Features: Walking the line
As a native Bristolian, it’s not every day that you visit part of the city that you’ve never even heard of – let alone been to before. So, it is with some excitement that I open up Google Maps after arranging to meet with Nigel Andrews of Bristol Ramblers, to walk part of the new long-distance footpath that he has developed.
The route, The Greater Avon Valley Way as it has been christened, takes in 48 picturesque miles across some of the greatest countryside in our vicinity. Starting out in Bradford-on-Avon, it follows the river through Bath and Keynsham, before traversing Bristol, passing under the Suspension Bridge and finishing at Battery Point in Portishead.
The walk has been designed to be completed by serious ramblers in three days, but is accessible by public transport along the whole route, allowing families and day-trippers to dip in and out and take as long as they like, discovering some new countryside on their doorstep.
Nigel and I pick up the path just as it leaves Bristol through Abbots Leigh, on the North Somerset side of the Suspension Bridge. The rushing traffic on the busy A369 soon fades away as we thread our way down along smaller and smaller country lanes, before passing through a gate and picking up a footpath down into a sliver of woodland.
Along paths flanked by trees, we emerge into a clearing where there is only the sound of trickling water and birdsong. “It’s so still and peaceful down here,” Nigel says as we pause for a moment to absorb our surroundings. “You have to pinch yourself to remind you how close you are to Clifton – it’s only three miles away.”
The water that gives this woodland – Abbot’s Pool – its name, is calm and quiet, with only a few bobbing ducks to break the surface into ripples. The overflow spills down several small rocky waterfalls before rolling downhill, where it will eventually flow into the Bristol Channel. We turn deeper into the woods to explore, and Nigel begins to tell me about how the idea for his path was born.
“It really came about by accident,” he says. “I had done a series of walks around Bath and Bradford-on-Avon, and I thought I could link them up and create a through-route to Bristol and beyond, using existing rights of way.
“I chose Portishead as the end of the walk as there’s a good bus service, and it takes in some really varied terrain. There are longer routes around the country – things like the Pennine Way and Coast-to-Coast path – but the logistics of finding places to stay along the route can be difficult. This path is so well linked with public transport that you can go home at the end of each day if you’re local.”
The mud squishes under our boots as we pass out of the trees and into a meadow, where several happy dogs are running around under the cloud-strewn sky. “It’s a really varied walk,” Nigel continues. “It showcases some of the nicest and most interesting places on our doorstep. There’s a real variety of scenery: there are rivers, woodland, fields, moorland and then the coast once you get to Portishead.
“There are some lesser-known places that the path passes through, and some lovely uncommon viewpoints that many people won’t have seen. You pass beside the aqueducts at Dundas and Avoncliffe, over some of Bath’s infamous hills, and up to Browne’s Folly near Bathford
“You enter Bristol from the east, ascending Trooper’s Hill to see the city spread out in front of you. Avon View Cemetery is another surprising part of the walk in Bristol. The views are spectacular and there’s an old, ornate French-style urinal propped up in front of the chapel. Not plumbed in, I hasten to add!”
The route passes through central Bristol, along the Pill path and up to Leigh Woods through Nightingale Valley before arriving at Abbot’s Pool. The pool was once used by the monks from the nearby abbey to farm fish and is now a nature reserve stuffed with wildlife.
As if to prove the point, as we emerge onto a farm track, with a view over the fields towards the cranes and factories of Avonmouth, a trio of little brown deer startle at our footsteps and go bounding into the comforting darkness of the trees, white tails flashing.
“Coming out of Bristol and heading on towards Portishead, there’s some lovely moorland around Gordano which is great for birdwatching,” Nigel continues.
“You get a panoramic view of the Bristol Channel from up there. Finally, you pick up the coast path to Portishead and the official end of the route is Battery Point. It’s one of the closest point that boats sail to the coast in the UK, so you get surprising views of the huge tankers.”
Nigel is a dyed-in-the-wool walker who has been part of Bristol Ramblers for the past 25-years. He estimates he’s designed more than 350 walks in that time, including a mammoth six-dayer from Bristol to Brecon, over the Brecon Beacons.
“Walking is an important part of my life,” he says and we clomp on, the mud drying on our shoes as the sun peeks out from a cloud and the buzzards circle on the thermals, high above us. “There are so many benefits to walking as a form of exercise. There’s hardly any kit – just a waterproof coat and some decent shoes – so it’s easy to start doing it. Nature teaches us to walk from an early age, and you quickly develop fitness as you walk more.
“The health and fitness benefits are obvious, but the benefits to your mental health are just as important. Your problems never seem so big when you’re out in the country; it gives you context. It’s an escape from a busy world.”
Bristol Ramblers is one of the largest rambling groups in the UK, and part of The Ramblers – a national organisation which promotes walking for pleasure and seeks to protect the areas that people walk. The group arranges more than 100 walks every four months, from strolls on the Downs to treks through the Brecon Beacons, with the walks suitable for people of any fitness levels.
“It’s so sociable – that’s really the best bit,” Nigel says. “When you’re out on a walk, normal social constraints go out of the window and you end up having wonderful, deep conversations with people. I’ve made so many friends through Bristol Ramblers – and even my wife. It’s a natural way to meet new people.”
The Greater Avon Valley Way is currently not well signposted on the ground, but instructions can be downloaded from the Bristol Ramblers website, and Nigel is currently developing signposting that will help more people to know they are on the route. “I want to broaden the range of people who use the path,” he says.
“Walking is brilliant – it’s physical exercise in beautiful countryside. I think it’s the soundtrack that I love the most – the birdsong, especially at this time of year. It feels remote, in a friendly way. It’s a slower pace of life.”
Read more: A free walking tour of Bristol