Andrew Swift guides us on a riverside walk in Somerset, taking in former iron works sites along the way.
As a sequel to last month’s ramble through the ruins of Dark Hill Ironworks, this month’s walk visits ruins closer to home, in a steep-sided gorge deep in the country. Fussell’s Iron Works, near Frome, is one of the most important, and most atmospheric, former industrial sites in the west country, and lies just outside Mells, one of the Somerset’s most historic villages, which is where our walk starts.
Mells lies south of the A362 Radstock-Frome road, and there is usually room to park in Selwood Street, near the 15th century Talbot Inn (ST727492). From here, head west along Selwood Street until you reach a pair of gateposts surmounted by dogs. Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, these form the entrance to the 16th century manor house, home of the 3rd Earl of Oxford and Asquith. The dogs are talbots, which featured on the crest of the Horner family who once owned the manor.
● Turn left past the entrance to the old rectory. After 200m, turn right by the village lock-up, built in 1728. After the tarmac ends, carry on along a narrow path as the main track swings right. Turn left down an old packhorse trail and right at the bottom past the Old Reading Room – once the Bell Inn – and alongside a mill race. The ruins of the 17th century mill can be seen ahead, just before you reach the road.
● Cross the road and turn left over the Mells Stream (which is also known as the Mells River). On your right are the gates to Mells Park, built by Lutyens but out of sight at the end of the drive. In the run-up to the end of apartheid, secret talks between the South African government and the ANC were held here. Today, game shoots are held on the estate.
● Follow the road round to the left, before crossing over and turning left. After crossing the stream, bear right when the lane forks, and after 75m bear right along a footpath. After crossing a footbridge, head straight up a footpath and turn left along the road. After passing a row of 17th century almshouses on the right, cross the river again to reach Woodlands End, where six roads converge. The triangular shelter was designed by Lutyens in 1908 as a memorial to a member of the Horner family. Turn right, cross the road and bear left along a level road signposted to Great Elm.
● After 250m, turn right to follow a bridleway alongside the Mells Stream (ST733490). Although this steep-sided valley is now an idyllic spot, for centuries it was an industrial powerhouse. In 1744, James Fussell took over a disused mill in the valley to make edge tools. The company prospered; five more factories opened and, by the early 19th century, it was exporting scythes, billhooks and other agricultural hardware to America and Europe.
● After 200m, you come to the first signs of past enterprise – the remains of Fussell’s Upper Works, built around 1800, with an impressive sluice gate still in situ. After Fussell’s ceased production in the 1890s, the works became a water-powered sawmill and, according to an inscription on a stone, were last repaired as recently as 1952.
● The impressive cascade a little further on is the outfall from Whatley Quarry, which produces over four million tonnes of aggregate a year. You may well hear the distant rumble of blasting, preceded by wailing sirens, as another chunk of Mendip limestone is blown to pieces.
● The Upper Works are a mere taster for the Lower Works, a little further on. This is where James Fussell established his first iron works in 1744. At its peak, over 250 men worked here, but it has lain derelict for over a century and now the only sound is the roar of the fast-flowing stream that powered this industrial complex. It is one of the most evocative and dramatic industrial sites anywhere, its impact enhanced by dereliction and the lack of interpretation panels. For years, it was possible to wander freely through the site; worryingly, on a recent visit there was evidence of fences and signs warning of danger. It is certainly a place where extreme care needs to be taken – crumbling masonry, deep pits, fast-flowing water and rusting machinery are a potentially lethal combination – so, if you can gain access, you have been warned. And if you have young children or dogs with you, they need to be kept under close supervision.
● From here, you can either head back to Mells or carry on along the valley (although further on the path becomes increasingly muddy and may flood after heavy rain). If you choose to head back, skip the next paragraph.
● To carry on, follow the path alongside the wall behind the ironworks. Carry on along a tarmac drive past houses, but, when this heads uphill, bear right, following a waymark along a muddy track beside the stream. When you come to a footbridge, cross it and continue alongside the stream. When you come to another footbridge, cross back. Ahead, you will see the railway that carries stone from Whatley disappearing into a tunnel. Bear left, and at the road turn left across the stream. Bear left uphill on the far side and, when the road swings right by Rosemount Cottage, carry on along a narrow footpath (ST747491). Head back down to the stream, and follow it back to Mells.
● At Woodlands End, head straight on uphill past the post office. Turn left by the war memorial, designed by Lutyens, into Selwood Street. To round off your visit, turn right along New Street, built around 1470 by Abbot Selwood of Glastonbury. If you turn right on entering the churchyard, you will see a collection of graves that reads like a Who’s Who of the 20th century. Asquiths lie interred alongside Bonham-Carters; a little further along are the graves of Monsignor Ronald Knox and Siegfried Sassoon. On entering the church, you are confronted by an equestrian statue by Sir Alfred Munnings, a memorial to Edward Horner who was killed in France in 1917. The wooden crosses that marked the war graves of Edward Horner and Raymond Asquith, the son of the prime minister, are also preserved here.
- Distance: 4-5 miles
- Level of challenge: All on paved or well-used footpaths with no stiles. Extreme care needed in former industrial sites.
- Refreshment stops: Mells Post Office Cafe, open daily till 4pm; Talbot Inn (www.talbotinn.com); Bell, Buckland Dinham, on A362 (www.bellatbuckland.com)
- Map: OS Explorer 142