Andrew Swift charts a walk around Freshford, where traces from centuries past can be seen
In 1222, William Longspee, Earl of Salisbury, established a Carthusian priory at Hatherop in Gloucestershire. After Longspee’s death the monks, finding that the estate was insufficient to maintain them, petitioned his widow for further endowments. She granted them the manors of Hinton and Norton St Philip in Somerset and in 1232 they established a new priory at Hinton, calling it Locus Dei, or ‘God’s Place’. It was an apt expression of their delight in having landed in such an enviable spot.
Under their stewardship, the wool trade flourished, mills were built to harness the power of the fast-flowing River Frome and stone was quarried for buildings that still stand today. After the priory was dissolved in 1539, the wool and weaving trades continued to grow, wealthy clothiers built grand houses, the mills were enlarged and cottages were built for the weavers who came to work in them.
Today, with the weavers long gone, the mills have joined the cottages and grand houses as country boltholes in a part of Somerset that still lives up to the name bestowed on it almost 800 years ago. And it is the setting for this month’s walk, as we follow country lanes, riverside paths and beech-wood trails to glimpse, through the trees, the last surviving fragment of the Carthusian priory.
The walk starts at Freshford, where parking is at a premium, although there is a lay-by which usually has spaces. You can also get there by train – of which more anon.
To get there by car, head south from Bath along the A36. One mile after Limpley Stoke Viaduct, turn left down Church Lane, following a sign for Freshford. After two-thirds of a mile, turn right just before Freshford school, following a sign for the village hall. After 90m park in a lay-by on the left.
Go through a gate before the lay-by, head straight up a field and turn right along a lane which leads past weavers’ cottages and grander houses. The grandest is the Hermitage, dating from late medieval times but much altered. Further on, there is a view up the Frome valley to the Westbury White Horse, nine miles away. After passing Abbotsleigh, look out on the right for Golden Lion Cottage – once the Golden Lion pub. At the end, turn right uphill and then left by Walnut Cottage along a narrow footpath.
After going through a kissing gate (KG), there is a muddy stretch between fences. Carry on through two more KGs to emerge into a glade called the Vilet, which led from the priory down to the river. Carry on up to a metal KG, where dogs need to be on a lead as the steps beyond lead up to the A36. At the top, you can see the chapter house of the priory through the trees.
Turn left along the pavement for a few metres, then left into a parking area and through a gap in the hedge to follow a track into Friary Woods. After passing a tumbledown hut, the track descends past an old quarry. When another track joins from the left, double back along it. Depressions in the ground here indicate further quarrying. If you look over to the right you will see a weir beside which a hydro-electric turbine has been installed.
When you come to a T junction with a fence ahead, turn right down a muddy path. The garden beyond the fence is a continuation of the glade you saw earlier. Its water features were originally fishponds for the priory, before being converted to millponds. At the bottom, you come to Dunkirk Mill, built around 1795 with five storeys. After closing in 1912 it lay derelict until the 1970s, when the top two floors were removed and it was converted to housing.
Carry on past the mill and follow the lane as it swings left past a red-brick pillbox, built in 1940 as part of a defence line to protect Bristol in the event of a German invasion. At a T junction, turn right and follow the lane as it runs alongside the River Frome. As the lane swings right across a bridge, you can glimpse the shell of a 16th-century building at the heart of Freshford Mill. After closing in the 1930s, the mill became a rubber factory, which closed in 1995. The site is now being converted to residential units.
As you carry on alongside the river, look out for another pillbox on the far bank, with Abbotsleigh – which you passed earlier – high above. Follow the lane as it turns right and after 25m go through a kissing gate on the left. The official footpath heads straight across the field – in which there may be sheep – but many people bear left to follow a more scenic route along the river bank, where kingfishers are often seen.
Over to the right is Freshford Hall, built around 1790, with wings added around 1885. If you look across the river, you can see how steeply the land shelves on the far bank. After passing another pillbox, go through a KG and turn left along a busy lane. After crossing a bridge, described by Leland in 1540 as having ‘faire new arches of stone’, you come to the Inn at Freshford, once the New Inn, with a datestone of 1713.
To return to the starting point, turn left through a KG before you reach the inn and follow a track as it curves right uphill. Go through a KG, cross the lane ahead and follow a track leading diagonally down a field to the gate you came through earlier.
If you decide to take the train, on arrival at Freshford station head along Station Road, turn right at the end, and, when the road swings left, carry straight on downhill towards the chimney of the old Freshford Brewery.
At the bottom, follow the road as it bears left and continue along Dark Lane past a ghost sign for the old Greyhound Inn. At the end, carry on along Freshford Lane and go through the gate on the left 90m along to start the walk. At the end of the walk, when you reach the inn, carry on along the road as it curves uphill before turning right along Station Road.
Length of walk: 3½ miles, approximate time: 1 – 1½ hours. Level of challenge: Some muddy sections, robust footwear essential. Map: AA 1:25000 Walker’s Map 25 (Bristol, Bath & the Mendips) recommended.
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.