“Can I ask everyone to pause, stop talking and just listen to what’s around us for a moment?” says David Howell, our guide. We’re walking through a valley between Combe Hay and Midford, on the southern fringes of Bath, with locally based walking company Foot Trails.
“Until 200 years ago or so, this was how it would have sounded, before we made our world so noisy with engines,” he says. As we stop and listen the only sounds are birds calling to each other, and the gentle drip of raindrops on cagoules.
Foot Trails was founded by David’s wife, Alison Howell, and the company specialises in guided and self-guided walking trips around South West England. The couple’s approach is a winning one: avoiding the tourist honeypots and beaten tracks (in this case the National Trails) means routes cover the quintessential English landscapes and village atmosphere that guests want to experience but do so away from the hordes. Expert local knowledge of lesser-known footpaths mean walks can also be adapted to suit the seasons – and guest preferences.
Most Foot Trails trips are weekend- or week-long tours (many of them inn-to-inn holidays that take in some of the region’s loveliest gastropubs along the way) but the company is also running a series of guided day-long hikes this summer, one route navigating Stonehenge and one, new for 2016, a circular trail around Bath.
Our walk is a taster of the latter, Bath’s Prior View, a 7.5-mile hike that starts in the village of South Stoke. This might only be five minutes’ by taxi from the city’s main railway station but there’s no hint of urban commotion. With our backs to a former brewery, a honey-stone manor house in front of us and a pretty Norman church to one side, David gives us a quick brief before we set out. Top of the list: turning our mobiles to silent so we don’t disturb the rural hush.
We pass the village church and set off along footpaths, first downhill across fields then into Engine Woods, a woodland valley strewn with wild garlic. Today it’s a bucolic spot, with a gurgling stream passing beneath trees, but, as the name suggests, this was once a more industrial landscape. Stone walls peeping out from a tangle of moss hint at its past as a strategic bend in the Somerset Coal Canal, a twist in its route between the mines around Paulton and Limpley Stoke, where it once joined the Kennet and Avon Canal and shipped its sooty cargo to Bristol, Bath and London.
Over the course of our walk, we discover many such layers to the landscape around us as David fills us in on local history and Alison points out shimmers of native bluebells stretching up woodland banks (Spanish bluebells, like grey squirrels, are vigorously replacing their native sisters in our woodlands, we discover).
It’s a gentle walk over rolling Somerset countryside, through fields, past hedgerows and, occasionally, crossing a road. We pass herds of cows, an abandoned aqueduct, decaying like an enormous sculpture in the centre of a field, and, at Tucking Mill, a chocolate-box cottage said to have been the one-time home of Somerset Coal Canal engineer, William Smith.
Towards the end of the walk there’s a steep climb uphill as we make our way back into Bath via the suburb of Combe Down, once a separate village. The sun is out by this point, ricocheting off Combe Down’s pretty Bath stone cottages and elegant terraces, and flood-lighting the cherry and apple blossom in their gardens.
From here we loop down into Bath through Prior Park Landscape Garden. Now a National Trust property, with its deer park, woodland and water features it is a microcosm of our day’s walk – albeit in a more tamed style. Designed for entrepreneur (and postal system reformer) Ralph Allen, the garden fans out below Allen’s Palladian mansion, now a public school. The garden’s showpiece is a pretty Palladian bridge but the slopes leading down to it include woodland areas thick with fritillaries and wild garlic.
We have other things beside botany on our minds by this point, however. One of the big selling points of the Foot Trails experience – beside the Howells’ expert local knowledge – is the company’s locally sourced picnics and the new day walks are no exception. In warmer weather, these are eaten on the grass, in prime selfie-taking territory, beside the garden’s Palladian bridge. But today the clouds have blown in again and there’s a chill wind so we gather for lunch in a little oak-beamed woodland shelter.
As Alison pours cups of tea and English apple juice, David magics a surprisingly elaborate picnic from his backpack – and a civilised array of enamel plates, linen napkins and ‘proper’ knives and forks. The idea is to provide a ploughman’s lunch on the go. There are two kinds of bread from Bath’s Thoughtful Bread Co. (an onion sourdough and a wholegrain poolish loaf), thick slices of Wiltshire ham from Downland Farm in neighbouring Wiltshire, an intense cave-aged cheddar from Wookey Hole plus the milder, creamier Wyfe of Bath cheese.
To go with these are butter from Ivy House Farm in Beckington, In A Pickle’s fruity Mr Smyth’s chutney from Bradford on Avon and coriander and lemon houmous from Natural Vitality in Tunley (also makers of own-brand houmous and labneh for Abel&Cole and Daylesford). Many of these can be picked up at Galleries, a community-run shop and café in nearby Freshford. So too, we discover, can ridiculously gooey lemon drizzle cakes, baked on an Aga by one of the locals.
After second (OK, third) helpings, we stagger back onto our feet and set off for the final leg of the walk. Ducking out of the garden at its lower, northern, end, we meander back to the railway station through the picturesque backstreet pathways of Widcombe. Some of the grand stone houses we skirt here have vast, walled gardens. They’re more like country estates than town houses and it’s a shock to find them right in the centre of a city.
But then, as this walk demonstrates, Bath is a special city. And, thanks to David and Alison, we’ve looked at it, listened to it and literally eaten our way around it from a new perspective.
Foot Trails’ guided one-day walks run from the end of April to October in 2016 and cost from £69pp. For more information see foottrails.co.uk
Written by Rhiannon Batten, April 2016
Header image and Palladian Bridge image courtesy of Foot Trails
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