[Warning: For anybody following after me, the route of this walk is no longer passable. The river bank has been breached to create the Steart Marshes, and walkers would need to make an inland detour to get around the breach.]
Today I am heading down the west bank of the River Parrett to Bridgwater, the first point at which I can cross the river and continue my coastal walk.
But, when my husband drops me off in the car park at Steart Village, and just beside the monument that marks the beginning/end of the West Somerset Coast Path, I see a footpath sign. And I discover I can walk even further along the coast, and maybe get to Stert Point itself.
So off I go. (This is another unexpected eccentricity displayed by the West Somerset Coast Path – it doesn’t actually end where it says it does!)
On the way I have good views across the mouth of the estuary. That must be Burnham-on-Sea. It looks enticingly near. But signs warn me not to attempt to cross the mud – it is treacherous.
Stert Point is given over to a nature reserve, but access is allowed as long as you keep to the paths. There are plenty of bird hides. It must be the wrong time of year, because I see no birds. Nor do I see any birdwatchers. Ironically, one of the hides is closed because of nesting swallows.
I can’t get to the point itself. But from the farthest hide, I can look over the estuary. I would like to think the rounded hill in the distance is Glastonbury, but my map says it’s called Brent Knoll.
There is a large hide on stilts at the entrance to the reserve. I climb up and enjoy great views over the countryside. This hide also marks the beginning of the River Parrett Trail. An information poster tells me to expect ‘a fascinating journey’ and promises ‘along the trail you will find work by artists and craftspeople’. Sounds exciting.
I take a photo through the glass window, across the mud of Steart Flats, to the distant hulk of Hinkley Point.
Then I walk along the track that marks the official start of the River Parrett Trail, although at this point the river is nowhere to be seen.
An information board shows a new scheme to manage flood risk and create an extensive marshy wildlife habitat. Work should have finished winter of 2013/14, but it is not clear if it has been completed or not. There are path deviations ahead. (Footpath deviations are something of a habit in Somerset.)
The first part of the trail is easy walking, if a little boring.
Things get interesting when I reach a diversion, and walk along an overgrown, narrow path around a field of cattle. They are, as always, intensely excited by my presence, but at least they keep to the other side of the barbed wire fence.
I stumble along, through thick grass, and am pleased to see the river ahead. On the bank, I assume, the grass will be shorter and the walking must get easier.
But it doesn’t get easier. I meet a cyclist (pushing, not riding, his bike). He is struggling though the grass and has come from Combwich – the only village on the river bank between here and Bridgwater.
When I tell him I am heading for Bridgwater, he seems surprised and tells me it’s a long way. I’m surprised that he’s surprised. Isn’t the River Parrett Trail supposed to be a long distance footpath?
Further along, and I can see recently flooded land. Signs warn me this is a construction site – which I find amusing, as I it looks more like a wilderness to me. Beyond are the blocky structures of Hinkley Point Power Station.
A walker has been behind me for some time. He’s been whistling. Maybe to warn me of his presence? I stop and pretend to adjust my shoelaces to allow him to pass. He must have spoken to the cyclist, because he stops and says, ‘I hear you’re trying to get to Bridgwater?’ He also warns me it’s further than I think – because the river twists and turns.
Again, I’m surprised that he’s surprised that I am walking a long distance along a long distance footpath. I’ve worked out it’s about 12 miles from here to Bridgwater. He tells me he is going to Combwich.
The overgrown path morphs into a wide track. Much better! And I make good progress. Combwich is visible and grows nearer.
I stop for lunch at the Anchor Inn. But they only do a roast dinner on a Sunday. I don’t feel like a roast, but they can’t offer anything lighter. Shame. I have my usual ’emergency’ lunch, reserved for occasions when I can’t get food in a pub. A packet of crisps, a bag of nuts, and a pint of cider. Very healthy!
I tease the landlord, who only offers one type of cider. In Somerset?! He asks where I’m heading and I tell him Bridgwater. He raises his eyebrows. I ask if the path is very overgrown in that direction. He says he’s not met anyone whose walked from Bridgwater, and so he doesn’t know.
This is the third person who has expressed surprise at my plan to walk along the River Parrett Trail to Bridgwater. I am beginning to get worried.
But, when I walk through Combwich and find the continuation of the River Parrett Trail, it looks fairly easy. The ground is rough, but the grass is shorter and there are no brambles or nettles. Off I go.
I take a photograph looking back at the village. It looks very sleepy. But I know EDF has big plans to convert the small wharf into a dock for the transport of construction equipment to Hinkley Point Power Station.
[Combwich is going to undergo a massive change in the next few years. You can see what the dock development will look like in this YouTube video.]
I wish I could say the landscape was interesting. The river is wide with muddy banks and a sluggish flow. There is no shipping. The landscape on either side is flat and reminds me of my old stomping ground, the Cambridgeshire Fens. There are familiar sluice gates and pumping stations. But the language here is different. Instead of sluice, the outflows are called clyce. They provide little focal points of interest in an otherwise featureless walk.
I pass by Tuckett’s Clyce and Fenlyn’s Clyce.
After Pippin’s Clyce, the path becomes very overgrown and walking is a real struggle. Sometimes I walk along the top of the bank, where hidden ruts and hollows threaten to twist my ankles. Sometimes I walk along the bottom, where the grass is long and my feet sink into its softness, like walking in deep snow.
This is the famous River Parrett Trail? I am disappointed.
To be fair, according to my map the Trail deviates inland at one point – but there are no visible signs to tell me where this happens. And when I come to a section that is definitely footpath (there is a sign on the gate), the going is no better. In fact, the gate is too overgrown with weeds to force open, and I have to climb over the fence.
At this stage, I have given up all hope of seeing anything interesting, or coming across any of the promised artwork. I just hope I make it to Bridgwater without twisting an ankle or getting hopeless entangled in weeds.
Ahead, on the other side of the river, is Dunball Wharf.
This is where large pumps were placed during the 2013/2014 floods to help pump water out of the Somerset Levels. The pumps were supplied by a Dutch firm.
The Cambridgeshire fens were created by the Dutch, who drained the flat landscape of East Anglia systematically and effectively. Our ditches were regularly cleared and the network of drains and sluices ensure the Fens are kept dry. Perhaps the Somerset Levels would benefit from more of those engineering skills and experience?
Further along, and there is a large industrial estate / warehouse complex on the other side of the river. Morrisons. And many others.
I have a harrowing walk across a field full of frisky bullocks (no photographs, because I didn’t dare stop) and reach a place called Pims Pill.
The name sounds pretty, but Pims Pill is narrow and deep, and lined by mud. I stop here and have a snack.
I meet some other walkers – dog walkers and strollers – for the first time. I am on the outskirts of Bridgwater. The path skirts around the edge of a sewage works. The pong is obvious but not too bad.
A footpath joins the Parrett Trail from an adjacent field. But the sign on the stile is a little off-putting. BULLFIELD. I can’t decide if the farmer has scrawled it, or whether some harassed walker has written it as a warning to others. I peer through the hedge, but can’t see a bull.
Anyway, I am sticking to the River Parrett Trail, and continue.
The approach to Bridgwater is rather tatty, but a welcome sight. The path goes through an underpass, under the A39, and then along the side of a housing estate. There is litter everywhere.
But I come to Bridgwater Marina. The wide outer dock is empty. And I am not surprised, because I find it hard to believe that the muddy river is deep enough to take any ships. It’s fairly attractive, as long as you ignore the discarded shopping trolley and bicycle in the sluice outflow.
But the inner dock is full of houseboats. They look attractive in the evening light. It is a nice area, but there is nowhere to sit. I perch on a rock and wait for my husband to arrive.
Miles walked today = 13
Miles since beginning of my coastal walk = 1496