Walking in the Somerset countryside
PUBLISHED: 06:00 13 May 2016
Not far from the hurry of the M5 and Taunton town centre lie attractive countryside, historic villages and paths redolent with history
Stoke St Mary and Thurlbear have a great sense of ‘times past’ with some thought-provoking features reminding is of how society has changed over the centuries. Part of the route follows the Herepath. Originally these were old military routes (here meaning ‘armed host’), generally set down during an age when our Anglo Saxon ancestors were busy resisting Viking invasion. Subsequently the term ‘herepath’ has been applied to historic paths without a military connection, reminders of that link with the past. Many have passed this way before – follow them.
1. The walk starts outside Stoke St Mary Village Hall with its pleasant garden and attractive paving commemorating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The named bricks denote the people (and dogs) who sponsored the garden’s construction. It’s a good place to open a flask of coffee and read the bricks before setting off.
Cross the road away from the village hall, bearing slightly right towards Watery Lane, a small ‘no through road’ beside a stone barn. Walk up Watery Lane which soon runs into a footpath, although the fingerpost was broken when we were there. Follow the path up to a meeting of ways and go straight ahead through the gate, entering a field. Keep ahead through the field, hedge to your left and big views ahead and right across farmland.
At the end of the field swing right with the boundary to another footpath gate then turn left to continue through the next field in the same direction as before, hedge on your left. At the end of this field cross the plank bridge into the next and turn left, still keeping the hedge on your left. Ahead to the right Thurlbear Wood clads the hillside; ahead to the left is the woodland above Stoke St Mary – you’ll be in both later.
Follow the path, boundary to your left, through two large fields. The second field enjoys a rather splendid view of Stoke House over to the left, tucked below the woodland and overlooking the village.
2. You reach the buildings of Greenway Farm and the track descends to meet the lane. Turn right. Go past the school in about 200m, followed by the extensive former Rectory and Tythe House – these latter two redolent of an age when the church wielded huge influence on village life. Just beyond these is the now-redundant St Thomas’ Church. This Grade 1 listed building, with its ancient churchyard cross, is cared for by the Churches Conservation Trust.
Within 100m of the church, at Church Farm, a blue-arrowed fingerpost directs left off the lane along a bridleway towards Bickenhall Wood. This is the Herepath. Take this initially-concreted track, going left in about 10m on an earthy track. This crosses a stream and heads up towards field gates just beyond the buildings. In front of the gates the track swings right, a blue arrow directs, heading towards trees. You soon enter Thurlbear Wood. An information board indicates the flora and fauna you may expect to see in this wildlife-rich area.
3. Continue ahead on the obvious path through the wood, a popular place with dogs and their people. We met a man walking a gorgeous Staffy X whom he was about to adopt from the nearby RSPCA Centre at West Hatch. Ignore any small paths off until you reach a meeting of ways with arrowed post, just over 300m from the information board. Here you leave the Herepath and turn left on a broad earthy track heading up through the trees.
3a. In about 150m this climbs to a wide gate with adjacent kissing gate leading into the nature reserve. Go through here and keep ahead, still climbing on the broad main track. Unfortunately there are no way-markers to help guide you through this bit. The track curves gently (and muddily) upwards for about 250m at which point it takes a very distinct right bend. Ignore a narrow path going left at the bend and continue with the broad track, round the bend, for 50m to where another narrow path goes left under the trees. Take this. In just under 200m this path drops to a crossing of ways. Turn left, down to a metal kissing gate within 100m on the edge of the woodland. When we were here the gate was new and no arrows had been installed.
4. If appropriate, find someone to kiss then go through the gate and walk ahead through the field, just slightly west of north (for those who have the wherewithal to determine this). For those without a compass the woodland’s perimeter fence is on your right for a few metres and when the fence ends at a corner, near a large oak tree, keep straight ahead across the field towards a lovely view and buildings in the valley, with more woodland way ahead on the hillside.
This line brings you to a broken down post with a white disc which stands near the end of a patch of woodland on the left. From here bear left diagonally across the field, passing a concrete water trough over to your right and heading uphill to gates that you can see in the boundary. When you reach the gates do not pass through. Turn right and walk down the field, hedge to your left. Leave the field through a metal gate in the corner.
Beyond here walk ahead, passing a house on the right and following its drive until it bends left. Here look for the plank bridge that goes right. Cross it and ascend the steps, negotiating the stile at their top. Head slightly right (a yellow arrow directs) across a short stretch of field towards Stoke Court Barn and exit the field over another stile onto the lane.
5. Turn right along the lane for 100m to reach Stoke Court Farm. Just beyond the farm take the footpath left off the lane, climbing steps to enter a field. Follow the line of the left hedge up the field. When you reach the top corner don’t go through the gap ahead into the trees, instead turn right for 50m to find another gap into the woods with the remains of a stile. Go left through this gap, climbing up through the trees on a trodden path.
This rises to another overgrown stile with a yellow arrow leading into a field. Hop over and turn left, following the left-hand boundary along the edge of the woodland. In the field corner seek the tucked-away stile then walk straight across the next field towards a gate, passing a separately-fenced paddock within the field as you near the gate. A tall stile deposits you onto the lane.
6. Turn left along the lane and in 130m, as it bends right, go left on the signed bridleway. In 100m the eagle-eyed may spot the trig point through the rather lush boundary on the left. Stay with the bridleway as it descends, bends and slithers past the back of Stoke Cottage. A footpath joins from the right here; keep ahead to reach the lane at some grand gates.
Turn right, away from the gates, dragging your mud-caked boots downhill past 13th century St Mary’s Church. Keep ahead at the junction to reach the welcome of the Half Moon Inn (be kind and scrape the mud off first!). The village hall, from which you started, is a little further along on the right.
Good to know:
Map: OS Explorer 128 Taunton and the Blackdown Hills 1:25,000
Directions to start: Stoke St Mary is a few miles east of Taunton, signed off the A358
Start point & parking: Park on road in village, with courtesy towards residents.
Postcode: TA3 5BY.
Grid ref: ST262222
Public transport: None
Distance: 3.7 miles (6km)
Terrain: Paths, woodland tracks, some quiet lanes. The paths through Thurlbear Wood need concentration as the navigation is tricky! Can be cloyingly muddy in places after wet weather so wellies a good idea.
Dog friendly: Yes, but route goes through farms with livestock. The Half Moon Inn welcomes dogs
Refreshments: The Half Moon Inn, Stoke St Mary, TA3 5BY. 01823 442271
Public toilets: None en route, but there are trees!
Look out for:
Diamond Jubilee Garden outside Stoke St Mary Village Hall
Variety of woodland birds