Off we go again……
In May 2018 there were a few free days – time to set off somewhere. The decision was to head south and visit an area of England that we had never explored. While I’ve visited Bath and Bristol and travelled by train along the main lines to Devon and Cornwall, there are areas in between which look attractive, but which I’ve by-passed. After a little research the plan was to spend two nights in Bradford on Avon, in a corner of Wiltshire, not far from Bath, and two nights in Wells, Somerset. This would provide the opportunity to travel on some new railway lines and visit a selection of recommended pubs.
Bradford on Avon
We reached Bradford on Avon by train via London, Swindon and Westbury, including a diversion due to engineering work and the chance to try the new trains on the Paddington – Bristol and Cardiff lines (due to appear soon on the East Coast Main Line). It is a lovely little town on the River Avon a few miles upstream from Bath and built of the same yellow stone. The valley sides are steep and the town climbs up the north side of the valley. It prospered from the woollen industry from the seventeenth century, cottage-based weavers being replaced by water-powered mills, until much of the industry moved north in the nineteenth century. The Kennet and Avon Canal passes through the town providing transport to Bristol and the Thames at Reading before the railway arrived, and now reopened for leisure use. Today, Bradford is an upmarket town with commuter traffic to Bath and Bristol, and has a population of 9400.
The bear and I are staying in the Bear Inn in the centre of town which bills itself as an ‘ale, pie and cider house’. The choice of a room above a pub was a good one. The room is big and the bed is comfortable. There is no breakfast as such, but there is a small fridge with complementary water, milk and yoghurt, plus cornflakes and pastries to set you up for the day. There is also a selection of other drinks and biscuits on the landing at very reasonable prices, and an honesty box for the money. On the second night I try one of their excellent pies – steak and black pudding. There is 20% off for residents (and frozen versions available to take away). The bar/eating area is nicely done out and feels like a pub with food rather than a restaurant calling itself a pub. Most importantly there is a choice of four real ales and those I tried were fine.
Over the two evenings I wander round town and try a few pubs. I climb uphill to the Castle Inn at Mount Pleasant (not the word I would use for the hill) which I like. It is food-based (and the food looks good), though there are a few locals in for just a drink and I join them with a pint of Flatcapper Ale, the house beer. It has been modernised but won a national CAMRA award for pub refurbishment, and it shows in its quality. Back downhill in town, the Stumble Inn is a micropub, which opened in 2017 in a former club. It is friendly, I have a chat with the owner, and the beer is straight from the cask. The other customers are having a conversation about the ailments that come with age, which is not reassuring to someone with the first signs of arthritis. The Dandy Lion (I can’t make up my mind whether this is a clever name or just naff) is in an old building which has seen various uses, and it has been recently refurbished. The décor is nothing exceptional, but the Wadworth’s beer is good. Tumbrells Yard, a pub in the former house of a millowner gets great reviews, particularly for the food, and it is in a tremendous spot by the river. It seems too big to have much atmosphere but I enjoyed an hour sitting in the garden with a beer.
The one problem with Bradford is the busy traffic which goes over the Town Bridge (above) and through the narrow streets in the centre of town. It has destroyed them for shopping which has moved into restored mills and yards. The pollution from traffic is high and must be damaging the buildings and the population. The glazing in the Bear Inn keeps out most of the noise, and they provide earplugs and eye-masks for those who need them.
Around West Wiltshire
The Kennet and Avon Canal passes through town and, in the morning, we go for a walk along the canal. We take the bus for a few miles in the Bath direction. It is just after 0930 and is packed with pensioners using their free bus pass to Bath on the first journey it can be used. We alight close to Limpney Stoke moorings. This turns out to be a restored stump of the Somerset Coal Canal. I recollect the Somerset coalfield being mentioned in school geography lessons and seeming an unlikely location for the mining industry, as were Kintyre and Kent, and I check. Coal was mined in the Radstock area from the fifteenth century and, though mining declined from the 1920s, the final pit did not close until 1973. The Coal Canal, constructed around 1800, had two branches linking the coalfield with the Kennet and Avon Canal, with horse-tramways bringing coal from individual pits to the canalside. Railways replaced the canal, it was disused by 1898 and closed in 1902. The basin at the junction with the Kennet and Avon (where Ted is sitting in the photograph) was restored as moorings in the 1980s. By the junction of the is the Dundas Aqueduct (pictured) which takes the Kennet and Avon over the River Avon (and an adjoining bridge takes it over the Bath to Salisbury railway line). The aqueduct was completed in 1805 by John Rennie, named after Charles Dundas, first chairman of the Kennet and Avon Canal Company, closed in 1954 and reopened in 1984.
We follow the canal towpath for a few miles – there are no locks on this stretch and the canal is built on a ledge substantially above the river. Stretches of the walk are quiet and shaded by high trees and there is plenty of birdsong. As usual, once more than a couple of hundred yards from a car park walkers and cyclists say hello as they pass. None of the people passing by on narrowboats acknowledged our existence, though presumably canal etiquette would require a wave to other boaters.
The walk takes Ted and I to the Avoncliff Aqueduct, also opened in 1805 and built by John Rennie, which crosses the railway first before crossing the River Avon once more. Across the canal is the Cross Guns pub (above), with no visible means of reaching it. I manage to deduce that you can get there by crossing the aqueduct, down a lane to the riverside, walk along the river beneath the aqueduct then climb up the other side. The effort of working this out requires a pint to recover. It is a tremendous location for a pub, with a pleasant indoor bar and a large beer garden stretching down to the river beside a weir. It must get packed at weekends – at noon on a Thursday it is already busy. The pint is fine also. There’s a view of the aqueduct, which visibly sags in the middle (you can see this in the photo if you look carefully) and has been a problem necessitating regular repairs since soon after it was built.
Walk and pint over, we head for Avoncliff station, which is reached by walking across the aqueduct and clambering down a series of steps from canal to railway line. It is a tiny halt with a platform long enough for one coach – the guard only opens the front door and on you get. Then he didn’t bother to come for a fare – there is no ticket machine at the halt – so we had a free ride to Westbury and I’ve got no proof that I’ve ever boarded a train at Avoncliff.
Later in the day I stick my hand out at the request stop of Dilton March, another short platform. The same happens – we get a free ride to Warminster as the guard is busy. Dilton Marsh is the only remaining station between Westbury and Salisbury apart from Warminster and it is rumoured to have been saved from closure by Sir John Betjeman writing a poem about it. Dilton Marsh Halt opened in 1937 while the other village stations dated from the building of the railway and closed in 1955. I imagine a rural idyll but it isn’t – the area is quite built up and closer to much of Westbury than the main station. It is not well used, probably because most passing trains do not stop, even by request. Today it is busy. Both platforms are covered in scaffolding while ten orange clad people are working for Network Rail to upgrade the station to Dilton Marsh International. Actually they are there to carry out repairs and stabilise the station as the platforms are slipping down the embankment. They seem quite surprised to see a passenger, though someone alights as I board (Useless Fact No 1: Dilton Marsh Halt was always unstaffed, though a sign directed prospective passengers to the ‘seventh house up the hill’ where a Mrs. Roberts sold tickets. There is no sign of the sign today).
There are a few towns south of Bradford on Avon that I’ve never been to – this is a good enough reason for Ted and I to pay a quick visit to Trowbridge, Westbury and Warminster and call in for a pint. Trowbridge (above), the county town of Wiltshire, another centre of the woollen industry, appears to me to be down on its luck. We don’t stay long, although the Kings Arms is friendly, despite attempts by the owners to get rid of any character it may have had during modernisation. (Useless fact No 2: when Ushers brewery in Trowbridge closed in 2000, the equipment was sold to North Korea and forms the core of the Taedonggang brewery outside Pyongyang).
As we approach Westbury there are views of a white horse on the hill to the south of the town and the surrounding countryside is pleasant. There is a freight locomotive in the sidings called Wylam Dilly, evidently not the original (pictured), the second oldest railway locomotive in the world, built in 1813 for the Wylam Waggonway in Northumberland and now residing in the National Museum of Scotland. (Useless fact No 3: For a number of years from 1822 Wylam Dilly was converted into a tugboat to pull cargo along the River Tyne, initially to break a strike by keelmen, before being turned back into a railway locomotive. I hope it is ashamed of itself). Historically Westbury had cloth, tanning, gloving and malting industries but I’m not impressed by today’s Westbury as we trudge through the town on a hot day along an A road with lorries thundering past spewing fumes. After we pass the Railway Hotel we don’t see another pub for over thirty minutes. We skirt the edge of the town centre so may have missed the highlights and doing the town a disservice. Things look up when we reach Westbury Leigh – now part of the town but it has the feel of being separate and call in at the Hollies. Though it is a quiet time of day you can tell it is a good pub so we had a couple. Ted has his photograph taken and we now grace the pub Facebook page.
Warminster grew up as a market town with a cloth and woollen industry. Malting was also a local industry and Warminster malt is still used by brewers. The coming of the railways appears to have led to its decline as other places prospered. It is near the north end of Salisbury Plain and depends heavily on the army. There is a military feel about the place, though I can’t say exactly why. The Wadsworth 6X in the Old Bell Inn in the Market Place slips down well.
Onward to Wells
We visit Yeovil en route from Bradford on Avon to Wells via Salisbury and Bath. I know it’s a long way round, but we travel along sections of railway that are new to me. The journey involves transferring between Yeovil Junction and Yeovil Pen Mill stations. I’m glad we catch the bus into town from the Junction – its quite a walk along a narrow lane with no pavements. It is lunchtime so we make time for a pint in town. We call in at the Pall Tavern with its lunchtime trade of male drinkers following the horses. I like it because it is an unreconstructed boozer. The Pen Mill Hotel, adjacent to the station, is primarily a food pub but it serves a perfectly acceptable pint to pass the time while waiting for a train.
The third and fourth nights of this trip were based in Wells. After the Yeovil diversion we reached Wells by bus from Bath via Radstock and Midsomer Norton, the area which was at the heart of the Somerset coalfield. Today Radstock is mainly a commuter town for Bristol and Bath though there are a few indications that it has been an industrial area – a spoil heap, a preserved winding wheel, former warehouses and railway yards. Rather than spend eighty minutes on the bus without a break we stop off in Midsomer Norton for half an hour and a quick visit to the White Hart (above). It has the feel of a good boozer – it is teatime on Friday and there is a collection of regulars having a good time. The last stretch of the journey to Wells is rural and the bus takes back roads through villages such as Chilcompton and Binegar.
Wells is a small cathedral city with a population today of 10500. It is named after the wells or springs which emerge from the limestone caves beneath the Mendip Hills and provided water. The cathedral dates from the thirteenth century and nearby is the bishop’s palace surrounded by a moat fed by the springs. Much of the city centre consists of medieval buildings. In the High Street there are gullies with water from the wells, similar to those we found in Freiburg the previous month. Today it is a prosperous market town which attracts tourists. At one time there were three railway stations, the last of which closed in 1963. Today we have to make to with the bus to get around the area. I’ve splashed out and we are staying in the Swan Hotel, a fifteenth century coaching inn close to the cathedral and bishop’s palace. There is even a swan for Ted to play with.
Time for a pub crawl to see what Wells has to offer. Just Ales is micro-pub opened in 2016 – the name is bit of a misnomer as, in addition to the four ales served by gravity straight from the barrel there is something like fourteen real ciders. I’ve noticed that cider remains popular in this part of the world. Thatcher’s is a local independent firm which has grown substantially – most of the keg cider in local pubs is theirs. Many pubs have a choice of real ciders and perries from small producers. I’d like to try them but stick to beer when I see the ABVs. Even Ted and I have our limits. Like most micro-pubs it is impossible not to get involved in conversation with locals – they are a boon to the single traveller with a thirst. The Rose and Crown has a good atmosphere – early evening and it is packed with drinkers of mixed ages. This may be because they give out free pizza on a Friday evening, which I have just missed. I make my way to the Full Moon, a local pub just outside the centre in Southover. I intend to have one and end up having three as I get drawn into conversation once more, and the beer I try is from Barney’s of Edinburgh. It’s another good pub with a public bar, a couple of other rooms and beer garden. While it has been modernised, the character has not been destroyed. Finally, on my second night in Wells, after a wander through Somerset (below), I visit the Globe, which is also a comfortable place with a popular beer garden.
Somerset pub crawl
Saturday is the day for a pub crawl by bus to some of the Somerset village pubs in the Good Beer Guide. It is the only feasible day – most rural pubs are open all day only on Saturday and Sunday and there is no Sunday bus service where we’re going. Some minor royal or other is getting married that day so I am slightly concerned that pubs will be full of crowds of hooray Henry’s and amateur drinkers waving flags and getting noisily pissed. I had been told the previous evening that, while the area was true blue and royalist in its politics, people were not into that sort of ostentatious display and so it proved. In may have helped that some of the best pubs eschew modern inventions such as television.
We set off from Wells to Taunton via Glastonbury, Street and across the Somerset Levels. In Glastonbury we divert via Leg of Mutton Road. It has the appearance of having been built as a council estate, out of sight of the town and its good burghers, round the back of the Tor hill from town – the inhabitants now enjoy some of the best views in Somerset. Street is the headquarters of C&J Clark’s shoes and was essentially a company town, though the factory site has been converted into an outlet shopping centre. I had been warned to give it a miss as the Clark family were quakers and there wasn’t much in the way of pubs. The Levels are wetlands which have been drained since the Middle Ages and it clear from the dykes and channels that water has to be carefully managed. The area is still prone to flooding and most villages are on low hills above the plain. We pass alongside the Taunton and Bridgewater Canal, opened in 1827 to link Taunton and Bristol (there were schemes to link the Bristol Channel with the English Channel by this route). (Useless fact No 4: The canal is still used to provide drinking water for Bridgewater, so although it can be used for leisure sailing there is no link to the sea to avoid contamination with salt water). In Taunton I decide to sit in the sun for half an hour before catching the next bus and starting the pub crawl properly.
The bus route from Taunton to Langport and Somerton follows a ridge above the Somerset Levels, which means there are good views as we climb. The first stop is the Firehouse at Curry Rivel. It is principally a restaurant (with wood-fired pizzas a speciality) but has retained a separate bar area with Butcombe beers and guest ales. This is a plus as both the other pubs in the village have closed. (Useless fact No 5: apparently the name of the village comes from Sir Richard Revel, a twelfth century local landlord who cooked a mean chicken tikka masala. In fact, curry is from the Celtic word crwy, meaning boundary). The wedding is on the television though the pub is quiet – a few regular lunchtime drinkers, the barman, a couple visiting the village for a birthday party that evening, me and the bear. I get my photo taken when I say my friends wouldn’t believe I was watching the wedding. This strange occurrence only lasts for a few minutes before we go outside to sit in the sun. There are plenty of diners in the restaurant paying no attention to the television. The staff have prepared lots of free sandwiches for the people who didn’t turn up, so that is my lunch sorted – hopefully they will stay fresh until the football match later.
The next stop is Langport, followed by a walk to the oddly-named Huish Episcopi, which sounds like a combination of Gaelic and Latin. It seems that Huish comes from the Old English hiwisc meaning lands or household and episcopi because it belonged to the Bishop of Wells. The walk takes us under a hanging chapel over the road (pictured), past two large churches which between them could hold several times the local population and signs pointing to the mysterious ABP Langport – I thought it was something military and hush-hush but it turns out to be an abbatoir. Then we reach the Rose and Crown, locally known as Eli’s, which features in many pub guides, and fills several pages in Ian Marchant’s book, The Longest Crawl . It lives up to the reputation. From the outside, it is a fairly plain thatched house by the roadside. The main claim to fame is that it is one of the few remaining pubs without a bar counter. The core of the building is a taproom where people can gather (and, apparently, locals can pour their own pint and leave the money) and a couple of adjacent rooms
for sitting. It has remained in the same family for many years and has managed to survive by adapting but not ruining itself. There is a modern kitchen though food does not dominate, there is land for a car park and a large beer garden, and it puts on various events and gigs – I’m two days early for the clog dancing. On a warm Saturday it is busy and The Teignworthy Reel Ale is spot on.
Next stop is the Halfway House just outside the village of Pitney, with a large selection of about eight beers, served straight from the cask. And very good they are too, as the bear can testify. Inside there are flagstone floors, wooden furniture and wood burning stoves for winter, though today most people are in the garden.
After ninety minutes there, the next bus takes us to Somerton. There is only half an hour until the bus for Wells, so we pop into the Globe, close to the bus stop. It is quiet, unexceptional and sells major beers, but I’ve no complaints about the condition of the beer.
We are on a direct bus to Wells but Glastonbury looked so bizarre when we passed through in the morning that I decided to stop. I take a few pictures of shop fronts (below) – there are plenty of candidates such as Shieldmaiden, Man Myth and Magik, Star Child, Natural Earthling and Maya – try not to trip over hippies and new agers sitting in the streets and head for the Hawthorns Hotel. And the Hawthorns is a good place – once more food is essential to its survival but they have kept a public bar area. It is well known for its curries. I don’t have time to try one – most tables are booked and they look and smell good, so maybe next time. Glastonbury being the place it is, the bloke I chat to at the bar mentions that he bumped into the archdruid on the way to the pub – maybe he tells every stranger that. I liked the town – it could be a little overpowering to live there all the time but people’s hearts will be in the right place even if their heads are scrambled. You can get a loaf of bread and pint of milk along with your mystical healing amulets, so one can survive.
Heading for home
We are returning to the Northeast by air from Bristol Airport on Sunday afternoon. The morning is spent having a full breakfast in the hotel and sitting in the sun by the moat of the Bishop’s Palace and watching passing dogs and their owners sniff each other. Rather than head direct to Bristol we are travelling via Weston-super-Mare to see a bit more of the countryside, where it isn’t covered by glasshouses growing strawberries.
The 126 bus is busy as people head for the beach and whatever other delights Weston has to offer. Others are going out for a walk or visiting Cheddar Gorge. Unfortunately, so is everyone else in their tin boxes – the traffic is ridiculous, Cheddar is already packed and heavy traffic means we are fifteen minutes late into Weston. The scenery is good on the first section to Cheddar and Axbridge as we travel along with the Mendips above us, and the Levels beneath us. The country is flat but punctured by a series of hummocks that remind me of plooks on a lads face – the biggest, Glastonbury Tor, is out of sight to the South but it would be a classic spot to squeeze. After we pass through a gap in the hills at the west end of the Mendips, the second half of the journey is through a nondescript series of villages which seem to have become suburbs. At Sandford we pass the Thatcher’s cider farm – not quite on the same small scale as the farmhouse versions we have passed over the past few days.
Like many seaside resorts, Weston is a strange mixture of smart and rundown. The late bus means there is no time to visit the seafront. Instead, I walk to the Good Beer Guide listed Bear Inn which, despite having decent beer (Weston appears to be a beer desert), has seen better days. The neighbourhood has fine stone villas but most have been subdivided into small flats. The airport bus leaves from outside the railway station and there is time for a quick half in Off The Rails, a small bar and buffet on the platform, worth missing a train for.
I’m flying back because, when I planned this trip, the cheapest advance fare by train was twice the price of the air fare. Cross Country Trains are hopeless for cheap fares (it is often cheaper to travel via London), the trains are overcrowded and not suitable for long journeys. From Weston station to Durham station by air it takes us 4 hrs 35 minutes (including the fastest ever trip from the aircraft steps at Newcastle to Durham). The train would take five and a half hours. For a saving of an hour one has to the suffer the hassle of security, hanging around and queueing. The airport bar serves the only dreadful pint of IPA of the trip – if I had drunk it I would have spent the flight and the night on a toilet. To be fair they replace it without question. For part of the flight the weather is clear and we have a window seat so I don’t moan too much, and look forward to calling in at the Colpitts on the way home.
The hotels used were the Bear Inn, 26 Silver St, Bradford on Avon BA15 1JY, Tel 01225 862356, www.bearinnbradfordonavon.com and the Best Western Plus Swan Hotel, 11 Sadler St, Well BA5 2RX, Tel 01749 836300, www.bestwestern.co.uk or www.swanhotelwells.co.uk .
Most of the trains and bus routes involved are frequent, at least during the day Monday to Saturday. The only exception is Dilton Marsh, which is a request stop and only served sporadically – there are gaps of two hours between trains. The line from Yeovil Pen Mill to Castle Cary and Westbury also has two hour gaps between trains. Table 123 of the National Rail Timetable has details of all trains from Bradford on Avon to Bath, Bristol, Westbury, Warminster, Salisbury, Yeovil and beyond.
(photos: A ballast train from the Dundas Aqueduct and Avoncliff station).
The bus routes mentioned are operated by First two First Group companies: (i) First Bristol Bath and West, (Bath – Bradford on Avon – Trowbridge – Warminster and Bath – Radstock – Midsomer Norton – Wells – Glastonbury – Street), both frequent, details at www.firstgroup.com/bristol-bath-and-west (ii) First Somerset (Wells – Taunton, Taunton – Somerton, Somerton – Wells and Wells – Weston super Mare). These are less frequent and with few or no evening or Sunday services, details at www.firstgroup.com/somerset .
The Somerset pub crawl:
The key to the Somerset pub crawl is the First Somerset No 54, which runs every 90 minutes Taunton – Somerton – Yeovil. There is no evening or Sunday service. The day ticket is £11, including journeys Wells-Taunton and Somerton – Wells. With some planning the crawl is possible from many places in the South West. As mentioned in the text the only day this trip works is a Saturday as many pubs are not open daytimes during the week on Mon-Fri and there are no buses on a Sunday.
The Firehouse at Curry Rivel is in a side street close to the main bus stop by the shops. The Rose and Crown at Huish Episcopi is about 15-20 minutes walk from the bus stop at Langport. The bus stops outside the Halfway House, Pitney. Tell the bus driver when you board that you want to alight at the pub – travelling eastbound the pub only comes into view seconds beforehand and it may be tricky for buses to stop in time.
As with our other journeys the Rough Guide was used for planning, in this case the Rough Guide to England, 10th edition, 2015 (a 2018 edition is available). Most additional information is from relevant articles on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org with additional detail from British History Online www.british-histoty.ac.uk , www.nms.ac.uk (National Museum of Scotland) and www.warminster-malt.co.uk . Additional information about canals is from https://canalrivertrust.org.uk and about local railways from Britain from the Rails, Benedict Le Vay, Bradt Travel Guides, 2nd edition, 2014 (including a reprint of the Sir John Betjeman Poem, Dilton Marsh Halt) and the Complete British Railways Maps and Gazetteer 1825-1985, C J Wignall, Oxford Publishing Co, Revised edn 1985. Beer: The standard sources used in planning the journey were CAMRAs Good Beer Guide 2018, ed Roger Protz, Campaign for Real Ale, 2017, and their whatpub website www.whatpub.com . Some of the pubs are mentioned in Great British Pubs, Adrian Tierney-Jones, Campaign for Real Ale 2011 and The Pub, Pete Brown, jacqui small, 2016. The Rose and Crown (Eli’s) in Huish Episcopi is featured in The Longest Crawl, Ian Marchant, Bloomsbury, 2006.
The photographs are by Steve Gillon except for the following. The picture of Steve in the Firehouse was taken by another customer and the photo in Eli’s was taken by one of the bar staff. The following pictures were sourced via Google Images: Town Bridge, Bradford on Avon from http://www.thetimes.co.uk ; Trowbridge Town Hall by Trevor Porter via http://www.wiltshiretimres.co.uk ; the model of Wylam Dilly from http://www.nms.ac.uk ; the Hollies at Westbury Leigh from http://www.whatpub.com ; the White Hart at Midsomer Norton from http://www.historic-england.org.uk ; the No. 54 bus from http://www.hiveminer.com ; the No. 126 bus by neiljenning51 via http://www.flickr.com ; Off the Rails Weston-super-Mare from the pub Facebook page. The base map of Somerset pubs is © Ordnance Survey.
Copyright: © Steve Gillon, 2018.