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.
It was interesting to compare these woods with those of the main Bentley Wood and Blackmoor Copse later in the day. As the accompanying map shows we entered Bentley itself at Beechways Copse then on to Redman’s Gore, Redridge Copse, Howe Copse East, Heath Copse, Donkey Copse, Howe Copse West, Hawks Grove, and High Bushes. Each copse seemed to have its own character, from the open carefully managed beech woodland of Beechways to the more overgrown and boggy areas to the south. And each copse had a wooden sign bearing its name to help with way finding.
We first listened then watched as we came across nuthatches in the trees above, and thought we'd caught a glimpse of a pair of the scarce purple emperor butterfly that is found here but it seems too early in the year for them. The wood in midweek was largely peaceful with just a few other walkers and a couple of noisy horse riders. The sounds of forestry work could be heard at High Bushes where the trails were a little more boggy. All the while the sun ventured on occasions from behind the clouds to bathe the groves in light. The trails we used were mostly broad and easy going. We passed a guy in a motorised wheelchair walking his dog. We came to the Ben Lane car park which was deserted, an alternative place to park if you want to drive directly to the wood. There are other car parks in or on the edge of the wood. Soon after we crossed the road into Blackmoor Copse at the junction of Ben Lane, Long Drove, and Livery Road the latter which was used for to park large numbers of military vehicles in preparation for D-Day.
Blackmoor Copse was quite different to the other areas of Bentley. It was Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s first reserve in 1962. There are waymarked trails through the wood which were pretty boggy. Elaine had warned me that they never really dry out. We headed straight to the Blackmoor Ponds, one of which we assumed was formed by the mine dropped from a German bomber in the last war. This was a delightful place to stop and rest. I’m told at the right (or wrong) time of the year it is a cacophony of croaking frogs. But on this day all we could hear was the traffic on the surprisingly busy Livery Road nearby.
From Blackmoor Copse, where we watched the circling buzzards overhead, we found our way back to Farley via a boggy path between Grassy Common and Farley Copse. Sadly we were to find here the decapitated body of a beautiful buzzard. Who would do such a thing?
Foolishly we walked straight past the by now open Hook and Glove pub where two chaps sat in the peaceful sunlit front garden enjoying a refreshing glass of white wine each. We should have joined them!
I want to thank Elaine Perkins once again for her guidance but also for some of the photographs in this blog which she took at different times during the year, often in soft misty light. I have credited Elaine as appropriate under each of her photographs.
I also want to acknowledge the aforementioned book A History of Bentley Wood for much of the factual detail in this blog.