The Mendips: A place to be small under the stars

The road up through the Mendips to Glastonbury is at times suddenly and stubbornly steep, so that I falter, bluster and faff to find the right gear. Beneath me the car groans and coughs, heavy and unfit, no longer in its city slick groove.

There is a barrenness to the landscape, the higher we climb. Fields stretch out in all directions, pocked intermittently with sheep, bisected and dissected by stone walls, watched over by huddles of trees. Houses are rare and when they do appear, breaking and adding height and dimension to the horizon, they do so in small groups: Two-storey terraces at a right angle from the road, their windowed eyes focused on the land ahead, or the occasional quietly contented squat farmhouse.

Space and hermitage

It is a landscape that soothes my busy mind, overpopulated with the demands and noise of society, family, work. I am called by the emptiness. A part of me believes if my physical geography could mirror my innermost desires – for space and hermitage – then I might start to reflect those qualities in my daily life, be the space I want to see in the world. Here, I feel, I could put down the busywork and tend to the important things in life, slowly.

Moon rise over the Mendips
Photo Credit: Cllr Ros Wyke, Leader of Mendip District Council

I flit between giving myself wholeheartedly to this fantasy and chiding myself for my idealism. But then, didn’t the desert fathers and mothers equally seek emptiness and wide-open landscapes, a place to be small under the stars. I’m sure I’m not the first such seeker who also dreams of bringing her husband, two children, dog and cat with her, in search of the inner and outer quiet life.

Tanned metal autumn

By Stockhill Wood the landscape changes abruptly. The woods themselves – Forestry England owned and managed – are unexpected. They feel out of place much like the land within which they sit which is russet and golden, all the burnished and tanned metal colours of autumn. The hedges and fields undulate and there is a moorland wilderness to the place. Elsewhere on the drive, the ground has been grey-green and flat. Land travelling slowly until it meets the sky, the sky falling inward down upon it, gravely taking its two-thirds possession.

But this space around Stockhill Wood is a lively cavorting of colour and uneven ground, bucking the trend. Likewise, the land within the wood continues to riot and rumpus, revealing the ‘gruffy ground of lumps and bumps’, the rise and fall of more than 2000 years of lead mining in the area.

Chicken of the woods

Nature has reclaimed the territory in the 100 or so years since the last attempt at lead mining. There is all manner of fungi – with the most delicious names we discover, looking them up later at home: Oyster mushrooms, wood blewit, porcelain fungus, angels wings, chicken of the woods. Moss and lichens cover stones and hang from tree branches, fittingly witchy in this week leading up to Samhain and Hallo’een.

Deciduous life has sprung up in the clear-felled areas amid the conifers. Beneath the trees the ground is springy and tracks branch off from the main routes, meandering into the woodland before mysteriously abandoning us. My daughter is anxious to return to the path and we march back the way we came a happier version of Hansel and Gretel. A sudden downpour has us pulling up our hoods, the rain just a touch icy, majestic and refreshing.

Finding our way back to the car, despite being persuaded by the conviction of my 3-year-old son to walk a path in the opposite direction for a while, we settle into our seats. The car is steamy, earthy and vibrant with the green of our adventure. We travel back down, down, down, back to Bristol, but our hearts remain high, full up on hills, forest and fields.

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