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Go wild in the Quantocks and Blackdowns

PUBLISHED: 08:51 02 October 2013 | UPDATED: 10:55 04 October 2013

View from Staple Plain and Beacon Hill - photo Richard Baker

View from Staple Plain and Beacon Hill - photo Richard Baker

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The authors of Wild Guide: Devon, Cornwall and the South West share their latest perfect wild weekend - in the bucolic majesty of the Quantocks and Blackdown Hills.

Quantock ancient beeches - photo wildguide.netQuantock ancient beeches - photo wildguide.net

Our perfect weekend

Walk the old drovers’ way from Triscombe Stone to Wills Neck summit, then drop down to the Blue Ball Inn for refreshment.

Forage for whortleberries on Quantock Common and picnic among the ancient beech, ash and oak trees.

Follow the river Culm to a woodland bathing spot, enjoy a dip, then laze on the grassy banks.

Visit the great ancient yew at Bicknoller, complete with village stocks, then climb the ancient beech-lined track to Thorncombe Barrow.

Cycle round Wimbleball Lake, stopping to look out for herons

Drink from the holy love well at Cothelstone, stroll through the parkland and then enjoy a drink at the Rising Sun.

Listen for nightjars and tawny owls on Staples Plain, after watching the sunset from Beacon Hill.

Camp at Hunstile organic farm for the wonderful views and enjoy a delicious breakfast at the café.

Three beautiful and very different sets of hills encircle the Vale of Taunton. The Brendon Hills form Exmoor’s eastern fringe, while the wilder Quantocks create a distinct chain north to Bridgwater Bay. To the south, at the border of Devon and Somerset, lie the peaceful Blackdown Hills.

While the Blackdown Hills, with their woodlands, lakes and steep escarpments, were one of the most recent places to be designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Quantocks were the first, back in 1956. Renowned for their combination of lush, rolling pastures, wild heathland and hilltop panoramas, the Quantocks also boast a magnificent herd of red deer, which browse the heather and roam through ancient oak and beech woods.

These hilly landscapes have a timeless atmosphere, and the trees and woods feel very ancient. A great avenue of gnarled beeches lines the estate drive at Holford, and there are more beautiful old beeches along the ridge-top drovers’ road at Triscombe and Thorncombe. At Bicknoller, the massive yew, although supported, has been standing for more than 1,000 years, and at Dunster you will find a 60-metre-high fir, Britain’s tallest tree.

The hills, valleys and parklands of this part of Somerset are perfect walking country. The great poet Coleridge, a keen walker, once lived in Nether Stowey and his long wanderings through the surrounding landscape were a rich source of inspiration for his poetry. The Coleridge Way, a long-distance walk, starts in the Quantocks, then passes through the Brendon Hills.

Sunset vantage points abound on the western flanks of the Quantocks and offer magnificent views to Exmoor and the sea. To the north, the shoreline along Bridgwater Bay to the Bristol Channel is remote and rarely visited. Here you will find giant wave-cut rock platforms, great stone cobbles, marshland, fantastic birdlife and the ghostly remains of a ruined harbour.

In the far south of this region, the river Culm meanders through bucolic countryside and offers good, secluded swimming. And don’t miss the quirky local pub in the Culm valley: the food is delicious. High on the western edge of the Blackdown Hills sits a beautiful Elizabethan beacon – a glorious place to watch the sun’s last rays, looking down on deepest Devon and Somerset.

River Swimming & Secret Beaches

RIVER CULM, CULMSTOCK

Take the footpath by the bridge, opposite the Culm Valley Inn and follow the river downstream through riverside woodland and meadows and find places to paddle and dip.

LILSTOCK CHURCH & RUINED HARBOUR

Tiny St Andrew’s church sits in a pretty paddock and a lane leads down to this remote foreshore of cobbles and cliff. There was once an 18th-century pier, harbour and warehouse here. Hinkley Point nuclear power station is visible on the horizon.

Sunset Hilltops

STAPLE PLAIN & BEACON HILL

The car park at Staple Plain is a wonderful place to watch the sunset over the Bristol Channel, and then view the stars, with little light pollution. Listen out for red deer, tawny owls and the churring of the nightjar at dusk on still summer evenings. In late summer, the northern Quantocks are ablaze with heather and gorse, or visit in autumn when the beech and sweet chestnut woods below turn golden. The path leads up to Beacon Hill.

CULMSTOCK BEACON

A stone roundhouse atop a hill with stunning views. One of a chain of Elizabethan beacons built to warn of approaching ships and a potential Spanish invasion from the coast.

Ancient Trees

HOLFORD BEECHES, HODDER’S COMBE

Ancient beech trees line the lower part of the path from Holford up Longstone Hill. The trees are set behind Alfoxton House (now a hotel), where Wordsworth once lived.

BICKNOLLER YEW & STOCKS

Bicknoller’s churchyard is dominated by this 1,000-year-old hollow yew. Supported on great crutches with the medieval village stocks set beneath. A path from here leads up to Thorncombe Barrow .

Sacred & Ancient

COTHELSTONE WELL & PARKLAND

Young women came to secluded St Agnes’ holy well to learn the name of their future lover, and it was also a wishing-well of some repute. After you have done your magic, continue across field to the parkland behind the grand medieval manor house. There are ancient oaks to picnic under and a gate to L leads through to a secret lake.

CROWCOMBE PAGAN CARVINGS

Fine 16th-century pagan carvings on the bench-ends in this village church. Continue down narrow lanes to find the track which leads up to the Triscombe Stone .

Slow Food

WHORTLEBERRY FORAGING

Also called bilberries, these are common on Quantock Common in August. Hunt out the low-lying bushes with their small, purple-blue berries. Delicious in a pie and smothered in local cream.

BLUE BALL INN, TRISCOMBE

Winding lanes lead up to this charming and remote pub, serving seasonal and local organic food. Inside it’s a cosy wooden labyrinth with tartan carpets and fires. Outside is a sweet garden with converted outbuildings where you can stay the night. Triscombe Stone and the quarry lake are a climb up the ridge behind.

Triscombe, TA4 3HE, 01984 618242.

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Camp & Sleep Wild

HUNSTILE FARM, GOATHURST

A 14th-century, picture-postcard organic working farm with two small fields for tents, a bow-top gypsy caravan, shepherd’s hut and farmhouse B&B. The views from the farm are magnificent, there’s an on-site café serving farm produce, and the owners run sausage-making and bee-keeping courses.

Goathurst, TA5 2DQ, 01278 662358 ‎

STOGURSEY CASTLE

Be king of your own castle in this restored 13th-century gatehouse surrounded by a moat. The main castle is long gone but you have exclusive access to its grassy ruins.

Castle St, Stogursey, TA5 1TG, 01628 825925, Landmarktrust.org.uk

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Discover ancient forests, lost ruins, secret coves, the best local produce and secluded places to stay. Perfect for getting off the beaten track this autumn. Wild Guide: Devon, Cornwall and the Southwest is published by Wild Things Publishing (2013). Available from wildguide.net/wild-guide-book/

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