There’s something that feels so wonderfully righteous about the almost ceremonial putting on of a favourite woolly hat, the tightest buttoning of a Winter coat and the gathering of friends and family to enjoy a good old-fashioned Winter walk after you’ve enjoyed a hearty lunch.
A crisp, bracing Winter walk can do wonders for the waistline, feed the soul and reveal a new and fragile beauty to the familiar places we perhaps galloped around in warmer times. Somerset’s magnificent hills, ancient woodlands and wonderful wetlands take on a magic of their own in Winter - our natural spaces turn into silent, mystical places waiting for the crisp, crunch of visitors to breathe a little life and warmth into the picture, and bring colour to a canvas of bare trees and hardened earth,sleeping peacefully until the Spring. So whether you want to walk off the Christmas dinner or take the children and the dog for an extra special wintery walk, we’ve brought together five walks across the county for you to explore our reserves - so wrap up warm, fling open your door and step out into a Narnia adventure of your own. You might not come across Mr Tumnus - or Lions for that matter - but a wonderful array of Somerset’s finest Winter wildlife is waiting to be discovered.
PHOTO BiSHOPS MEADOW: ©VALERIE GODSMARK
Bishopswood Meadow...for a Frosty Foray
This reserve filled with species-rich limestone and meadows beside River Yarty, is a great adventure for hikers and strollers alike. One of the best things about this walk is that it starts and ends at a most perfectly cosy Winter pub - the lovely Candlelight Inn (TA20 3RS). Starting from the pub, wander down to the bottom car-park and walk down the side to the footbridge which goes over the River - an important habitat, used by otter, kingfisher and dippers.
Over the stile you go, to cut a diagonal line across the field and, after a second stile, you’ll be on the right track and will have entered Somerset Wildlife Trust’s Jan Hobbs reserve. After a short way you’ll head through Milkham Copse to explore ancient, wintery woodland and then head on to the reserve’s open frosty fields to really blow the cobwebs away. All of the fields in the reserve have thick hedgerows of Hazel, Hawthorn, Field Maple, and Ash amongst others within which Hazel Dormice will be snuggled up and snoring. Turning left will take you up the hill past Cross Hill Farm and then, after passing through Moorseek Farm, you’ll go down the field, fork left over the footbridge across the River Yarty and come into the Trust’s Bishopswood Meadows Reserve.
You can take a loop, turning left along the River Yarty to the Lime Kiln, then loop back through the reserve or take a right up the field and through the kissing gate. In the second half of the 19th century an extensive lime burning industry was based around the Bishopswood area, with Lime Kiln, the distinctive key hole shaped quarry, and its access tracks and paths still visible today.
Go along the track-way to the road and keep left on the road past Woodend Farm and Otterford Parish Hall, left again at the main road and walk downhill to get back to where you started – the Candlelight Inn where warming up by the open fire is well advised.
How to get there:
The reserve, which is open all year round, can be reached by a public footpath along a track from the road, just to the west of Woodend Farm at ST 252 129, 400 metres from Bishopswood village. Parking is in the village. (We ask people to walk around the edges of the hay fields until they’ve been cut). You can download a Wild Walk card for this walk to take with you from our website: www.somersetwildlife.org/Bishopswood_Meadows_WildWalk
PHOTO CATCOTT: MATTHEW MARSHALL
Catcott...for a Winter World of Wading Birds
For true exploration on a Winter’s day, there is no place better than the Catcott Complex, one of the lowest points in the Avalon Marshes, comprising traditional hay meadows, wet woodland, grassland and Fen. Here you can easily ditch the map, without fear of getting lost as marked trails allow you to take any twists and turns you please to explore what is internationally renowned as being one of the best places to watch and photograph wintering birds.
At Catcott Lows you can enjoy stunning views across the marshes to Somerset’s iconic Glastonbury Tor, and for those that want a gentle start to their festive amble, you can get some immediate gratification by peeping into the bird hide next to the car park. Here you’ll regularly see Peregrine and Marsh Harrier, Snipe and Lapwing. Catcott Lows is a mecca for birds taking refuge from freezing temperatures in Winter so the space is absolutely jam-packed full of birds throughout the Winter.
Following the way-markers from the car park you will walk for a few 100 metres and turn left, and after 1km you will be led to a little bridge - there you can choose to go on a short walk or a longer adventure. The ‘Coot’ walk is a 3km stroll that loops around the open water and reedbeds - look out for the way-markers with bird footprints. Or, if you want to delve a little deeper, look out for the hoof marks as that takes you on the ‘Roe Deer’ trail which will stretch out your walk a little and enable you to explore the new boardwalk that leads to an amphitheatre seating area.
No matter what trail you choose, don’t miss the Tower Hide which is 1.3 km from the car park and can be reached on both trails. It’s a perfect place to take shelter from the chilly air, perhaps with a flask of something hot, and take in the beautiful frosty reedbeds, and enjoy the merriment of the wintering and passage birds and keep a contemplative look out for the elusive Otter.
How to get there:
Open all year round to the public, Catcott Complex is a mile north of the village of Catcott in Somerset.Access to Catcott Complex is on foot from the main car park next to the Catcott Lows bird hide. From there, please follow the directional signs. The nearest postcode is TA7 8NQ - this will get you close to the reserve but you will need the grid reference for the exact location. Grid Reference:(ST 400 414). Parking on site.
PHOTO HARRIDGE WOODS: ANDREW AVERY
Harridge Woods...for a Winter Woodland Wonderland
Harridge Woods is a truly magical place. From the moment you step inside you get an immediate sense of its history and, after just a short walk you’ll be held hostage by the variety of wonderful features including tinkling streams and ancient stoggles (veteran trees). This popular reserve offers two fantastic way-marked trails to help you explore. You can choose either a short trail at 1.3km long (Green) and a slightly longer trail of 2.0km (Red) - both of which start from Harridge Wood West’s main entrance.
Just by the stream by the entrance you will walk straight along the crisp ground passing an Oak tree that hosts a bat box that could have one of a number of species of bat snuggled up for hibernation over the colder months. Resist the temptation to veer off left a little further along, and follow the path round to the right slightly and you will reach an expanse of conifer woodland.
This is where you’ll make your choice to walk off a bit more of that Christmas turkey perhaps and continue on to a longer walk. If festive treats call you home stay on the green trail where along the way you’ll find some unusual looking trees called stoggles as you work your way back to the start. These intriguing trees are remnant’s of ancient woodland management, and provide fantastic habitats for mosses, lichens, ferns and insects – keep an eye out for Roe deer as you go.
If you chose to extend your adventure, you’ll turn left, head down the steps and over the bridge and up the other side and arrive at Keeper’s Cottage, an 18th century building which is now home to seven species of bat. Continuing along you’ll see weirs in the stream that were constructed to create trout pools for fishing and some lovely Hazel Coppice - good habitat for the scarce and vulnerable Hazel Dormouse. Keep along the track and turn right up hill alongside the wall to carry on with the long trail. The path will take you right to the top of the hill to give your legs a really good stretch– please be aware here, particularly if you have kids or dogs, that there a steep unprotected drop. Once you have made it there the downhill will then be a breeze and you’ll meet the shorter trail at the bottom and head back to where you started.
How to get there:
The reserve is open all year round, and is east of the A367, around three miles north-east of Shepton Mallet in Somerset. There is no cycling on the reserve, but if you are arriving by bicycle the nearest National Cycle Network route is in Midsomer Norton and Radstock, five miles to the north of Harridge Woods. Grid Reference: ST 652480. There is roadside parking for cars, but it can be muddy. You can download a guide to Harridge Woods from our website to take with you here: www.somersetwildlife.org/harridge_woods
PHOTO DUNDON BEACON: PAUL KEEN
Dundon Beacon...to find a Host of Holy History
Dundon Beacon is a heady mix of calcareous grassland, scrub and ancient oak woodland, steeped in history. Start at the Castlebrook Inn, TA11 6PR, (and end there if you need to quench your thirst before going home!), take a left and follow the main road (taking care) for about 100 metres to a public footpath signposted on your right. Then, walking through the kissing gate you’ll follow a footpath along the edge of the fields which then joins the historical 18th Century Flagstone Church Path, which links Compton with the parish church in Dundon. From here turn left, passing a metal gate and follow the steep track up Dundon Hill to Dundon Beacon Nature Reserve- a perfect
way to work off those roast potatoes. When you reach the top you will see a Somerset Wildlife Trust noticeboard, and will be rewarded with views across the surrounding moors and hills from the Beacon.
Here’s where you can go native a little and explore the ancient hill fort and species-rich grassland, but make sure to return to the information board so you can head back down the track. After a short distance, turn left along a path and then right down the hill (onto a permissive path
across neighbouring farmland), which is steep in places and meanders between ant hills. The grassland here supports many other insects and plants that thrive on the limestone soil. At the foot of the slope you join a footpath that leads to the Church Path, from where you can either head back to the Castlebrook Inn or visit the parish Church of St Andrew, dating from the C14th, and its ancient yew tree, believed to be over 1,700 years old. From here you can also carry on to Lollover Hill
for a little extra exertion if you fancy it - from here you’ll not be far from the pub if your legs give way.
How to get there:
The reserve is open all year, and you can access the reserve from School Lane at Dundon Village, near Compton Dundon. Grid Reference ST 484 326. 60 acres (24.3 ha.) Parking at Dundon Village.
PHOTO ROE DEER VALERIE GODSMARK
Draycott Sleight...for Super Scenic Sights
This reserve which covers over fifty hectares high on the southern slopes of the Mendip Hills is a place where you can truly blow out the cobwebs, whistle down the wind and touch the clouds – as well as suck in some of the most wonderful panoramic views in the county. Its incredible cliff top walk is a fantastic reason in itself to head out of the house after a Christmas dinner.
This site has been managed for hundreds of years by sheepgrazing (‘sleight’ means sheep pasture). Limestone grassland that hasn’t been ‘improved’ by modern agriculture is increasingly difficult to find, which is why Draycott Sleights is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
The trail which starts at the main entrance of the reserve is a circular 1.7km walk, marked green on way-marking posts. You will first be met with a flat, stony track, perfect for a gentle amble although parts can get a little slippery in the Winter months. Just over half way as you reach the far-side of the reserve you will need to use all that mince pie power to drive you up a steep climb, to get you to a path that runs along a rock outcrop – take care here as there is an unprotected drop. Once you have made it to the top, the effort will have been worth it as you will be rewarded with a spectacular view that stretches across the Quantocks, Bristol Channel and Somerset levels. And if you are lucky you may get the picturesque view of the Levels poking through the low lying mist. Along the way keep your eyes peeled for Fieldfares and Redwings feeding on Hawthorn berries and Foxes, Rabbits and Stoats scuttling over the frosty grassland.
If you don’t fancy such a steep climb, you can go straight along the path and back again and there is still plenty to see. For birders this is a delight as the Sleights’ many birds include numerous raptors, including Buzzards, Tawny and Little Owl, Kestrels and Peregrine falcons.
How to get there:
Open all year to the public you can reach Draycott by taking the minor road leading north east out of the village. The reserve is just over half a mile away, on either side of the road. If you cycle
there, there is a cycle route in Rodney Stoke (avoiding the busy A371) but the nearest National Cycle Network route is on the Mendip plateau, two miles to the east of the nature reserve.
Grid Reference: ST 485 505