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Edge of the Levels

From Polden's edge down on to the Somerset Levels and up again.

Distance 4.5 miles (7.2km)

Minimum time 2hrs 15min

Ascent/gradient 450ft (140m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Initially steep then easy tracks and paths, 3 stiles

Landscape Water-meadows of the Somerset Levels, and wooded heights above

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 141 Cheddar Gorge

Start/finish ST 480345

Dog friendliness Off leads on drove tracks and in woods

Parking Car park (free) at Street Youth Hostel, just off B3151; another car park on south side of road

Public toilets None on route; nearest are at Street


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1 From the parking area on the youth hostel side, cross and turn right on a woodland path. After 100yds (91m) a smaller path descends on the left by steps. At the foot of the wood turn right, and at a field corner go down a little to a track. This runs along the base of the wood to a lane.

2 Go down to the entrance to Lower Ivythorn Farm, and turn left into a track. After ½ mile (800m) this reaches the corner of an unsurfaced road, where you turn right. After ¼ mile (400m) the track turns left into a field. Follow its edge, with a ditch and fence to your left, to a gate. In the next field continue alongside the ditch to the corner. The former footbridge is derelict under brambles. Take a gate on the left, then turn right on a field track. This zig-zags to pass to the left of Hurst Farm, leading to a tarred lane.

3 Turn right to a bridleway sign on the left. Follow this green track until it joins Ham Lane. This leads to the crossroads of the B3151 in Compton Dundon, with the Castlebrook Inn down to the right.

4 Cross the busy B3151 and pass between an ancient market cross (right) and an ugly Victorian obelisk (left) into Compton Street. At the first junction keep round to the left, towards the Hood Monument above. As the street starts to climb, turn right and left up the lane beyond. Where it reaches woodland turn off through a waymarked gate signed 'Reynolds Way'. The path slants up into the wood. Then, some 35yds (32m) before it arrives at a road, turn left along the top of the steep ground, to the Hood Monument.

5 Continue down through the wood to a minor road, with the main road 50yds (46m) away on the right. Ignore a path descending opposite but turn right for a few steps to a footpath sign and a kissing gate. A grass path heads gently up the crest of Collard Hill, with wide views to the left.

6 From the summit go straight on down to a stile and the signposted crossroads of the B3151. Cross both roads. The ridge road is signposted for the youth hostel, and your path is just to its right. It crosses a glade into woodland. Keep to the right of some hummocky ground to the wood's edge, and follow this path to the car park.

Of Somerset's six hill ranges, the Poldens are the smallest; they rise to just 390ft (119m) at Great Breach Wood. Along the hedged A39 the car driver won't have any feeling of being on a summit ridge. The passengers, however, will be getting glimpses, between the branches, of wide lands on either side. And if you get out and stand at the top of the southern scarp, the long, windswept edge above the Levels is almost like the top of a sea cliff. In fact, a sea cliff is what it once was. The Bristol Channel has flowed over the Levels several times in the last few millennia - and still does, occasionally, during winter floods. To the north, the village of Burtle stands not on peat but on a sandbank with seashells. Glastonbury Tor and Brent Knoll were formed as islands undercut by the waves.

This high, dry ridge has been a road since Roman times. An inn stood at Marshall's Elm, now the site of the Street Youth Hostel and the start of our walk. An incident here provoked Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) to put pen to paper. A Trampwoman's Tragedy (1902) concerns flirtation and murder, and was turned down by the editor of Cornhill magazine in the United States as 'not a poem he could possibly print in a family periodical'. Despite being set in Somerset, Hardy considered it his most successful poem - and much shorter than any of the Dorset novels.

'And as the sun drew down to west,

We climb the toilsome Polden crest,

And saw, of landskip sights the best,

The inn that beamed thereby.

Beneath us figured tor and lea,

From Mendip to the western sea -

I doubt if finer sight there be

Within this royal realm.'

Given the Polden range's status as a former sea cliff, it's quite appropriate that one of England's admirals should stand on Windmill Hill, in the shape of a stone column. Samuel Hood, who was born in 1724, is perhaps England's seventh most famous admiral. He entered the navy as a teenager, and rose to distinguish himself as a bad-tempered but effective commander. American historians seem relieved that, during the Battle of the Capes in Chesapeake Bay in 1781, a bad decision by Admiral Rodney left Hood a bystander while the Royal Navy suffered one of its worst-ever defeats.

In the early part of the Napoleonic War, Hood served in the Mediterranean. He mounted a successful raid on Toulon in 1793; a junior officer on the raiding party, one Horatio Nelson, was wounded by flying gravel thrown up by a cannonball and lost the sight in one eye. Hood retired the next year, and died in 1814 after seeing his tactical ideas triumphantly continued by young Nelson.

While you're there

From the Middle Ages onwards, the affluence and development of the Levels was signalled by the number of windmills along the Polden ridge. Stembridge Tower Mill at High Ham is more recent, dating from 1822. It has been restored by the National Trust, though not yet into full working order.

Where to eat and drink

The Castlebrook Inn in Compton Dundon is a short distance from Point d. This old coaching inn welcomes dogs and children, and serves bar meals and real scrumpy cider.

What to look for

The medieval market cross passed in Compton Dundon is of yellow Hamstone, its edges softened by the weathering of the centuries. The obelisk is of imported granite, polished to a hard shine that will never weather.


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