Folly Wood and the Tale of the Headless Horseman
Updated: Mar 24
It’s been a while since I went anywhere new to walk. During the travel restrictions almost all my walks have been from home, or a very short drive from home. Even this walk was only 10 miles away but it took me to places I’d never visited before. For reasons that will become apparent it took two visits to complete this blog and to capture all the photographs so it turned into a bit of an epic. But it was time well spent I think.
We were alerted to this destination by podcast listener and Wiltshire artist David Alderslade. David wrote a letter to Glyn. A proper letter on paper using pen and ink and everything! When was the last time you received a proper letter? I think it’s bloody marvellous. Anyway David wrote to Glyn and suggested we should take a look at Folly Wood. Since I have a bit more time than Glyn I decided to follow David’s suggestion. I planned a walk that would take us from Easterton to Folly Wood, then on to the Woodland Trust reserve of Oakfrith Wood, continuing to Urchfont before returning on the heights of Salisbury Plain next to the Westdown impact area. Accompanied by my trusty walking buddy Stu we set off (in separate cars) for Easterton, to the east of Market Lavington. I’ve included a map in this blog.
Listeners to the podcast, or anyone who has read any of my previous blogs, will know there are two things that get me riled. Irresponsible, inconsiderate dog owners and blocked public rights of way. Well, I’ll warn you now, I put my Mr Grumpy socks on this morning to write this. We had both in spades on this walk!
We began the walk having parked up beside the B3098 road in Easterton. Parking is not that easy here as the road is narrow and can be busy at times. Spaces along the stretch from The Royal Oak pub eastwards can be at a premium. But there are alternative start points and you could drive on to Urchfont and park there. But for the purposes of this blog I’m going to begin the walk from near The Royal Oak in Easterton.
For the sake of posterity I’m going to designate the bus shelter opposite the pub as the starting point for no better reason than you could travel by bus to get here. And why not? If you do be sure to look inside the bus shelter for you will hopefully still find the splendid piece of art shown in my photograph. Some may call this vandalism but we thought it was a fantastic piece of graffiti art that livened up an otherwise dull building.
From the bus shelter we crossed the road and walked up the lane beside The Royal Oak, which was in the process of having a haircut. The new thatch was looking splendid. A little way up the hill we passed the thatched cottage in the photograph (shame about the dustbin – I did consider moving it but thought better of it). I was intrigued by the turret. It’s clearly made of a more modern brick than the rest of the cottage but it sits on a stone base like the rest of the house. Further up the hill, having passed what appeared to be a farmhouse with some very old stone gate pillars, we came to the crossing point of a public footpath where we turned right. This section of the walk was a little dull, running as it did along the edge of a housing estate. The path was little more than an alley pressed against wooden close board fencing on the left but there were fine views of the heights of Salisbury Plain to the south on our right. After a few hundred metres we could see in front of us and above the new houses that have recently been built on the site of the old jam factory for which Easterton was once famed. In fact The Royal Oak featured on the label of the jam jars. Sadly the factory closed and the site was developed for housing. With the houses above us we turned left along the byway heading north-west. You could cut out the alley way we followed by simply heading east along the B3098 then tuning left towards The Jam Factory housing development and heading straight on to the aforesaid byway where the road bends sharp right. You’d miss the turreted cottage but then you could always return to that later if you particularly wanted to see it.
This byway where was where I had my first bout of the grumps. It’s clearly frequented by dog owners and the ubiquitous dog poo decorations were everywhere. Black plastic bags tossed onto the verge or dangling in trees and bushes. Why do people trash their neighbourhood like this, especially in such a beautiful village? I just don’t understand it. Anyway, we wandered along the byway which was sunk deep into its surroundings with steep banks on either side. After a short while a large and magnificent looking house came into view on our right, together with some curiously out of place wildlife! Apart from these migrants from Africa there were several alpacas/llamas grazing in the fields either side of the track. By the way, if the owner of the large house reads this, if I were you I’d have a balcony at the back there. I can’t think of a better place to sit with a coffee in the morning. Those views!
At the end of the byway it joins a minor road in Easterton Sands. We turned right along this road towards Vicarage Farm where at the bend we turned left off the road onto another byway. Look out for the house called Reflections along here. There is an imposing fence at the front hiding the house (which just makes me want to see what’s behind it even more) but further along the track you can look back at the house. There are two buildings which to my eye looked like offices or a modern factory unit but apparently it is inspired by the design of a Roman villa. I’m not sure that Roman villas were built of steel and glass but it sure is a striking looking building.
You’ll immediately notice that Easterton Sands is big on horses. The whole area appears to be one large livery/stables/training yard, for that is what it is. There were beautiful looking horses everywhere and it appears to be a thriving business round here.
So having passed Reflections the byway meets another at a T-junction where we turned right towards Sands Farm. This is where things started to go wrong, and where Mr Grumpy returned. Our plan was to head north-east along the byway, past Sands Farm until we reached a cross roads of rights of way between West Wood and Folly Wood. We’d planned to take the footpath on our left into Folly Wood in order to see why David Alderslade was so keen on it. From there we would continue north-west, underneath the railway line towards what is marked simply as “Moat” on the map by Potterne Park Farm. From here, having visited the Moat, we planned to turn right for a short distance then right again heading along the bridleway south-east back towards Folly Wood.
However, at the junction of rights of way past Sands Farm and between West Wood and Folly Wood there were signs for the byway we were on and another heading south-east back into Easterton, but no footpath sign into Folly Wood. Worse still, there was no sign of the footpath itself where it was shown on the map. At this point we thought that somehow we had gone wrong so we headed along the field edge into Folly Wood. We could clearly see the path now in a deep hollow down to our left behind a wire fence. There was no way down to the path so we continued into the wood. We blundered around for far too long trying to figure out how we had gone wrong. The wood itself is on a steep hillside and far from easy going. Eventually we got to the bottom of the hill, still alongside the footpath, where we emerged from the wood with Forest Farm visible to our left. We could see that at this end the path had been blocked by a barbed wire fence. Not wishing to make the same mistake we had made the week before (listen to podcast 7 if you want to hear more) I checked the Wiltshire Council definitive map. The footpath was still shown and had not been closed or diverted. It had simply been blocked.
This part of Folly Wood was not what I had expected. We found old pallets and mattresses dumped in there, together with a lot of litter. It looked as though it was being used by trail bike riders too, and indeed when I returned a few days later there were people riding motor bikes in there for much of the day. It seemed trail bikes were welcome but not walkers. This is not what we had come to see. But bear with me. The wonders of Folly Wood were eventually to reveal themselves.
A couple of days later I returned to figure out an alternative route. This was pretty simple but I wanted to check it out for myself. Instead of heading north-east along the byway past Sands Farm I took the bridleway behind Sands Farm through West Wood towards Forest Farm and then on to the Moat. Once past Forest Farm and the tunnel under the railway the bridleway becomes very boggy. It is heavily used by horse riders and even in this spell of dry weather it was almost impassable in places. In wet weather there is no way you would get along it without wellies. It would be a quagmire.
At the end of this stretch of the bridleway I made a brief diversion left to the Moat. The Bishops of Salisbury had a Manor House at Potterne from at least the 13th century. There was an associated deer park around what is now Potterne Park Farm. The Moat is thought to have been the location of the gate keeper’s lodge. If you enter the wood you can clearly see the remains of the moat that surrounded the lodge. Again the moat was a little boggy giving you a sense of the nature of the ground in these parts.
From the moat I went back to the bridleway and headed north-east for a short distance, passing the point where the footpath we originally intended to take from Folly Wood joined it, and on to where I turned sharp right heading south-east along a bridleway back towards Folly Wood and the bridge back across the railway.
At this point I had one of life’s memorable encounters. As I walked along the bridleway I heard a vehicle slowing approaching behind me. In front of it trotted the largest dog I’ve ever seen. As I was to find out this was the magnificent Crook (the dog not the driver)! What turned out to be an ex-Parachute Regiment V8 Landrover stopped behind me and out jumped a chap who asked if I’d seen any sheep. I hadn’t. What followed was a 45 minute chat with one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met. This, ladies and gentlemn, was local sculpture, poet and illustrator Mark Whelehan.
During our wide ranging conversation, where we established many areas of common interest (including the liberal use of profanities), Mark relayed all manner of stories about local history and folklore. At some point I recall him mentioning the fact that he was the son of Dr Seos Whelehan who was a psychaitrist at Roundway Hospital in Devizes; that he had during his life worked for the MOD; spent years living in a mud hut in Botswana; had a bullet in his back; and had recently had a hip replacement. He also at some point climbed back into his Landrover and emerged with three books of his poetry which he thrust upon me and said I could pop into Devizes Books to pay for them but only if I felt they were worth it! I most certainly will.
So what follows is some of the strange history of Folly Wood, some of which I had already researched but much of which I learned from Mark.
Having reluctantly taken my leave of Mark I continued along the bridleway. And before you ask, yes Mark was driving his car along the bridleway but since he said he owned some or all of it, it was legal for him to do so. It wasn’t legal for the two motorbikes that passed us but Mark ignored them saying they were locals. The bridleway crosses the railway over a bridge before entering the wood where it begins to climb steadily in a deep gorge or droveway.
The steep ridge containing this gorge was once known as Maggot Castle. Just after the railway bridge and before Folly Wood is thought to be the location for Castle House, the home of an eccentric local gentleman Seymour Wroughton in the 18th century. The house had fine landscaped gardens with three fishponds. It seems either the house or the elaborate summer house in the gardens took on the name of its surroundings and became known locally as Maggot’s Castle. The house itself was also known as Folly House. History has it that one night in 1789 Wroughton was drunk and recklessly drove his coach and horses home along the approach to Folly House. The approach is described as being the track between Workforth Common and Crookwood Lane. Workforth Common no longer appears on modern day maps but I believed it may be the field where The Three Graves (see below) can be found which means the steep track down the gorge may have been the approach to the house. Mark confirmed that the field containing The Three Graves is indeed known as the common so I believe this was the spot. The coach that Wroughton was supposedly driving overturned and Wroughton broke his neck. It’s said that a headless horseman driving a coach and four still haunts the gorge.
The Folly House fell into disrepair after Wroughton’s death. Eventually the ponds became the downfall of the house which suffered water damage and soon became a collapsed ruin. Nothing remains of the house although the outline of three ponds are still visible. However, Mark has a theory that the house was in fact higher up the hill in Folly Wood as there is a flat base that seems to suggest it was levelled for a sizeable building. Whilst Folly House is shown on the 1784 map it is difficult to equate this modern maps with any degree of accuracy.
The rock through which this gorge passes is Upper Greensand, and this can be seen very clearly from the sides of the gorge. The surface is distinctly sandy. Take note of the roots of the trees on both sides above. These have become exposed as the earth has crumbled and washed away. In particular take a look at each tree on your right. Soon you will find the most incredible sight. The tangled entwined roots of an ancient beech tree that looks like something from Tolkein’s imagination. And of David Alderslade’s! To the left of the tree there is a little cave. The Holy Man’s Cave. There were all sorts of inscriptions and carvings in the surrounding rocks. The colours of the surrounding rock struck me - almost a honey and rose colour. Not what we are used to in this part of the world. Since the cave is a roost for bats it should not be approached as it is an offence to disturb a bat in its roost or deliberately disturb a group of bats.
Unseen in the fields high above on the left of the gorge is what is shown on the map as The Three Graves. In 1644 three Giddings brothers died in the field from London plague and were buried there with an elm tree at the head of each grave. They chose to die there rather than infect the village of Urchfont which as a result escaped the plague. Sadly the site is inaccessible in the middle of the field although I read there is a campaign to restore it. Mark told me that an old farmer, Chris Giddings, lives at Crookwood Farm but that he vehemently denies being related to the unfortunate, altruistic Giddings brothers. They were said to have been Irish tinkers who travelled down from London carrying the plague with them.
It was time to move on, having spent so much time in this locality. But before doing so, on my second visit, and shortly after meeting Mark I bumped into two Hidden Wiltshire blog and podcast followers Melanie May and Wayne Ford. They had seen a photograph of the tree that Glyn had posted on his Instagram feed so they had come to see it for themselves. It was a delight to meet them and to realise that at least somebody reads this cr*p!
At the top of the gorge the bridleway joins the byway Stu and I were on earlier during my first visit. We had come in a large circle. We turned left along the byway towards Oakfrith Wood but before doing so we looked across the field to our left where we could just about see The Three Graves. I do hope the graves can be restored (there is nothing to see there now) and public access granted so that the three brothers can be remembered properly.
Oakfrith Wood was an absolute delight. It’s maintained by volunteers working for the Woodland Trust. It is a place of great peace and calm. There are nest boxes everywhere, and woodland paths snake their way back and forth. There was even a charcoal burner. The wood has just the right blend of tidiness whilst preserving ground cover for small birds and animals. In late spring it is carpeted with bluebells.
Having stopped for lunch on one of the benches in the wood we walked through it to the north-east corner where there is a permissive footpath to Urchfont. If you have time there is another nature reserve on the edge of Urchfont called Peppercombe Wood. But for us this was for another day. On my second visit I parked in Urchfont near the church. On returning to the car I thought I’d pop into the village as Mark told me they had one of his sculptures there. The church was locked but there was an incredible piece of wood in the churchyard which may have been Mark’s sculpture. He also has one in the grounds of Dauntsey’s School in West Lavington. Whilst photographing the church in Urchfont I met the local beekeeper who has two hives in the churchyard.
But back to the walk. We followed the footpath south that joins the byway past the cricket ground, with views of Urchfont Manor to the left (east). We then crossed the B3098 onto the bridleway that wends its way to the south of the village where it joins the White Horse Trail up Urchfont Hill to the Plains. About halfway up, the bridleway curves slightly left but we branched diagonally right up an unsigned footpath towards New Plantation high above. This is a stiff climb across the field but achievable by anyone with modicum of fitness.
I took some photographs on the way up of the great expanse of the Vale of Pewsey. The pylons have always struck me as something particularly ugly whilst at the same time captivating. Many times I’ve seen RAF C130 Hercules aircraft flying low along the Vale seemingly using these pylons for navigation. As we climbed the slopes Stu changed up a gear and struck out alone. For much of the day we had been accompanied by the sound of artillery or mortars on the Plains. Being an ex-army man Stu had got the alluring scent of cordite in his nostrils and he was away. There was no holding him back. I finally found him on top of the hill by the range perimeter track (now the Wessex Ridgeway) scanning the horizon for the source of all the noise. Distant smoke suggested the army had once again set fire to the Plains! That is the smoke you can see in one of the photographs.
From here it was a simple walk south-west along the escarpment before choosing a route back down to Easterton. The first option is the bridleway that takes you down to Eastcott Manor. However, if you go on a little further you pass the memorial to the young German soldier Dirk Knöffel who was killed here in a training accident in 1993. The memorial is right by the track. There used to be a stone cherub here but it was either damaged or fell to bits. Thankfully a new memorial to him has been put in its place. A little further beyond the memorial you’ll find a byway on the right that takes you back into Easterton and the end of the walk. And maybe even a pint in The Royal Oak.
A memorable couple of days exploring this mysterious place with its unique folklore, made even better by the chance encounters with some delightful people.