Britain's Largest Henge and the Hangman's Stone
Updated: Aug 27, 2022
I would venture to suggest that this easy going almost flat 7.3 mile (11.7 km) walk has something for (almost) everyone. On the route, or a short distance from it, you will find - three cafes; three pubs; a canal; two churches; some beautiful Wiltshire houses and cottages; enduring views of the Pewsey Downs and the White Horse; views of Woodborough Hill; and of course a Neolithic henge and a gruesome reminder of our sometimes barbaric past. Oh, and on the day I did this walk, a totally unexpected field of sunflowers.
One of the things I love about these walks is meeting and chatting to people on the way. I learn so much more about the area through which I’m walking by talking to people who live and work there. And by inviting them to talk about themselves and their love for their environment I can divert attention from my own natural shyness! This day was no different.
This walk begins from the village of Woodborough. The first task was to find somewhere to park for the day. My regular walking buddy Stu and I parked in front of the church. I’ve parked here several times before without issue but on this occasion we were confronted by a new sign warning us that we were not to park there unless we were visiting the church. Well we intended to start our walk by visiting the church so had half a mind to park there anyway, but begrudgingly decided to shuffle the car to one side so that we did not park right in front of the sign. However, this turned out to be pointless. As we got out of the car another car approached driven by a lady with a scowl on her face. We thought we were going to get a talking to, but we couldn’t have been more wrong!
The driver of the car was a delightful woman who had planned to meet a friend at the church in order to do a walk (as we were to discover) up Woodborough Hill. She got out of her car and asked “Where did that bloody sign come from?” I knew instantly we were going to get along! To my regret I didn’t ask her name (and as you’re about to find out, that was probably just as well) but what began was a delightful 15 minute conversation. It turned out that she had grown up in Woodborough and spent most of her life there. Many members of her family were buried in the churchyard. But priced out of the village she said by wealthy incomers she had been forced to move away. She had parked right in front of the sign and had no intention whatsoever of moving her car, her justification, if any was needed, being that she was going to visit the church before starting her walk. She told us how, when she was about eight years old, she had ridden her horse there. “What, into the churchyard?” I asked. “No, into the church!” she replied. This was my kind of gal! She then exclaimed that she couldn’t believe she’d told us that, and that we were not to tell anyone or that her horse was called Nutmeg. On the basis that nobody reads these blogs anyway I have respected her wishes! (Don’t worry, she did relent and said I could share her story which her friend later confirmed.)
An additional word on parking. If you didn’t want to squeeze into the limited space in front of the church you could just follow the road past the church all the way round the bend, keeping left, where it finishes at what I think is a village hall. There was one other car there, and a skip. There is plenty of space to park there. Another place is just past Church Farm, which is on the route, but this gets very muddy.
Anyway, it was time got started. We had a mooch round the churchyard which was heavily populated by ancestors of the locally well-known Stratton family and noted the sundial on a tombstone to the right of the porch.
We then entered the church itself. The impressive entrance would easily allow access for a horse and rider should one be so inclined!
This is the Church of St Mary Magdalene, and what we see now dates from the 19thcentury, although there has been a church on this site from at least the 12th century. Anyone who has read my blog about St Mary’s Church in Maddington will have read about the restoration work of T H Wyatt in the 19thcentury. He also had a hand in re-building part of the church in Woodborough. From the outside the current building looks older than it is, but the interior, which is perfectly maintained, shows all the hallmarks of a Victorian construction.
In the churchyard we followed the cobbled path eastwards towards Church Farm.
There is a wide track here which leads north towards the Kennet and Avon canal and on to Woodborough Hill. Unless you are inclined to stray from public rights of way, this is the only way up (and down) Woodborough Hill. On reaching the stone bridge over the canal we were joined once again by our new favourite lady, this time accompanied by her friend, and after a short continuation of our chat Stu and I dropped down to the canal towpath and turned westwards as our erstwhile companions continued on towards the Hill.
This is a quiet stretch of the Kennet and Avon with views all along of the Pewsey Downs and the White Horse. To begin with we were accompanied only by a kingfisher as we passed the occasional narrowboat moored by the bank. Our next target was Honeystreet and as we approached the bridge carrying the road between Woodborough and Alton Barnes over the canal we came across more moored boats. This stretch of the canal is only about a mile and the nearer we got to the bridge the more it became apparent that the towpath is popular with dog walkers. If I’m honest, the state of the path is an absolute disgrace from that perspective. It’s very difficult to enjoy the scenery as you tiptoe your way through the ghastly mounds. I’m pretty sure that dogs weren’t the only ones leaving behind their parcels too.
But we were determined not to let this ruin our walk as we stopped and chatted to some boat owners who lived on the canal for much of the year. On a beautiful warm day like this it’s easy to see the attraction. But they admitted that the winter life of a narrowboat dweller is harsh (as my brother-in-law found) and the people we spoke to said they move ashore during the winter. The owners of two of the boats had constructed wonderful hazelwood cabins over the sterns of their boats and explained that the hazel, unlike willow, becomes brittle and inflexible as it dries so their cabins need replacing every now and then or, as they explained, when you stagger into them after a long night in a canal side pub. One of the boats was charmingly named “Stinky”, which wasn’t a reference to the state of the towpath but an abbreviation of its full name “Still Thinking”.
Saying our farewells to the boat owners, and to the Canal and River Trust chap checking boat permits and length of stay (two weeks is the maximum on this stretch) we came off the towpath at Honeystreet and crossed the canal for an early coffee at the fantastic Honeystreet Mill café.
As we drank our coffees and ate cake on the deck overlooking the canal it would have been easy to stay here and go no further. It’s a popular place but there were plenty of tables free when we arrived around 10:30. There was lots more space inside where I bumped into another neighbour from Shrewton, Stu being the other one!
Also on site is a farm shop, the India Shop and the Crop Circle exhibition, a permanent and standing feature at this location. But we had a long way to go so we re-crossed the canal to the towpath and continued a couple of hundred metres west until we got to The Barge Inn. It would have been so easy to simply stop here. I’ve spent many happy hours in this pub, including once when we visited by boat. But it was a bit early even for us and at the pub our route was to take us to the south away from the canal.
However, we were in for one our third engaging encounter of the day. We were so busy chatting we completely missed the turn by the pub and carried on past admiring the many boats and a perfectly located terrace of little cottages on the north bank. There were some real characters along this stretch including an old hippy, who looked like he’d left his head somewhere in 1967, and was “cruising” on what can best be described as a junk. His tiny outboard motor would struggle to make progress in a bath and the engine howled as he travelled along at little more than a snail’s pace. I imagined the jams behind him at Caen Hill locks in Devizes!
Having realised that we’d missed the path back at the pub, we turned and walked back. At this point we were joined by a very jolly lady who had been chatting to what turned out to be her husband who was on board another old junk of a boat. But this one had originated at Glastonbury, and looking at the state of it I’d no idea how it would get back. The lady, who I’d say was in her 70s and sported an impressive tattoo around her arm, explained that she and her husband have travelled all over the country in their boat but that he no longer allowed her on it! As she ambled along beside us relating their life story, including the fact that her husband used to be a long distance lorry driver and that she used to accompany him all over Europe, I was beginning to understand her husband’s point of view. Back at the pub we turned towards the pub car park at which point she followed us. Sharing a startled glance Stu and I thought she was going to join us for the rest of the walk, most of which was still in front of us. But mercifully she climbed into her car which was parked in the car park. To be fair she was lovely. But I wouldn’t want to share a lorry cab with her all the way to Romania.
As we crossed the car park in front of us were some tatty wooden buildings and fields clearly used for exercising horses. We crossed fences by way of stiles and followed the line of the footpath on our map south in the direction of Honey Street Farm (note the space between “Honey” and “Street” here) and thereafter Hurst’s Farm. On the ground we found two sets of stiles almost side-by-side across each fence line although there is only one path shown on the path. It doesn’t matter which stile you use as they all end up in the same fields. However, between Honey Street Farm and Hurst’s Farm we had planned to take the right fork in the footpath shown on the map to the corner of the field. But as we reached the corner the path had been blocked and there was no way through. I haven’t checked the Definitive Map on the Wiltshire Council website but something we found later suggests this right of way may have been removed. It was no great hardship to continue along the clear path with gates and stiles via Hurst’s Farm, it adding only a short distance to the walk.
As you continue along the driveway past the farm you come to a junction of tracks where it is necessary to turn right by some barns along the wide track, Hurst’s Lane, which continues dead ahead for a while before turning sharp right. Before the right turn it is worth pausing at the field entrance where, if you look to your left beyond and to the right of a clump of trees, you will see a large sarcen stone standing alone in the field. This is the next objective but don’t be tempted to cross the field, here. You can get closer by following the track where, having taken the sharp right turn, you soon find another entrance into the same field where the stone is much closer.
What you see before you is the Hanging Stone, the Pewsey White Horse again visible in the background. Everything I’ve read says that the farmer is happy for people to cross to the stone as long as they don’t damage the crop. When we went the field was just stubble having recently been combined. The Hanging Stone is reputedly haunted. One legend says that in the 18th century a sheep rustler sought refuge here whilst being pursued by farm hands. To ensure the sheep didn’t escape he tied one end of a rope he happened to be carrying to the sheep and the other round his own neck! But the sheep took fright, leaped over the stone, snapping the idiotic rustler’s neck as it did so.
Another legend says that, being close to the parish boundary and a junction of tracks, the stone was deliberately placed here and served as a meeting place for the medieval council. A gibbet may have stood here and the accused put on trial next to the stone. If found guilty the hapless criminal would then have been summarily hanged on the spot. It’s said that if you put your ear to the stone you can hear the whispers of those who met their end here.
Returning to Hurst’s Lane we continued along it as it twisted its way through fields, a delightful peaceful amble far from the sound of traffic and interrupted only occasionally by the sound of trains passing on the line to Pewsey.
Eventually we came to the metalled lane by Mill Farm which leads down to the magnificent modern farmhouse at Stanton Dairy.
Passing loose boxes (the horses were absent when we passed) we continued along the right of way until we reached the railway line, the other side of which is Stoke Farm. The line crossing here is just a simple look right, look left and look right again crossing.
Once across the footpath leads you into the little village of Beechingstoke, where we were aiming to have lunch in the churchyard.
The OS map says there is a path between The Old Rectory and the neighbouring cottage leading to the church. But this has been blocked by a garden fence so we were forced to walk along the road through the village towards Patney to reach the church.
St Stephen’s is a pretty little church dating to the 13th century. In this churchyard the name Haywood predominates, a name I’ve seen in other Wiltshire churchyards. Here we found a tombstone with some curious markings. I have no idea what these mean.
Only the 14th century chancel survives of the original medieval building. I thought it was a charming little church, and despite the presence of the grand Old Rectory next door where some fairly major improvements seem to be going on, not much money has been spent on the church which was looking a little tired in an endearing sort of way.
It was interesting to read about the economic history of Beechingstoke manor, a story repeated right across the land and which explains the structure of land ownership in this country. Quoting from British History Online “The parish had an open field common to all estates in the parish and known as 'Stoke field' in 1599. Land there was inclosed that year by private agreement between the most substantial landowners in the parish, Winchester chapter, lords of Beechingstoke manor, Corpus Christi College, Oxford, lords of Puckshipton, and William Button.” The rights of local commoners were henceforth extinguished.
Having rested a while and eaten our lunch at St Stephen’s we crossed the road by a house opposite with a couple of superb old gypsy caravans in the drive, and took the path alongside it.
This follows two sides of a wood which is not marked on the OS map, but stick to the line of the footpath on the map and you won’t get lost. Somewhere here an ancient track, the “Frith Herpath”, forms part of the south-east boundary of Beechingstoke. Crossing fields you will soon reach the second main destination of the day, the giant henge at Marden.
Your first impression of Marden Henge will be one of disappointment. There is little to point to the fact that this Neolithic henge is the largest in the British Isles. Its scale eclipses Stonehenge, Woodhenge, and Durrington Walls. Today only minor earthworks and shallow ditches remain. But take a look at the LIDAR map and you will see the scale of it – 15 hectares (37 acres) in all.
The ditch in front of the earth bank would have been a truly impressive three or four metres deep. It’s thought the henge was used for ceremonial purposes and may have contained a timber circle. What is known is that it once contained a huge mound, dwarfed only by that at Silbury Hill, and perhaps as much as 15 metres high. It was excavated in 1807 by Colt-Hoare and Cunnington by means of a vertical shaft. Little was found and, just as the workers emerged, the shaft collapsed seriously disfiguring the mound. Years later Colt-Hoare returned to find there was nothing left of the mound, the material having been removed by the local farmer. Only 15 cm of the mound remains today but this was sufficient in 2010 to date it to the rest of the enclosure, around 2450 BC. The River Avon to the south of the henge links Marden to the others in this part of Wiltshire such as Wilsford Henge, Durrington Walls, and of course Stonehenge. The importance of the river cannot be overstated.
Crossing the modern road that bisects Marden Henge (the third pub of the day, The Millstream, lies a short distance along the road on the edge of the village) we followed the footpath north-east towards a field of maize and paused briefly to take in the eastern half of the henge, imagining the mound in the field in front of us. We feared the worst when we saw the field of maize, some 2.5 metres high. But a man emerged from it with his dog confirming that the farmer had left a corridor across the field for walkers. See, it can be done!
We crossed the driveway down to the curiously named Puckshipton House. There is some sort of attraction there involving tree houses. We could hear people clearly having a great time but couldn’t see the house itself, which looks like a fine country house from the photographs I’ve seen.
Continuing on to Puckshipton Dairy and then on the minor road to Hilcot we branched off to the left along a footpath through another field of maize, through which the farmer had again left a corridor. Soon we reached the road to Woodborough which we crossed to follow the lane opposite to Bottlesford. We were now on a mission. Having lived not too far from here for a couple of years, The Seven Stars at Bottlesford was a frequent haunt of mine. However, it was only about 3:45 in the afternoon and we weren’t hopeful that it would be open. The sign on the door said it opened at 5:00pm from Wednesday to Sunday but we could see lights. So we went in the side door to find a bar person who confirmed the pub was indeed open. She then went into the back and emerged with an embarrassed look on her face. She apologised and explained that it was her first day working there and that the pub was in fact closed. Despite Stu’s best efforts to convince her that it was her legal duty to serve us, we were defeated! Then, as we left, the landlord came out after us and asked if we wanted a beer. To the sound of a chorus of angels we scurried back in and at just 4:00 pm we were sitting in the lovely gardens clutching our pints. I urge you to go to The Seven Stars in Bottlesford and support these lovely people, who are providing a much needed service to the local community and to weary walkers.
From here it was now just a short walk back to Woodborough along the footpath by the side of the pub which once again crosses the railway line. And if you’re wondering where the other two cafes are, these can both be found at Woodborough Garden Centre, Sticks and Stones being my favourite of the two.
As I said, I think this walk has something for nearly everyone who enjoys the countryside. It is possible to shorten it to about 5.7 miles (9.2 kms) by omitting the stretch along the canal but then you’d miss out on the delights of the Honeystreet Mill Café and the characters you'll find on the way.