There’s no pleasing some people and there’s certainly no pleasing me. My walking buddy Stu and I had planned another trip to the extremities of Wiltshire and we picked a day that seemed to offer the best of the weather in what was looking to be a week when winter would return. Expecting sunny spells for a bit of photographic interest the day dawned grey and miserable. And cold. Undaunted we set off for the 35 mile drive to the extreme north west of Wiltshire to the border with Gloucestershire. In fact if we weren’t very careful as to which side of one particular byway we walked we would indeed have been in Gloucestershire.
In the preceding days we had searched for somewhere to park in the narrow country lanes in what is the Cotswolds in this part of the county. Having looked at maps and Google Street View we settled on the small village of Brokenborough to the west of Malmesbury. We aimed for the church and the pub hoping to find a place where the car would be out of the way. I’d seen photos of cars parked around The Horse Guards pub. From what I could tell the pub had closed down. When we arrived the building was looking very sorry for itself and a notice confirmed that it was indeed closed with no scheduled opening date. Such a shame. But the sizeable car park offered ample off-road parking so that’s what we did. I do hope the pub will one day open again as a sign by the door advertised Uley Old Spot! I have happy, albeit hazy, memories of enjoying a pint or two of that when I lived in the Cotswolds many years ago. Somehow I suspect its destiny is to become more luxury housing.
From the pub we walked the short distance to St John the Baptist Church, passing some lovely cottages on the way including The Old Post Office. Curiously the little post box in the front wall of what is now a house suggested that there are still regular collections. As we always do on our walks we hoped to look inside the church. However, in what is becoming a depressing regularity the door was firmly locked. So we continued through the church yard to the gate on the other side to reach the no through road down which we planned to walk.
This is where we found another curiosity. We had planned to leave the road near its end using a footpath across fields on the apex of the bend by the driveway to a house. There was an entrance to a field on the bend on our left but no footpath sign. We had just passed another sign on our left which was not where the map suggested it should be. But that path headed in the wrong direction. We then noticed the sign we were looking for standing proudly behind a newly planted hedge on our left. It won’t be long before this sign is completely invisible from the road. The sign appeared to send us through the aforementioned field entrance across a newly sown field of crop. In an attempt to do the right thing we decided to track round the field edge to our left so as not to trample the crop. This was a mistake that we repeated several times during the day. This took us down to Brokenborough Farm and a long way out of our way as we ended up having to back-track in completely the wrong direction and on the wrong side of the hedge row on the far side of field. We should have just crossed the field following the line of the right of way where we would have gone straight to a stile bearing a badge for The Palladian Way. But since it was such a large sloping field we couldn’t see the stile from the entrance to the field.
Now back on track, and having walked a considerable distance out of our way, we crossed a pretty valley carrying the Tetbury branch of the River Avon. Our next objective was Boakley Farm. The immediate area around the immaculately maintained farmhouse was strangely manicured. It seemed to be more a park than a working farm and a row of newly planted trees led us to the house where the epitome of a country gentleman attired in tweed cap and shirt, and body warmer peered at us from the gravel drive, whilst a young chap cleaned out a very expensive and sporty looking BMW. We suspected father and son. The farm seemed be some sort of stud or livery as there were several looseboxes in the yard and some handsome looking horses. It’s worth noting that this whole area is hunting country and is a regular haunt of the Beaufort Hunt. From what we saw of the ground on several of the rights of way during the day, it is heavily used by horses. It’s as well to take care during the hunting season as you could find yourself faced with a large number of galloping horses and hounds, and failing that some very boggy terrain. From personal experience I can tell you they don’t stop for anyone.
From Boakley Farm and the barns that are now occupied as industrial units we aimed for Hyam Cottages on the B4040 via a crossing of a minor road. A roadside pub, the Red Bull Inn, stands at the junction of the bridleway and the B road. On the other side of the road is a track. Whilst not shown as a public right of way it is clearly used as such, and in fact becomes a right of way further along its length, so we followed it towards Hyam Wood. This is where the right of way, a footpath, has again been ploughed over. The map shows the footpath as crossing the field to join a bridleway on the far side. This is what you should do. We, however, did not and stuck to the field edge by the wood. This again took us well out of our way and involved a further diversion in the opposite direction to that which we intended and on the opposite side of a hedge to the aforementioned bridleway. This did though enable us to look into the pretty Hyam Wood which I suspect will be a carpet of bluebells and wild garlic before long. However, despite there being no gates there were several “Private” signs so I suspect this is reserved for the hunt to gallop through.
On the south side of the wood was yet another field where the right of way had been obliterated. Again we followed the field boundary to avoid crossing the cultivated field but this time there was no disadvantage other than a few extra metres walking. We soon came to one of the day’s highlights. In front of us was the river, the Sherston Branch of the River Avon. A little way along the river was a beautiful house sitting on its own in the shallow valley by the river. This turned out to be the 17th century Bremilham Mill.
The mill itself dated to at least the mid 16th century but was demolished after 1945. The bridleway follows the wall of a barn which ends by a delightful cottage garden. A couple were in the garden making an arch over a path through the garden using golden coloured stripped willow sticks. The chap was sporting a peaked cap and was smoking an impressive looking pipe. We stopped to chat to them over the low garden wall. I asked them where they had got the willow. Being quick on the uptake I realised the chap did not have a Wiltshire accent. I asked him where he came from to which he answered “Ohio”. He explained he and his wife had been here for 21 years. He’s almost as Wiltshire as me! And he went on to explain they had cut the willow from the banks of the river which flowed through their garden. They were such an engaging couple we could have spent all day talking to them but we had already wasted a lot of time on detours so continued on our way towards Cowage via the little bridge that took the bridleway across the river. Here we stopped for a coffee as the sun finally broke through. As we dallied Stu said I should have asked the couple if I could take their photograph as they worked happily in their idyllic gardens. I wish I had.
Our next stop was another of the day’s key objectives – tiny Bremilham Church at Cowage Farm. I’d seen a photograph of the church on the Instagram feed of Matt Greenhall. I think Matt follows Hidden Wiltshire. Ever since then I was determined to put together a walk to include what purports to be the smallest “in service” church in England. The church sits amongst the farm buildings of Cowage Farm. In fact the church used to be part of a larger 15th century church which was remodelled (ie knocked down) in the 19th century. I believe one service is held there each year. Sadly in 2020 someone stole the bell that hung in the open tower which may explain why this church was also locked. We did ask someone riding a horse out of the farmyard whether it was possible to get hold of the key but she said the farmer who held it was out in the fields somewhere. Meanwhile, the immediate surroundings were somewhat less spiritual in nature. Most of the farm buildings had been turned into business units including one occupied by Veritas Security. Where were they when the bell was stolen? (To be fair I think their business is data security!)
From Cowage Farm we back-tracked towards Bremilham Mill and just before the bridge we turned left to follow the footpath to Foxley. We managed to miss the stone steps over the dry stone wall on our left that takes the path to Foxley, so once again we had to re-trace our steps a little. It did enable us to sneak a view of the rear of the Mill. I’m glad we did as it revealed the two storey oak A-frame that gave spectacular views of the garden and river. Having found the steps over the wall here was yet another ploughed field that obscured the path. By this time we had learned our lesson and followed a bearing straight across the field to Foxley.
Foxley and its undedicated church was another of the day’s highlights, made even better by the fact it was open. The church dates back in parts to the 12th century or even earlier and stands next to Foxley House, the core of which is 16th century. Despite the by now again grey gloomy weather we spent some time exploring the church and decided this peaceful spot was an ideal place for lunch.
The odd vehicle and not a few cyclists passed on the road in front of the church but otherwise we (almost) had the place to ourselves. Just behind the bench where we rested there was what looked like a bricked up Leper’s Squinch. I’m sure someone will put us straight if that’s not what it was. I said we almost had the place to ourselves. On the green opposite Foxley House was a traditional traveller’s caravan. A guy was quietly tidying things into the van as two horses grazed contentedly on the green. A really timeless scene. Foxley proved to be one of our favourite places on this walk.
From here we followed a bridleway towards Foxley Grove. A small bridge bypassed the little ford over the brook after which we shortly came to the next of the day’s curiosities. A giant dry stone egg, a stone block carved with a quote from Roald Dahl, and little stone seat on top of the dry stone wall. Whilst we didn’t know it at the time this turned out to be a joint project in 2012 between the peoples of Norton and Foxley to commemorate the Queen’s 60th jubilee. And its name? The Norton and Foxley Jubilee Egg!
As we tracked alongside the inviting looking Foxley Grove (yet again taking the field edge following Wiltshire Council signs that diverted the right of way away from the cultivated field) we were under no illusions that this was hunting country. Signs everywhere said the wood was reserved for hunting staff only. However, we were soon to reach the Fosseway for the first time and we joined it on the hill above the river. There were a few signs dotted around to say that this area was a scheduled monument. This was the site of what was an important Roman town known now as White Wall. It’s thought that another Roman road heading to the lead mines of the Forest of Dean formed a junction with the Fosseway around here. A mansio (fortified inn) was built here and over several centuries of Roman occupation grew into a small town. We intended to drop down into the valley later but in the meantime we wanted to visit Easton Grey.
At the edge of Foxley Grove, where the bridleway joined the Fosseway, the map shows a footpath heading north-west. However, there was no sign and the metal gate was padlocked. Knowing we were in the right we climbed over the gate and headed across a small field. On the other side was another gate and this one had a footpath sign. A holloway leading back down to the Fosseway joined the footpath from our right. We followed the footpath parallel to and above the River Avon below and at a ruined stone barn we turned left away from the footpath (which we returned on later) to follow a track south-west, still parallel to the Avon which by now had a made a sharp left turn below us. I’m not sure this track is a right of way but there were no signs and it was clearly well used by horses (the hunt) and fishermen. So we figured if it was good enough for them it was good enough for us, and we’d certainly cause far less harm. It also enabled us to follow the strip lynchets marked on the map tracking the hillside towards a stile and the road into Easton Grey.
After a short walk along the road we arrived at the old stone bridge over the Avon (Sherston Branch) in the village of Easton Grey. The bridge dates to the 16th century and it’s worth taking in the views along the river from the bridge, dodging the occasional vehicle that passes through the village as you do so.
The beautiful cottages and houses of this little village are quintessentially Cotswold. Many of the houses as well as Ruckleyhill Farm and its substantial House on the hill above the village, are owned by the Tremayne family who have lived here for generations. Some way above the village towards the B4040 is Easton Grey Church so we made a diversion to visit it. En-route is the substantial country mansion that is the late 18th century Easton Grey House set in its immaculately maintained parkland. Once a favourite haunt of the First World War Prime Minister Herbert Asquith it is now owned by erstwhile media tycoon Michael Green who apparently now practices as a psychotherapist!
Whilst Easton Grey church boasts a 15th century tower it was substantially re-modelled in 1836, presumably at the behest of its next door neighbour at Easton Grey House. As the church lies some distance from and above the village, it seems to have been absorbed into the estate as a footpath leads from the churchyard onto the otherwise gated long driveway to the church. Happily this church too was open. It contains a 13th century font (which was covered by a 21st century table cloth and vase of flowers on which I could practice my still life photography), a Gothic organ (!!) and box pews. It was well worth the trudge up the hill to visit.
Back in the village we took the footpath from Rockleyhill Farm House (passing a little cottage with an unusual chimney just before the Farm House) back towards the river to the east.
We were aiming for the weir marked on the map. This was an interesting spot. There are several ruined buildings here and the old weir sluice. This was clearly an important place for controlling the flow on the River Avon and one of the ruins contained the remains of machinery together with discarded swimwear as this is a favourite spot for wild swimming and general larking about.
Now back on the south bank of the Avon where the river formed a tight bend we soon reached the Fosseway again and a bridge that took it to the north bank of the river. This, according to the interpretation board by the bridge, was the main site of the Roman town. I’ve read that there are earthworks all around here that indicate parts of the town but so much of the land is private and fenced off it’s not possible to see these remnants of Roman occupation. But man’s presence here pre-dates even the Romans as this area formed the southern boundary of the Iron Age Dobunni Bell Beaker people. A hoard of Dobunni coins was found near Easton Grey.