On the trail of the eel and the black toad

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The Independent Online
From cider in a pottery to home-made lemonade in an almonry, John Shearlaw takes

a walk around the Somerset Levels.

Somerset in late autumn is cider country. Everywhere there is the tangy whiff of freshly pressed apples. This six-mile circular walk round the heart of the Somerset Levels begins and ends with cider. Along the way it uncovers other mysteries of the moor, once a teeming centre of commerce, now one of the world's most important sites for wetland wildlife.

Cider-maker Bruce Bond and Mary Kembery, a potter, are open all year at Smocklands, just outside the village of Drayton, some eight miles east of Taunton. Bruce's potent brew, Black Toad, takes its name from a creature that survived 30 years in an old cider sump. For 50p a pint, takeaway container included, you can decide for yourself whether to feel sorry for him.

It's downhill from here and right on to School Street, towards Midelney Manor (c1490), which stands on a small rise. All around is the criss-crossed landscape of the moor, with drainage ditches (or rhynes) bisecting the fields like pencil lines.

Turn left at the bridge, signposted to Langport, and follow the raised bank of the Isle river to Midelney pumping station and the Parrett river. Mussel shells crunch underfoot, dredged from the river to make a path.

Herons crank along the banks, searching for the Levels' most elusive wildlife treasure - the eel.

It's a mile-long stroll through the willow banks to Muchelney bridge. Cross it to visit the medieval monastic settlement of Muchelney Abbey.

In the adjacent parish church of St Peter and St Paul a painted ceiling, dating from the early 1600s, includes surprisingly topless angels. At the nearby almonry complex, refreshment is at hand, probably for the first time since the Dissolution. Smoked eel, chocolate cake and home-made lemonade attract visitors all year round.

After returning to the river, recrossing it and turning right, the path follows the Parrett to Huish Bridge. Here it is swollen by the Yeo, draining the King's Moor Levels. By midwinter much of the pasture will be flooded, and Langport will again become the fabled "island in the sea".

The valley narrows here. Langport's elevation (mountainous by Levels standards) brought prosperity in ancient times when much of the area was water. After the draining of the Levels, the Parrett became a major trade artery; by the 18th century the town was a vital link with London. The local industrialist George Stuckey and the economist Thomas Bagehot formed their first company here; even in 1909 Stuckey's Bank was second only to the Bank of England.

The glory days are long gone, but the river may yet restore the area's fortunes. The Parrett Trail now runs for nearly 70 miles, from Dorset to the Bristol Channel at Bridgwater.

That's a long-distance challenge for another day or three; for now we cross Huish Bridge and turn left to Huish Episcopi church, where a magnificent Burne-Jones window stands in the south aisle. At the crossroads there's another relic: a disused cider barn, with outdoor seating handily built into the wall. The unmarked road up Langport Hill soon passes under the old town portcullis, topped with a dramatic hanging chapel. Built for the town's apprentices, it served as a schoolroom before its relatively recent conversion to a Masonic lodge.

After passing Langport church, whose graveyard on the escarpment holds the tombstone of Stuckey, bear left at the gatehouse, then left again down the public footpath marked Whatley Lane. An alley of steep steps frames a breathtaking view of the western King's Sedgemoor and the low Dorset hills on the horizon; opposite is the unspoiled tiled roofscape of Langport's mercantile heart.

Cross the car park at the bottom of the hill and bear left at the railings to rejoin the river bank. A quarter of a mile further on, cross the three- span bridge, keeping to the right of the road. Pass a fine old warehouse, and turn left after 200 yards into Frog Lane. The unmade track passes Tucker's Farm, with superb views across the wetlands to Muchelney Church.

Immediately after a sharp right turn lie two lots of buildings; straightaway take a gate into the fields on the left. Have faith; this is the (unmarked) beginning of the footpath back to Drayton. Strike out for the copse clearly visible; the right of way passes this and a second, larger, copse to the left, then follow the line of the hedge to a metalled road three-quarters of a mile farther on. Then turn left to Drayton.

Behind you is the landscaped park of Midelney Place; in front a green wrought-iron bench is conveniently placed to admire one of Somerset's most surprising vistas, a horizontal panorama of field and flooded Level, from which church towers rise from every quadrant.

A few hundred yards farther on, in the shadow of another tower, lies the welcoming sanctuary of the Drayton Arms.

Map: Ordnance Survey Landranger 193 (Taunton & Lyme Regis)

Further information is available in a recently published booklet, The River Parrett Trail, price pounds 5.95. Copies are available locally, or ring the Tourism Unit, South Somerset District Council on 10935 462501. Parking is free in Drayton, or leave your car by arrangement in the car park of the Drayton Arms.

Refreshment: The Stable Tea Rooms (01458 250003) at Muchelney are open for light lunches and teas all year. Black Toad Cider and the Somerset Countryware gallery in Drayton can be visited all year, but ring first in winter (01458 251640). A Grade II listed pub, the friendly Drayton Arms (01458 250233) serves a variety of bar snacks and home-cooked meals all year, with pheasant a speciality.