A green valley walk, where Cotswold melds into Mendip, tracing a legacy of abandoned industry and failed technology.
Distance 6.4 miles (10.4km)
Minimum time 3hrs 30min
Ascent/gradient 984ft (300m)
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Byways, stream sides and some field paths, 12 stiles
Landscape Grassy hillsides and valleys
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 142 Shepton Mallet
Start/finish ST 739583
Dog friendliness Mostly pasture
Parking Street parking in village centre, or large car park below Peasedown road
Public toilets None on route
© AA Media Limited 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153
1 Head out past the church and under a viaduct. Immediately after Wellow Trekking a track starts just above the road. Where it becomes unclear, cross to the hedge opposite and continue above it. A new track runs through a wood, then down to the valley floor. Where a bridleway sign points right, turn left to pass under a railway bridge.
2 Just before Lower Twinhoe Farm turn left into a signposted green track. At the hilltop the track fades into thistly ground. Bear right, before Middle Twinhoe, to a small gate. Turn right along the farm's driveway to a lane. Turn left, then to the right around farm buildings and bend left towards Upper Twinhoe. Just before this farm a signed track descends to the right.
3 After 130yds (118m) turn left through a double gate and along a field top. The path then slants down through scrubby woodland towards Combe Hay. From the wood edge follow the lower edge of a field to a stone bridge into the village. Follow the main road left, to pass the Manor House.
4 After the last house of Combe Hay, find a gap in the wall on the left. Bear right, down to the Cam Brook, and follow it to a road bridge. Cross it and continue with the stream down on your right through a field and a wood. Follow the stream along another field to a stile, then along the foot of a short field to a gateway.
5 Don't go through this gateway, but turn up the field edge to a stile on the right instead. Slant up left across the next field to a nettly way between high thorns. At the top of this bear right in a rutted track to a lane. Turn uphill to White Ox Mead, and follow the lane for another 60yds (55m) to a stile. Slant up to another stile, and turn up a tarred track to where it divides near a shed without walls.
6 Keep ahead on a rutted track along the hill crest. Ignore a waymarked stile to pass under low- and high-voltage electric cables. Here a small metal gate on the right leads to a hoof-printed path down beside a fence. At the foot of the field turn left, then left again (uphill), round a corner to a gate. Turn left across the field top and down its edge to the street leading into Wellow.
When you walk through this quiet corner of Somerset, it certainly doesn't strike you as an industrial landscape. You may, for example, wonder why such a sleepy valley ever needed its own railway. As you climb out of the Wellow Valley you might notice some odd conical hills. And then, at Combe Hay, with its lovely medieval manor house, there is some very peculiar 18th-century brickwork. Combe Hay and Wellow were actually at the heart of Somerset's industrial revolution. And the last coal mine here only closed in the 1970s.
Like so much in Somerset, it started with the Romans. In the Temple of Minerva in nearby Bath, a fire burned - according to some historians, a living coal fire. Certainly by the 16th century the mines were going down. Squashed between the Mendips and the Cotswolds, the Somerset coal field is small and awkward. Many of the veins are vertical, and only a few feet (a metre or so) in width. So coal might be hacked from overhead, on an improvised platform jammed across a narrow shaft. And always, for miner and mine owner alike, there was the threat of cheaper and easier coal coming up the River Avon from Wales.
This brings us to the engineering bricks in the field at Combe Hay. To move 100,000 tons of coal a year to Bath a canal was constructed that was ambitious even by the standards of the enterprising 18th century. Over its length of just 10 miles (16km), from Paulton Basin to Bath, the Somersetshire Coal Canal had two aqueducts and a tunnel. Furthermore, there was the problem of the 165ft (50m) climb on to Combe Hay Hill. The solution was, in effect, an underwater elevator. A barge on the upper canal entered a floating metal box called a caisson. The caisson was sealed, and water pumped in until it started to sink. It sank for 50ft (15m) to the bottom of the shaft. Its door was then matched up to a door in the base of the shaft; both doors were opened; and the barge floated out. The process would take seven minutes, unless the caisson got stuck. The ground around the caisson shaft is fuller's earth, which expands when wetted, and this may have caused the sides of the shaft to bulge inwards. The caissons were abandoned after only two years and replaced with an inclined plane. The southern branch of the canal, through Wellow to Radstock, was never completed. Instead, a horse-drawn tramway carried the coal out. Both canal and tramway were replaced by the railway, which in its turn has been superseded by motor roads.
The Fox and Badger is at the walk's start. The Wheatsheaf at Combe Hay is a handsome old building with a flowery terrace; it serves real ales and good food. Children are allowed in the dining area, and well-behaved dogs are welcome.
In all but the driest of conditions, the ascent towards White Ox Mead features some of the stickiest mud anywhere. The reason is fuller's earth: this is the special sort of clay (aluminium silicate) that was mined and used to wash wool with - as well as grease, it also absorbs water. The consequent swelling is what caused the caisson shaft at Combe Hay to bulge inwards and jam.
Radstock Museum gives much of its space to the coal industry. It has a reconstructed mine tunnel and items from that most attractive of ages (to look at afterwards if not to live through), the industrial 18th century.