A sunken lane from Wheddon Cross leads up to Lype Hill, the high point of the Brendons.
Distance 5.7 miles (9.2km)
Minimum time 3hrs
Ascent/gradient 850ft (260m)
Level of difficulty Hard
Paths A rugged track, then little-used field bridleways, 4 stiles
Landscape Rounded hills with steep, wooded sides
Suggested map aqua3 OS Outdoor Leisure 9 Exmoor
Start/finish SS 923387
Dog friendliness Mostly pasture, where dogs must be closely managed
Parking Village car park (free) on A396 at Wheddon Cross
Public toilets At car park
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1 From the main crossroads head towards Dunster, and bear right at the war memorial to pass a small car park on the right-hand side. After the school, bear right, following the signpost to Puriton. This is Popery Lane - and yes, the school we just passed was a Roman Catholic one. The sunken lane runs to Cutcombe Cross, where you keep ahead ('Luxburough via Putham Ford') then bear left at a sign into Putham Lane.
2 Horses and tractors also use this narrow hedged track. At the bottom it crosses a ford, with a stone footbridge alongside. Now keep ahead on to a climbing lane surfaced with eroded tarmac.
3 At the top of the steep climb a field gate on the right has an inconspicuous footpath signpost. It leads on to a green track that runs below and then into a wood. Watch out for a footpath sign and a stile beside a stream below. Cross the water and take a small path on its right, into an open space. A slightly wider path above slants up along a bracken clearing. After a stile it follows the foot of a wood, to join a forest road and then a tarred lane.
4 Turn left, down a wide verge, and take the upper of two gates on the right: the correct one has a stile and footpath sign. Head up the side of a wooded combe and across its top. Now a sea view is on the left, a stile and gate ahead. Don't cross, but turn right, and right again across the top of the field to a gate beside the trig point on Lype Hill.
5 Through the gate keep ahead across a field, with a tumulus 70yds (64m) away on the left, and after a gate bear left to follow the fence on the left to its corner. A gate ahead leads on to a road. Cross to a signposted gate, and bear left to the field's far corner. Turn left alongside a beech bank to a waymarked gate. Here turn right, with a fence on your right, and head down along field edges towards Pitleigh Farm. An awkward gate in deer fencing leads on to the driveway just to the left of the farm.
6 Cross the driveway into a green track. This becomes a fenced-in field edge to a deer-fence gate on the left. Turn right to continue as before with hedges now on your right. After two fields you reach a hedged track. This runs down to the crossroads in Popery Lane.
This walk takes in the highest point of the Brendons, Lype Hill, at 1,390ft (423m). The wrap-around view includes Dunkery Beacon, Wales and Dartmoor. The trig point itself stands on an ancient tumulus; the second apparent tumulus near by houses a modern-day water tank.
Brendon means 'brown hill'. The shales and muddy sandstones are sea-bottom rocks: though the oldest in Somerset, they formed from the decomposition of still older mountains that have now completely disappeared. The Brendons are not particularly high, and are farmed to their tops, though the steeper sides are wooded. The scene appears timeless, but is actually rather recent: the hilltops were forested into the Middle Ages, and later became an industrial estate.
The Iron Age on Brendon saw the digging of long ramparts across the plateau, and a great settlement on the high ground. However, apart from a small fort at Elworthy Barrows, this activity wasn't in pre-Roman times, but in the more recent 19th century. A railway ran along the Brendon ridge from the iron ore mines. At its eastern end was a form of engineering we no longer see, except in Switzerland: a rope-assisted incline taking ore down to valley level. The ore then passed along the mineral railway to Watchet and the smelters of South Wales.
Below the mining areas and the farmland the hillsides have been less disturbed by man. Here, altitude, thin soils, and western levels of rainfall mean a sort of woodland more akin to the Scottish Highlands. You'll see the silver birch, for example - silver and gold if you're lucky enough to be here in late October. As well as a variety of autumn fungi in vivid colours, Hartcleeve has striking examples of Witch's Broom in its birch trees. These twig-clusters resemble untidy spherical nests but are in fact caused by a fungus infection (ascomycete) which interferes with the tree's growth hormones. A really well-established Witch's Broom can be 3ft (1m) across and will consist of hundreds of twigs.
Putham Lane shows several centuries' worth of erosion in action: a speeded-up version of what's happening to the hills as a whole over millions of years (rather than a few hundred). Looking through the hedge you can see how much lower the lane is than the surrounding fields. Where the lane steepens, it also gets more deeply dug in; at its steepest point you can see bare grey bedrock in its floor. Where the track has dug itself down below the water table, a permanent stream trickles down it. After rain or during snowmelt this stream becomes a flood. Even at its low summer level, it's easy to see how it combines with feet (and, latterly, wheels) to excavate the track.
The Rest And Be Thankful Inn is beside the car park, and offers bar meals and real ales. Dogs can be accommodated in the downstairs dining area.
Red, yellow and blue! In England the various rights of way are colour-coded. Through Highley Plantation you're on a footpath: look out for yellow paint-spots and waymarkers. Every gate after Lype Hill has the blue mark of a bridleway. Here there will be no stiles, but only gates, as horses can't climb stiles. At the start of the route, on Puriton Lane, a red mark shows the way through the wood. Here you are on a byway, in theory open to all traffic - although you are unlikely to meet a Rolls Royce coming the other way.
Bluebell woods are fairly common around Exmoor. However, a wood carpeted in snowdrops is more unusual. Snowdrop Wood at Wheddon Cross has caused traffic jams in the past and Exmoor National Park Authority now runs a park-and-ride scheme: this departs from the village car park during the February snowdrop season.