The thing about walking is that it can be very sociable. As you know, my excellent friend, A, indefatigable in the face of mud or boulders, has joined me on several strolls, and now a further two splendid women, J and L, have picked up their packs to come with us. We have, it seems, got ourselves a bit of a walking group.
Where to walk then? Not too far away and not too short a route, so that once the decision is made and logistics conquered we can look forward to a summer of walks and chat. Step forward the Bristol Community Forest Path. Yes, it must take the prize for the dreariest, worthiest, least enticing path name ever, but on closer acquaintance it looks quite promising. It’s a 45 mile circuit of Bristol aiming, as far as I can see from the map, to guide walkers around the extremities of the city via public green spaces, woodland, farmland and waterways. Some of it looks very suburban, some very rural; some is already familiar to us, some will be foreign fields.
I read that since its inception people have wondered whether it is possible to cover its 45 miles within a day. [Actually that has never crossed my mind, but do continue]. One of the earliest to show that is was possible was Bristolian conceptual artist, Richard Long who completed a circuit in 16 hours in 1998 as part of one of his pieces. Not to be outdone, hearty types apparently continue to attempt the circuit in 24 hours – the Green Man challenge – in order to be certified as Woodwose. (http://www.closertothecountryside.co.uk/gmrouteSept11.pdf)
Each to their own.
As none of us feel any aspiration to becoming Woodwose, we are going to take it in bite sized, conversational pieces, navigating from refreshment opportunity to refreshment opportunity. It’s a circular walk so we could start anywhere but I wanted to end somewhere dramatic and that had to be the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Accordingly we set out on our first walk from The Downs, not very far away from the Bridge. The first few miles did not look at all interesting as the route descends through deepest suburbia, much of which is familiar.
We plunged off down a narrow way between the back gardens of Sneyd Park, squeezed between some rather grand Victorian villas with frustratingly high garden fences, together with some more modest infill homes. I was probably too busy talking but it struck me as particularly insignificant little path and, as we popped out onto the road at the end of the shady gloom of Pitch and Pay Lane, I was hoping that the walk wouldn’t be as dull all the way.
Pitch and Pay Lane? That’s a name that called out for a bit of Googling later on. I have to say I am a little sceptical about the explanation. The first bit – that this path was once a country lane before the spread of the city – I get that. The second bit – that in times of disease in the town, country people avoided the markets but left food for the starving townsfolk – I’ve heard of that elsewhere so OK. And I can understand that this may not have been an entirely charitable gesture and so some form of cash exchange would have been involved. But the scene conjured up by Paul Townsend (and others) sounds farcical – at this pre-arranged spot, they developed the practice of pitching their produce at the waiting, hungry Bristolians. . . while the citizens paid by throwing back the necessary cash. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/brizzlebornandbred/2078516414).
Could the air really have been thick with flying turnips and groats?
But before all that, this little backway was better known as Via Julia, the road the Romans built to get from Bath to Caerleon in South Wales. (Inexplicably they failed to invent Bristol and marched straight past without even pausing). Of course, in the way is the River Severn, very wide at this point and with a massive tidal range. Ships were required. And a port. Abonae was its name, after the River Avon on which it stands, just upstream from the Severn itself. Must have been quite a place in its time.
Abonae today. Better known as Sea Mills
I didn’t know any of this at the time so I happily followed the well signposted way across green spaces, through quiet residential streets, over a golf course,
Shirehampton Golf Course
and up onto Kingsweston Down, heading for Blaise Castle estate.
Now I love maps and when I am walking on my own I bumble along quite happily but put me in company and tell me to read one and I get cartophile dysfunction. Everything goes to pot. A TV transmitter was marked on the map and we had to make sure we took the path to the left of it. But where was the transmitter? I couldn’t see it anywhere.
It’s behind you…
Blaise Castle Estate is quite something (yes, Jane Austen does namecheck it in Northanger Abbey). It’s a council owned site with a 19th century mansion, an 18th century castle, a museum, imaginative playgrounds, cricket pitch and pavilion, cafe and 400 acres of parkland and we all thought that we knew it pretty well.
Except I didn’t know that on three days a week volunteers toil away to create a community plot in the old walled garden, long abandoned. And nor had I ever looked through these gates before and seen that an artist is making use of the stable buildings.
The small rural Gloucestershire hamlet of Henbury grew up at the gates of the Blaise estate, but today the few historic streets have been overwhelmed by the explosion of twentieth century housing which has turned it into a city suburb. Occasionally there are reminders of a past era, but not necessarily a fair or good one.
After Henbury, we began to feel on less familiar ground and here the discoveries came thick and fast, green spaces never spotted when driving past, immaculately signposted walks through unknown cul de sacs, pony paddock after unsuspected pony paddock. Then a completely new view of the Filton runway, birthplace – as any proud Bristolian, born or adopted, will tell you – of Concorde, that mighty plane which flew so fast (London to New York in under four hours? Yes, really) and fell from favour so quickly. (The good people of Toulouse may also make a claim as to origins but we’ll share the glory).
It’s a bit of a blurry photo as we were quite a distance away but just look at the slope at the end of the runway. Never knew that before.
Over the M5, with conversation paused for the duration due to the din, and on towards a Victorian house turned upmarket hotel somewhat marooned by the twentieth century.
But what’s all this?
An industrial site of underground tanks, protected by some very serious gates, high fences and CCTV cameras. Not so unusual, but this is completely and utterly anonymous – not a signboard or any hint of its purpose anywhere.
And there was no mention of it on the map.
Later, after a bit of quizzing of those who might know and a bit of Googling, we discovered that here is stored aviation fuel for both military and civil aircraft. Built in the 1930s in anticipation of War, and officially secret until the end of the Cold War, these so discreetly hidden tanks are linked by pipeline to RAF stations as well as to Heathrow and other civil airports. So when you’re up in London and tutting when there’s a delay in refuelling your plane, spare a thought for how far the petroleum has got to come. (I think that’s the gist of it; there’s an exhaustive – and frankly exhaustingly acronym laden – explanation at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CLH_Pipeline_System)
After this bit of vaguely disquieting mystery, and with the airfield, the tanks, the motorway and all the other signs of the urban only just behind us, we crossed a field and suddenly found ourselves deep in the most lovely bluebell wood.No one about. although well trodden path suggests that this is a popular spot but how come we asked, again, had none of us every heard of it before?The wood gave onto open fields on the top of what had become a very narrow ridge, overlooking the Second Severn Crossing mired in a slurry of industrial sprawl (no, we didn’t know there had been quite so much development out there either)
and the rather more bucolic original Severn Bridge.
Look at all those vapour trails burning up the fuel from the tanks we’d just passed.
Soon we were descending to the River Severn’s floodplain past old farmhouses and the odd restored cottage. We had the Easter Compton pub (and lunch) almost in our sights when we came upon the village church (13th century origins, major Victorian revamp, currently having a bit of repair work to the roof).
Curiously, apart from the adjacent Church Farm, All Saints Compton Greenfield stands alone. A couple of fields in one direction is Compton Greenfield itself, now just a couple of farmhouses alongside the old rectory, whilst across the fields the other way is Easter Compton, a mostly early twentieth century settlement despite being on the road to the old ferry points across the Severn.
There’s a spectacular yew tree walk and rose garden in this immaculate but isolated churchyard, but where are the parishioners? From where do/did the worshippers come in this sparsely populated area? No time to go into the Church to have a look as the cold drinks were calling our names but, from what I did glean later on, there seems to have been quite a sprinkling of gentry families in the area back in the day, names which are no longer familiar living in estates which no longer exist. Perhaps it was down to them and their households?
As we sat in the pub garden in the unseasonal heat, we agreed that we were surprised at not only just how much green space there was in what we had expected to be a rather tedious urban fringe, but also how many hidden spots we’d found in what we had each assumed was overly familiar territory. Despite its less than alluring name, the Bristol Community Forest Path delivered a varied and surprising route which bodes well for all the sections to come.
So – well played BCFP. Big tick.
(Of course, in writing this up, my inner geekiness had to come out. Far from circling Bristol and looking in at the city, as I had expected, this first part of the walk underlined the ways in which the place is – and has long been – tied to the rest of the world through global networks. From the way of Via Julia to the contemporary motorway system, the ferry points on the rivers and tidal waterways to Concorde and the aviation fuel stores, in one morning we had crossed paths with them all.
Except the railway.
There was this…
Standing just across the path from the Old Rectory in hardly a hamlet Compton Greenfield is what I reckon is a tin tabernacle (Wiki helpfully explains that this is a type of prefabricated ecclesiastical building made from corrugated galvanised iron (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tin_tabernacle)). With the Industrial Revolution and all that came with it, there was a mass exodus of workers from the land to the burgeoning cities so missions to the newly industrialised areas sought to support (or, yes, control) rapidly formed communities of the young, mainly single, men (and to some extent women) who had left their family ties and strictures behind. Prefab chapels sprang up to minister to them on land donated by benevolent landowners and this is what I think this is. It’s marked on the 1901 map so the timing would fit.
Except, of course, Compton Greenfield is conspicuously devoid of any trace of industrialisation, then or now.
I can find absolutely no reference to this chapel anywhere online so it is only my conjecture that it was in fact erected to serve the hordes of navvies and brick makers who set up camp a mile or so north east of here to build the Severn railway tunnel. For 13 years they toiled to dig out what was the longest tunnel in the world in 1885 when it was finally completed. As the map shows, the tabernacle is not exactly on the workers’ doorsteps but it is right under the Rector’s nose.
Why didn’t they just go to All Saints on a Sunday? After all, they had to walk past it to get to their chapel.
Maybe they weren’t Anglican.
Or maybe they weren’t welcome.
Victorian social apartheid anyone?)