Andrew Swift explores the ruined ramparts of Dolebury Fort and offers two walks – one long, one short – for an energising December trek before heading back to a cosy, traditional pub
Coming up with a walk for December is always something of a challenge. Even on a clear, crisp day, some footpaths are likely to be near impassable after heavy rain. And with so much going on in the run up to Christmas, walks – if they can be squeezed in at all – not only have to be short, they really need to be more than just a dutiful tramp. In other words, they need to be that bit special. And ideally, they should also end at an unspoilt country pub, with a blazing fire, home-cooked food and local ales and ciders straight from the barrel.
I feel reasonably confident, however, that this 3.5 mile walk round one of Mendip’s most dramatic hilltop forts, starting – and more importantly ending – at one of Somerset’s most resolutely traditional pubs, The Crown at Churchill, ticks all those boxes and more. And, if you are really pressed for time, I have devised a shorter version, clocking in at just two miles, which takes in the highlights of the walk before ending back at the pub.
Don’t be fooled by the short distances, though. Whichever option you take, you will encounter muddy stretches, steep climbs and equally steep descents, which may be slippery, so be prepared. But the views, on a clear day, are definitely worth it. Suitably shod and wrapped-up children should love it, and, while sheep are likely to be encountered towards the end of the walk, it is ideal for dogs – although you may need to watch out for barbed wire bordering paths near the start. Dogs and children are welcome in The Crown – although they don’t welcome credit cards, so you need to pay by cash. The walk involves a couple of busy road crossings, but apart from that, it should be hazard free.
Islay looking westwards towards the ramparts
The starting point at Churchill lies 24 miles west of Bath. To get there, head out of the city along the A4, continue along the A39, and at Marksbury take the A368. After 16.5 miles, when you come to Churchill, carry straight on at the crossroads with the A38, and 300m further on – just before the Nelson Arms – take the first left along Skinner’s Lane, where you should find parking before, or opposite, the Crown Inn (ST445596; 51.3328 -2.7980; BS25 5PP).
Leaving the car, carry on up a lane called The Batch past The Crown. After 200m, turn left along a bridleway which heads downhill to the busy A38. Cross with care and turn left along the pavement for a few metres before following a footpath sign along Dolebarrow, a narrow lane leading away from the road before curving right uphill between high walls.
After 175m, turn left by Walnut House and before long you will come to a gate (ST446590) where you have a choice.
For the short walk, carry on through the gate and follow the track as it winds uphill through woodland to emerge at the entrance to Dolebury Camp. After passing through the ramparts, the track leads straight on up to the summit of the down from where the views are superb. After exploring the summit, you can either head straight back or follow a more circuitous track along the southern ramparts of the camp before following the track down to the A38 and back to The Crown.
For the longer walk, do not go through the gate, but turn left up a track just before it. Ignore a track branching right a few metres further on, and carry on in the same direction for 700m. Just before you come to a stile in the fence ahead, turn right through a gate with a sign for Dolebury Warren and turn left along a bridleway (ST452591).
The track emerges into the open, with views to the north, before another gate leads back into woodland. After 400m, after passing through a stand of conifers, follow the track as it curves up to another gate (ST456589). Go through it and continue through a succession of fields for another 500m.
Follow the bridleway as it curves right through a gate (ST461589) and carry on along a stony track alongside a fence. After 330m, when you come to a waymark, bear right uphill along a wide strip of greensward (ST465586).
After 400 metres, follow a broad path through a copse of conifers. After re-emerging into the open, head straight on, go through a five-bar gate and follow a rough track towards the ramparts of Dolebury Fort.
As the ground levels out and you approach a notch in the ramparts, you will see that it almost miraculously frames the distant island of Steep Holm, out in the Bristol Channel. And then, as you pass through the ramparts, the ground drops away and the view that greets you is quite literally breathtaking.
Looking westward from the slopes of Dolebury Warren
Dolebury Camp, established around 3,000 years ago, is unusual, for instead of being relatively flat like most hillforts, it was built on a steep hillside, so that those defending it commanded a view of an extraordinarily extensive tract of land. The ramparts of the fort, with the turf scoured from their stone banks by the merciless wind, lend a bleakness reminiscent of West Cornwall to this windy eminence. In the middle ages, when rabbits were an important source of fur and food, a warren was created here. The pillow mounds created for the rabbits to build their warrens are still very much in evidence, as are the foundations of the lodge where the warrener once lived (ST451589).
From here, head straight on down through the camp, making for a distant gap in the ramparts on the far side – or, for a more spectacular conclusion to the walk, strike off to the left and follow the ramparts round to the gap. The drop on the other side of the ramparts is steep and underlines the strategic importance of the fort, as well as the scale of the prehistoric civil engineering project that created it.
When you reach the gap in the ramparts (ST447589), head through it and follow the track as it winds steeply downhill, before crossing the A38 for the final climb back up to The Crown.
Andrew Swift is the author of On Foot in Bath: Fifteen Walks Around a World Heritage City and co-author, with Kirsten Elliot, of Ghost Signs of Bath.
Short walk – 2 miles (1–1.5 hours)
Full walk – 3.5 miles (1.5–2 hours)
Map: OS Explorer 141
Information: The Crown at Churchill (the-crown-inn.co.uk) is open all day, with food served from noon to 2.30pm. The Crown only takes cash – no credit cards.