Day 17: Battle
North Pellerton to Glastonbury. 20.1 miles. Miles to date: 260.3.
I knew today was not going to be great.
And it wasn't.
It was frustrating, flat and tiresome. And those were the good bits.
But I'm here now, on the calming mount of Glastonbury in an AirBnB home that has more crystals in it than the Crystal Maze. Outside a neighbour is playing their sitar in the sun. And I'm delighted I won't have to go through that again.
If you look at the map, and/or read any other LeJoger's blog about the crossing of the Somerset Levels you know you're not in for a walkers' treat. The Levels, which cover more than 150,000 acres, stretch from the Mendip Hills in the north to the Blackdown Hills in the south. The area is largely low-lying coastal wetland that naturally floods. Those floods have pretty much been consigned to history thanks to a vast system of drainage ditches that date back to the Middle Ages, some earlier. Where once ditches alone channelled water off the land, now huge pumps keep the water flowing.
The system works most of the time, but sometimes it is overwhelmed, like in the floods of 2013-14, when more than 600 homes and 17,000 acres of farmland were submerged. In the aftermath politicians donned wellies, TV crews block-booked B&Bs (there aren't many) and angry locals looked around for someone... anyone... to blame.
I think it was the Maoist philosopher Mao Zedong who said: "Man who buy cut-price semi below sea level sometimes wake with soggy foot."
Something like that.
Anyway, what this all means for the walker silly enough to plan a crossing is that the list of potential routes is dependent on negotiating your way through the labyrinth of rivers, canals, drainage ditches and marshes, where there are few footpaths and even fewer bridges. And while I was thankful to the fellow walker I met on Exmoor for his insights, in the end I started today by revising my entire route to cut as many miles from it as possible. It wasn't going to be a fun day, I reasoned, so I might as well make it a short one.
The M5 crosses the Parrett.
The walk got off to a suitably low-grade start.
I had to cross the exasperating River Parrett. Exasperating because if you don't cross at Bridgwater, your next option east is Burrowbridge, which pushes you more than a few miles out of your way – and south.
So Bridgwater it was, on city-limit backroads that are the same as city-limit backroads anywhere. Fly tips, polluted rivers, dual carriageways, big gates, security cameras, and plenty of new builds that weren't on the map. My companion was the M5.
The lane I spent a few miles on.
One of many, many KEEP OUT signs I passed today.
As I wound round the tidal Parrett, with its mud banks and reed beds, I got chatting to a local - off to babysit for her granddaughter over half term. 'Where are you walking?', she asked. 'Across the Levels', I replied. 'Why?' was her one-word answer.
Then I started heading inland, on lanes at first - which were pleasant enough, in a flat, featureless way. Then on farm tracks - which were slightly less pleasant, in a flat, featureless way. Then to King's Sedgmoor Drain, the king of all drains in the area, which was less pleasant again, with thick waterside meadow growth to contend with and a footpath that probably saw no more than a dozen pair of walking boots a month.
Some cool names. I love Westonzoyland. 'Zoy' is a Norman corruption of 'Sowy' - which means an area of raised land not prone to flooding. Westonzoyland is the site of the Battle of Sedgemoor - where the Duke of Monmouth was crushed by James II. The Battlefields Trust says the landscape is "very pleasant to explore" on a warm sunny day. I will not articulate my views on that.
There were loads of swans about.
Typical scenery: flat, green and ditchy.
If struggling along an overgrown drain had been the worst the Levels could throw at me I wouldn't have been particularly aggrieved.
But farmers had to stick the knife in too.
There's little love lost between farmers and walkers, of course. I'm not sure who hates walkers more – golfers or farmers. I'd love to eavesdrop on a pub conversation between farmer and golfer to see who had more grievances. I'd wager both would put up a good fight - until a third person joined the conversation who happened to be a farmer who enjoyed a little weekend golf.
Most walkers come to expect locked gates, electric fences and bulls in fields once in a while.
Today I got the full monty.
I was aiming for one of the very few footbridges over King's Sedgemoor Drain. I could see it in the distance - a half mile along the drain, glinting in the sun.
But between me and it... a herd of frisky cows.
Ordinarily I would have taken my chances, but these cows - with calves - were putting up a united front. They didn't look friendly and were getting stompier by the minute. At this stage I usually find an alternative. A different field. Another path. A dry stone wall.
But the Levels don't work like that. Ditches bar your way in every direction. Alternatives are either non-existent or tortuously convoluted.
As I worked my way round field boundaries and over rivers I felt like I was involved in some kind of perverse strategic game with the farmer. The prize was the bridge. But between it and me was the chequered landscape. Onto that landscape the farmer was deploying the best of his weaponry. Herds of cows. Padlocked gates. Electric fences. And neck-high crops. Against The Walker. With nothing but his trusty OS Map, backpack and fruit lozenges.
Either way, farmer, I won. I had to add a mile or so to me route, and discovered for the first time in a while that electric fences really do carry a current.
But I got to that bridge, Goddamn you.
King's Sedgemoor Drain.
A well maintained track over the Levels. I felt like I'd won the jackpot.
Farmer silliness: the gate was padlocked a few times - just to make it clear walkers weren't welcome (on a public footpath). Note also the orange twine... serving to achieve nothing but hammer home the point.
Unfortunately things didn't much improve after the Drain. Most paths were unpleasant to walk. There was at least one more diversion due to frisky stock in fields. Around 25% of footpaths I came to were unusable. I got stung all over by nettles and received a second electric shock thanks to a wire hung (with no warnings) at just about waist height, if you know what I mean. Paths were closed due to unspecified 'emergencies'. Two different pubs with the same name were both closed, during lunch time, at half term. So I ate my lunch on a roadside verge. And not a single driver on the busy lanes that I stood out of the road for thanked me. Not one.
There were moments of enjoyment to be had. I saw more birdlife today on the lilied flats than I've seen on any day since I left Land's End. Swans by the dozen. Geese. Ducks. Coots. Moorhen. And every time I put a foot down in the tall grass there was an explosion of blue as hundreds of dragonflies rose into the air. A heron kept me company for miles, always a few hundred yards ahead.
The pretty village of Moorlinch.
It had an equally pretty pub, the Ring O' Bells, which was closed. The Ring O' Bells in nearby Ashcott was also closed. I wondered, in an idle moment, whether a) they needed a few more bell ringers and b) whether locals who agree to meet at the Ring O' Bells ever meet at the wrong Ring O' Bells. Then I returned to getting stung and electrocuted.
My lunch spot. On balance it didn't compare to a wildflower clifftop on the South West Coast Path.
Then - 15 miles after I left the M5 - on the horizon was Glastonbury, and its Tor. The whole of the town is built on ground higher than the surrounding Levels. And the Tor, topped by St Michael's Church, looms higher still. At that moment it felt - as I suppose it might have to the pilgrims of old who travelled to see the legendary Holy Thorn - like a beacon of hope to the weary traveller. Here you will find refuge, it seemed to whisper across the dismal fen. Here there be no nettles, or cattle. And here ye pubs be open.
So I ploughed on through the undergrowth and along lanes, through a couple of industrial estates then up the road into this crazy little town on a hill, which - even in the short time I have been here - I have grown very fond of. It's full of pagan people and vegan cafés and lefties and hobos, with colour everywhere and bookshops selling books I would never read. But it's got a good feel to it. And the pubs are open. Which right now is all I need.
Perhaps one day in the not-so-distant future, when the floods come again – which they will – the farmers from the Levels may be forced to find dry ground by climbing Glastonbury Tor.
There the dairy farmers could sit alongside the vegans, the livestock farmers with the veggies, and the arable farmers with the fruitarians (and any walkers unlucky enough to be crossing the land below), and they could all sit in companionable silence and enjoy a feast of quinoa, tofu and rocket salad while the floodwaters rise above the cut-price semis, short-circuiting the electric fences and leaving nothing in their wake but a few waterlogged KEEP OUT signs.
Which is all to say, come back Camel Trail. All is forgiven.
There was a lot of lane walking today. Annoying, but safer, quicker and easier than farmland.
The 'path' towards Glastonbury. I was pretty irritated by the whole thing at this point.
The rural idyll of farming: a large red range rover honking its horn to herd cattle. Coming soon to BBC: One man and his rover.
The Tor is wonderful.
Next: Day 19 – Glastonbury to Midsomer Norton.
Previous: Day 16 – Williton to North Petherton.