At the top of Cheddar Gorge looking towards Brent Knoll in the far distance. Photo: Diana Jarvis/Greentraveller
Brent Knoll rose from the emerald patchwork of the Somerset Levels like a round-shouldered island in a sea of green. Above me a kestrel hovered for a few moments before plunging – I couldn’t make out exactly where – to snatch its prey. Behind loomed limestone crags as rugged and dramatic as any moorland tor, while the undulating Mendip escarpment curved gently east and west towards the glistening Bristol Channel.
The sense of wildness on the hillside in Draycott Sleights nature reserve was invigorating – yet the amble up had taken no more than half an hour. And that’s the beauty of walking in the Mendips: untamed escapes are within easy reach of everyone, most of them just a short stroll from the nearest pub or bus stop. The same limestone geology that created the crags and gorges minimises water sources on the plateau, so settlements sprang up on the spring line at the foot of the escarpment, leaving the upper levels of the hills themselves sparsely settled. Ergo: terrific, peaceful and varied walking.
The remarkable limestone cliffs at Cheddar Gorge, Mendip Hills. Photo: Diana Jarvis/Greentraveller
I’d joined Sarah Jackson of the Mendip Hills AONB to test-tramp a couple of new downloadable Wildlife Walks. Each is designed to showcase the natural treasures of the area, and range from just a couple of miles to more testing leg-stretchers. The three-mile circuit from Draycott, midway along the hills’ southern edge, provided a wonderful snapshot (and some less-accomplished snapshots from me) of the hills.
We set out on the footpath near the church at Draycott, its graveyard blooming with the many hues of spring wildflowers. A farm track led us behind Batcombe Farm and into the curiously smooth Batcombe Hollow, a verdant, roundly moulded valley that looks as if it’s been scraped out by a giant’s fingernail, where crows perched on the few trees dotted along its edges. Halfway up, the path turns east to join the Mendip Way – a 50-mile waymarked trail that snakes across the hills – and enter Draycott Sleights nature reserve, managed by Somerset Wildlife Trust.
Sarah Jackson admires the view from Draycott Sleights. Photo: Paul Bloomfield
We paused above a classic circular dewpond to admire the views. The contrast between the fractured, snaggle-toothed outcrops behind and neatly aligned field margins of the Somerset Levels below was striking. Sarah pointed out Brent Knoll, with its impressive hill fort, and the Blackdown Hills lining the south-western horizon, hazy in the distance. To our west we peered across the gleaming blue disk of Axbridge Reservoir, flanked by the settlements of Cheddar and Axbridge, and along to Crook Peak, Brean Down and even Steep Holm, the distant full stop of the Mendip escarpment and now an island in the Bristol Channel.
That hovering kestrel is far from the only wild wonder to be spotted here, as Sarah observed. “These limestone grasslands were never good for agriculture, which is why they’ve traditionally been used just for grazing – a ‘sleight’ is a sheep pasture,” she explained. “But this landscape is perfect for several rare animals and plants: this is among the few strongholds of the chalkhill blue butterfly, and horseshoe bats roost in the cracks and caves among the limestone.”
Soay Sheep in the Mendip Hills. Photo: Diana Jarvis
We peered along the tops of stone walls, hoping to spot a basking adder, though on this breezy morning we weren’t ever likely to enjoy a snaky sighting. We were too early for orchids, and brown hares and deer were hiding. But as we cut down back towards Draycott, we were rewarded with a buzzard swooping in to perch on a nearby branch, while newborn lambs gambolled in the fields we traversed.
Bridge at Chew Valley Lake, Mendip Hills. Photo: Diana Jarvis/Greentraveller
As we re-entered civilisation on the street through Draycott, I recited the various poetic monikers for the Mendips’ peaks: knoll, tor, down, peak, mump – there are a lot of different names for hills in these parts. But then there are lot of very different hills here, rising stark from the surrounding lowlands of the Somerset Levels, and offering a portfolio of different and dramatic views.
St Andrews Church, Blagdon, Mendip Hills. Photo: Diana Jarvis/Greentraveller
Greentraveller's hints & tips
- Download the eight Wildlife Walks at http://www.mendiphillsaonb.org.uk/walks/
- Draycott is 1½ miles off Sustrans National Cycle Route 26 (the Strawberry Line)
- Bus no 126 between Weston-super-Mare to Wells stops near the start of the walk.
- There are some wonderful local specialities – strawberries in summer (stalls selling fresh local fruit line the road between Cheddar and Wells), and brews from Cheddar Ales, especially the malty Gorge Best bitter.
Written by Paul Bloomfield.
Photos by Paul Bloomfield, Diana Jarvis and Greentraveller