Walking is good for us. Fact. It’s good for our hearts, our joints, our mental wellbeing, and especially good when shared with like-minded people. It can even help against depression. So as we pass out of middle age and into those silver years when things begin to creak a bit, it’s even more important to keep mind and body supple in the great outdoors.
Which is just one of many reasons why I’m standing amongst the unmistakeable outline of an Iron Age hill fort on top of Somerset’s Mendip Hills. Here on Dolebury Warren – now a managed nature reserve splashed with the colour of wild flowers and butterflies – our ancestors built a strategic settlement with views over the water to Wales. No enemy was going to spring any nasty surprises on them.
I’m a regular walker around my home patch and love the chance to explore another part of the country on foot, so I’ve booked a 5-night break to North Somerset with Silver Travel partner Ramblers Walking Holidays. The itinerary offers four walks of around six hours each and if you’ve never done a walking holiday before, a UK itinerary like this one is a good place to start. Based in one hotel, it’s easy to take a day out if legs tire or you simply fancy a change.
There are 14 in our group – singles, couples, and pairs of friends. We have a Parisian English teacher who has come to improve her already excellent English, and on previous trips with Ramblers, I’ve met travellers from Down Under. Between them they have many tales to share about walking all over the world, but anyone of moderate fitness should be able to tackle this week’s itinerary of around nine miles a day with moderate inclines.
Up until now, I’ve only ever sliced through the Mendips on the M5 en route from the Home Counties to the West Country. I’ve whizzed past the pretty village of Loxton, just south of Weston-super-Mare without realising it, but have in fact noticed the hotel that’s our base for the five nights. The black-and-white façade of the Webbington Hotel has become a landmark for our family on our journeys north or south. Part of the Best Western group, this 3-star hotel is well placed for meandering round the Mendips. It also boasts a spacious bar and outdoor terrace with views over the Somerset Levels, plus a pool, gym and steam room.
Our package includes a buffet breakfast of hot and cold choices for that all-important energy boost, as well as a three-course evening meal with a choice of dishes. Packed lunches can be ordered every evening for the next day at a small extra charge. There’s a welcome tray too with biscuits in each bedroom, just in case you’re still hungry!
All Ramblers walking holidays begin with a briefing on the first evening over a pre-dinner drink. Here we meet Sam, our walk leader, and I’m impressed to find that whilst he’s not local to the area, he’s already spent a couple of days familiarising himself with the routes and researching places of interest.
Next day, in brilliant sunshine, we set off from the hotel to climb Crook Peak, one of the landmarks of this limestone ridge. And as we walk, I slot in and out of step with my companions, gradually getting to know each one in turn. At the rocky summit, we sit down on the sheep-cropped grass to soak up a circular panorama that includes Chew Magna Lake and Glastonbury Tor, Bristol Channel and South Wales. The M5 snakes across the Somerset Levels below us, but there’s no noise up here except for the light summer breeze.
Over the next four days, we clock up just over 40 miles through this glorious landscape, along field footpaths and across open heathland, through ancient woodland and protected valleys. There are flowers and butterflies in abundance and I’m always glad when someone can identify them as I usually can’t! But I’m better at birds and enjoy seeing ravens around the hill fort and watching young buzzards taking test flights under the watchful eye of mum. I even put my large animal skills to good use when I free two substantial lambs trapped by their small horns in a wire fence.
There are some great nuggets of history too, thanks to Sam’s in-depth research. I’m fascinated by the story of the lights installed on Black Down near Blagdon during World War II as a decoy for Bristol. Today only a handful of bunkers remain. In low cloud beside Beacon Batch, highest point of the Mendips, we’re all charmed by the large herd of rare Exmoor ponies that looms out of the gloom.
There’s pretty Axbridge with its medieval square and brightly painted cottages. And Burrington Combe, a mini-Cheddar Gorge where a plaque high on a cliff marks the ‘Rock of Ages’. Here Reverend Toplady was inspired to write the well-known hymn whilst sheltering from a storm in the 18th century.
But nothing quite tops Cheddar Gorge, biggest gorge in Britain at three miles long and up to 400 feet deep. I’m used to seeing it from road level amongst the tourists and souvenir shops, but this time I get the reverse view on a circular route that takes us to the lip of the ravine on both sides, through surrounding farmland and along a protected valley full of rare plants where once the Victorians mined lead.
And every evening – washed, changed and rested – we gather at table to relive the day over dinner. I feel mentally relaxed and yet strangely energised by a day spent active out of doors in good company. Maybe walking holidays should be offered on the NHS!
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Ramblers Walking Holidays.