An expedition through parts of Somerset, Dorset and Wiltshire, to Stourhead and Alfred's Tower.
Distance 8.5 miles (13.7km)
Minimum time 4hrs
Ascent/gradient 950ft (290m)
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Some tracks and some small paths and field edges, 7 stiles
Landscape Tree-covered ridge
Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 142 Shepton Mallet
Start/finish ST 755314
Dog friendliness Moderate freedom on tracks and in woodland
Parking Penselwood church; some verge parking at Bleak Farm
Public toilets Near Spread Eagle Inn - from Point e continue through arch for ½ mile (800m)
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1 Go through the churchyard to join a road beyond. Turn left through Bleak Farm village, then left into an inconspicuous sunken track. This ends at the top of a tarred lane; here turn left through a white gate, signed 'Pen Mill Hill'. Head down to a kissing gate in a dip and follow a green track past a pond to a road.
2 Cross into a path waymarked 'Coombe Street'. Pass below Orchard Cottages, then turn left over two stiles. Cross a stream in a dip to a stile below a thatched cottage. A woodland path bends to the right to a footbridge over the tiny River Stour.
3 From here to Point 4 is marked 'Stour Valley Way'. Go up into a tarred lane and turn left. Keep ahead into a hedged way for 30yds (27m) to a stile. Go up and round left to another stile. The lane beyond leads up to a T-junction; go straight across and turn left into a bridleway track. Go through a gate to follow the left edge of a field into a hedged track. This emerges opposite Bonham House.
4 Turn left, and at the second signpost bear right to a road below. Follow this to the right, to a rustic rock arch. A track on the left is signposted 'Alfred's Tower'.
5 The track bends right and heads into a wooded valley with Alfred's Tower visible ahead. Finally it reaches open ground at the hilltop, with a road ahead. Turn left, in a grassy avenue, to Alfred's Tower.
6 Join the road ahead for 220yds (201m), down to a sunken path on the left signed 'Penselwood'. Follow this, ignoring paths on both sides, on to a track descending to a major junction. Here bear right to a lane. Bear right again, on a road signed 'Penselwood'. This leads over a hilltop containing a hill fort. Descend for 100yds (91m) until open ground appears on the left.
7 Cross a stile to head downhill with Castle Wood on your left, and blocks of young trees on your right. Move into the wood to join a track along its edge. At the corner of the wood, a waymarked gate on the right leads into fields.
8 Follow the left edge of the first field to two gates on the left, then keep ahead to a gate and a second gate beyond it. A track leads out to a road. Turn right to a sharp right-hand bend, where a gate starts a field path to Penselwood church.
Patriotic English people tend to think of Arthur and of Alfred, almost interchangeably, as the first king of their land; this is odd, as they were mortal enemies. Arthur, if he existed, ruled the Britons: a small, dark, Celtic people who spoke what we now call Old Welsh. Alfred spoke Old English, and belonged to the Saxon invaders. Eventually the invaders were themselves attacked by the Vikings and so started to think of themselves as the home side. Arthur's kingdom was Logres - which may or may not have been somewhere hereabouts.
Alfred was King of Somerset and, beyond that, King of Wessex; England had yet to be invented. Somerset, however, was a civilisation worth fighting for. Alfred fortified Burrow Mump 36) as a strongpoint against the Danes, whose longships came at him up the River Parrett.
Defeated, he took refuge in the swamps of the 'Sumer Saete'. It was on the marsh island of Muchelney, south of Langport, that the demoralised and preoccupied King took shelter in the winter of ad 878 in a swine-herd's mud hut. The peasant's wife set him to watch the cakes, with disastrous results for the cookery but an eventual good outcome for Wessex? Emerging from his fen island, Alfred gathered the Saxons at Egbert's Stone, probably at the present-day site of Alfred's Tower. He defeated the Danes at Edington, now in Wiltshire.
Alfred reigned from ad 873 to 888. He set up burhs, fortified towns, at Axbridge, Bath (where he reused the Roman defences), Langport and Watchet. His palace was at Cheddar. Alfred was a wise king who mixed thoughtfulness with ruthlessness, and realised that government based partly on consent was easier and worked better than government by force. His laws were put to a (non-elected) parliament of his witan: churchmen, nobles and local leaders.
The tower we visit on this walk was placed in romantic commemoration of King Alfred; but its real point is as a place to turn round at the top of a scenic carriage drive from Stourhead - the turning circle for the carriages is still visible in the grass.
Today, while we decorate the hills with various money-making structures such as phone masts and television transmitters, to build a tower simply for decorative effect would as likely as not be dismissed instantly as a wicked intrusion on the landscape. Mind you, if we did build them, would they ever look so right in their surroundings as this tower, or the ruins on Glastonbury Tor and Burrow Mump, or the monuments at Curry Rivel or Windmill Hill. Somehow our modern creations lack the air of permanence and sympathy with the landscape of these earlier construcions. There is a small charge if you want to go up the tower, but if its a clear day, it's the only way to get above the treetops for the total, three-county view.
Visit the National Trust's Stourhead House. The lakes and ornamental buildings are glimpsed on the way past on the walk: for a fuller view you'll have to pay, but it's worth it for the vistas of ornamental water and silly little temples.
Buzzards and ravens nest in Great Combe Woods. As there are no eagles in Somerset, any bird soaring high above the hill will be a buzzard. The raven is a large crow, with a deep croak and a slightly pointed (rather than fan-shaped) tail. Both birds are basically scavengers, with a taste for road-killed rabbit.
The Spread Eagle Inn is at the entrance to Stourhead House. To get there from Point e keep ahead through the rock arch for ½ mile (800m).