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Ilminster, the River Isle and a Walk in the Woods

A pleasing riverside ramble, an ancient village, and a wood that aspires to being ancient.

Distance 5.7 miles (9.2km)

Minimum time 2hrs 40min

Ascent/gradient 500ft (150m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Tracks, wide paths, and riverside field edges, 12 stiles

Landscape Riverside, and a small wooded hill

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 128: Taunton & Blackdown Hills

Start/finish ST 362144

Dog friendliness Mostly on leads

Parking Pay-and-display in Ditton Street, signposted from nearby Market Cross

Public toilets At car park


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1 From the car park aim for the town centre and head uphill in North Street. With the ancient Bell Inn on the left, the route continues on a path (Old Road). It rises past communications equipment ancient and modern - a beacon fire-basket and then a mobile phone mast - before descending to the B3168.

2 Cross with care into a hedged byway. Where it forks, keep right, to Eames Mill. Turn right, along the waymarked access track. After 220yds (201m) a concrete track turns sharply back left. Just before a bridge turn left over a stile to follow the River Isle upstream. You have covered ¼ mile (400m) to pass from the front of Eames Mill to the back of the same buildings, but the rights of way don't allow a more straightforward route.

3 Cross a weir to head upstream with the river on your left. After a mile (1.6km) you'll reach the car park of the Powrmatic works, and the B3168 beyond.

4 Cross on to a track signed 'Industrial Estate'. Pass along the river bank to the left of the buildings, and then between piles of ironwork to a footbridge back into the real world. Now with the river on your right, head upstream in a fenced way to re-cross on another footbridge. Continue over stiles along the right-hand bank. With the tower of Donyatt church ahead, cross diagonally right to a gate on to the road.

5 Turn left through the village, and bear left past the church. Head straight up Herne Hill as the lane becomes a track, then a field-edge path, then an earth path through Herne Hill Wood. The summit is under tall beeches. A wide avenue ahead leads to a field corner. Continue inside the wood, passing a bench and trig point on your right, and going down to the wood's foot. Here turn back left for 90yds (82m) to a gate on the right.

6 A wide path runs towards Ilminster, with sports fields below. Turn left, between the sports fields and the town, for 200yds (183m) to a yellow litter bin. A gap on the right leads to a path alongside a murky remnant of the Chard-Taunton Canal. Turn right behind tennis courts, and after 250yds (229m) turn left into Abbots Close and on to a tarred path. This leads to West Street, arriving at the Crown Inn. Turn right and bear right into Silver Street, to reach the town centre.

These days, nothing in the countryside just happens. Fields are managed for food, although that is starting to change. Woodlands are managed for? well, it's not obvious what woodlands ought to be for. In the early Middle Ages forests were for deer, and for the men (in particular, the King) who hunted the deer. A couple of centuries later, woodlands were for pigs.

Today, woods are for natural heritage. At the top of the list, this means mammals (apart from the grey squirrel, a 'baddie'), and birds. Slightly further down come butterflies, followed by woodlice, lichens and the rarer sorts of wild flowers. You don't often hear of woodlands (as opposed to commercial timber forests) being managed for the sake of the trees - perhaps that just sounds too circular. But trees too have their league table. The 'aristocrats' who can trace their lineage back to the Ice Age - oak, beech, hedge maple - are 'good'. The exception is the sycamore: the sycamore is too good at surviving, and so is considered a weed, to be eradicated. The latecomers, and other ones people may have had a hand in, are intruders; walnut and sweet chestnut are to be controlled or rooted out.

Towards the bottom of the list comes the naturalist. And still important, but perhaps less so than any of the others, is the ordinary human being: the child looking for conkers, the young couple looking for privacy, the painter or photographer looking for shades of green in dappled sun, those special qualities of woodland light. I don't disagree with this: the oak and the beech are indeed handsome trees, and the spruce is gloomy. Almost all walkers are interested in wildlife. Still, why is the badger a hero but the fox a dubious character? And is it possible that, in another century or two, woodland will be managed mainly for the sake of its most enthusiastic users - our dogs? The first priorities would therefore be big piles of leaves, things that run away, and things that smell interesting when dead.

Assuming, then, that you're a person with an interest in wildlife (rather than a dog that just wants to chase it), in Herne Hill Wood you might spot: hazel nuts with tiny holes nibbled in them by dormice ('good!'); tree bark chewed away by the grey squirrels ('bad!'); one or two of the squirrels themselves; and you may notice the ferretty smell of badgers. Herne Hill itself was given to the people of Ilminster in 1931. Another four or five centuries should see it turning into a proper 'ancient woodland'.

Where to eat and drink

Attractive old inns in Ilminster include the 17th-century Bell Inn (with a beer garden for those with four or two muddy feet) on Strawberry Bank, passed near the start of the walk, and the Dolphin at its end. Donyatt has the George Inn, with real ale and a beer garden, but no dogs allowed.

What to look for

A country-lovers' inscription from the Book of Zephania (Chapter III, verse i) will be found in Donyatt church, which is attractively built of mixed, blue and yellow limestone. The carved roof-bosses in the chancel are worth a look after you've found the 'anti-townie' quotation.

While you're there

Barrington Court is another of the National Trust's collection of Tudor houses in Somerset. The main interest here is the garden, laid out in the 1920s in the `Gertrude Jekyll' style. This was a reaction against Victorian carpet-bedding into a more sophisticated version of the cottage garden. It remains the classic ideal, and a useful corrective to the fads of today's TV gardening.


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