Day 51, Glastonbury to Taunton, 26 miles. 'The Cattle Strike Back.'
Updated: Jul 31, 2019
What an incredibly eventful day this was, and with another brand new character, Duncan, walking alongside me for the next two days - as ever let's get some crucial stats on our newest walker before we get into the day itself.
Profession: Looks things up on google.
Likes: Leyton Orient FC, claiming the best seats in pubs and ensuring his personal comfort is maintained at all times.
Dislikes: Hiking for more than one day in a row, IBS and losing the weekly pub quiz (though this rarely happens).
Key Hiking Strength: Surprisingly resilient to unfortunate events.
Key Hiking Weakness: Much like me will do whatever it takes to avoid cows.
So now we're all up to speed let's get on with the day because there's an awful lot to cover. I actually felt a little bad about Duncan joining the hike here, pretty much every one else who had joined me on this walk was lucky enough to experience either some fantastic hiking out in the wilds, or an interesting city or town. Unfortunately for Duncan and his rather inflexible schedule he could only make these two days and was therefore forced to walk back to back 25+ mile days, with the only urban centres being Taunton and Tiverton, furthermore the hiking would (I presumed) be fairly dull compared to say the Peak District or the River Severn, as most of this part of Somerset/Devon consists of wetlands and canals - but still spirits were high upon leaving Glastonbury and the early morning sun was shining strong, so on we went.
We cut through Street, Glastonbury's sister town to the south which was surprisingly pleasant, and although it lacked the distinct hippy vibes of Glastonbury it can claim to be the birthplace of Clark's shoes, so it's not all bad. Once through Street we had a few simple miles walking through peaceful forested paths and along a quiet B road before the wetlands sprang into view, though we were more concerned with glancing back to the impressive Tor behind us. I have to confess, the wetlands (or the 'Somerset levels' to use their proper name) were not an exciting prospect. Perfectly flat with no interesting geography whatsoever, the wetlands have been largely reclaimed from swamp and marshland and as a result have an inorganic, man-made feel to them. Channels of water cut across the flat, green expanse at perfect right angles and one could see for miles in all directions, but unfortunately the view was rather bland.
Whilst it was a rather banal environment, the miles did pass underfoot quickly and easily as the irrigation channels of the wetlands allowed for simple and direct walking, we saw a host of swans floating in the green algae of the waterways, and a plethora of dog walkers and cyclists, but little else - that is until we hit King's Sedgemoor drain. Blog entries from previous end-to-end walkers had almost universally complained about the drain, mainly as it consists of over two miles walking through thick grass and nettles, and we definitely found this to be the case - the wetlands so far had been very well maintained, but the drain was a different beast altogether with thigh-high vegetation lining the entirety of the walkway.
However, about halfway along the drain (i.e. too far to walk back), things took a drastic turn for the worse. A huge herd of cows, at least 50 strong, barred our way. We tried to skirt around them but found the path through to the next field blocked off by the irrigation channels - furthermore the cattle had initially retreated to the only gate forward, before slowly gaining confidence and walking back towards us. Our route forward was completely blocked, to go back would ensure another full mile of draining and monotonous walking through the dense thickets of the drain and we would then be faced with adding at least four miles onto an already mammoth day, so our only choice was to hop the irrigation channel and outpace the cattle. We found a place where the channel was thinnest and saw a slight mound which could be used as a stepping stone of sorts - Duncan leapt across first as the cows closed in (presumably due to sheer terror), but found the stepping stone to be little more than a soggy heap of turf which sank into the quagmire - he fell up to his waist in the murky waters before scrambling up the other side. I was now faced with a dilemma, with no stepping stone to aim for, and with a heavy pack on my shoulders, the gap was too wide for me to jump. I assessed my options and saw the cows retreating through the gate and heading over to Duncan to see what all the fuss had been about - I slowly crept behind the herd, keeping a safe distance, and was almost through the gate when a huge black cow slowly turned and made its way aggressively towards me.
This cow meant business. It shook its head and snorted loudly from its nostrils as it continued to walk, inexorably, towards where I stood. I slowly backed away and, for what felt like hours, the beefy bully followed me all the way. Eventually, it turned back and followed the rest of its herd and after a short while I could simply walk through the gate and to safety, though I must confess I was a little shaken. Duncan was stood trying to dry off his shoes and changing his socks - we consulted our maps and saw we could now cut across away from the cows, and so we made for the small village of Othery, where we enjoyed a cold beer in the garden of the London Inn. After this break it was back onto the roads to make for the village of Burrowbridge, which boasted the impressive ruins of Burrow Mump, an 18th century church built on the ruins of a 12th century fortification.
The King Alfred Inn at Burrowbridge was superb, and we took some much needed refuge from the sun in their beer garden, ate a hearty lunch, re-hydrated, and liberally applied another round of sun cream, We still had a solid 12 miles to go until Taunton and so it was soon back out into the Wetlands, and along the banks of the man-made River Tone, which would take us within four miles of our destination. The Tone was fairly pleasant as it was a moving body of water glistening in the strong afternoon sun, but the sun soon began to wear us down as temperatures crept steadily into the mid-20s. We crossed the river several times and were extremely lucky to avoid huge swathes of cattle on numerous occasions. We were forced, only once, to wander through a field of young bulls and they pranced around us aggressively without ever really coming too close - I think after our earlier encounter we were both feeling a little braver around the persistent bovine threat.
We crossed railway tracks, went through the tiny village of Athelney, where King Alfred had fled to during the Great Viking Invasion - there was an information sign but bizarrely this attested to the canal system built in the 19th century instead of perhaps the greatest monarch these isles have ever had - oh well. We saw people kayaking in the waters, an excellent house on a small island featuring a private bridge and, as ever, cows all around us (though thankfully at a distance or on the other side of the river).
We finally found ourselves in Creech St Michael, where we left the Tone and traded it in for the Bridgewater and Taunton canal, and what a pleasant canal it was too. Granted, these last four miles into Taunton were tough going for me, and probably harder on Duncan as he didn't have the luxury of two months' hiking behind him, but suffice to say we were definitely limping by the time Taunton reared into view.
We finally arrived into Taunton proper which, aside from a lovely cricket ground, was pretty average - our Airbnb was, of course, on the complete other side of the town and so we limped there and then limped back to find a pub to watch the, very boring, Champions League final between Liverpool and Spurs. And that was pretty much it, aside from a pair of bruised feet and some minor chaffing, Duncan had stood up extremely well to the harsh realities of 26 miles and I'm sure we both looked forward to an easier, but still arduously long, day tomorrow as we would leave Somerset behind us, and head into Devon, to Tiverton.