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Bruton Combes

A walk around and above beautiful Bruton, a typical Somerset town, built in the early wealth of the wool industry.

Distance 4.5 miles (7.2km)

Minimum time 2hrs 15min

Ascent/gradient 500ft (150m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Enclosed tracks, open fields, an especially muddy farmyard

Landscape Steep, grassy hills and combes

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 142 Shepton Mallet

Start/finish ST 684348

Dog friendliness On leads or under close control

Parking Free parking off Silver Street, 50yds (46m) west of church; larger car park in Upper Backway

Public toilets Near Church Bridge (walk start) and signposted from there

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1 With the church on your left and the bridge on your right, head down Silver Street for 30yds (27m) to a small car park in Coombe Street. The old packhorse bridge over the River Brue leads into Lower Backway. Turn left for 350yds (320m), ignoring an arch leading towards a footbridge but then taking a path between railed fences to a second footbridge. Turn right along the river to West End.

2 Turn right over the river and right again into the end of High Street, but at once turn off uphill on to a walled path called Mill Dam. At the lane above turn right along a track signed 'Huish Lane'. Just after a footbridge fork left: the hedged track is fairly steep and muddy, bending right then left to a lane (Wyke Road).

3 Turn right for a few steps, then right again, and after 220yds (201m) turn right past farm buildings on to an uphill track, Creech Hill Lane. This becomes a hedged tunnel, then emerges at Creech Hill Farm. This may be one of the county's less tidy farms, but boasts one of its finest views. Pass along the front of the farm and out to the B3081. Turn left over the hill crest to a triangular junction.

4 Turn right for 40yds (37m) to a public bridleway sign and a gate on the right. Go straight down the combe below; at its foot keep to the left of Green's Combe Farm and above an intermittent wall, to turn down through a gate between the farm buildings.

5 Continue down the farm's access track for ¼ mile (400m) until it bends right. Here keep ahead through a field gate with a blue waymarker, on to a green track. After 200yds (183m), beside three stumps, turn downhill, to the left of a row of hazels, to a gate. Pass through a small wood to a gate and waymarked track. When this emerges into open field follow the fence above to join the B3081. Turn left, uphill, to the entrance to Coombe Farm.

6 Ignoring a stile on the left, go through an ivy-covered wall gap, then down the driveway for barely a dozen paces before turning left on to a wide path under sycamore trees. The path rises gently, with a bank on its left. On reaching open grassland, keep to the left edge to find a descending path that becomes St Catherine's Lane. Weavers' cottages are on the right as the street descends steeply into Bruton. Turn left along the High Street. At its end turn right down Patwell Street to Church Bridge.

Bruton is a typical Somerset town: originally Saxon but made prosperous by monks in the Middle Ages. The Augustinians moved in around 1150 and soon upgraded from priory to abbey. In the 10th century Bruton was the county's seventh largest town - though this was achieved with a tax-paying population of just 85!

In the Middle Ages England was a one-product economy. The basic unit of wealth was the 346lb (160kg) woolsack. In 1310 some 35,000 of these were exported; in 1421, 75 per cent of all customs duties were paid on wool. In Parliament at London, the Lord Chancellor sat on a woolsack as a constant reminder of where his government's money came from. (Today it has been replaced by a wool-stuffed chair.)

As the price of raw wool started to fall, England turned to the manufacture of cloth, adding value to the product before it left the country. Bruton was ahead of the game here. Back in 1240 the town built its first fulling mill, sited on Quaperlake Street. Here the cloth was washed with fullers' earth, a form of clay that acts as a natural de-greasing compound. (Fuller's earth absorbs water as well as grease; it is responsible for the peculiarly sticky mud encountered on the climb out of Combe Hay on Walk 48.) The washed wool was then felted with water-powered hammers.

The raw wool market had been dominated by trading barons, who frequently became real aristocratic barons as a result. But the cloth trade saw, and to a great extent caused, the rise of the English middle class of clothiers and merchants. Their wool wealth rebuilt the church and a century later added its unusual second tower; they built the High Street and endowed the almshouses. Bruton clothiers traded with merchants in Hampshire, Dorset and London, and exported through the ports of Dorset. In the 1540s Bruton's fullers were importing woad (for dyeing) from the far Azores by way of Bristol. The Abbey saw its interests as parallel with those of the town, and subsidised the market cross and the licensing of fairs.

Mechanisation of the spinning and weaving processes was getting under way in the 1820s, but depression set in during the 1830s and Somerset never caught up with Lancashire. Hence Somerset wool villages remain non-industrial and pretty. Many medieval buildings survive behind the (fairly) modern shop signs and under the paintwork. Where others have collapsed through the ages, replacements have been inserted in the style of every century but always with sympathy. Today, competition from synthetic materials means the price of a fleece barely pays the wages of the man who shears it. In Bruton you'll see the evidence of wool wealth on every side. The one thing you probably won't see is a sheep.

What to look for

Bartons - narrow medieval streets, some no more than enclosed passageways - lead down off the High Street towards Lower Backway. The word 'barton' actually means a farmyard. These passages were originally places for keeping the household livestock at a time when urban sophistication meant not having the cow living in the house.

While you're there

The working water mill at Gant's Mill dates back to 1290, reflecting Bruton's early prosperity. Its uses through the centuries reflect the business of Somerset. Originally it was a fulling mill (PBackground to the Walk); when wool declined, it was adapted to power spinning machinery for the short-lived silk industry. For the last hundred years it has been grinding barley and corn for cattle feeds. Today the main product processed here is the tourist! The working mill is surrounded by a water garden. Opening times are restricted so check with the tourist information office at Bruton or Yeovil.

Where to eat and drink

The Castle Inn (pizzas) and the slightly more upmarket Sun Inn are both ancient establishments in the High Street. The Montague at Shepton Montague has never installed the usual bar plumbing; the beer still comes straight out of a barrel supported on a cradle. It serves good bar and restaurant food and children and dogs are welcome.

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