A great walk to a great pub: the Packhorse, near Bath, Somerset

This walk through a lost world of canals and Roman roads ends in a brilliant old pub now run by the local community

Start: The Packhorse, South Stoke
Distance: 8.2 miles
Time: 4 hours
Total ascent: 260 metres
Difficulty: moderate

GPX map can be found here. If walking from Bath Spa station you can join the main route at Tucking Mill by following this GPX map.

Google map of the route

When Arthur Mee visited the Somerset village of South Stoke in the 1930s as part of the prodigious research he undertook for his 40-volume guide to England’s counties, he recorded that “it lies in as fair a scene as Nature has given us from her chalice of beauty”.

He wasn’t wrong. Only a smidgen south of Bath, but not subsumed into its edges, the village hides serenely in the hills, clinging to the steep-sided Cam Brook valley and swathed in sylvan green.

The Packhorse
The Packhorse is now a community-owned pub having been saved by locals in 2018. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

In his paragraph on South Stoke, teetotaller Mee makes no mention of the Packhorse pub; he focuses instead on the fine 15th-century tithe barn and Grade II-listed church of Saint James, which has, he noted, “four of the biggest gargoyles we have seen”. But the Packhorse was certainly there at the time. And, thanks to a considerable local effort, it still is.

The beefy limestone building housing the Packhorse was built in the 17th century – the carving above the door says 1674; dendrochronological testing of its beams suggests 1618 – while the earliest record of its status as a “beer house” is from 1847. Which is what it continued to be until 2012, when the pub was sold to a buyer with planning permission for conversion into a residential dwelling. Enraged locals set up the Save the Packhorse campaign, which led to the biggest community pub buyback project in this country to date.

Countryside near Combe Hay from the ‘scrubby slopes’.
Countryside near Combe Hay from the ‘scrubby slopes’. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

“The complexity of the negotiations, the scale of the restoration, the amount of money that was required … There was no easy aspect,” says Dom Moorhouse, who led the effort. The pub finally reopened in 2018. The pandemic threw up more challenges but the future is looking positive – a survey went out to customers in January 2022, and Moorhouse says: “The feedback is hugely positive; the pub is really cherished.”

It’s also really good for walkers. Four routes can be downloaded from the pub’s website, and a suggestion that came out of that survey is the creation of a walkers’ club, maybe involving a guided walk with a meal at the end. But for now, I’m setting off on a loop on my own, to combine far south Cotswolds countryside with other impressive examples of preservation and community spirit.

Heading east out of the village, I first pass the stone arches of the old brewery – long since closed – and then follow a lane, with that “fair scene” running off to the far horizon to my right; the Westbury White Horse gallops across a distant hill. Then I drop into handsome Horsecombe Vale, a steep, mud-sticky descent to a wooded stream and, a little way ahead, the eight-arch viaduct of the old Somerset & Dorset Joint Railway.

Midford Castle.
Midford Castle. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

Though the line, which once connected Bath and Bournemouth, fell foul of Beeching in 1966, in 2013 a section became the Two Tunnels Greenway, which includes 1,672 metre-long Combe Down Tunnel, the longest cycling and walking tunnel in the UK. I join the greenway at Tucking Mill. A right turn would take me into its once dark recesses (it is now lit and enlivened by an art installation), but I veer left instead, following the ashphalted old trackbed to Midford, with the jolly turrets of Midford Castle rising on the hillside above.

Midford’s station platform now sits, quiet and bare of buildings, above the beer garden of the Hope & Anchor pub. But this used to be quite the transport hub. Descending from the railway and passing under another looming, defunct viaduct, I’m soon by the Somerset Coal Canal. Built around 1800 to tote the spoils from coal mines at nearby Radstock, it was killed off around 1900 by the very railway I’ve just left. However, many structures remain and, as is the way around these civic-minded parts, a group – the Somersetshire Coal Canal Society – is trying to restore it to full navigation. Continuing through the valley, which is alive with birdsong, I follow the towpath, now a grassy hump alongside a waterless trough. I pass a fine aqueduct sitting uselessly in a field, a stone bridge over nothing and, at Combe Hay, a flight of rare caisson locks – they numbered 22 back in the day – to overcome the 40-metre drop.

Disused Midford Station.
Disused Midford Station. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

I leave the canal to climb via Engine Wood and drop down into Combe Hay village. Mee said it was “like an end of the world” – and it’s certainly still sleepy. I don’t see a soul as I pass the old Wheatsheaf Inn and extraordinarily grand Georgian rectory. Then it’s back to the Cam Brook, sloshing through winter fields along a stretch of the long-distance Limestone Link, which I could follow right into the Mendips.

Instead, having spent long enough scouring the banks for kingfishers, I peel off at Dunkerton to fall in step with the Romans: the Fosse Way – built in the first century AD to link Exeter and Lincoln – makes characteristically straight progress here, and I climb it northwards, flanked by trees and the ghosts of legionnaires. But not for too long. Soon I veer right, traversing scrubby slopes that, I know from past experience, are flush with wildflowers come summer, and which provide a balcony panorama of the hills rolling off to the south. It’s a prospect that reaches its optimum just before re-entering South Stoke, at the Millennium Viewpoint, an excellent 160-metre-high lookout with a sweeping stone bench, created to mark the year 2000. It was fundraised for by the villagers themselves, of course.

The pub

The Packhorse Inn, Bath, Somerset

The Packhorse isn’t just a pub, reckons Moorhouse, but a place of social connection. Patrons come from down the road and around the globe to warm up by the fire in the gnarly-beamed Tap Room or sip a pint of Midford-made Honey’s cider outside – more than 1,000 volunteer hours went into the garden, including the planting of more than 200 species.

While the building, with its wonky casement windows, metre-thick walls and Georgian inglenook (which may or may not have a secret tunnel leading to the church) is worthy of a pilgrimage, so is the food: locally sourced ingredients made into classics done well. The hotpot for two (£32), with lamb, smoked bacon, dumplings and half a roast chicken, has fast become a signature dish of new head chef Mark Marshall, who is brimming with fresh ideas. The return of live music – not least the summer Packstock mini-festival – is on the cards, too.

Smoked salmon & crayfish fishcake at the Packhorse.
Smoked salmon & crayfish fishcake at the Packhorse. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/The Guardian

The rooms

The Packhorse doesn’t offer accommodation. But the city of Bath is less than three miles away – a short bus ride or a tenner in a taxi – and there are many options there: try Eight (doubles from £110, breakfast extra), a classy little hotel spread over two townhouses. Or stay along the walking route in Combe Hay at the aforementioned Wheatsheaf (doubles from £120 B&B), another fine village pub that has been serving wayfarers since the 18th century.

Sarah Baxter

The GuardianTramp

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