Staring up from 30 feet below, I couldn’t help noticing that venerable Ina, king of the Anglo-Saxons, had an icicle on the end of his nose. So did his elegant consort Æthelburgh, standing alongside. In fact, glancing along the great array of sculpted figures both secular and sainted that filled the niches in the west front of Wells Cathedral, they all looked half frozen, grey-faced and grim. Then the wintry sun found a chink in the yellow snow clouds over Somerset, and suddenly prelates, bishops and kings were all sparkling as if the Celestial Scene-shifter had showered them all with diamonds.
The great early 13th-century façade at Wells is often called the finest west front in Europe. The huge Gothic Cathedral rides the tides of history among the ancient houses of this delectable small city like a vast liner moored among skiffs. Today the swans around the Palace of the Bishop of Bath & Wells lay huddled up for warmth under the curtain wall, while Muscovy ducks and hybrid mallards waddled cautiously across the ice of the frozen moat. A film of powder snow crusted the mosaic made by local schoolchildren and installed beside the moat in 2001. It depicted in spiky detail the slaying of a dragon by bold Bishop Jocelyn, at around the time the west front was being constructed – a feat of heroism, legend says, that must be celebrated every fifty years lest the beast should return from its lair under Worminster Sleight.
I shoved my gloved hands deep into my pockets, turned my back on the whitened roofs of Wells and forged up through the leafless oaks and sycamores on Tor Hill. The East Mendip Way hurdles these southern flanks of the Mendip Hills, and I found the path a great companion, running purposefully eastward, its ruts glazed with thick white ice, its hedges glittering with hoar frost. Up on King’s Castle Hill the bare trees hunched together as if for warmth, their twiggy shapes a delicate mauve under the lightless, snow-laden sky. In spring the undergrowth on this hill is bright with bluebells, in autumn with the rarely seen, brush-like yellow heads of wood goldilocks and the crocus-shaped flowers of meadow saffron. Today it lay shrunken and brown, thinned by the fingers of winter sufficiently for the eroded ramparts of an Iron Age settlement to show through at the nape of the hill.
From the long ridge of Lyatt a wonderful view unfolded southward over the low-lying wetland and moorland of the Somerset Levels, away past the round tump of Glastonbury Tor with its pimple of a summit tower, on over the Polden Hills towards the pale blue curves of the Quantocks and Exmoor beyond the Bristol Channel. I walked faster to generate heat, crunching over dead nettle heads and ancient field boundary banks across the former sheep pasture of Furzey Sleight, kicking up frosted leaves in Sleight Lane – hereabouts a sheep walk is a sleight, an Old English word that would have been familiar to the ears of Ina and Æthelburgh. Then I made downhill by way of West Lane, a proper old muddy and rutty field lane that snakes down the slope of Mendip to reach the former mill town of Croscombe lying in the valley bottom along the River Sheppey.
Long gone are the days when the streets of Croscombe rattled with silk and corn mills, and the Sheppey ran brown, foul and stinking from its bankside tanneries and leather washeries. Now the village lies quiet. I crossed the sparkling Sheppey and climbed the steep lane to the southern ridge of the valley where a blackbird sat songless on a frosted gate bar, outlined against a sky already turning orange with evening. On the far side the hidden valley of Worminster fell away, a silent green cleft. Up over the back of Dulcote Hill I went, brushing through sapless brambles in the skirts of Dulcote Wood, to come suddenly to the brink of the great bitten-out quarry, recently redundant, that hollows the back of the hill.
A peregrine was cutting the air before the quarry ledges. I let my eyes follow its upward swoop and pondered the question that preoccupies many in this roadstone-rich part of the world: what to do with these worked-out delving in the hills? Fill them with industrial units, with hundreds of workers and lorry movements, or leave them for time and nature to work on? The birds and their successive broods, the great crested newts in the old ponds, the traffic-free road and the valley unsullied with lights or noise gave out the answer.
I lingered a moment, looking down over Worminster, the ‘town of the dragon’, and the sleight under which the old monster still lies and bides its time. Then I dropped down through the trees and made for the distant towers of Wells.
Length: 7.5 miles
Maps: OS 1:25,000 Explorer 141; 1:50,000 Landranger 182
Start and finish: Wells Cathedral (OS ref ST 551459)
In brief: From Wells Cathedral head to market place; turn left through Bishop’s Palace gateway, then right beside moat for 500 yards to cross B3139 (554458). 50 yards along lane opposite, turn right (fingerpost) up Tor Hill. Follow green East Mendip Way signs east for 2½ miles by King’s Castle Wood, Lyatt, Furzy Sleight and Sleight Lane to West Lane (596453); turn right into Croscombe. Up Old Street Lane; cross Shepton Old Road (583439); in ⅓ mile, take 1st right to top of rise (578439). Left along ridge path to edge of Dulcote Quarry (572441); retrace steps for 100 yards and take downhill path through Dulcote Hill woods (yellow paint on trunks) for ⅔ mile. Right at fingerpost to cross A371 (564444) into Dulcote. At fountain, left along B3139 pavement; just past village name sign, left across Bishop’s Meadows to Wells.