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A Walk in Prior's Park Woodlands

Prior's Park Wood is at its best with autumn's colours or spring's bluebells beautifully concealing some intricate geology.

Distance 5 miles (8km)

Minimum time 2hrs 40min

Ascent/gradient 700t (210m)

Level of difficulty Hard

Paths Rugged in Prior's Park Wood, otherwise comfortable, 7 stiles

Landscape Steep, wooded slopes

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 128 Taunton & Blackdown Hills

Start/finish ST 211182

Dog friendliness Mostly open woodland

Parking Roadside pull-off between post office and White Lion, Blagdon Hill

Public toilets None on route

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1 The walk starts at the phone box opposite the White Lion. Cross a stile and follow the left edge of a triangular field to another stile into Curdleigh Lane. Cross into the ascending Quarry Lane. Bend left between the buildings of Quarry House, on to a track running up into Prior's Park Wood.

2 From mid-April this wood is a delight with bluebells and other wild flowers. It is also fine (but possibly muddy) in late October and November. Where the main track bends left and descends slightly, keep uphill on a smaller one. This eventually declines into a muddy trod, slanting up and leftwards to a small gate at the top of the wood.

3 Pass along the wood's top edge to a gate. Red-and-white poles mark the line across the next field to another gate. After 50yds (46m) turn right, between the buildings of Prior's Park Farm, to its access track and a road. Turn left and follow the road with care, as it's a fairly fast section, towards the Holman Clavel Inn.

4 Just before the inn turn left into a forest track. Where the track ends a small path runs ahead, zig-zagging down before crossing a stream. At the wood's edge turn right up a wider path to the B3170.

5 At once turn left on the lane signed 'Feltham'. After ½ mile (800m) a wide gateway on the left leads to an earth track. This runs along the top of Adcombe Wood then down inside it, giving a very pleasant descent.

6 Once below the wood follow the track downhill for 180yds (165m). Look for a gate with a signpost on the left-hand side. Go through it and follow the hedge on the right to a stile and footbridge, then bend left, below the foot of the wood, to another stile. Ignore a stile into the wood on the left, but continue along the wood's foot to the next field corner. Here a further stile enters the wood but turn right, beside the hedge, to a concrete track. Turn left - the track becomes Curdleigh Lane, leading back into Blagdon Hill.

Somerset is a landscape of hills that are small but steep-sided. There's a reason for this particular formation. The rocks that are now Somerset did not form until after Britain's main mountain-building episode, the collision of Scotland with England. Since then the county has been gently lifted (by the 'Africa Crunch'), but never seriously crumpled and mashed. Its rocks still lie fairly flat.

The shape of this landscape is inextricably linked to the development of the underlying rocks. If a layer of tough rock lays fairly flat on top of much softer rocks, then where the tough rock is worn away, so the softer rocks, too, will quickly disappear. And so we end up with a flat-topped hill with a distinctive sudden edge. Such hills - at Ham Hill, at Cadbury or at Dolebury in the Mendips - proved particularly convenient for building Iron-Age forts on. The harder rock on top may be limestone - as at Glastonbury - or the greensand of the Blackdown Hills, which features on this walk.

Small streams, such as the Curdleigh Brook seen on this walk, cut into the hard plateau rock of the Blackdown Hills, forming the little tree-lined valleys that are so typically Somerset that there's even a special Somerset word for them. 'When little boys laughed at me at Tiverton, for talking about a 'Goyal', a big boy clouted them on the head, and said that it was in Homer, and meant the hollow of the hand'; explained Jan Ridd of Exmoor, the hero of Lorna Doone. 'Still I know what it means well enough - to wit, a long trough among wild hills, falling towards the plain country, rounded at the bottom, perhaps, and stiff, more than steep, at the sides of it'. R D Blackmore's fictional Somerset man certainly understood the character of his county's topography.

Standing on the plateau of the Blackdown Hills, you gaze across the wide vale of Taunton at the Quantocks and Brendons. It's not too hard to see the plateau of Blackdown and the plateau of the Brendons as being part of the same ground. Indeed, this is a former ground level of 40 million years ago. But what force or process has carried away the 10 miles (16km) of scenery in between?

If all the high ground above Taunton Deane had been carried away in goyles, Blackdown should have a ragged edge rather than the straight one we see. All credit to the 19th-century geologist Sir Henry de la Beche, not for solving the problem, but for seeing that there was one to be solved. The answer lies in a process called solufluction. It still goes on today in the tundras of Alaska. In the brief, Ice-Age summer a soggy mixture of half-melted soil and slush can slip downhill over the frozen ground below. Such landslips can still be detected on the northern slopes of the Blackdown Hills, as well as in the Quantocks. They may represent the most important process which shaped today's Somerset.

What to look for

If undertaking this walk in springtime, take a wild flower identification book, as many of the woodland plants may be unfamiliar. The early purple orchid (flowering in early June) is one to look out for.

Where to eat and drink

The White Lion at Blagdon is a handsome, 17th-century inn serving food and real ales. Families and well-controlled dogs are welcome and there is a beer garden. Blagdon Hill also has the cheerful Lamb & Flag, while half-way round the walk is the Holman Clavel Inn. Those taking Walk 19, the longer option, will find attractive inns at Corfe (the White Hart) and Pitminster (the Queens Arms).

While you're there

Somerset's County Museum is housed in Taunton Castle. Roughly 300 years ago this was the principal site of the `Bloody Assizes'. About 500 Monmouth rebels were put on trial here: 200 of them were executed in the surrounding streets and most of the rest were transported into slavery in the West Indies. Several of their ghosts are said to haunt the building. More solidly, it houses an Iron-Age canoe which was unearthed near Glastonbury.

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