as we walked, but my toe problems weren’t going to disappear without a few days’ rest and Harri too was suffering from carrying the additional weight over such long distances. We vowed to stick at around 15-18 mile days in future… it’s far enough with heavy backpacks.
After a tough hilly section through woodland, we arrived at West Quantoxhead (last night’s intended overnight stop) at around 1pm and were relieved to see the village pub and restaurant, The Windmill, was open. Usually we prefer to sit outside but the sun was high in the sky and Harri needed some shade so we headed indoors.
The walk from here to Williton was absolutely glorious. We left the village on one of those wonderful country roads that modern drivers largely ignore (too slow, no passing places, etc). Best of all, we were heading downhill… as we ambled along, enjoying open views towards the coast, Harri assured me we’d done almost all the day’s climbing (not quite true).
We crossed the railway line at Williton, one of ten stations on the 22.75 mile heritage West Somerset Railway (Watchet is another), which operates services using steam and diesel trains. The single track railway (the longest standard gauge heritage railway in the UK) originally opened in 1862 between Taunton and Watchet and was only extended to Minehead in 1874. It was closed by British Rail in 1971 but reopened as a heritage line in 1976.
Williton Station retains something of its Victorian charm, although there have been lots of improvements over the years; the current railway footbridge was installed as recently as 2011. The footbridge itself hails from Trowbridge Station, and was ‘saved’ by Gerald Creed back in 1982. I can’t be the only one wondering where it has been hiding during the intervening three decades?
We climbed the last steep hill of the day, me charging full steam ahead (no doubt inspired by the railway station), while Harri took it more steadily.
I had only visited Watchet once before. I was driving home from Cornwall with my older daughters on an unbearably hot afternoon (the youngest hadn’t been born so it was definitely over twenty years ago). Desperate for a break from the car, we decided to go in search of a cream tea (for me) and icecreams (for them); somehow we ended up in Watchet.
My abiding memory of this small port was the mud… it must have been low tide because I remember staring into the harbour at glistening mud. We looked around for a cafe serving cream teas but found nowhere; eventually we returned to the car. I think it’s fair to say Watchet wasn’t exactly up there on my list of places to revisit.
Still a lot can change in twenty years and, as we hobbled into town, I was delighted to see things had… and for the better. Since my last visit two decades ago, Watchet has transformed itself into a rather nice little coastal town. First and foremost, in 2000 the harbour has been converted into an attractive marina. The esplanade has also changed beyond recognition with new paving, railings, lamps, sculptures, interpretation boards and lots of cafes!! In fact, it’s the perfect place for an overnight stop for England Coast Path walkers.
We popped into the TIC (Harri can never resist) to check the location of our bus stop and then, as we had over two and a half hours to kill, we did what any self-respecting visitor would do… we set off to sample the local cider in Pebbles Tavern.
The gods must have been been looking down on us because we chose the perfect pub with a cider-loving landlord; taking one look at us, he insisted we sit down immediately before bringing over several local ciders for us to sample. He spread out a copy of the Somerset Cider & Apple Juice Guide across our table and pointed out exactly where each was made.
There are so many cider producers in the Somerset Levels it’s a miracle anyone ever gets any work done! (We’ve kept the guide, complete with our new friend’s handwritten recommendations, for the next time we’re in the region).
Late afternoon and it was time to say farewell to Somerset and head home. The final highlight of our five-day trip was the sudden appearance of the 1944 Raveningham Hall as we stood at the bus stop.
We have to return to walk the final stretch but first, there’s a very long walk through Wales to occupy us.
England Coast Path: Severn Estuary to Bridgwater Bay by Harri Garrod Roberts is available in digital format from Amazon for £1.99.