Andrew Swift: The Lost Roads of Mendip

Andrew Swift heads to Oakhill, the starting point for a springtime ramble that seeks out the lost roads of Mendip – the walk takes in wild wood and the highest point in East Somerset.

In the spring of 1913, the poet and travel writer Edward Thomas was on a cycle tour of the west country when he stopped for lunch at the Oakhill Inn on Mendip. It was, he wrote, “a good inn”, where he enjoyed “the best possible fat bacon and bread fried in the fat, for a shilling; and for nothing, the company of a citizen of Wells, a hearty, strong-voiced man who read the Standard over a beefsteak, a pint of cider, and a good deal of cheese … and praised the stout of Oakhill.”

You can still take lunch in The Oakhill Inn today, accompanied by local ale or cider, although it will cost rather more than a shilling (5p in today’s money). Oakhill is also the ideal starting point for a springtime ramble in search of the lost roads of Mendip, on a five-mile walk that also takes in a seriously wild wood – complete with standing stone and neolithic earthwork – and the highest point in east Somerset.

Oakhill lies 16 miles south-west of Bath on the A367. Although there is limited parking at the inn, if you’re planning to walk you’ll need to park in the High Street, which is on the right, just past the zebra crossing, as you enter the village.

Having parked, head back to the main road, cross and turn right up to the Oakhill Inn (ST635472), before turning left along Fosse Road. The village is soon left behind and after 500m you come to Fosse Toll Cottage, which, despite its name, was not a turnpike house but a lodge (ST640471). It stands on an abandoned section of one of the most important roads in Roman Britain, the Fosse Way, which ran from the south coast near Axminster to Lincoln.

Turn right opposite the cottage to follow part of the Fosse Way which still survives, albeit as a muddy byway. Almost immediately it starts to climb, entering a deep holloway and curving right to circumvent a particularly stiff gradient. As it reaches higher ground, it emerges into the open and, a little further on, curves back to resume its southward course. The views from here, with the 55m tower of Downside Abbey rising above distant woods, give a foretaste of what lies ahead.

For the next 500m, the Fosse Way continues south as a tree-lined green lane, ending at a busy road. In Roman times, this was an important junction, for the road which crossed the Fosse Way here linked the lead mines at Charterhouse near Cheddar with Old Sarum.

As you cross the road and go through a gap in the fence into Beacon Hill Wood, all trace of the Fosse Way disappears. Its course for the next 300m or so is a matter of speculation. The only thing that most people agree on is that it didn’t carry straight on. If it had, anyone heading south along it would have tumbled down a precipitous bank a little further on.

The wood was a busy place long before the Romans arrived, however. Burial mounds and ancient quarries abound, and if you turn left you can follow a rough track leading to a circular earthwork with a standing stone at its centre.

To continue with the walk, however, turn right and after 75m you’ll come to an information board (ST637461). The map on it shows that, from here, the main track through the wood heads south. Unfortunately, there has been a lot of tree-felling recently and forestry vehicles have scoured deep ruts which have filled with mud. So, instead of taking the main track, bear right to follow a path to a bench with views westward to Glastonbury Tor, before heading back into the wood to pick up the ‘preferred route’ shown on the map – a sunken track curving gently downhill. At the bottom is a boundary stone with the initials WMFM, erected by William Melliar Foster-Melliar, who acquired the land here in 1838 (ST637458). As you head south past another boundary stone, you are back on the Fosse Way, following another muddy green lane.

After 650m, when you come to a lane, however, the Fosse Way peters out once more (ST635451). There is not even a right of way through the fields ahead, so turn right along what the OS map informs us is Yelling Mill Lane. After 1300m, when you come to a main road, cross with care and bear left along the pavement for 75 metres before turning right along a lane (ST624454). This is the Old Bristol Road, turnpiked in 1753 but abandoned around 1840 when traffic was diverted along the road you have just turned off.

For the first 300m, the old road is tarmacked, but, when a lane branches off left, the tarmac ends. As you carry on, you are walking along a road that has been left to its own devices for almost two centuries. Grass grown, worn down by weather and time, it is an evocative survival and a suitably windswept way to reach the highest point in east Somerset, where another road – still very much in use – cuts across its course (ST621467).

In 1919, in the aftermath of World War One, there were plans to build a Somerset war memorial at this lonely crossroads, in the form of an imposing monument which would have been visible from high ground across the county. The idea was dropped after insufficient funds were raised, and a communication mast now stands on the site.

Cross and carry on along the Old Bristol Road, which here survives as a country lane, with Oakhill below you on the right. After 300m, just past the second gate on the right, the course of the Roman road from Old Sarum to Charterhouse cuts across the lane, but, as you will see if you scan the fields, little trace of it survives (ST621469).

After passing the entrance to a golf club, turn right along a lane. At the main road, cross with care and continue along the lane opposite. When you reach a crossroads, cross and carry on, and at a T junction turn right (ST625477). At the next crossroads, turn right down Galley Batch Lane. At the bottom, turn left along the High Street, past the former maltings of the Oakhill Brewery. The brewery, which was much larger, was further on, its site now covered by housing. All that remains is to head back to your car or carry on up to the inn where that hearty citizen of Wells praised the local stout.

Many more walks can be found in Andrew Swift’s Country Walks from Bath, published by Akeman Press;

Fact file

  • Starting point: Oakhill Inn (ST635472; BA3 5HU)
  • Length of walk: 5 miles
  • Approximate time: 2.5–3.5 hours
  • Level of challenge: Largely straightforward, although with muddy stretches near the start and two very busy road crossings
  • Map: OS Explorer 142
  • Refreshments: Oakhill Inn; open 12–3pm and 5–10pm, Mon-Fri, all day Sat and Sun; food served 12–2pm and, 6–9pm Mon–Fri, 12–9pm Sat, 12–7.30pm Sun (; 01749 840442)