Amanda Cornwall walks around Cheddar Reservoir and finds history in the streets of Axbridge.
One of my aunt Jasmine’s reoccurring demands for a gentle afternoon walk is it must be flat. Flat! I point to the Mendip Hills, Crook Peak and Cheddar Gorge and she refuses point blank to come out. So one walk I’ve found very popular with my difficult relative is one where there’s only the odd slope and it’s nearly all paved. And you can get a nice cup of tea at the end.
The town of Axbridge straddles the Strawberry Line – lying between Cheddar and Winscombe in the shadow of the hills and on the edge of the Levels. It’s an east to west layout with an elongated High Street and West Street due to its position squashed between the steep hills to the north and marshes immediately to the south.
The focal point is the Square – an area that hosts pageants and plays, markets and concerts – and the few remaining shops. Close to the town centre is Cheddar Reservoir which provides a cirucular extension to the town walk – again – all on the level. So to start park your car in the free car park in Meadow Street just a few yards from the Square off Old Church Road. If you’ve come by bus then alight in the Square itself as it’s from here that we begin. The Square is one of the finest in England having been used as a market place probably from the 9th century AD when a Saxon fort or burgh was in existance. Whether the fort formed the shape of the square or lay to the south is not known, but by 1086 the town had numerous wealthy traders and by the time of King John in the early 13th century it was granted a Royal charter for a market. The timber framed museum known as King John’s Hunting Lodge is open for a small fee most afternoons in the season. It has no connection to the King John of the time as wasn’t constructed until nearly 200 years later and probably refers to an alehouse on the premises – now long forgotten. Other buildings in the Square include The Lamb Inn, the town hall, The Oakhouse Hotel, The Old Angel and the Guildhall.
The Lamb Inn serves teas, coffees, meals and all the usual alcoholic drinks including Thatcher’s Cider from Sandford and Butcombe ales from Wrington – again only a short distance away. Sitting outside on a sunny afternoon with a pint of something nice and watching the world go by is one of the most popular past times for visitors and locals alike. The pub’s frontage dates to only 1830 when it was a coaching inn – but part of the interior housed the Guild Hall which was the town’s seat of governance until it moved to the balconied and pillared frontage of the town hall built at the same time. The Oakhouse Hotel also offers food and refreshments with tables and chairs in the Square, while tucked away at the top of Moorland Street is the Almshouse Tea Rooms. The almshouse was the original medieval hospital come retirement home for the poor and needy which was used from 1475 to 1837 when the Axbridge Union Workhouse opened. That building can be glimpsed from Houlgate Way but is now private flats and not open to interested observers of Victorian institutions. Other buildings in the Square include a strange house with a fake top floor.
Look to the south to the building to the right of the town hall. There’s a house with a false frontage – with black windows with no glass in and nothing behind them! Clearly the Georgian owners were keen to impress but were short of cash. In the corner of the Square are stone steps leading up St John The Baptist parish church. Wheel chair users can use a side street leading off St Mary’s Street a few yards away but you’ll still have to mount the final few steps to the door. It’s worth it as the interior of the church is worth a visit in its own right. With its 100 foot high tower the 13th century church dominates the Square. It features a beautiful 17th century ceiling, and a sculpture of Henry VII in a niche by the west door. From the Square head up the slight meandering slope of the High Street past the Manor House – probably older at its base than King John’s Hunting Lodge – past the Roxy Cinema – formerly a pub – and on all the way up West Street to Compton House at the top by the roundabout. This fine pre-Civil War manor house was the home of the Prowse family who have a particularly beautiful statue of the lady of the house in the church. It’s now a guest house and hosts weddings and receptions – so unless you’re a wedding crasher you won’t be able to get a drink.
Over the road is the urban motorway monstrosity of highway planners built in the late 1960s – a roundabout and accident black spot – a fly over and a huge slip road that would look more at home on the M5. The bypass follows the route of the cycle route above much of the town slicing past the romer railway station – now used for youth activities. Follow the road back to the Square – or descend Houlgate Way which will also lead you to the centre of the town again. Now we head out for the main part of the walk. Head up St Mary’s Street past the The Crown Inn and the Old Court House with its high stone wall and into Jubilee Street and into Cheddar Road. Note The Pennings on your right. It’s the high Georgian building in style – but it’s a modern reproduction – in fact there was a petrol station there until recently.
Opposite is Chestnut Hill Farm – formerly Station Road Farm. It’s a bright pale pink colour and was featured on one of those TV property programmes due to its beautiful restoration. Keep going up the road until the sign for the Reservoir on the right and follow the lane down an avenue of silver birth trees. At the bottom is the circular reservoir – some two and a half miles round. You could cheat and just walk as far as the Bristol Corinthians Sailing Club or keep going all the way before arriving back where you started. The walk gives breathtaking views of the Mendips, the Levels and Brent Knoll in the distance. Looking south from the far side are endless fields with oak hedges stretching away towards the Isle of Wedmore. In two or three or so years that will become a vast building site as Bristol Water construct a second reservoir – the same size as the one you are walking around. It can be very blustery around the Res – but there’s always so much to see. The sailors and the sailboarders, the fishermen after pike and the skateboarders in the park on the Cheddar side – and of course the people – chatting, walking, dog walking and picnicing. And so it’s back towards Axbridge for that cup of tea at the Alms House or a pint of beer sitting in the sun in the Square. You’ve earned it.