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  • Elaine Perkins

Great Durnford, Ogbury and the Flood

The River Avon

I cannot believe that we are already into the third week of January. The persistent rain that we have been experiencing in Wiltshire has been relentless, and I have not yet had the opportunity to get out and explore any new hidden aspects of the county. The days have been mostly dull, but that hasn’t quelled my enthusiasm for the New Year and new beginning. I am probably odd as I am a creature who both enjoys Christmas and yet feels relief when all is over and the New Year has arrived and with it new hopes and aspirations. However, over recent days as the rain has lashed at my windows, I have been in a reflective mood. With so many of the local rivers flooding, I have been reminded of a walk we did early in 2022 around the picturesque village of Great Durnford it turned out to be flooded in an unexpected location.

Thatched Cottage Great Durnford

Great Durnford is nestled in the beautiful Woodford Valley south of Amesbury. Much of the area is part of the Great Durnford Estate, which has existed since the eleventh century. It also has a curious link with our friends across the Atlantic. The village itself is surrounded by evidence of early man and no matter which way you walk out of it you will encounter evidence of our ancestors. It was the lure of seeing more of this ancient landscape that we visited on a lovely day in February following a spell of wet and windy weather.

On the day of our visit, with its elevated location in mind, we decided to devise a walk to include Durnford’s nearby hill top enclosure of Ogbury. I had been thinking of going there for some time and mindful of the recent rain it seemed like a good choice as all of the footpaths were mostly on high ground and we would be on the road when heading down into the village. Therefore, we thought we would be avoiding too many puddles in the farm tracks.

On the walk we were reminded that, despite the snowdrops and signs of spring, winter was not quite done with us yet. On the higher ground the wind was bitter and on the low ground, let’s just say we were very glad of our waterproof sealskinz socks.

You can park by the church in Great Durnford, but we stopped a little south of the village in what appears to be a makeshift lay-by next to the River Avon. Parking there provides lovely views of the river, and allows you to take the footpath to the right that ascends what could be a quarry area before leading to a path to Ogbury.

As we were leaving the car, there was a rainbow. We hoped that it was signalling that any rain had passed rather than being an ominous portent of more to come. We stopped by the river for a few minutes and watched a cormorant flying overhead. I thenI set my Apple Watch for walking exercise and we headed off. With the rainbow in mind and the thought of rain, we decided against taking the ‘quarry’ path as the steps were steep, already wet, and muddy. Instead, we walked into Great Durnford and past the Black Horse Pub, which was undergoing very extensive renovations at the time.

View from Ogbury towards the Woodford Valley

At a thatched cottage and old telephone box, we turned right to ascend the hill up towards Ogbury. Further on we turned left at a slightly confusing crossroads of paths and after walking along for a short stretch we found our selves entering the enclosure. Ogbury is believed to date back to the Iron Age. However, neolithic artefacts have also been recovered from the area, so I suppose there is a chance it is a little older, or at the very least man has occupied the this place from really early times. We found the earthworks somewhat silted up and shallow, so unlike some enclosures there is little sense of the place as you enter. However, once inside we were surprised at how big it was, and as always the views were vast and lovely. Looking at the OS map, it in fact appears to be just a little bit larger than Old Sarum. This type of enclosure is apparently quite rare as most have the added fortification in the centre. So it is an interesting and unusual place to visit and gives you a sense of what some of these enclosures were like in earlier times, before later generations added their changes to them.

View towards the far earthworks showing the open nature of Ogbury

The earthwork is very open and with the wind whipping around us we stopped only briefly to admire the views across the Woodford Valley, before traversing the centre of Ogbury and on through a gap in the earthworks. There we turned immediately left to walk along the side of the enclosure to an area called Catsbrain. Apparently, so called due to the soil resembling that part of a cat’s anatomy. This terminology appears to be in relatively widespread use where the ground is composed of rough stony clay.

At the bottom of Catsbrain, we turned right onto a road and headed away from the village towards Field Barn. Here, the fieldfares in the hedgerow seemed to want to play a game of tag with us, allowing us to get close before flying off again twittering to each other at just how clever they were being at not getting caught. Time and again they flew ahead of us until at a barn we turned left away from them and headed along higher ground, so leaving the birds to find some other form of sport. Along the track there was a row of tall pine trees growing on our right. These seemed a somewhat unlikely thicket of trees for Wiltshire, but with the biting wind I could have briefly imagined that we were indeed walking somewhere farther north. Just past the trees the views opened up towards the Normanton Downs. In front of us was Wilsford’s manor house and church. Compared to the nearby Lake House, which dates back to the 1500s, this is a relatively new manor. It was built between 1904 and 1906 for the parents of Stephen Tennant. Tennant was known as “The man who stayed in bed.” His lifestyle being somewhat exotic and strangely idle. A number of characters in books are believed to have been inspired by this somewhat peculiar and decadent man.

Track towards Wilford Manor and Church

Continuing on and descending down the hill leading to Wilsford we turned left at the junction of footpaths, and now headed back toward Great Durnford via the outskirts of Ham Wood. Although near to its end, our adventure wasn’t quite over. At the bottom of Ham Wood, I stopped to admire some orange fungi. These were growing on a dead tree-trunk next to a fenced garden. Believing them to be velvet shanks growing rather later in the season than usual I ventured closer, all the time marvelling at the difference between our naturally growing colourful mushrooms and the very closely related long stemmed pinheaded and pale Japanese enoki. Suddenly, out of the blue three dogs appeared. They seemed to be unhappy or excited by the fact that I was so close to their property. Not wishing to cause them, or indeed their owner further alarm or trouble we moved quickly on. However, trouble was on the way, as our route on the road back through the village was completely flooded. The only vaguely passible route being close to the fence of the same garden that the lively dogs resided in. We were left with a decision of either negotiating the flood and the dogs or returning to do an almost reverse route of the walk. Deciding that we would risk the former we picked our way through the water, hanging on to the fence of the garden that contained the three dogs. This caused them even more excitement. Thankfully, they were preferring to run around like crazies rather than bite our fingers off as we clung to their boundary. Cars passed us, causing the water to lap over our feet, but we made it!

The row of thatched cottages Great Durnford

With wet shoes, but thanks to our sealskinz socks dry feet, we walked back through Great Durnford, passing the large manor house to our right. I have gleaned little information about Great Durnford Manor other than the fact that the current house was built in the 1700s with more recent extensions. One of its notable connections is that of James Smithson the benefactor of the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. It is very difficult to see anything of the manor house so we moved on into the village passing a row of pretty mainly thatched houses that all seemed to be part of the Durnford Estate.

St. Andrews church Great Durnford

Having dried our shoes off a little, we stopped to take a look inside the village church of St Andrew. The building is a real gem. Inside, it reminded me of the church at Old Dilton with its old pews and the upper seating area at the back. The pews themselves are said to have been made in the 1300s and are thought to be among the oldest in the country.

Norman arch in the church with the remains of a possible Doom Painting

I loved the church’s ornately carved Norman arches and the contrast with the modern engraved glass window. There is a lot to see including a lovely wooden carved Pieta and a Jacobean lectern. There are still remnants of what could be a Doom Painting and other pre Reformation wall art.