Batcombe is dream England. It isma place you would be happy to reach by chance at the end of a long day’s journeying. From Wyke Champflower, I’d trudged up Creech Hill in the drizzle by way of an age-old track which led up under a tunnel of nut trees growing on almost vertical banks of marmalade-coloured earth. At the top, the view across Batcombe Vale to the distant Somerset levels was worth the climb. New plantings of carefully mulched hardwood trees on the roadside denoted some magnanimous landowner at work, the drizzle stopped and the birds sang. A steep narrow road, dark within its tree-shaded banks, led down to Spargrove, where there were vestiges of Roman habitation and terracing. Noble stables, ball-topped gate piers, walled gardens, and a modest house tell of a larger, now vanished mansion. Overgrown box trees grow near the mill beside the little river Alham, and a stone bridge leads over and on through open pasture-land to join one of the seven high hedged ribbon-like lanes which thread their way through hilly backwaters to Batcombe.
The village, built from the local grey- gold limestone, clings to the side of the northern slope of the steep, deep valley. Way below, a tributary of the Alnham meanders among cattle-strewn meadows and rooks wheel on the wind above the trees. On the highest mound, beyond the line of limes, the first sight of St Mary’s Perpendicular church tower, sailing up above the ancient hills, brings a lump to my throat. It is glorious. Somerset church towers are the best in England. Batcombe’s is more austere than Huish Episcopi’s or Bruton’s, but it is strong and right for its pastoral setting in this farming community. In his Thousand Best Churches, Simon Jenkins considers the interior a ‘disappointment’, awarding it only one star, but it isn’t to me. It befits the scene with its simple roof and large, square, plain east window.
Outside, a pleasing tangle of lanes interweaves between cottages and farmhouses with mullioned windows, one leading to the whitewashed Three Horseshoes pub. Dark and beamy inside, it is still privately owned and takes pride in its local Butcombe and Mine beers. The lunchtime drinkers are discussing the baron brewers wanting to theme all the pubs in England and how sad it is and how the new leisure industry is killing Britain… ‘All this health kick,’ says a tractor driver from Westcombe, ‘with people wanting to spend their leisure time jogging. It’s killing the pub trade.’ There is also talk of Batcombe’s legends – the phantom hound with a chain round its neck roaming Gold Hill at night as well as a giant blacksmith who appears if you call for him from the top of Burn Hill.
Further on through this dramatically switch back village the five-bayed Georgian manor house overlooks a pastoral idyll of sheep grazing around an ornamental waterfall in the meadow below and out the old heart of the place the lane leads eastwards lined with ever newer houses petering out into fields. At the dark bottom of the valley there is a particularly good farm, its handsome house buried in sheds, dead tractors and old machinery.
Only a mile on, at the top of Seat Hill you leave this intimate Somerset country of small hills and deep valleys and enter different terrain altogether in Upton Noble. The change is sudden and complete. The view opens boldly out on to a much grander and larger landscape where the estates of Stourhead and Longleat command huge tracts of distant woodland on the far horizon.