No-one but no-one chooses Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station as their end destination for a hard day’s hiking – and only a pair of complete idiots would choose to put their tent up alongside its towering barrier fence and lines of CCTV cameras. I can laugh about it now but today had to be one of the worst dry hiking days of my life.
However, I’m rushing ahead of myself. We awoke in Bridgwater to a bright, sunny day; knowing you’re not going to get soaked within minutes of hitting the road is a definite motivator and we were on our way to the local Lidl by nine. Unfortunately, going to the shops meant a considerable walk past Saltlands Bridge (where we needed to cross over to the River Parrett’s west bank; however, not going meant no breakfast, no lunch and no evening meal.
We stopped to ask directions. If we stuck to pavements, the route was longer so, taking advice from a local man, we cut between some houses to reach the riverbank and headed to the out-of-town retail park along the eastern embankment.
Our day’s shopping done, we crossed the Town Bridge and joined the embankment on the other side. This stretch of river isn’t part of our overall route, but it was pleasant enough and we enjoyed our brief rest at the old Bridgwater Docks, now transformed into a marina, like so many other waterfront industrial areas.
It wasn’t long before we were spotting familiar landmarks on the eastern embankment, places we’d staggered past last night. We didn’t feel we were properly on our way until we’d passed Dunball Wharf, where we’d left the river last night. The wharf is used for landing stone products, mainly marine sand and gravels dredged in the Bristol Channel.
(Natural England proposes that the England Coast Path will continue alongside the Parrett all the way to Saltlands Bridge and this will be a much more pleasant route, but for the moment, there’s no choice but to leave the river at the point we did last night.)
We were surprised that today’s riverbank – the waymarked River Parrett Trail – was actually harder to walk than the other side. Despite the presence of plenty of accessible walkers’ gates (we’d had to climb several awkward ones yesterday), the actual trail running along the embankment was badly overgrown, forcing us into the fields below on several occasions.
I should stress here, that the River Parrett Trail is far from unpleasant walking; at low tide the mudflats are a haven for waders and there is an abundance of wild flowers. The landscape is flat and the views across the countryside are really pretty. What we found hard psychologically was the feeling that we were doing the same route twice: the landmarks, the scenery, the river itself… we’d seen it all yesterday evening.
Still Combwich was fast approaching, a pretty little village we’d passed on the opposite bank yesterday, and it actually had a pub! We hastened our step, fantasising about kicking off our shoes and spending an hour (at least) in the pub garden, our bare feet resting on warm grass.
The Anchor Inn’s website claims ‘we are a common stop with walkers and cyclists alike’ but they must mean at the end of the day because the Inn doesn’t open weekday lunchtimes. Demoralised (both of us) and close to tears (me) we found a riverside bench where we supped water instead of cider and stared across at the now all-too-familiar view… the River Parrett.
I suppose it all comes down to economics but we find it sad that so many pubs in Wales and the South West are now putting all their efforts into their evening food offerings and don’t seem to cater for the thirsty lunchtime visitor anymore. We’ve seen it time and time again, in rural areas and even along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. In Madeira, one can stop for an ice cold lager in even the tiniest of villages at any time of day.
As the estuary widened, we spotted another familiar place… Burnham-on-Sea. A whole day’s walking and we were moreorless back to where we started, just on the opposite side of the river. It reminded me of our estuary walking in Carmarthenshire; as I’ve said before, I really do think there’s a case for the reintroduction of small passenger ferries at numerous estuaries across the UK, especially if our national coastal paths are going to prove a magnet for overseas visitors.
Our next destination was Steart Marshes, where there are plans to create one of the largest wetland reserves in the country. The £20m project involves letting the sea reclaim the sparsely populated land at Steart Point – 500 hectares of land – rather than rebuild the deteriorating flood defences. Work is already underway, with lots of temporary barriers and signs of activity, but it didn’t spoil our enjoyment of this area.
What was frustrating was our long and pointless detour to Steart Point (which will NOT be included in Harri’s book). Again, it’s not that the scenery isn’t pretty, but the path along the seafront quickly became impassable and we had to head inland again to join the West Somerset Coast Path at a car park just a few yards away from where we’d been walking nearly an hour earlier.
On a brighter note, Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station was getting closer. We realised we had no chance of reaching our planned destination of West Quantoxhead (Harri phoned ahead to let the campsite owners know) but if we could get to the other side of Hinkley Point headland, there would be places we could wild camp.
Except, it was already early evening and we were making very little hourly progress thanks to my foot problems.
The final straw came when having limped slowly and painfully along the entire concrete promenade in front of the power station, we reached a barrier and a sign informing us that the footpath was closed from that point on. Really, it’s so obvious that the officials who think it’s a good idea to wait until you actually reach the barrier before telling you of the closure have never gone for a proper walk in their entire lives. Why on earth couldn’t the sign have been erected at the beginning of the promenade so that only those who wanted to stroll along it and immediately return would venture any farther?
Faced with a huge detour around the massive Hinkley Point site, Harri tried hard to find us local accommodation for the night but to no avail. It’s not a hugely populated area and the few bed and breakfast establishments that do exist were full of… you’ve guessed it, Hinkley Point contractors.
We had no choice but to traipse around the barrier fence, trailed by first one, and then a second, security vehicle. To be fair, I understand why security is so important at these nuclear sites, but it is rather disconcerting to be so obviously followed, especially when all you’re yearning to do is to stop walking and set up tent for the night. Our plight wasn’t helped by the overgrown nature of this new ‘footpath’ either… and at one point, we were walking on such a narrow path so close to a reen that I was fearful of falling in.
Finally, in desperation, I approached the security men and tearfully explained our predicament; to our relief, they were really sympathetic and helpful. They directed us to a nearby piece of open land, just away from the barrier fences, where we could put up our tent out of the wind and camp in relative peace.
It certainly wasn’t the picturesque location I’d imagined for my first ever wild camping experience, but by the time I crawled into my sleeping bag, I really was past caring.
England Coast Path: Severn Estuary to Bridgwater Bay by Harri Garrod Roberts is available in digital format from Amazon for £2.49.