A French Enclave in Wiltshire?
Updated: Feb 14
My first Hidden Wiltshire walk in a while, this was in more ways than one a journey into the past for me. It’s a walk I set out to do on two previous occasions in the last couple of months but somehow I got distracted both times. However, in early February on a beautiful misty frosty morning under clear skies, my usual walking buddy Stu and I determined to complete the walk. Things didn’t go entirely to plan!
Our walk began by the bridge over the Wylye River in the village of Wylye. Almost immediately we were confronted by the sight of a bridge lined with flowers and wreathes. We later discovered that just two days before hand the long-standing postmaster in Wylye was found dead in the river at this spot. I don’t know the full story and won’t hypothesise here but it seems he may have taken his own life. How desperately sad.
Our first objective was the curiously named village of Fisherton de la Mere. From there our plan was to return to Wylye in order to climb up to Wyle Down National Nature Reserve then on to the Monarch’s Way on the ridge above. On our way over to the Wylye valley we were greeted by a fairy tale scene of a frozen valley slumbering under a blanket of mist whilst the sun blazed down from the empty skies above. The frost was so thick it was like a dusting of snow, the roadsides lined with icicles hanging from every bush. Puddles had turned to sheet ice. The scene was so dazzling I nearly diverted once again in order to take to the heights to capture the scene from above, a vision of church spires piercing the mist in the valley below in my mind’s eye. However, the pressure of having someone else along for the ride made me stick to the plan.
So we spent some time at the bridge reading the messages left with wreathes and flowers before setting off along the footpath next to the bridge parapet to follow along the banks of the river. Mist rose gently from the waters which glowed from the by now brilliant sunshine. Very quickly you pass underneath the A303 which thunders above your head. For a short distance you are never far from the din of “The Road to the Sun”. `but before long the noise melts aways and peace descends, although being sandwiched between both the A303 and the A36 it is never entirely quiet here.
There are several simple benches along this stretch of the river, presumably for the fishermen. As a fly fisherman this was heaven for Stu. And as a photographer I felt like a kid in a sweet shop not knowing where to turn next. This stretch of the path is very muddy in places. If it weren’t for the freezing temperatures I might have worn wellies, albeit they would not have been suitable for the later sections of the walk that follow the road.
With breath taking views across the river south to the ridge that plays host to Grovely Wood we soon caught sight of some of the beautiful cottages in Fisherton de la Mere. As we rounded a curve between hedges the tower of the church appeared ahead of us. This was the muddiest section of the walk as walkers are funnelled along a narrow channel.
Then on our left the stunning Fisherton Mill appeared (not the one in Salisbury)! A beautiful house in an idyllic setting as water tumbled past on the millstream, there has been a mill here since at least 1086 when it was recorded in the Domesday Book. I’ve always thought it would be very soporific to lie at night listening to sound of a mill race. But many years ago, when I lived in the Cotswolds, we once stayed with friends who lived in a mill. I spent all night getting up to the loo, and that had nothing to do with the amount of wine we’d drunk!
So why my desire to visit Fisherton de la Mere? Well it goes back to half a lifetime ago when we first moved to Wiltshire. My wife and I were looking for a house from where she could get to her job in Bristol and I to mine between Southampton and Portsmouth. We looked at a cottage in Fisherton de la Mere with a garden that sat beside the mill stream. We fell in love with the location, at a time when the A36 which passes right by Fisherton was much quieter. We were very keen on the house despite it being less than ideal but we allowed ourselves to be talked out of buying it by a family member. I’ll never forgive myself for listening to him. I can still picture myself sitting on the bench in that garden on a warm summer’s evening with a glass of wine or a pint looking across the stream to the sun setting over the hills beyond. We could have lived with the shortfalls of the house or over time worked round them. But we’ll never find a more perfect spot than that. You can make your own mind up from the photographs.
To rub salt into what is still a raw wound, as Stu and I were gazing at a scene of the utmost tranquillity (I guess Stu was dreaming of fish!) two people emerged from the house onto the drive. I asked if they owned the house. And of course they did. What transpired was a conversation with the most delightful of couples. It was like meeting old friends as I asked endless questions about the cottage. If they hadn’t been on their way for a day out in Frome I feel sure we’d have been invited if for a nose around. But as it happened Andy turned out to be a fellow photographer (if you are on Instagram have a look at his superb street photography here Andy Allen ) so we began a long conversation about photography. He then made the mistake of saying that he was a fly fisherman and retired from his job as a river keeper to live in my cottage! That was Stu’s cue to jump into the conversation, as I was swiftly forgotten. I thought I’d be envious of anyone living in the cottage but I am so glad it is in the care of such a delightful and engaging couple who clearly love living there.
I often wondered, why the name Fisherton de la Mere? Clearly its origins are Norman. In the Domesday Book the settlement there was referred to as Fisertone. The named de la Mere (also Delamere or Delamare) comes from the family who owned the manor in the Middle Ages. They used all of the above spellings of their name, and indeed all three spellings have been used in reference to the village. Following the Norman conquest it was quite common for the Norman invaders to adopt the name of their new home but on this occasion the village seems to have adopted the name of its new owner! As with so many manors over the centuries it changed hands several times, from the Paulets in 1413 (William Paulet was Secretary of State to Henry VIII), to the Dukes of Somerset in the late 18th/early 19th centuries. The ancient parish of Fisherton de la Mere comprised the villages of Fisherton itself and Bapton about a mile away to the south. Interestingly Bapton estate was owned by Sir Cecil Chubb from 1927, who lived in Bapton Manor. Chubb famously gifted Stonehenge to the nation and also lived in Shrewton for a time.
From the cottage we followed the lane round and up to the rear entrance to the church, having completely missed the steep stone steps up to the front from the village green. St Nicholas’ Church position on the northern slopes of the hill rising up from the river commands wonderful views of the Wylye Valley and the ridge on which Grovely Wood sits.
First built in the 14th century its classic chequerboard construction of flint and Chilmark stone includes a sturdy square tower.
The interior is quite plain, having been “restored” by the Victorians (I assume by the prolific T H Wyatt). The walls have been plastered and the floor is tiled in the style typical of the Victorian era. What was interesting was the gallery to the western end of the nave and the rood screen separating the nave from the chancel. There is also a memorial panel dating to the 17th century to two babies, carved in their beds. These are the children of Thomas Crockford, the parish vicar of 1613-1622, and his wife Joan.
We didn’t spend long in this simple but peaceful church and after a coffee in the churchyard we descended the narrow steps back to the village green. It was at this time we realised it had been two hours since leaving Wylye and that we had covered little more than a mile, with another five or so to go!
From Fisherton we crossed the little footbridge over the river and followed the bridleway south across the water meadows towards Bapton. This was once the main route connecting the two parts of the old combined parish. Looking back to Fisherton the bridleway offers views of the fine houses strung out along the valley in the village. The meadows bear all the signs of controlled flooding, with channels dug hither and thither. I doubt that is done anymore. As you continue along the route you get a glimpse of the manor house at Bapton but it’s well screened by a tall cob wall.
We soon reached the road between Stockton and Wylye which is where we began the first of the two road stretches on this walk. Despite having to walk in the road there was very little traffic to bother us so we were able to enjoy the far reaching views to the north and the south. We passed under the A303 again alongside the railway line, looking for the footpath that would take us south up to Wylye Down. We found this easily enough, crossing the railway line using the pedestrian crossing. There are good views up and down the line so it's safe to cross here. Just make sure you shut both gates after you.
The path winds its way along Wylye Cow Down Bottom, climbing gently the whole time. This is obviously a popular route for Wylye’s dog walkers so watch where you are treading. Thankfully they don’t go much beyond the stables a couple of hundred metres along the path. I loved the way the path snakes its way along the valley, and a side valley appeared on the left reaching up to the Dinton-Wylye road unseen just over the ridge. The lone tree on the skyline caught my attention.
After a short while we reached the gate and interpretation board that gives access to the Wyle Down National Nature Reserve, managed by one of Stu and my colleagues at Natural England. Years of careful grazing by both cattle and sheep has resulted in a chalk grassland rich in wildflowers. A visit in Spring will reveal several species of orchid here. The reserve is open access and a quick look at the interpretation board or the 1:25,000 OS map will show you where you have the freedom to roam.
Before long the path leaves the reserve although the slopes either side of the valley remain in the reserve. These mainly consist of scrubby hawthorn. But we continued along the trail, with an old hand pump fenced off in the middle of the field, once used to pump water from an underground reservoir. The rust suggested it is no longer in use. The trail climbs steeply at the head of the valley. As we entered the wood with a barn to our right, on our left was a track that heads towards the Dinton-Wylye road which we would join later. It’s not an official right of way but it seems to be the shortest way onto the open access land from the road so once again we have the debate – are you permitted to use such tracks (I read somewhere that people do)? We chose not to and on this occasion we decided to stick to the bridleway as we wanted to reach the Monarch’s Way so that we could get the views to the hills to the south.
Reaching the ridge we stopped where the bridleway takes a sharp left by Grim’s Ditch. Here we had lunch as we gazed across layers of hills cloaked in the mist for miles to the south. On reaching the Monarch’s Way, which forms a crossroads with the bridleway, we remained rooted to the spot simply taking in the views east, south and west that seemed to go on forever. “Monarch’s Way” takes its name from the route taken by King Charles II during his escape after his defeat by Cromwell in the final battle of the Civil Wars at Worcester in 1651, when for six weeks the young king was pursued by Parliamentary troops. It takes little imagination to picture the king and his followers fleeing along this ridge, which provides the perfect vantage point from which to spot any threat.
As we stood marvelling at the view Stu spotted something flying low along the line of the Way. He already had his binoculars out as he surveyed the scenery and as he quickly brought them up to his eyes he quietly said “barn owl”. It was flying straight towards us. We tried to stay low but we stood out like a sore thumb. My camera at the ready I hoped it would remain preoccupied with its hunt, but at the last moment it spotted us to make a brief diversion to the bridleway along which we had just come. Then incredibly it turned towards us again. I fired off a few frames but armed only with a 50mm lens I was never going to get much of a shot. As we remained at the junction of the routes the barn owl flew around us, at one point passing just metres behind Stu as he looked the other way. I never cease to be amazed how silent these beautiful birds are as they hunt for food. It’s little wonder they are such successful predators. It was a privilege to share its company in such close proximity for a while.
Still awestruck from our encounter we turned east to follow the Monarch’s Way for about a kilometre. The trail is level here and the going is easy, even being paved in places. We had the trail to ourselves but I would imagine on a Spring or Summer’s weekend it would be busier, doubtless with a few off-roaders for company. Eventually after one or two twists and turns we reached the Dinton-Wylye road at Dinton Beeches.
Unless you are prepared for a lengthy extension to the walk the only option to return to Wylye from here is down the road. We were happy to do this, as on a weekday afternoon it wasn’t busy, although someone was keeping an eye on us as we began our descent!
Having ridden and driven up and down this road countless times I knew the views north, east and west would distract us, and I wanted to get a different view of some of the historical monuments on the way down.
First up was Hanging Langford Camp and Church-end Ring to our right (east). You can read more about these ancient settlements in my blog entitled Grovely Wood and the Woodsman. This was soon followed by Bilbury Rings, again to our right. An Iron Age hillfort, it has largely been ploughed out and as you can see from my photograph there is little evidence of it left on the ground - just the faintest of earthworks. Salisbury Museum contains some of the finds from this location, which include a ring and a collection of brooches as well as an iron arrowhead.
Eventually we reached the bottom of the hill, having crossed the railway again at the level crossing. It was a short walk from here back to the car. Sadly The Bell Inn was not open on the day we did the walk but if you get the chance do visit this terrific pub. The Carriers at Stockton is a sister pub which brews some of the beer sold in both.
All in this walk was just under 11kms (6.8 miles). It was muddy at times, especially at the beginning by the River Wylye, and the two road stretches were no great problem. But the views throughout were spectacular showing Wiltshire at its finest.