A Walk on the Wild Side (Plus Sheep)

There are a few things you might expect to see when you go for a walk in the British countryside:

But an elephant? Or a herd of zebra? These slightly more exotic creatures do not instantly spring to mind when thinking about a stroll through the country … especially when you’re practically on the doorstep of the M5 motorway. Yet all of these things—and more—were present during a walk a friend introduced MrElaineous and me to during a recent trip to Clapton-in-Gordano, a village on the outskirts of Bristol.

Its slightly unusual name comes from its location in the landscape: the village sits within the Gordano Valley, a name that Wikipedia assures me comes from the Old English for “muddy valley”. Today, the valley is a national nature reserve and, rather than mud, is home to beautiful patches of woodland, wildlife, and far-reaching views across to Wales.*

We started at the Black Horse, a 17th century pub that continues to sit in the heart of the village. On the day we were there, it was doing a brisk trade in drinks, with regulars taking advantage of the calm after Storm Francis to enjoy a pint in the sun. Across from the pub sits what my friend has dubbed the “magic phone box”. This classic red telephone box has been turned into a miniature library, with local residents taking and leaving books under the watchful eye of the pub landlord.

As we began to head out of the village, we walked by what I assume are Victorian buildings, such the quirky Old School, and a few that were even older before passing beneath the motorway through what is perhaps the cleanest underpass I have ever seen. Nary a piece of graffiti could be seen, and it served as a gateway to the walk itself.

Two horses stood guard at the entrance to the first field, hinting at the countryside that lay beyond. As we began to climb a hill, the views opened up to reveal the Bristol suburb of Portishead and the major industrial port of Avonmouth. It felt like we were in a mystical borderland between urban reality and a rural idyll and, as we entered a patch of woodland, the sounds of cars dropped away, replaced by the noises of a country walk: the chirp of birds, the bleating of sheep in the distance, and our feet on the path.

One of the first places we came to was either a farmer’s joke or a welder’s art project. Despite its appearance, it’s not a bomb or torpedo, but what we think is the body of a sonar tube with fabricated fins attached. It was a treat to put my archaeologist hat on (alas, figurative only and not Indiana Jones’ fedora) and look at it with a detective’s eye: what was original? what was new? what clues could be read by looking at it closely? In many ways, it set the tone for the walk as a whole: nothing was what it appeared to be at first glance.

Indeed, the very next place we passed is an example of this in action. From the outside, the site of Naish House and Little Naish seem to be a cluster of buildings around a tower. Perhaps a small village with a parish church? However, reality is far more interesting.

The original Naish House was constructed in the 17th century, and, in the early 19th century, the folly tower known as Little Naish was built on the grounds of the manor in the then-popular Gothic Revival style. Although Naish House itself burned down in 1902 (and was later rebuilt), the folly of Little Naish remained and has recently been given a 21st century makeover. Although we couldn’t see the details from the vantage point of the walk, it is well worth checking them out in this Country Life article.

Adjacent to the site of Naish House and Little Naish is a field that, during our visit at least, was full of sheep. And, as a complete tangent to this blog post, can I just say I love photographing sheep? I don’t always have the chance to do so during our walks but, every time I do so, they make me smile.

Despite their name being synonymous with follower and implying a whole flock of clones, sheep are surprisingly expressive and individual once you start to look closely. They also lead to some fun photographs. The classic family portrait below was taken along Hadrian’s Wall over a decade ago, and it’s still one of the most memorable photos from this trip. Another family group chased us during a trip to Holt. The Naish sheep were just as picturesque, with one group looking like friends on a school trip, and another exhibiting the seriousness of a war-time general having their portrait painted for posterity.

Back to the walk and more archaeology. We soon came to a series of ponds in the landscape that are a bit of a mystery. The stonework isn’t modern—I’d estimate late 18th or early 19th century—and we tried to figure out what they might be. Fishponds? Drainage? Water storage?

The owner of Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm describes moving into Moat House Farm in 1960, and it seems likely that these ponds are somehow related to the 17th century farmhouse. As you might have guessed, this building takes its name from being partly surrounded by a moat, so it seems likely that the ponds were either to take overflow or ensure the moat remained full. (Anyone reading this who knows more about the area and its history, please drop me a line with your thoughts!)

Noah’s Ark Zoo Farm itself could be glimpsed as we skirted around fields, and it was here where it was possible to view some of their more exotic residents, such as zebra, ostrich, and an elephant. Local wildlife could be seen in the skies above as buzzards circled overhead, keeping an eye out for small rodents in the wheat fields. Although difficult to photograph, these birds of prey were amazing to watch as they used their tails to steer effortlessly on the wind currents.

From there we journeyed past The Downs Preparatory School, a private educational facility set in Charlton House, a manor originally part of the Tyntesfield Estate. The school itself moved there in 1927 as the headmaster of the time wanted to escape from the “incessant roar of traffic” and the “nerve-racking turmoil of the city”. It’s nice to know that some things about Bristol haven’t changed in nearly a century!

The sun over the Gordano Valley.

The house itself is a mishmash of different time periods. The oldest sections date to the Tudor period of the early 16th century, and other parts of the interior were constructed in the Jacobean period of the early 1600s. However, much of it was restored in 1883, leading to a house that is more Victorian than anything else.

The school is neighbour to the Children’s Hospice South West, whose grounds boasts some of the most impressive trees I have seen in a very long time … and a few show the importance of finding a way around any obstacle in your path! From there we went onwards into Prior’s Woods, a beautiful patch of woodland where, over a decade ago, MrElaineous and I saw someone taking their pet pig for a walk. There were no porcine ambulations evident during our most recent visit, but it was a reminder of the beauty of ancient woodlands—it is thought that this is similar to the forests that would have developed across the UK 10,000 years ago after the glaciers retreated during the last Ice Age.

As we returned the way we had come, we emerged into the borderland as golden hour light was beginning to fill the sky, once again forming a magical demarcation between the reality beyond the M5 and the place we were leaving, where nothing was as it seemed:

Phone boxes that are lending libraries.

Bombs that are art.

Sheep that are picturesque.

Folly towers that are contemporary homes.

Ponds that are, well, as yet to be determined.

A manor house that’s a school.

All in all, a country walk on the wild side

Many thanks to Sean for the guided tour of this fascinating part of Bristol. If you’re interested in exploring the Gordano Valley yourself, check out the Gordano Footpath Group for more information, or please contact Sean directly — he’s an excellent tour guide!

Off the Beaten Track Wiltshire

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  1. Susan Lovelace
    September 9, 2020 / 5:10 pm

    Hello Elaine,
    We really enjoyed the tour and photos of Clapton-in-Gordano! Lively narrative with the theme of “nothing is what it seemed.” Thank you for sharing!

    • September 9, 2020 / 6:32 pm

      Glad you enjoyed it! It’s a lovely part of the country with some unexpected gems.

    September 9, 2020 / 6:25 pm

    Beautiful….Fernweh….Just outside Kemble across from the industrial area (old RAF Kemble) was an Ostrich farm. I don’t know if it is still there or not!

    • September 9, 2020 / 6:33 pm

      Thanks, we’ll have to check it out! I know there are supposed to be some good walks in the area around Kemble (and it’s gorgeous countryside when we drive through), but we haven’t had the chance to explore it properly yet.

  3. September 14, 2020 / 3:23 pm

    I am the Sean mentioned in the article who led the walk. There are some stunning photos in your write-up of objects and features that I know fairly well by now and yet look somehow new to me, prompting further thought. As you say in the text, things are not always as they appear and we shouldn’t make assumptions about what something might appear to be on the surface.

    If any reader would like to go on a guided walk of the above in person, or of another landscape in the region to the west of Bristol, then please get in touch.

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