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Burcombe, the Punch Bowl and finally some dry days!


View to the North towards Burcombe from the New Covert.

It is fair to say that the weather in Wiltshire and indeed most other parts of the United Kingdom has been pretty awful so far in 2024. When it hasn’t been raining, it has been windy, or even raining and windy, with dull threatening skies dominating the dark and dreary or wild and woolly days. Social media has been full of images of floods and boggy footpaths, so nothing has been conducive for a fair-weather explorer like me to venture out far. Therefore, for most of this time I have been sat planning walks, learning snippets of the history, gossip and folklore of Wiltshire and preparing for a walk that I can take you along with in a blog once I returned to the countryside that I love.


So what do I do the first really, really promising day? I decide to go on a different walk entirely! Inspired by leafing through a booklet on Nadder Valley Walks produced by the Tisbury Footpath Group, I decided that it would be interesting to do the last walk in their first book entitled “Wilton and around Burcombe”  Well that is impulse I suppose and I am rather glad I acted on this one as the walk was very enjoyable as was the lunch in the Greyhound Inn on completion.


Walking along South Street, Wilton with the wall to Wilton house on the left.

We started our walk at the car park on South Street in Wilton. The car park is free all day and has a Nunton Dairy vending machine, which seems to be quite popular with a number of people visiting it for milk. A good thing that this local resource is being made use of and I wish that I had one closer to me. Turning right from the car park we found ourselves walking down a lovely street and over the river Nadder and onto a treelined area with a high wall that depicts the boundary of Wilton House.


Soon we turned right towards Bulbridge and the site of the Medieval Village of South Ugford. All these areas were once held as significant in the times of the Saxons and indeed the roadsigns in Wilton include a crest depicting its importance as the ancient capital of Wessex, but that is perhaps a story for another day.


Hawthorn Flowers

We continued on past a primary school where I was amazed to find a hawthorn bush already in flower, I racked my brain to think if this was early or had I already missed far too much of the spring this year? I had recently learned that this bush was revered by the Celts, its blossom thought to bring luck to a community, whilst the thorns brought protection. I wondered briefly if the myths and fairytales of beauties sleeping in castles under the protection or imprisonment of thorn bushes stem from this, but my thoughts returned to the walk as we started to leave the town behind and turned left onto a footpath leading up to a high ridge, which eventually meets the Shaftesbury Drove Road. All around us were fields of oil seed rape, all now bursting into flower, painting the countryside with patches of vivid yellow contrasting delightfully with the azure and white of the sky and filling your nostrils with the slightly acrid smell of the pollen, a small price to pay for the beauty of these fields and the joy that brings..


Ash tree, azure sky and oil seed rape.

As we walked, I noticed a couple of ash trees lining the route. They seemed to be just awaking from their winter dormancy, a little later than some trees and I am hopeful that the old saying about the ash tree coming into leaf late heralding dryer weather holds true. Let’s hope so.


As we continued up hill the views began to open up and a variety of butterflies began to fly around us initially we saw Peacocks and Small Tortoiseshells but farther on our walk we also saw Holly Blues, Speckled Woods and Brimstones. All clear signs that Spring is here and Summer will soon be following. A concept that is both heart warming and terrifying at the same time with the notion that the year is progressing so quickly.


The Beech Avenue leading to New Covert.

Continuing on, the path started to head in a more southwesterly direction and became lined with magnificent beech trees their trunks looking almost silvery in the morning sunshine. A little further on we took the right fork into an area known as New Covert. Here, the sound of the many voices of bird song was amazing. It was as if the whole of the wooded area was rejoicing in the lovely sunshine of the morning. Alongside the yellowhammers, skylarks and corn bunting that we had seen and heard earlier the covert echoed with chiffchaffs, robins, blackcaps, wrens, great tits, long tailed tits and nuthatches as well as the odd pheasant and rook. I don’t think I have ever heard so many different birds all at once. It truly was delightful.


However, we were soon to leave the enchanting woodland and turn northwards towards Burcombe. Again the views became far reaching. This time to the right there were views over Hunt’s Down towards Wilton and then farther along we saw a magnificent view of Salisbury Cathedral. To the left is a deep Coombe known as the Punch Bowl, its distinctive bowl shape and dramatic steep sides giving rise to its name.


The Punch Bowl (slightly left of the fore ground tree and the clump of trees on the high ridge marking the location of the round barrow.

We stood a while and marvelled, wondering how this dry valley with its scooped out bowl came about. At the summit of the steepest part, topped by a clump of trees, sits a bowl barrow. The barrow is the largest of the local group and could have been the burial spot of an important individual, so indicating the importance of the location to the prehistoric people of the area. Christopher Tilley the anthropological archeologist, who sadly very recently (March 2024) passed away, wrote an interesting article on this location and its significance to the Bronze Age inhabitants. His theory was that the ancients revered the stark difference between the indented inner area of the Punch Bowl and the outer exposed area of the high ridge above. Writing on this twenty years ago his article was met with some scepticism from his peers. However, amongst his responses to them he simply said that you have to be there to understand the feeling of the place. This is struck such a cord with me as I feel this place does have some mystery and magnetic like attraction. Could it be that the forces that drew ancient man to the area still exist today? Whether it is just the dramatic nature of the landscape or some other power laid down long ago in its formation, this area certainly is intriguing and beautiful and there is something that a camera cannot fully capture.


Finally tearing ourselves away from admiring the Punch Bowl we continued on into the village of Burcombe. This is a pretty hamlet nestled along the River Nadder, its name thought to derive from the Anglo Saxon meaning Bryda’s Valley. This time we did not linger long in the village but headed northwards crossing the Nadder where there was still evidence of flooding and on up to the A30 and the Church of St John. The church is curious because its tower is lower than the roof of the nave. It has Saxon origins but has had many rebuilds and restorations including the one in 1667 when the tower was rebuilt to be the stubby one we see today. Perhaps they were in need of the building materials or maybe mindful of the collapse in 1653 of the tower of St Edmund’s church in nearby Salisbury?

St John’s is one of the only remaining buildings of the northern area of Burcombe and sadly, was not open for our visit.


The church of St John, Burcombe with its squat tower.

Having crossed the A30 to visit the church, it is possible that you can walk across the back of the former vicarage to get to the footpath that allows you to continue along the walk, but although there was a gate a footpath was not indicated on the OS map, so we chose to cross the A30 and walk along the path on the southern edge of the road before crossing it yet again and heading over the railway bridge and up towards the Ox Drove. As we walked, we noticed a sign for Priory Farm but it is difficult to know to which priory it was associated.


As we walked, we looked back on the view of the Punch Bowl. It still being able to draw our attention with its edges defined by the yellow rape fields. In the far distance the Fovant Badges could just be discerned on the hillside. Butterflies were once again flitting about us and we noticed some apple blossom in the hedgerow its simple pink and white petals looking most attractive. Truly, it was a day where every aspect of nature was bringing joy and uplifting your spirits as you walked.


Soon we reached the pig farm that we had been observing all along the walk. Here were such a concentration of pigs and piglets all happily enjoying their muddy environment, some briefly looking up from eating to stare at us. Looking back, we still had a clear view of the Punch Bowl and the track along which we had walked. Perhaps due to the distance the bowl barrow clump of trees did not appear so evident. This was something that was also observed by Christopher Tilley and might have been significant to the Bronze Age People we will never know.


View of the Punch Bowl surrounded by yellow fields.

Saying goodbye to the pigs, we finally reached the Ox Drove and turning right headed back towards Wilton. The path here is tree lined and deep indicating its use over many years. It is thought that this area between the Rivers Wylye and Nadder was the possible location of the Battle of Wilton where the newly crowned leader of Wessex, Alfred was defeated by the Danes. I contemplated this as we walked, imagining the sadness of Alfred, the fact that with so many brothers he probably had never expected to become commander of the army and how despite all of this he went on to become a great leader and hero. I also considered the parallels and contrasts with a later king, John. His father had called him Lackland because he was never expected to have a title and yet he did become King of England, but he was despised my most of his subjects. It seems this nation can develop both heroes and malfeasants in equal measure.


The Ox Drove as it heads down towards Wilton

Thinking these thoughts, it wasn’t long before we returned to our final destination the Greyhound Inn and lunch.


Lunch...reminding me of the Punch Bowl, verdant fields and the high ridges...but not for long!


This lovely walk is around 6 miles long and I would like to Acknowledge the Tisbury Footpath Club for this walk from their booklet Nadder Valley Walks.


Map of the route courtesy of the Ordinance Survey


Christopher Tilley’s Article can be found at https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/12876/

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