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Crossing Borders





Yes I know it’s Hidden WILTSHIRE, but indulge me for a moment. After a recent visit to the small village of Ham in Wiltshire, near the border with West Berkshire, I determined to return in order to visit the hamlet of Buttermere high above the village on Ham Hill. I studied the map for a long time to see if it was possible to plot a walk from a safe parking place and onwards to Buttermere without straying onto roads. But try as I might I just couldn’t make it work. I knew that there were a couple of car parks further along the ridge on Inkpen Hill but this meant crossing into West Berkshire. Eventually I decided there was no alternative and that I would just face the barrage of criticism for straying out of county!

 

So on a day that promised light rain from lunchtime onwards my regular walking buddy Stu and I set off for West Berkshire. We planned to park in the little car park by Combe Gibbet on Inkpen Hill. This is one of the highest places in southern England and as we climbed steeply from the village of Inkpen at 10:00 we entered thick cloud and driving rain. Parking the car by Combe Gibbet the cloud was so thick we could not see the famous gibbet even though it was only a few hundred metres away. As we got out of the car to put on our wet weather gear we were battered by a howling gale. It wasn’t supposed to be like this! We toyed with the idea of abandoning. Part of the attraction of a place like this is the wide ranging views but we couldn’t see a thing. Nevertheless, having driven for 50 minutes to get here, we decided to go for it on the basis that we could always turn round. But we both knew that wasn’t going to happen.

 


Combe Gibbet - somewhere up there!

From the car park we struck east along the Wayfarer’s Walk long distance footpath towards nearby Walbury Hill. I realised I’d been here before but couldn’t remember when or why! It’s an age thing. The car park is built into the earthworks of Walbury Camp, a univallate Iron Age hillfort and the track runs right through the middle. Not much has been written about Walbury Camp and as far I as can find it has not been excavated. But an entry on the Historic England website states that there are circular features which are possible hut circles. Surface finds include some from the Mesolithic period. At 297m (974ft) Walbury Hill is the highest point in South East England, and on days like this it must have been a bleak and desolate place to live. However, fun fact. The Shard in London at 310m is actually taller than Walbury Hill is high.

 


Earthworks of Walbury Camp

Just before the Walbury Hill car park on the east side of the hill fort we turned due south descending steeply through a field grazed by sheep until we reached a holloway, one of several leading up to the fort. Below we caught our first glimpse of the tiny scattered village of Combe. Descending past Lower Farm until we reached the few houses that comprised the village we turned left onto Church Lane. Our objective was the little church of St Swithun which we found on a peculiar hairpin bend by the gates to The Manor.

 


Combe from Walbury Hill

Church of St Swithun

This pretty little church existed at the time of the Doomsday Survey in 1086, and was already dedicated to St Swithun, an early Bishop of Winchester who died in 863AD. Its main appeal for me was the shingled timber bell-tower with its pyramidal top and lean-to roofs. This apparently is more characteristic of Essex churches. The shingles are all made from timber and had developed a soft grey patina with age. I assume these have to be replaced as they age and rot, but timbers in the tower have been dated to 1440.


Bell Tower, St Swithun's Church

The south porch through which we entered bears the date 1652. Inside the nave is said to date from the second half of the 12th century.


South Porch, St Swithun's Church

There are some interesting tombs and memorials. In the floor of the nave are set two diamond shaped black marble gravestones marking the burial place of John Lockton and his wife dating from the mid 18th century. In the chancel floor are three more black marble gravestones of John Rawlinson, d. 1680; his son John, d. 1724; and Anne Whistler, d. 1681.

 


Nave and Chancel, St Swithun's


John and Catherine Lockton

The Whistler name appears on several gravestones in the churchyard. All I could establish was that they were a Berkshire family who were responsible for building or rebuilding parts of the 17th century Manor house next to the church. I have no idea whether they were ancestors of the artist Rex Whistler or his nephew the engraver Simon Whistler who engraved many church windows including those at West Lavington and Alton Barnes in Wiltshire. And by way of perfect symmetry one of my favourite photographers, James Ravilious son of artist Eric Ravilious, married Robin Whistler, daughter of engraver and poet Laurence Whistler and sister to Simon. It would be nice to think that all these Whistlers are related but the artist Whistlers seem to have their roots in Devon.

 

Before leaving Combe I want to mention a particular idol of mine – the journalist Jon Snow. A little plaque in the church records the fact that the marriage of Jon and his wife Precious Lunga was blessed in St Swithun’s in 2010. And by miraculous coincidence Stu and I actually bumped into them whilst on this walk! I won’t say where but I will say that they are a delightful couple. They say you should never meet your heroes but on this occasion I’m so glad I did.

 


Commemoration Plaque, St Swithun's Church

We left the church heading west along a deep holloway that runs parallel to the south wall. As the track climbed, views opened up back to the church and the adjacent Manor, the best place from which to see this magnificent house.


Combe Manor, St Swithun's Church and Walbury Hill

On the track we passed a group from West Berkshire Ramblers who like us were ploughing their way through the wind, rain, and thick mud. Just after we passed them we found a sticker on a post that said “Weird Walk”. Seems this is an initiative by three friends who walk in the countryside and who at one point handed out badges for people to stick up along their walks. They produce sporadic podcasts, zines and books, and sell various Weird Walk branded merchandise on their website. Sounds like Hidden Wiltshire!

 

Eventually we entered Combe Wood. It is a SSSI which was a bit of mystery to me as it seemed a far from natural environment. There were giant game bird feeders and pheasant everywhere. It was very clear what this landscape was dedicated to. At the edge of the wood we crossed the Test Way and the county border. Here we returned to the safety of Wiltshire and Sheepless Hill.

 


Emerging from Combe Wood to cross the Test Way and the county border

Whilst the landscape obviously didn’t change from one side of Test Way to the other, one thing struck us immediately – the lack of right of way signs. Throughout our foray into West Berkshire all the rights of way were well signed. The moment we crossed into Wiltshire the local authority signs all but vanished. It had been left to the Buttermere Estate to provide the signage.

 

We descended Sheepless Hill into the valley climbing again as we reached Buttermere Wood following the track up along Buttermere Bottom towards Buttermere itself high above. So as the signs disappeared the bottoms re-appeared as we entered Wiltshire!

 


Entering Buttermere Bottom

I have long wanted to visit the church next to Grange Farm at Buttermere. As we climbed the

hill we glimpsed the church, remote and isolated amongst trees near the top. Buttermere is little more than a hamlet, and according to information in the church, has only 30 inhabitants. It is reputed to be the highest village in Wiltshire, and possibly the whole of Wessex. And it felt like it.


St James the Great Church from Buttermere Bottom

As we approached St James the Great church the weather had become wild. The light rain was now torrential, driven by the strong winds. It really felt like we were at ends of the earth. It was bleak and remote and I loved it. We took shelter in the church, surrounded as it was by snowdrops and the first signs of bluebells, albeit the latter not yet of course in flower.


St James the Great, Buttermere and Snowdrops

The little church building before you, one of the smallest in Wiltshire, dates back only to the 1850s having been re-built from materials salvaged from its predecessor.  But the manor dates to at least the 9th century and there was a church here in the 13th century. A watercolour by John Buckler in 1806 shows a simple building with a wooden west turret. The building now has a small central spire rebuilt in 1991.

 

St James the Great Church, Buttermere

We were cold, wet and hungry so were glad of the shelter. We hung our waterproofs up to dry whilst we drank warming coffee from our flasks and ate our lunch. Apart from the noise of occasional hammering from the village above the only sounds were that of the wind and the rain. Despite this a calmness had descended as we sat in silence. Whilst the weather enhanced the sense of remoteness I can imagine that this is a beautifully tranquil place on a warm sunny day. The interior of the church is bright, plain and simple, the wall behind the alter decorated with religious text from the 19th century. Outside on the western wall hung the church bell connected to a rope inside the church. I’ve no idea how we resisted the temptation to pull that rope!



Nave and Chancel, St James the Great, Buttermere

 


Bell, St James the Great Church, Buttermere

Despite the current building not being of any great antiquity I fell in love with this church. The sense of calm and tranquillity engendered by such a remote location give it a uniqueness unmatched by any other church I have found so far in Wiltshire. But it’s not the easiest of places to reach and is best done so on foot so I doubt it will ever suffer crowds.

 

I subsequently discovered that to the south of Buttermere is a pond – Rockmoor Pond. This marks the point where Berkshire, Hampshire and Wiltshire all meet. It’s fascinating that this small apparently insignificant geographical feature can have such significant geopolitical importance.

 

Eventually we recovered our sodden gear and reluctantly left St James the Great continuing up the track to Grange Farm before turning right onto the road by the Old Rectory. A small school was built near the rectory in 1872, and closed in 1944 when there were only nine pupils.


The Rectory, Buttermere

The best way to describe Grange Farm itself is probably “well-used”, the old red phone box and letter box beside it just adding to the impression. I have no doubt the owner knows where everything is but the scene was chaotic! The sort of place I love to explore and photograph. As we continued along the road north towards Town Farm, passing Buttermere Pond on the way (which on this day had spread to the road) the impression of chaos continued as loud heavy metal music played from a portacabin in the yard.


Buttermere Village Centre!

Some years ago there was a crime series on TV called Hinterland. Set in central Wales it showed a bleak and forbidding landscape in the hinterland behind Aberystwyth. I loved it and this place reminded me of that series. And if anyone who lives in Buttermere reads this, I mean it as a compliment.

 


Town Farm, Buttermere

Soon we reached Town Farm which dates to the 16th century. The walls were a deep yellow colour, seeming to have soaked up the enormous quantity of rain. Here we turned right passing cottages with stunning views through the mist down into Buttermere Bottom until we reached the end of the lane. There was a sign of sorts that directed us along a boggy track north through the field towards the byway that would lead us east back to Inkpen Hill a couple of kilometres away.


Boggy Track to the Byway - right of the tree stump

This was the worst possible day to walk this track. The rain and the heavy use of the byway by vehicles had turned it into a quagmire. We resigned ourselves to getting muddy and sodden. When I plotted the route the far reaching views north from this ridge were what attracted me most but we could barely see a thing, deep as we were in cloud. The going was tough as we kept our eyes glued to the ground in an attempt to keep our footing.

 

I had been enticed in particular by the prospect of views far below to Ham Spray House that was home to the Bloomsbury Group from 1924 until 1961. But we could see nothing. As we trudged along, being ever more battered by the wind and rain, I joked to Stu that it was brightening up. Someone was clearly listening. At that moment the cloud cleared below us for a few minutes offering views far to the east into Hampshire and Berkshire. And there at the foot of the hill, albeit some distance away, was the unmistakeable Ham Spray House. As I looked upon it with my binoculars I wonder what tales that building could tell.

 


Ham Spray House

The OS map shows a large number of Bronze Age bowl and round barrows next to the track here. This is truly an ancient landscape. But the barrows are at most one metre high now and virtually invisible. That combined with the many “Private” signs meant that it was simply not worth climbing the fence for a look so we ploughed on, the track being squeezed ever further between barbed wire and scrub making it very difficult to make progress in such filthy conditions. Utterly sick of it we took to the edge of the adjacent field for a couple of hundred metres, eventually finding the back of a sign at the other end saying “No Public Right of Way”. But we weren’t going to break an ankle for this landowner especially as there was nothing but mud in the field, and we would probably have done the same had we seen the sign before we took to the field boundary.

 


Junction with Test Way - if you reach these trees you've come too far

Back in West Berkshire now, eventually we reached the junction with the Test Way. Fortunately here there is an alternative to the quagmire and a stile on the left leads into a field grazed by sheep leading to Combe Gibbet. When I walked the Test Way a few years ago the byway here was also a quagmire then. We had just started our three day walk to Southampton having been dropped at the car park a few hundred metres away, and our friend Jamie was like Tigger bouncing around eager for the walk ahead. At the precise point where the Test Way turns south from the byway he fell flat on his face into a deep muddy puddle. He valiantly tried to brush it off and dragged himself out before falling in again. We only had another 44 miles of this entertainment to go. Oh how we laughed!  But on this day, by the end of the day’s walk, we probably looked just like him. Wet and muddy but happy and smiling.

 

In all this walk was 10km/6.25 miles.


Route Map courtesy of Ordnance Survey



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5 Comments


John Ernest Weaire
Feb 20

Another interesting and well written piece. Thank You Paul and Sty !

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D K
D K
Feb 20

This is delightful, thank you!

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Paul Timlett
Paul Timlett
Feb 20
Replying to

Many thanks for that.

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Sean Kaye-Smith
Sean Kaye-Smith
Feb 20

Keeping religiously to county bounderies would cancel out lots of great walks, particularly in the case of Wiltshire, sharing boundaries with Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Hampshire, Dorset and Somerset. And border areas are often amongst the most interesting, as anyone who's walked Offa's Dyke would affirm. Don't hold back.

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Paul Timlett
Paul Timlett
Feb 20
Replying to

Good feedback, thanks Sean. I completely agree. I have strayed across the borders a few times into Dorset, Hampshire, Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire but maybe I should do it more often! But believe it or not we have had criticism for posting something that is not 100% Wiltshire. Not that it bothers us - it's our website and we don't charge anything for what we do. 😂

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