The land of the summer people, as Somerset was described in Anglo-Saxon chronicles, is staggeringly beautiful in deep winter, no more so than on the Somerset Levels. Given a chill blue sky, these sunken flatlands are transformed.
The winter sun burns brightly here, burnishing the reed beds, silent ponds and the narrow, ancient, riverways known as rhynes – and turning them the colour of harvest gold.
Bright skies in winter bring more delights, arguably one of the world's greatest wildlife spectacles, the starling roost. For on a clear day, the sunset skies and streaked rags of cirrus clouds are dyed black by hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of starlings coagulating in a heaving mass that sweeps high and low above the reed beds before setting down in a clatter to roost for the night.
This walk, a straightforward circular route, nudges around some of the glories of the Levels, beginning and ending, at the time of writing, at the current location for the starling roost near Ham Wall.
Mute swans were most in evidence as I struck out across Shapwick Heath from the car park at Ashcott Corner, deep in the heart of the Levels, along the Glastonbury canal. The path followed an old railway line, and I found myself constantly glancing north, where you could see the crumpled southern flanks of the Mendips rising up to limestone ridges.
In turn, I walked past more conventional, densely thicketed plantations of conifers and was drawn off my route briefly by a footbridge that led to Meare hide, where I watched a succession of low-altitude cormorants, swans and ducks pass by.
The canal path seemed to stretch to infinity – in reality for two arrow-straight miles to the west. There was never a dull moment. Flocks of long-tailed tits, the strident chirp of a great tit, and curious robins crossing my path. On the other side of the canal, banks of peat, 10ft high, had been accumulated by farmers and commercial operators. Just before the end of the track, I diverted again, on a small circular trail along a restored track, believed to date back to Neolithic times, when our ancestors, 6,000 years ago, built timber trackways across this swampy ground.
Following a road, I quickened my pace, as I had that date with the starlings to keep at dusk. By some nurseries and a farm I entered an altogether different environment: the thick, peaty fields I had seen from the other side of the canal. The going was slow, uneven and soggy. The path, was punctuated by many stiles, and carefully threaded its way through a world of reed beds, ponds, and open fields.
The view east was now dominated by Glastonbury Tor, a hill that seems to have popped out of the surrounding plains, its tower silhouetted on the summit. It's easy to see why everyone from Pagan tribes to New Age believers have imbued this place with enigmatically magical qualities.
Just as I reached a paved road there was another delight – a crane flew overhead, one of a handful that were released into the area last autumn. It is a bird that looks like it should not be able to fly, its wings and lengthy legs all perpendicular to one another, hanging in the sky rather like two entangled coat-hangers. The cranes' introduction marked the return of a bird that was once commonplace in England but which died out in the 17th century. The tale of their recovery is an entertaining one, and includes the transportation of eggs from Germany and a ruse by their human carers which involved dressing up as adult cranes to ensure that the birds didn't get confused and think they were human, too.
Back at Ashcott Corner, I took the path east for 800 yards to Ham Wall to join the throngs awaiting the dusk performance of the starlings. Flying in from the south-east, flock after flock – some small, some impossibly large – seemed drawn magnetically to a central, heaving mothership of starlings. It's the noise of the wings, and the sheer density – there are points in the clouds of starlings that are nothing but an inky black pool of amorphous birds. Then, as the beating wings and clicks reached a crescendo, they plummeted to earth, as if funnelling through an hour glass. The show was over for another day.
From Ashcott Corner car park (grid reference: 449398) head west along the canal path for two miles. Turn right up Shapwick Road. After the nurseries, turn right, following signposts through a barn and over a stile/footbridge. After another footbridge, turn left at the junction of paths and follow waymarkers around the ponds. At the north-eastern corner of the ponds, keep ahead over a stile and on to rough ground. You should be looking directly at Glastonbury Tor. At the next stile turn right along a peaty track, then first left, following footpath signs. Cross a footbridge and head half-left up the field, crossing a ditch and a gate to the top right-hand corner. Walk up the lane and, after 50 metres, turn right along a lane. After another 50 metres, take the footpath on the right. Follow this track through gates, bearing slightly left to pick up a path heading due east for 1.2 miles to Ashcott Road. Turn right back to the car park. Ham Wall is 800 yards east.
Distance: five miles.
Time: 2.5 hours.
Map OS Explorer 141, Cheddar Gorge.
How to get there
Mark Rowe stayed at the Hotel Du Vin, Lewins Mead, Bristol (hotelduvin.com), which has double rooms with breakfast and dinner for £140 per night.
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