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Close to the Border at the Back of Blackdown

Stapley's little valley looks down over the county boundary into Devon, towards a grim murder scene.

Distance 3 miles (4.8km)

Minimum time 1hr 40min

Ascent/gradient 500ft (150m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Field edges, and small woodland paths, 8 stiles

Landscape Wooded hill slopes

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 128 Taunton & Blackdown Hills

Start/finish ST 188136

Dog friendliness Some freedom in first, woodland, half of walk

Parking Small pull-in beside water treatment works at east end of Stapley; verge parking at walk start

Public toilets None on route

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1 A phone box marks the start of the walk. Some 20 paces below it a lane runs down between houses. After 100yds (91m) keep ahead into a shady path. At a stile bear right to a ford with a footbridge.

2 Head up a wide track. At a junction cross on to a small, waymarked path. This heads uphill, following a bank, to a stile. In the field beyond bear right, to a field corner and a stile back into woodland. A small path runs along the top edge of Pay Plantation, to emerge near Beerhill Farm.

3 Bear left for 100yds (91m) to a waymarked gate, and a second just beyond. Pass to the right of a large cowshed to reach a small pool. Pass to the right of this pool, to a gate, and follow the top edge of a wood to Rainbow Lane.

4 Cross the lane to a signposted stile. Pass along the left edge of a long narrow field; over on the left, Luddery Hill Farm is built of flinty-looking chert. A slippery stile leads into a wood of ash trees. Again the path runs along the top edge of the wood. With an isolated house visible ahead, a waymarker indicates the diverted right of way bearing right. This path slants gently downhill, to meet the driveway at a bend. Cross on to a wide path just above the driveway. At the end of the wood turn down right, to rejoin the driveway to the road below.

5 Cross into the trackway of Biscombe Hill Farm. Bear left to a field gate, and go down the right edge of a large field to a muddy hedge gap on the right. Slant down the following field to a stile at its bottom, right-hand corner, with stepping stones across the stream beyond. Go up the right-hand edge of the next field to a stile. This leads into a sunken track; turn left and follow it up to a lane.

6 Turn right, up the road. Where it levels and bends left, turn right into the driveway of Craigend Cottage. Turn left along field tops, with a hedge bank on your left and a view of Devon over your right shoulder. After a stile a field gate leads to a tractor track. After a short, muddy passage past Stapley Farm you reach the village road at the phone box.

The forests of the Blackdown borders were almost the last part of Somerset to be cleared for agriculture. Here are few proper villages, just the occasional cluster of cottages around a farm. There was no obvious place for the parish church and it stands almost alone at what was once a convenient track junction. With the mechanisation of farming, the area declined again.

During the 19th century the population outside the small towns halved. Today a retired couple may occupy a cottage built for a farmworker's family of eight or a dozen people. This quiet corner of the upper Culm Valley was briefly infamous in the 1850s, when a native of this borderland became one of the last Englishmen to be hanged in public.

'I think that man gathers more money than anyone else in the parish.' George Sparkes, the speaker, had just received £1 1s 5d, some butter and a drink of beer as his pay for six days of tough fieldwork in the February frost. The man he spoke of, Richard Blackmore, was a local land surveyor who had spent the day collecting tithes and taxes.

Blackmore was carrying £16 in notes and gold sovereigns - about £3,000 in today's money. The two men were drinking in the White Hart at Clayhidon until 1am. Sparkes soon ran out of money. He tried to raise cash at cards, lost, and ended the evening owing Blackmore three pints. Drunk and resentful, he snatched a pair of blacksmith's tongs from the smithy, stalked the rent collector through the fields, and battered him to death. Some of the bloodstained sovereigns were found in his cottage the next morning.

The trial, which took place at Exeter, was not a long one. Sparkes seemed as shocked as anyone at what he had done; but the law allowed only one sentence. It's clear that the judge was reluctant to pronounce it for so senseless a crime: he voiced the words 'to be hanged by the neck until dead' almost inaudibly, and bowed his head in tears. It is said that 10,000 people attended the hanging. The reporter for the Exeter Flying Post (April 1853) recorded disapprovingly the presence of women and children: 'the broadcloth of the middle classes jostling the cotton of the mechanics and labourers - a strange motley for so sad a scene and too painfully indicative of the fact that the 'lower orders' are not the only people who relish the sight of a public strangulation'.

The gallows employed the 'new drop' - a humane innovation so that the condemned man should break his neck in the fall. And the space below the trapdoor was boarded in, allowing him to die in private. The White Horse Inn has gone, but there's a memorial stone at the murder site - this is just south of a bridge over the Culm (grid ref ST 164141), at the foot of Battle Street.

While you're there

Churchstanton church has a charming setting and many interesting features. The youngest members of the party will particularly appreciate one gargoyle (the south west one on the tower). Less charming are the village stocks, of various sizes, preserved in the church porch.

What to look for

The whitish, shiny stone found in field walls and in Luddery Hill Farm is chert. It looks like flint, but unlike flint it comes in chunks rather than rounded nodules. The toughness of chert is one reason why the Blackdown Hills exist at all.

Where to eat and drink

The York Inn at Churchinford is a typical country hotel, with hanging baskets at the door and 15th-century beams above the open fire. It specialises in local fish and game dishes. Dogs welcome (bar only), also children (restaurant only). Alternatively, you can cross into Devon to visit the murder site and the Merry Harriers at Clayhidon.

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