Castle Combe and a Hint of Ancient History
Updated: Feb 5
By Paul Timlett
This walk is a little different. Instead of the classic downland and big skies that are characteristic of the Wiltshire landscape we travel to the borders of Gloucestershire and Somerset with its dense woodland, maze of deep combes, and dry stone walls that feature heavily in the Cotswolds. Starting from Castle Combe we go in search of ancient history, with mixed success, but always finding delightful little scenes in this beautiful part of the world.
The walk turned into a bit of an epic. When I planned it the OS Maps app suggested it was 8.5 miles. When the day was over I had clocked up nearly 13.5 miles! I’m not going to suggest you follow my walk step by step. At times it was strenuous and even downright treacherous as we will see. The route involves some steep rocky climbs and the paths through woodland can be boggy in places even on this summer’s day as I followed several brooks along valley bottoms. However, the varied terrain meant it was always full of interest and best of all was finding an open pub just over half way round.
Unless you’re fond of crowds I would suggest avoiding Castle Combe on hot summer weekends. A lady I met dragging her dustbin down a lonely track back to her perfectly situated cottage in the woods told me the track was like the M4 for pedestrians at weekends. I visited on a grey Tuesday in term time and saw no more than a handful of people.
I arrived at Castle Combe at about 08:30 and parked in the free car park at the top end of the village. I could have parked nearer to the village at the side of the road but more out of respect for the locals than anything else I decided to use the empty car park.
After leaving the car I headed down the road towards the village. Shortly I came to a driveway up to the right signposted School Lane – Private Road. Don’t be deterred as this is a public right of way and the sign is marked as such. I’d already decided not to go into the village itself. I’ve been there many times before and to be honest I find it a little dispiriting. It’s real tourist honey trap and the streets are often lined with parked cars which are so out of place in such a beautiful location.
School Lane takes us past a row of cottages through a pair of splendid stone gate posts towards Castle Combe School which I believe is now closed. Soon after the gate posts there are three options at a rusty gate. The road that continues to the right through another entrance to the school, a path to the right of the gate and the path that we want to follow which is to the left of the gate and continues in a south-westerly direction. This leads to the golf course through which the route weaves for a little while.
Soon I emerged onto the 11th tee of the golf course, with the hole 150 yards away down to my left. Behind the tee were several pillow mounds which have been incorporated into the golf course. The Norman motte and bailey castle sits out of sight beyond this. Mesolithic tools have been found here, along with Neolithic scrapers and axe heads. With a long way to go I decided to leave this for another day.
The path continues alongside a wall to the left. I soon came to a stony track dropping away to my left which led downhill between high dry stone walls and beneath a stone bridge towards the village centre. If you want a quick visit to the village this is the time to do it, at the beginning of the day. I did. It was still blissfully quiet, with only the murmuring of people talking inside their houses and the church bells striking nine.
Retracing my steps back underneath the bridge up to the route it continues along the edge of woodland and fields following the Macmillan Way with the golf course always to the right, and signs warning walkers of low flying golf balls. I soon came to a little stone bridge that crosses the stream that runs through the immaculately coiffured fairways of the golf course. I stopped to take a photograph and heard the crashing of something flying through the trees behind, the result of a mishit ball from the only two people I saw on the course.
The well surfaced and well sign posted path continues for a short distance through the golf course into woodland towards Nettleton Mill House via an elaborate kissing gate. Having passed through this gate I nearly missed the sign for the path. It’s on the left between two stone houses. The woodland continues, with the overwhelming smell of wild garlic lingering in the air. The babbling brook to my left through Deverell’s Plantation reminded me that I was getting on a bit and did not have the strongest of bladders! Soon I came to a ford and an ancient packhorse bridge across the brook. A delightfully peaceful little spot.
Once across the brook the way continues upwards along a deep rocky path bordered by dry stone walls, on what was possibly one the many drove ways that criss-cross this part of the county. Part way up a gate on my right revealed the view across the valley to Fosse Farm, the name being a hint of the presence of the Romans in this area.
Eventually I reached a lane. I turned left to follow it for around 15 minutes beside woods falling away down the hill to the right called The Pinetum (which means a plantation of conifers for ornamental or scientific purposes). It’s worth stopping along this stretch of road for a moment to gaze down the long avenue of trees on your left to Shrub Farm. All you can see is the front door of the farm house in the distance but you could so easily be in rural France looking towards a chateau and an imagined vineyard beyond.
Just after the driveway you’ll find a wooden stile on your right signposted The Palladian Way (more hints of Rome). This path zig zags its way down to the right and up through the woods, another beautifully peaceful place. This is where my plans first went awry.
If you do a bit of research and look at the OS 1:25,000 map you’ll see the legend “ROMAN VILLA (site of)” just to the north of Truckle Hill Barn and to the south of the bridleway you are following. As I first started to climb through wood, having descended from the aforementioned road and the wooden stile, I noticed through the trees to my left that a small trench had been dug. Having worked for an archaeologist during my school holidays many years ago this looked like an excavation, albeit it seemed to have been abandoned. But I was filled with hope that I might see some evidence of the villa and the bath-house I’d read about. It was only recently through reading a book about the Fens of East Anglia that I realised there were very few Latin Romans in England. Most of the “Romans” were Romano-British people who having been conquered knew where their best interests lay. Many did very well out of the arrangement and this site was more than likely occupied by some of them.
Sadly my hopes were to be dashed. Playing to one of my pet gripes this whole area marked as a Roman Villa on the map was on private land hidden behind hawthorn hedge, a screen of trees and a substantial barbed wire fence. There was literally nothing to be seen. Just after the trench that I’d passed, and at the point where the bridleway takes another zig zag to the right, there was a padlocked gate beyond which is the site of the villa. I toyed with the idea of hopping over for a look but the gate was topped with more barbed wire. The owner of this land really doesn’t want anyone to see what he’s got. Later in the day I met a local couple out for a walk. They made me feel slightly better about this by telling me there is very little to see (a theme that was to be repeated later on). However, if you look at the Wessex Archaeology website and the entry for Truckle Hill Bathhouse it suggests otherwise. It refers to an imposing Roman villa and a richly appointed and immaculately preserved detached bath-house, the latter built in the early second century AD. The villa itself was excavated in the mid 19th century but the bath-house was only discovered in 2004 and is of significant importance.
Dejectedly I continued along the bridleway until I reached Truckle Hill Barn, an idyllically situated house sitting alone at the top of the hill with sweeping views across the valley and woods to the south. Sadly for the owner the bridleway crosses his garden, passing through a five bar gate either side before emerging onto the long driveway that heads west where it reaches a country lane that continues to North Wraxall.
The route requires you to walk along the metalled lane for about a mile but since it ends at Truckle Hill Barn I didn’t see a single car. Just after passing beneath the overbearing power lines there is a stone stile over the dry stone wall on the left. Here you can either continue along the lane to North Wraxall or cross the field beyond the stile towards the church. There was only one choice for me despite the presence of the very docile herd of cows.
North Wraxall is a pretty, well to do village. The sort of place where, if you have to ask how much a house would set you back, you can’t afford it. As is standard practice for me I visited the church. The presence of the many mausoleums in the graveyard pointed to the wealth in the area. The church was firmly locked. I know the country is emerging from COVID lockdown but I simply cannot understand why so many churches should be locked. If ever people needed the solace of a spiritual place, regardless of your religion, surely it’s now?
After a stop for coffee and lunch (a long out of date energy bar) in the churchyard I headed downhill on the road out of the village towards the A420. As you climb the lane there is a bridleway up to the right. This leads up to the main road and, once crossed, continues downhill once again into a deep combe.
This is where things started to go wrong! I’d walked along here once before about 40 years ago when I lived in Bristol but none of this seemed familiar. I planned to visit the Iron Age hillfort at Bury Camp (also known as Bury Wood Camp). From the map I couldn’t see any public rights of way up to it although there were a number of tracks. Since it wasn’t fenced off I decided to try to find a way up the fort.
Bury Camp is a multivallate hill fort which, according to Wikipedia, occupies a triangular promontory of Colerne Down between two spurs of a river valley. Only it appeared to be surrounded by thick jungle, and I don’t exaggerate in my description. A machete would have been handy. I read somewhere that the Ghurkhas use this area for training and that in the height of summer it is a mosquito infested swamp! I suspect that was written by someone who really doesn’t want people to visit, but it’s not far wrong. All I’ll say is that I tried several routes after talking to a local guy who has been there a few times. Eventually, after following hoofprints along forest tracks and an almost vertical climb through trees, I reached the camp. The ramparts and ditches are visible in the woods but emerging onto the site of the hillfort I was taken aback by the size of it, around 9 hectares. It was completely covered in long grass although in places where the grass had grown more vigorously it was possible to make out the shape of round structures (apparently this is due to the grass roots reaching further down to get to the soil making the grass grow more vigorously – please correct me if I’m wrong). The site can be dated back to 350 BC although Neolithic and Mesolithic flint tool finds suggest much earlier occupation. The lack of human bones and the many animal bone finds suggest it was used more as an animal enclosure.
Unless you are fit and very determined I would suggest you pass by Bury Camp and use your imagination to picture what life was once like here. I had to make a lengthy detour both in distance and time to visit it, only to find there was little to see at ground level. I’m told aerial shots reveal an awful lot more.
In order to continue the walk having made the initial descent from the A420, you reach a junction of two tracks at a small collection of houses south of the road. I took the right fork heading steeply down towards the stream at the bottom of the valley at Stoney Bridge. Here there is a little bridge which you cross before heading up through the woods. It’s steep and muddy here. Part way up the slopes there are some wooden steps where the path crosses a forest track before climbing more wooden steps and eventually emerging into open meadow. This came as a relief after my endeavours. The meadow was rich in wild flowers including many pyramidal orchids. I followed the signed route across the meadows to cross what is marked as Training Course on the map. There were some riders exercising their horses here. I met a farmer picking ragwort. He was about to mow the meadow for cattle feed so had to remove as much ragwort as he could as it’s poisonous to cattle if they eat too much of it.
Crossing the busy Ford to Colerne road and continuing on the path I then reached a lane. I turned left and walked along it briefly before turning right back onto a track across a cattle grid. I should say that from the A420 all the way to Ford, which was my main objective as I hoped to find a pint here at The White Hart Inn, there are many different route options. You can easily plot your own route, and not take the longest option that I did. After crossing the cattle grid, and stopping to have an interesting chat with two delightful chaps in a field before I realised they were scarecrows, I continued downhill and east towards Colerne Down, passing some wonderfully isolated and sturdy cottages on the way.
Shortly after the cottages I reached a junction where the Colerne Heritage Trail forked to the right. I took the public footpath to the left across meadows and between hedgerows, the air filled with the heady perfume of wild flowers, and more interesting fellas standing around in the fields.
At the bottom of the hill where the path reaches the river there was a touching memorial to someone, the tree surrounded by little trinkets and flowers. A wonderfully peaceful place for someone to be remembered. A glance across the field to my left revealed my farmer friend again picking ragwort, albeit about a mile away from where I’d seen him previously.
Here again there is a choice of routes. I decided to follow the river east towards the weir as I wanted to visit Slaughterford after it was recommended to me by a guy I had met on the trail earlier. You could though head north directly to Ford if you were short of time. The stretch of river is very pretty but spoiled by a profusion of signs screaming “Private”, “No Fishing”, “No Swimming”, “No Bagpipes” (I may have imagined that last one).
I passed The Rag Mill just outside Slaughterford, a 16th century water powered mill. It was used to process rags which were then transported the short distance to Chapps Mill for paper making. It’s a ruin now and very overgrown but the old iron overshot water wheel is still quite prominent.
My annoyance at all the signage (should be law against it) was abated once I arrived in Slaughterford. It’s more of a hamlet than a village and has a very genuine feel about it. The cottages are solid and lived in. No luxury weekend pads here. It has a slightly scruffy appearance, reflected in its church which far from scruffy was plain and simple. And open. I liked Slaughterford. Damn, it even has a red phone box!
From Slaughterford I followed one of the several paths towards Ford, having crossed the river at another weir (more signs). At this point I again reached the Ford to Colerne road. On joining the road I had to turn right and walk along it for about a quarter of a mile. I have to say it was treacherous. It’s a busy, windy, fast road and there is no refuge from the cars hurtling towards you, most drivers seemingly distracted by their phones or radios so swerving at the last minute to avoid me. I was a gibbering wreck by the time I reached The White Hart Inn at Ford. Boy did I need that pint.
By this time it was about 4:30. I could easily have spent the rest of the day in the pub, but I still had a couple of miles to go. I walked up to the A420 where I turned right along the pavement to the junction with the lane back to Castle Combe. After spending all day in peace and quiet the roads here were a shock. I crossed the A420 and climbed the lane towards Castle Combe. After a little way I took the footpath on the right in the direction of Long Dean. I saw a couple of mills marked on the map so decided to explore although I was feeling tired by now. Again there are lots of options here heading back to Castle Combe. I’m very glad I took this route rather than the shorter option via Danks Down Wood on the west side of the Castle Combe road. The views across and in and out of the combes here were stunning. Not wide sweeping download views but little vignettes of a timeless landscape. I dropped into pretty little Long Dean with its picture postcard cottages and where I met the lady taking her dustbin for a walk.
The way continued up past the mill through woods with views down to Colham Wood and Colham Mill in the combe to my left. Even the sun came out to greet me. On a quiet day such as this there can be few more attractive scenes.
Finally I reached the edge of Castle Combe. I remained on the path high up in the woods to the east of the village, with the occasional glimpse of its church through the trees. I had no desire to walk through the village itself but it is easy to do so from here. I found a well worn path that dropped sharply through the trees emerging on to the road heading north out of the village and back to the car park.
In conclusion, this was a wonderful and varied walk. As I mentioned it can be cut short by taking some of the different route options and by not venturing into the jungle in search of hill forts. My only regret is that looking at the map as I write this I somehow missed checking out Bottom of Jeremies just to the south of Castle Combe. Another time.
All images copyright of Paul Timlett
Update July 2022: Since this original post we have since devised a shorter route which is just over 5 miles: