By Steve Dewey
I grew up in Warminster, on the edge of SPTA West, and then moved away for a long while. Because access to SPTA West is more restricted than it is to other parts of the Plain, I always thought of the Plain as something closed and off-limits, with no tracks or paths, except, perhaps, around Chitterne. But when I moved to Marlborough about eight years ago, and drove back from Westbury one day along the Ridgeway, I discovered that you could access SPTA Centre and East, and that there were long tracks across them. And I also discovered that I had found the landscapes I had always wanted to photograph.
While using maps to establish which downs I'd photographed, which copses,and which tracks, I found that I was spending a lot of time, without knowing it, on a heath – the Black Heath. I never even knew there was such a thing, despite living around the Plain for years. Black Heath is a common name, and I know of at least one other close by, near Martin in Hampshire (but which once was in Wiltshire).
So, I've become fascinated by the Black Heath . And yet it is hard to find out anything about it. The Victoria County History has no mention of it. Other local histories appear to have nothing, or very little except the name.
But it seems it was once important, as a way point, or a marker on a journey. Christopher Saxton's map of Wiltshire, Wiltoniae Comitatus of 1576 shows the Black Heath as a landmark as notable as Savernake Forest.
This is repeated on Speed's map of 1710. The Heath is shown as east of Market Lavington, and west of Netheravon:
But what is its extent? Cary's Improved Map of England and Wales (Sheet 18) shows it as a large area:
Here, it appears to stretch east to west from Market Lavington to Upavon, and north to South from the Ridgeway above Urchfont to the Ell Barrow, about ten square miles. The Ordnance Survey map of the early 20th Century is much more conservative, and seems to centre the Heath around the Ell Barrow:
I think Carey's map shows it best. The Black Heath has a certain feel to it, a feel of light and distance, undulations and sky, copses, clouds, and mists.
For me, then, the Black Heath is bounded on the north by the Ridgeway looking out over the Vale of Pewsey, on the east by the military byway from Casterley to Larkhill, at the south by the Bustard Inn, Larkhill and Shrewton, and at the west by the road from Tilshead to West Lavington.
Large parts of the Black Heath are used as an artillery range, so there are few footpaths or bridleways across it. Perhaps the best ways are two old turnpike roads, now permissive byways, often open but closed when the military is up to monkey business. The importance of these two roads can be seen in Cary's Improved Map; the roads around the Heath – the modern roads from the Lavingtons to Tilshead then Shrewton to Rollestone, and from Devizes to Rushall, Upavon and Netheravon – are shown in less detail, are less connected, than the roads from Devizes and Market Lavington across the heath that converge near the Ell Barrow and carry on to Salisbury. The two turnpike roads meet at the old fingerpost.
This for years was only a post without fingers - but two years ago the fingers reappeared, which pleased me greatly. What's a fingerpost without its fingers? How would I know whether I was coming or going?
It's the Devizes to Salisbury turnpike that provides the best views from the Heath. There are shallow vales falling away to Candown bottom, shedding water for the Till. The turnpike can be regarded as ridgeway, providing a high dry route between the wetter routes in the valleys of the Avon and Till.
About two miles after you enter the Black Heath from the north at Red Horn Hill, where the old turnpike gate used to be, you get views down vales that take water to the Till. Here, instead of water, mists rolls into through the vales down to Tilshead.
On the track on the other side of the Heath, on the old turnpike from Lavington, the view is less interesting, although you do get a fabulous view of Ball Down, which, when the light is right, demonstrates why it is so named:
On the right of Ball Down, you can see the old road climbing up the side of the down, unfortunately through the danger area. However, you can carry on down the byway, gravelled by the military, to reach Candown Bottom. The old road was carried on a causeway across the bottom, and so too is the military-made byway, because as winter progresses, the Till rises higher up the slopes. During the very wet winter of 2013/2014, the Till was rising so high up the valley, the causeways were causing a lake to form:
There is much else to say about the Black Heath – copses, and clumps, gorses, barrows everywhere, Romano-British settlements, and archaeological lumps and bumps that show when the light is just right.
The more you visit it, the more you'll see. And it's always worth a visit.
All images copyright of Steve Dewey