Updated: Mar 12
This is another walk that I’ve had planned for a long time. But I needed the right weather and the right time of the year (for reasons that will be come clear). Keeping an eye on the forecast my walking buddy Stu and I settled on a day that offered intermittent sunny spells – the perfect balance between clear blue and flat grey skies, both hopeless for photography. Come the day we sort of got what we hoped for although the grey returned mid afternoon.
Our plan was to do a longish circular walk in the hills based on Aldbourne. Not a place either of us knew particularly well. Our favourite walks are those that take us up onto chalk downland with sweeping views and plenty of history, together with some hidden quirky finds to satisfy Hidden Wiltshire followers. We got that in spades on this day. Stu was struggling with a twisted ankle sustained whilst we were volunteering at Prescombe Down a couple of weeks before. I was concerned the 10 miles I had mapped out might be a bit much for him but ever the old soldier he dosed himself up with pain killers, strapped up his ankle and got on with the job in hand without so much as a whimper (well just one anyway).
The route I had plotted in the OS Maps app started in the village of Aldbourne and headed up to Liddington Castle along one ridge above the valley before returning on the ridge on the opposite side. When I was doing my research the day before the walk I discovered that this is actually a recognised walking trail called the Aldbourne Circular Route. It also intersected with the Liddington Castle Circular Walk and offered several options to shorten the walk if necessary. The route we did was 10.39 miles (16.72 kms).
We parked in The Square in Aldbourne by the pond in front of The Crown pub (you can no doubt guess what our intention was for later that day)! I was chatting to a villager who said there was no limit to how long you can park there but he warned me that during school drop off and pick up times parents just abandon their vehicles in the square so you will likely be blocked in for a while. There were plenty of spaces available when we went (a Tuesday) but I suspect it would be busy on a Saturday. There is on-street parking elsewhere in the village if you are considerate.
One of the key decisions we had to make was which way round to do the walk. This is why I was anxious to do it at the right time. The walk involves a very unpleasant stretch along the verge next to the B4192 which goes to Swindon. The stretch took us 12 minutes and the verge was mostly wide but required extreme caution. People drive at insane speeds along this road and later that day we saw one car travelling at what I estimated to be between 90 and 100 mph. As we walked along the verge not a single driver made any attempt to slow down as they passed us. But there was no way of avoiding this stretch, although as I will explain later you could make it slightly safer for yourself for a bit. So the decision to make is do you want to do this stretch at the beginning or the end of the walk, at what time of day and at what time of year (assuming it’s a bit quieter during the holiday season)? My advice is to avoid rush hour. Anyway, we decided to do the road walk at the end so we did the route anti-clockwise.
From The Square we walked up the narrow street alongside The Crown (Green Steet?) towards the church and the village green. This was a lovely spot and I was taken aback by quite how big the green was, bounded as it was by several delightful old cottages on two sides and The Blue Boar pub on another. Photographs duly snapped we walked along the road up the hill in front of the pub. I would love to have visited the church but we had a long day ahead and I knew we wouldn’t have time. How right I was! Alongside and above the narrow lane was an ancient cobbled pavement. It looked a bit greasy and not wishing to slip down into the road we continued along the road. We had to step aside pretty sharply as a lady drove down towards us cheerfully smiling as she juggled a large mug of tea or coffee in one hand whilst wrestling with the steering wheel in the other. Shortly afterwards we forked left onto the bridleway that was to keep us company for the next few miles as we climbed steadily towards Sugar Hill.
I’m afraid the local dog walkers have not done themselves proud on this part of the walk. This was to become something of a theme anywhere within a couple of hundred metres of a road during the day. The path was strewn with little black bags or worse still mounds of the brown stuff. We really had to keep our eyes fixed firmly to the ground. Thankfully most of them seem to run out of steam before too long as they turn and head back to the village. But before we felt comfortable enough to begin to admire the scenery we came to what was presumably an echo of Aldbourne’s World War II history, when it played host to the men of America's 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, or Easy Company as featured in the film Band of Brothers. On a gate post we came across what looked like a rat dangling from a parachute. As we were to discover later The Blue Boar played a role in this part of Aldbourne’s past whilst the rat is a Banksy stencil, presumably put here because of the connection with the 101st Airborne?
The route is very simply here (and in fact was so throughout the day) and continues wide and dead ahead. The views to the ridges to the east and the west rapidly open up as you gain height. By this time the clouds were scudding across the sky and the sun illuminated patches on the distant hills.
The wind was picking up and we were glad of the extra layers we had brought with us. One of the reasons I chose this particular route was the plethora of pre-historic monuments alongside the track. After about 2 kms (1 mile) we came to a stone cairn beyond which could be seen the barrow cemetery known as four barrows. This whole area along the entire length of the walk is strewn with burial bounds, signifying the importance of the area throughout man’s history here. There are simply too many to mention but The Aldbourne Heritage Centre website is a great source of information.
The four bronze age barrows at this location comprise three bell barrows and a bowl barrow dating from between 2500 and 1500 BC. This site, and many others in the area, was excavated by prolific excavator Canon William Greenwell between 1885 and 1890, and produced many finds including cremation burials, amber beads, flint flakes, a grooved dagger and animal bones. In another burial mound to the west of and below the four barrows Greenwell found the famed Aldbourne Cup, a remarkably well preserved ceramic funerary cup with lid which is currently on loan to Wiltshire Museum in Devizes from the British Museum.
Immediately behind the four barrows was a peculiar fence post. I’m not sure of the purpose or origin of this, or indeed whether it was just a piece of wood that had been re-purposed, but there was another similar post across the field to the east and a third by the track to the north. Soon after was another burial mound, this one in the field to the right (east). This is another bowl barrow where Greenwell excavated a cremation burial and worked flint flakes.
This ridge is known as Sugar Hill and further on again we could see a prominent bowl barrow in the field to the left (west) by an avenue of trees, topped with a lone hawthorn tree. Here Greenwell found the cremated remains of an adult in a cist and covered by cairn together with a bronze dagger and bone pin. The right of way on the map is shown as passing to the left (west) of the barrow but the field was under cultivation and a tractor was patrolling up and down spreading seeds or fertiliser so we kept to the edge of the avenue of trees where we stopped for a coffee.
Soon after our coffee break we came to the junction with The Ridgeway. We passed through the gate and turned left towards another junction and gate on the edge of the escarpment looking over the B4192 far below. In the field were several sarsen stones and in hindsight this would have been a better place to rest as the stones made a comfortable perch with fine views across to the ridge opposite where we would be later on in the day. Just to the north of this junction a couple of pillow mounds are marked but we could see nothing.
At this point you could cut the walk short by descending to the road south east of Liddington Warren Farm, crossing it then climbing to the return leg of the route on the ridge opposite, thereby missing out Liddington Castle. But we continued on the route passing almost imperceptibly over a long barrow as the bridleway approached and then abutted the road before crossing it close to Liddington Cross Roads.
We crossed the road and continued ahead up the slope along what was now the Ridgeway, another spot clearly popular with dog walkers (mind where you tread)! Off to our right we saw what looked like a pill box. In fact we almost missed it and even when we spotted it we nearly didn’t bother going to look. But we were there, and the pill box was winking at us so up the hill we went. This proved to be something of a remarkable find. My eye was captured by the elaborate graffiti, whilst Stu disappeared behind the building, I assumed to find a convenient bush or tree. He soon re-emerged and said “come and look at this, you’re going to love this”. In the copse behind the bunker was what I can only describe as a memorial wood. The trees were covered with plaques, ribbons and other votives. There were little memorial gardens, flowers and other memorabilia everywhere. This was a place of remembrance for seemingly hundreds of loved ones, some of whom’s ashes had been spread here. Sadly there was a fair amount of rubbish cast around too, and of course by now the M4 was in full view and earshot. It transpired the bunker was in fact a command bunker, part of a World War II Starfish site where fires were set as a decoy for German bombers aimed for Swindon.
Our next stop, where we intended to have lunch, was Liddington Castle. A permissive path takes you round two sides of a cultivated field to a gate on the north side of the monument. Liddington is one of the oldest hillforts dating to the late Bronze Age. A univallate hill fort the ditch between the two earthworks is still remarkably deep. At 277 metres (909 feet) the fort (or camp) commands the heights from afar when viewed from the north. This was certainly some statement. It covers 3 ha (7.4 acres) and has opposing causewayed entrances. A large very deep pit, now filled in, lies in the centre. Archaeologists are uncertain what its purpose was. This was also a favourite haunt of the great Victorian nature writer Richard Jeffries who was born on a small farm on the edge of nearby Swindon.
Once we had fed and watered, and sheltered from the biting wind for a while, we backtracked along the permissive path to the Ridgeway and began our journey south again, ultimately to Aldbourne. There are fine views of Shipley Bottom to the east. The byway along this bottom takes you down to and across the B4192 before climbing the ridge to the pillow mounds and sarsen stones mentioned earlier. This will be your route if you took the short-cut. The route here is accompanied for a long distance by a series of distinct earthworks on both sides which are likely to have been some sort of boundary markers. The Ridgeway here (which also serves as the Aldbourne Circular Route) is now a byway so is deeply rutted and muddy in places. There are several junctions but we were now aiming for one of our main objectives of the day, the abandoned village of Snap.
One of the junctions, north of the junction for Snap, takes you to Upper Upham. This is an alternative option but you would have to double back to visit the site of Snap so we continued along the byway south. At a crossroads marked by a concrete covered reservoir, we turned left (east). At a right angle turn in the track we went through the metal farm gate on the apex of the corner on our left. If you continued round the corner you would come to Snap Farm and Snap Farm Cottages, but we were set on the abandoned village through the gate on our left. Descending the valley on what is also a byway we threaded our way through what was once a very extensive show jumping/eventing course with all manner of obstacles. It was now in a poor state of repair. In fact as we passed through the aforementioned gate a lady on horseback coming up the hill shouted for us to open the gate for her. It seems she had fallen off her horse at the previous gate (right by the abandoned village) and was now in some discomfort. She said she would be unable to re-mount if she got off her horse again. To be honest, if I had been her age I wouldn’t have been up there in the first place!
The next gate was at the western edge of a small wood. Herein lies the abandoned village of Snap. The wood was surrounded by a barbed wire fence but little remains and it’s an easy matter to enter the wood. Snap was first recorded in 1268. In 1377 there were 19 poll tax payers, and in 1733 there were thought to have been between five and ten houses. By the 1841 census it was a small farming community of 47 people. However, with cheap American imports of corn the rural economy declined and the population drifted away. In 1905 a Ramsbury butcher, Henry Wilson, bought what was left of the village and he was accused by the local MP of favouring the resident sheep over the remaining human inhabitants, describing Wilson of being oppressive and tyrannical. Incensed by this the butcher’s son sued the MP for slander! By 1909 there were only two residents, and most of the houses were destroyed by Army gunnery practice in World War I. One house remained in the 1930s. Years later some people claimed the village was abandoned due to the failure of its water supply, and in the fields to the east next to the byway is a ruined water pump, its sail a mangled heap on the grass beside it. But this was a myth, people having forgotten the real reason for the demise of the village.
I found the location quite moving. The wood has absorbed what were once people’s homes and nothing but rubble remains, although many walls were still clearly visible at this time of year (early Spring). As we trawled through the wood the now gloomy light made for a melancholic atmosphere as we rifled through old bricks, roof tiles and even fragments of dinner service. As we did so, by way of startling juxtaposition, we heard the unmistakable whine of an RAF A400M transport aircraft. Peering through the canopy of trees above us the aircraft came screaming what felt like tens of feet overhead, shattering the peace and sense of remoteness. As we left the wood and the ghosts of the villagers behind we descended along the byway which was here cut deep into earth forming a holloway, once the routes of the villagers to the distant village of Aldbourne. We came to a bend in the track and came across a memorial stone to the people of Snap from the pupils of Toothill School in Swindon dated 15-8-1991. I read that this too has now gone.
From Snap we climbed the hill to Upper Upham. There is the site of another abandoned Medieval village here but I’m not sure it is accessible or what remains. However, what does remain is the remarkable Elizabethan country house, Upham House. I was astounded to read this is only a Grade II* building. It was built in 1599 by the Goddard family, lords of the manor of Swindon. Over the years the house fell into disrepair but was restored and extended between 1909 and 1922 for British voluntary worker and Liberal Party politician Lady Hilda Currie. It has since been divided into three houses and as can be seen in the photograph was undergoing substantial building work when we visited. That looks like a very expensive roof job! Nearby is another presumably substantial house, High Clear House, but this was invisible behind high hedges, CCTV and many Private signs. Someone doesn’t want to be seen. Or maybe they’re just fed up with tourists looking for Downton Abbey!
By now the light was fading and we still had a way to go. We turned right (south east) just past the driveway to High Clear House on to a deeply rutted byway. Entering an open field we played Grandmother’s Footsteps with the local sheep before passing through another gate onto open downland.
Through the gloom to our left (east) we could make out the four barrows we had passed on Sugar Hill many hours earlier in the sunshine. Passing another nondescript burial mound we were making for the enticingly named Giant’s Grave Round Barrow Cemetery, which had caught my eye on the map many months before. I discovered later that the nondescript mound was part of the Giant’s Grave Cemetery group but the main attraction, the Giant’s Grave itself, was in a small copse. Unfortunately, in the half light, I was distinctly underwhelmed and disappointed. The Giant’s Grave is a bell barrow where Greenwell excavated an adult cremation, two bone pins and a fragment of an arrowhead. The Cemetery group consists of four bowl barrows and a bell barrow.