Catch a bus for this linear stroll along a Roman motorway.
Distance 3.5 miles (5.7km)
Minimum time 1hr 40min
Ascent/gradient 300ft (90m)
Level of difficulty Easy
Paths Firm, reasonably mud-free track, field paths, 2 stiles
Landscape Gentle hills of eastern Mendips
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 142 Shepton MalletST 635473ST 618436
Dog friendliness Well-behaved dogs can run off lead, except on road
Parking Main pay-and-display, Old Market Road, Shepton Mallet
Public toilets Market Square, Shepton Mallet
Notes Buses leave from the Cenotaph, ¼ mile (400m) from main car park and 100yds (91m) from tourist information centre. Eight buses daily on six different services
1 The bus stops at the Oakhill Inn. The walk starts along Fosse Road, passing some 17th-century cottages to Fosse Cottage on the left. Here the track of the Fosse Way sets off on the right. The Fosse Way was the 4th-century equivalent of the M5 motorway, running from the south coast to Lincoln. Ilchester, at the junction with the road to the coast over the Polden Hills, became the local centre of government, with rich civil servants building villas in the countryside around. Shepton Mallet was a Roman industrial town beside the road, and Bath, with its hot springs, can be considered as an early motorway service station.
2 At the first rise the track becomes a sunken path, which over the years has eroded down so deeply into the ground that the track abandons it for a dog-leg out to the right. It rejoins the Roman line 300yds (274m) further on. Views on the left are across the eastern Mendips. The track runs up to a minor road at the top of the slope.
3 The direct route through the Woodland Trust's wood ahead will involve a steep descent. Those wishing to avoid this can turn right, along the road, for 70yds (64m) to where the signposted 'Fosse Way' continues on the opposite side. The slightly more adventurous can cross directly into the wood, to follow a small path ahead. This drops steeply to the corner of open ground and continues along the wood edge to rejoin the main track.
4 Once out of the wood the fenced track continues ahead. Without a map, a straight line is the easiest to survey and lay out on the ground. Often the road is lined up on a convenient sighting point; here, the barrows on Beacon Hill seem to have been the place the Romans aimed for. Modern-day mystics claim the barrows mark the intersection of energy-paths called leys that fly like arrows all over the countryside. The sensitive Celts laid their paths along such lines and the Romans simply built theirs on top.
5 On reaching a lane, turn left for 150yds (137m), then back right for 250yds (229m). The Fosse Way track continues on the left, just past a stagnant pond. The track rises gradually, then starts to descend with Shepton Mallet in sight ahead. As the descent steepens, bare rock shows in the bed of the trackway. Ignore a barred stile on the right, and continue past a concrete shed (also on the right) to a fenced gas-board hut. After another 200yds (183m) comes a stile on the right, with a viaduct ahead.
6 Cross a field towards the viaduct, passing to the right of two free-standing ash trees, then bearing left towards a conspicuous stile. A path leads on under the viaduct and into the end of a street. Where this street bends left keep ahead into a walled path, with glimpses into the Jubilee Gardens on the right. Emerge into a small car park.
7 Turn right past a Georgian brewery and 20th-century cider works; go under an overhead pipe and turn left at a 'Babycham' plastic chamois(!). Weavers' cottages are on the right as Garston Street leads into Leg Square. Turn left into a short cul-de-sac, and at Hill Cottage turn right into a walled path, with Gaol Lane continuing uphill above. Turn right on a paved path ('No Bikes') with a filled-in archway on the left, to pass the church and reach the market place. From the Market Cross head up the High Street: turn right at the first set of traffic lights for the main car park, or keep ahead for the tourist information centre.
Roman roads stayed in use for centuries after the Romans' departure; with new roads being built on the foundations of the old, the Fosse Way here became, through the ages, the A37. Elsewhere it was a useful landmark to define the boundary of a medieval estate: today that line may be a field edge, and possibly a parish boundary as well. On Beacon Hill the otherwise invisible line of the old road is marked by parish boundary stones. In just one or two places the old road has remained in use for farm and foot traffic; our walk follows one such stretch.
Steam trains of the East Somerset Railway run for 2½ miles (4km) along the 'Strawberry Line'. The 1 in 56 (1.8%) gradient is claimed as the steepest restored railway in Britain. 'Oil the Engine and Drive the Train' courses are offered.
Above Leg Square you pass beneath the walls of the town gaol, in use since 1627. During World War Two, Magna Carta and the Domesday Book were stored here. It was also an American military prison, with executions by firing squad behind its old stone walls.
The bus from Shepton Mallet passes the Oakhill Brewery. The beer must travel just 300yds (274m) to reach the Oakhill Inn, which is the walk's start point.