Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Blackdown Walk - on foot in wild Somerset

The great architecture guru Nikolaus Pevsner described the tower at St Peter's Church in Staple Fitzpaine as a masterpiece of the art. Its crenellations and sawtooth spires, especially when seen against a ragged grey sky, suggest a rugged kind of faith. So it looks as we set out from there on a walk in though the Blackdown Hills.





Staple Fitzpaine is in Somerset's Vale of Taunton. Staple is thought to derive from an Old English word for pillar or post and may relate to the sarcen stones to be found around the village, supposedly cast there by the devil; the Fitzpaines owned the manor for 160 years until, before the place passed into the hands of the Portman family, who also acquired the London estate that includes the eponymous square. They are remembered in the church, most strikingly by a ruffed and kneeling representation of Rachel, daughter of Sir Henry Portman, who died in 1632, aged 78.

Rachel Portman's memorial
St Peter's is fascinating. It's Norman in origin, though like so many other English churches it was monkeyed about with by the Victorians. In the churchyard there's a mammoth yew tree which, acceding to rumour, shades the grave of Richard Lionheart, though most accounts have him buried at Fontrevaud Abbey in the Loire.

We are staying a few steps away at the Greyhound Inn, a solid country pub whose oldest parts - I guess they include the flagstone floor in the bar - go back four centuries or so. Its name owes nothing to racing dogs - directly at least. Men who delivered the mail in the days before the postal service began were known as greyhounds. 




It's a wonderful walk. There verges spill pink campion and white cow parsley. There are great clouds of hawthorn blossom. Bluebells are still bright among the ferns. 

Leaving the church past a row of lovely 17th century almshouses we turn westward to join the Herepath, a 13.5 mile loop for walkers and cyclists which winds through this officially designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It's a Sunday but we don't encounter any cyclists. At Staple Lawns Farm we turn to the south through delightful woodland, eventually reaching Mount Fancy Farm, a bewitching, 27 hectare patch of shaggy, undulating woodland and unkempt undergrowth which appears untouched by human hand. Which, I suppose, is what's intended. It was once rough grazing land. In the mid 20th century the Forestry Commission planted trees there. Recently the open land has been restored - and with it the habitat of butterflies such as the silver-washed fritillary, the brown hairstreak and the rare wood white. Exmoor ponies and long horned Devon cattle graze near the path.




We swing eastward again to Castle Neroche, an Iron Age defensive position later surmounted by a Norman castle (more Old English: Neroche comes from nierra, meaning nearer and rechech, meaning a place where hunting dogs were kept)  William the Conqueror's half brother Robert, Count of Mortain, built a motte and bailey there, with a wooden keep, or tower. After the death of Henry I in the 12th century - in a time of civil strife -  the tower was replaced by a stone keep. Now, besides a sweeping view across the Vale of Taunton, there's nothing to see but hillsides shaped into earthworks. But it's still a place where the imagination may wander.

North then, down steep paths that are hell to the knees and back across level, open country in fitful sunlight. We cut off part of the loop, aiming to reduce the walk to 10 - 11 miles and thinking to follow a footpath running north from Crosses Farm, which should bring us out close to the Greyhound. It's marked on the OS map (128 Taunton and Blackdown) but nobody can have walked it for some time, so rather than fight our way through vegetation we decide to take the road back from Bulford, pressing our backs into the hedgerows to let post lunch traffic speed past. The pub, we are grateful to discover, is still serving.

A large and very pleasant twin room at the Greyhound cost us £90 per night with English breakfast - and decent coffee. It had a big bathroom with bath and shower and a trouser press. Beers, a picnic and dinner for two on one night - including delicious grilled sea bass -  added just under £50. 


2 comments:

Sam Napper said...

I grew up in Staple Fitzpaine - my parents still live there.

The memorial to Rachel Portman, that you pictured, was actually moved here in the 1800s. Prior to then, it was at the now-demolished church at Bickenhall; the site of which is adjacent to her house in life.

Rachel Portman remains buried in the overgrown graveyard of the now vanished Bickenhall church; it is said that her ghost rides by night between her grave and memorial.

Sam Napper said...

I grew up in Staple Fitzpaine - my parents still live there.

The memorial to Rachel Portman, that you pictured, was actually moved here in the 1800s. Prior to then, it was at the now-demolished church at Bickenhall; the site of which is adjacent to her house in life.

Rachel Portman remains buried in the overgrown graveyard of the now vanished Bickenhall church; it is said that her ghost rides by night between her grave and memorial.