Updated: Aug 2, 2022
A couple of weeks ago my walking buddy Stu and I paid our first visit to Bentley Wood, down on the border with Hampshire. Having just read A History of Bentley Wood by Margaret Baskerville and David Lambert I was keen to see the place for myself. With assistance from Elaine Perkins, Stu and I pieced together a walk that would take in Hound Wood, Bentley Wood itself and Blackmoor Copse. We wanted to see it in early Spring and then re-visit at another time of year - hopefully bluebell season (although for logistical reasons this may not be possible for me).
Bentley Wood is a 1,700 acre (688 ha.) nature reserve and SSSI which has been exploited by man for at least 2,000 years. There is free access to roam (although beware forestry work in places) but there are miles of tracks and trails. It is easy to get lost if you don't stick to the tracks. It has been worked variously by Romano-British farmers, medieval huntsmen, and 19th century woodland labourers as well as more industrial scale forestry in the 20th century. Today the woodland is still commercially managed in line with the requirements of the trust that owns it but always with a view to its conservation.
Over the course of time the wood would have born witness to elk, bear, beaver, wolves and wild boar. It is likely that the climate made it impenetrable to man until Roman times, although Iron Age people may have farmed its southern fringes. A wide range of trees are found there. Early species such as birch, aspen and sallow gave way to pine and hazel as the climate warmed after the last ice age. Alder and oak followed and then lime and elm. Later beech, ash, holly, maple and hornbeam began to grow as the fortunes of species such as pine and elm waxed and waned over time. Now of course we are faced with the catastrophic loss of ash with beech likely to follow.
For much of its history the wood was owned as a separate part of the estate of Amesbury Manor, belonging to the rulers of Wessex back to the 7th century AD. It continued to be in the ownership of the Crown until the 1140s when it was passed to the Earl of Salisbury. Whilst the Manor of Amesbury shrank in size it retained ownership of Bentley Wood until the 1820s due to the Manor’s considerable demand for wood. Ownership of the Manor of Amesbury changed hands many times over this period, and owners included Queen Eleanor, the Bishop of Winchester, the Plantagenets, and the Seymour family (think Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife).
Jumping forward to 1906 the estate was purchased by the American Washington Singer (of the sewing machine family) who saw value in it as a stud for horses. He cared deeply for the wood but had no financial need to exploit it. The family home was at Norman Court. At this point what we see as Bentley Wood today came into single ownership for the first time. World War I brought huge demand for timber and after the war the ability to exploit woodland more efficiently was becoming understood. In 1919 the Forestry Commission was established and empowered to buy or lease land.
Despite German bombing in the wider area during World War II Bentley Wood was largely untouched, apart from a land mine that landed in Blackmoor Copse. Great use was made of the wood in the lead up to D-Day when it was used to hide men, vehicles and other equipment from view from above. In 1945/6 Bentley Wood was purchased by Manchester timber merchants Reif and Son. Having felled most of the best quality timber Bentley was re-sold to the Forestry Commission in 1950. There followed an extensive programme of re-planting that shaped much of the landscape we see today.
The final chapter in the history of Bentley came in 1983 when the Forestry Commission was directed by Government to sell much of its woodland. Lady Ann Colman generously bought Bentley and transferred it to the charitable trust that owns it to this day. She never lived to fully express her intentions for the wood but she lived long enough to appoint local broadcaster and writer Ralph Whitlock as founder trustee. He founded the Friends of Bentley Wood under whose oversight the wood has flourished.
Following Elaine’s invaluable advice we started our walk in Farley, parking outside the church and opposite the alms houses known as Fox’s Hospital after Sir Stephen Fox who built it in 1681. He also built the church, All Saints, which dates to 1690. And yes the church was locked!
I’m not going to list every twist and turn of the walk as there are numerous tracks and paths that one can follow. But from the church we followed the bridleway alongside the village school north to Church Copse and Hound Wood, thence to Home Farm.