Section 4 - The Central Mendips, Cheddar to Wells
12 miles - Strenuous climb and descent to the Escarpment with the rest of the day Easy/Moderate grade walking - What these grades mean
Beyond the bustle of Gorge Town, you are quickly returned to peace on the Mendip Way, climbing on more old drove ways back above the town, then traversing around the escarpment to the hamlet of Bradley Cross. One section here is a complete tunnel of trees that passes eerie abandoned limekiln ruins now smothered in Ivy and reclaimed once again by the woodland.
The ascent of the ridge then begins from Bradley Cross on a lovely grassy track to regain the top of the Plateau, rolling grassland valleys drop off to your right to the villages that sit far below you. As you climb, the views now stretch out over the dark blue reservoir at Cheddar, past Crook Peak and the long line of the Mendip Ridge, to the distant hump of Brean Down on the Somerset Coast – having got above the tree line it’s now a 180 degree uninterrupted vista as you toil upwards.
At Draycott Sleights, on a sunny south-facing scarp, you pass through a 50 hectare SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) at the Somerset Wildlife Trust nature reserve, with impressive rocky cliffs that particularly attract hunting birds of prey. Sparrow hawk, Kestrel, Merlin and Peregrine Falcons cruise the exposed limestone scars that loom above you. In spring, look for the unusual boxing brown hares, as well as roe deer and the diminutive muntjac.
Over 200 species of flowering plants are recorded here including wild marjoram, kidney vetch and bee orchids. This wealth of flowers attracts numerous butterflies and dragonflies supported by the Dew Ponds – ancient cattle drinking hollows built to hold water for livestock before it drains through the limestone. If you have time, take a way marked trail of around 1 mile thorough the reserve as you pass by on the Mendip Way.
One final stiff climb to return to the table like ridge top brings you back to the uplands and a welcome return to flat, level walking past remote scattered farms linked by the infamous Priddy Stiles. These ancient stone stiles are unique to ancient Somerset, so get used to them as they require a bit of acrobatic manoeuvring for those with shorter legs! This is a wild and rarely visited part of the Mendips where big skies and bigger views accompany you along the walk. To the north, on the horizon, are the old Roman Lead Mines at Priddy Ponds.
Priddy is pure and quintessential Somerset – if you want to see a real sleepy rural village off the tourist track this is it.
On its historic village green sits a unique thatched Sheep Hurdle shelter – the Sheep Fair has been held here for over 600 years – it’s about as far removed from the Fudge Shops of Cheddar Gorge as you can get.
Click Here for more info on overnight stops at the village of Priddy.
From Priddy, the Mendip Way winds through rich arable pastures on the south side of the village - the trail zig zagging through crop fields lined with wildflowers and broken up with sections of ancient, wooded tracks. Before too long, the lip of the escarpment is reached again and this time the views are directly over the ornate cathedral at Wells far below you and onto Glastonbury Tor, the iconic mound and tower now starting to dominate the landscape and draw you in.
To drop off the upland table, the Mendip Way takes a superb route through another beauty spot at Ebor Gorge Reserve. Here steep twisting woodland paths wind down the side of yet another dramatic gorge. Ebbor Gorge was formed 200,000 years ago when a huge cavern collapsed forming the dramatic cliffs and limestone scree slopes that the walkers pass today.
Make sure you take the short diversion to the head-spinning cliff top viewing point where the sheer cliffs suddenly open out in front of you, and the true depth of the Gorge becomes clear as you gaze down at oak, ash and elm trees the size of matchsticks far below. The canopy structure of woodland encourages a high diversity of butterflies, nationally scarce species including the White Letter Hairstreak and High Brown Fritillary.
This feels like an ancient land that time forgot, a forgotten valley that could harbour a clan of cavemen ….and indeed it did. The caves in cliffs having given up remains of cave bear, reindeer and wolf as well as evidence of Stone Age human habitation. These days rather than mammoths it’s badgers, foxes, stoats and deer that occupy them, protected by the sheer cliffs and dense undergrowth.
The poet Coleridge was very taken with the place, and whilst it was famously up at Exmoor (see the Coleridge Way Walk) that he penned his great work, Kubla Khan, it is said his Zanadu was inspired by what he saw walking through his ‘Romantic Chasm.’
“Where Alph, the sacred river, ran through caverns measureless to man Down to a sunless sea”.
Wookey Hole is the next habitation, now firmly back on the cusp of the levels below the ridge. Like Cheddar, it’s a mini maelstrom of chaos as you walk in and out, centred around its popular caves. However away from the tourist trappings, these are without question superb caverns. If you can fit in a tour, then do go - new sections are being opened up all the time here, and the history of the pioneers of cave exploration and cave diving at this site is both inspiring and dramatic.
Click Here for information on overnight stays at Wookey Hole.
The Mendip Way route into Wells from Wookey now takes a gentle circular approach into England’s smallest “City”, arriving from the north to avoid as much of the modern suburbs as possible. The Mendip Way climbs steeply up a wooded knoll to Arthur’s Point, said to be a lookout used by King Arthur himself over the Vale of Avalon. Descending again through the trees, pass yet more ruined limekilns to finally enter the city along a run of narrow footpaths that bring you straight into centre via “lovers lane “and through an ornate archway onto Cathedral Green, where the huge western walls of the mighty cathedral loom over both you and the rest of the “city” – it’s quite a sight.
Click Here to read about staying in historic Wells and the key attractions and things to see.