Great explorations of the Leland Trail
PUBLISHED: 11:39 12 June 2018
Simone Stanbrook-Byrne discovers the long-distance Leland Trail, following in the footsteps of a 16th century antiquary
History and background:
However little we may know of history, most of us have an impression of Henry VIII; he was a king who left an indelible mark on our country. And, rather unexpectedly, it is Henry VIII whom we have to thank for one of Somerset’s long-distance footpaths.
In 1533 he commissioned his librarian and chaplain, John Leland, to undertake a survey of all the records, manuscripts and relics of antiquary contained in the cathedrals, colleges and religious houses of England, documents likely to be scattered by the Dissolution of the Monasteries. It was a mighty undertaking.
Leland was an erudite man, having studied at Oxford and, later, in Cambridge and Paris. The task set him by Henry sent him on a journey of discovery lasting about 10 years. Keeping notebooks as he went, he sought to list and preserve the manuscripts he found. Although his powers did not necessarily extend to collecting the manuscripts he unearthed, during the course of his work he did acquire some meaningful additions to the king’s library.
Leland was well rewarded for his achievements, and from the knowledge and material gleaned during his research he planned to produce further accounts of the country’s topography, nobility and antiquities. But this was not to be. In 1550 he was certified insane; he died in April 1552, aged about 48, his unquiet mind resting at last.
Leland was buried in the church of St Michael-le-Querne near his London home, but his mortal remains were not to be left in peace. During the Great Fire of London the church was destroyed and Leland’s tomb lost.
After his death his manuscripts passed through many hands, the majority subsequently being deposited at the Bodleian Library, Oxford with some works going to the British Museum.
The exact dates and sequences of Leland’s travels are not entirely known though he appears to have been in the West Country in 1542. Although his precise route through Somerset is uncertain, the records he left behind have enabled this long-distance path to be established. A pleasing memorial to a learned man.
From its north east end near Penselwood on the Somerset-Wiltshire border the Leland Trail travels a meandering 28ish miles, in a generally west and south direction, to Hamdon (or Ham) Hill Country Park, west of Yeovil. It is relatively short for a long-distance path and during the course of its journey it sometimes runs concurrently with other long-distance routes such as the Macmillan Way and the Monarch’s Way.
The iconic King Alfred’s Tower marks the start. Built in 1772, this folly is thought to be on a site where Alfred the Great rallied his troops in the 9th century. It is part of the National Trust’s Stourhead estate and the Trust has established shorter, circular walks in the area for those wishing to explore beyond the Leland Trail.
The Trail continues west towards Bruton, one of the smallest towns in England. Just to the north of the path stands Bruton’s ancient dovecote in what was once the deer park of Bruton Abbey. Take time out to explore the town, a favourite place of American author John Steinbeck whose writing desk resides in the museum.
The path continues west to Castle Cary where it goes up and over Lodge Hill on the outskirts of town, somewhere to pause and relish the views before heading south to Cadbury Castle Hillfort. This was a significant spot for John Leland. A great believer in the truth behind the Arthurian legend, he was the first to record the idea that this hillfort was a possible site for Arthur’s Camelot. Whatever the veracity behind these legends it is certainly worth a detour up onto the ramparts. It has one of the longest records of human occupation of any hillfort in the country and during Saxon times a mint was established here.
The trail then heads west to historic Queen Camel, a village on the River Cam whose royal label stems from the fact that several queens have held estates here, including King John’s Isabella and Eleanor, wife of Henry III. Until the 13th century it had been known as East Camel and King’s Camel.
The path continues past Yeovilton, home to the Royal Naval Air Station with its unmissable rotating radar clearly visible from the footpath. The Fleet Air Arm Museum is here, Europe’s largest collection of naval aviation hardware. If you’re here on 7 July, 2018 the International Air Day is an event worth coming to which showcases the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm. This action-packed day has thrilling air displays and plenty going on at ground level too, one of the South West’s largest one day events.
The next port of call is the once-Roman town of Ilchester, now renowned for its cheeses. King Alfred, whom we met at the start, established a settlement here centuries after the Roman one had been abandoned. The river that runs through the town has two names: the Yeo and the Ivel, the latter giving rise to the town’s fuller name of Ivelchester.
Now on its final stretch the path wends its rural way south to Montacute, a fabulous National Trust estate where it’s well worth taking some time out. The Elizabethan house is vastly beautiful. Just west of Montacute the trail passes St Michael’s Hill, the ‘mons acutus’ or ‘steep hill’ from which the village derives its name. A lung-and-leg-challenging detour up the hill is recommended for its fine views. If you have anything left in your legs climb the 52 spiral steps to the top of the tower: the panorama from the top is thirst quenching.
From here the way goes west to finish at Hamdon Hill Country Park, site of an Iron Age hillfort and a place where ancient and recent feel like they are rubbing shoulders. More magnificent views await near the war memorial. Nearby a modern-day ‘henge’ has been constructed, commemorating centuries of local quarrying and quarrymen – attractive, honey-coloured Ham stone has been used in buildings since Roman times.
And so the trail ends with expansive views towards the Mendip, Quantock and Blackdown Hills. Almost 500 years have elapsed since John Leland passed this way. Lifestyles have changed beyond anything he could have imagined, as have many landscape features. But much endures, linking us with a heritage that shapes our present and our future.
Simone Stanbrook-Byrne & James Clancy are authors of A Dozen Dramatic Walks in Somerset.
Maps: Explorer 142 Shepton Mallet & Mendip Hills East. Explorer 129, Yeovil & Sherborne.
Car parks at either end: Near Alfred’s Tower: Grid ref ST748353.
Hamdon Hill Country Park: Grid ref ST477168.