Grovely Wood and the Woodsman
Updated: Aug 2, 2022
I wasn’t intending to write a blog about this walk but despite the popularity of this area we did make some unusual finds. But best of all we had one of life’s fortuitous and memorable encounters.
Stu and I decided to visit Langford Lakes to see an exhibition of photographs by a couple of friends of mine, but also to visit the lakes themselves and to see what we could find in the way of birdlife. We planned to have a coffee in the café there before ascending the escarpment to Grovely Wood in the hope of seeing the Goshawks that are resident there at the moment. Having hastily plotted a route we realised from looking at the OS map there were a number of historic monuments we could include along the way.
I can’t remember the last time I went to Langford Lakes, and Stu said he used to fish there, but we were both taken aback by the facilities and the improvements that have taken place over the years. This really is a fantastic place to spend half a day or longer. Wiltshire Wildlife Trust has done a fantastic job. It’s still a little early in the season for migratory birds, and we mostly saw Canada Geese, Tufted Ducks and Mallards. But seeing and hearing the Willow Warblers was a real treat and at the end of our day’s walk we also spotted two Grey Wagtails on the banks of the Wylye just outside Steeple Langford. I can thoroughly recommend the café where you can sit on the deck overlooking one of the lakes enjoying the spectacular coffee and cake.
Leaving the car at WWT car park, from the lakes and the village hall in Hanging Langford we followed a bridleway under the railway which climbed steeply south-west in the direction of Grovely Wood. After a short while it joins the restricted byway on which we were to return to the village at the end of the day. Passing Holloway Hedge Barn we came to a fork where we turned left, hoping to see East Castle. This is an Iron Age or Romano-British enclosed farmstead but it is hidden in trees off the right of way. We weren’t in a trespassing mood and had a long way to go so we continued along the right of way until we reached the edge of Grovely Wood.
On reaching the wood we turned left, keeping to a path on the edge of the wood. Goshawks can occasionally be seen displaying around the middle of the day in Spring and whilst they are nimble they are large birds so are best found darting between the trees along the drives. The bluebells were beginning to bloom and were sharing the woodland floor with primroses, wood anemone, early dog-violet and wood-sorrel. It won’t be long before Grovely is once again a magnificent carpet of blue.
Grovely Wood is open access so there is nothing to prevent the more adventurous from diving into its depths, but we stuck to the path along the edge all the way to Powten Stone in the hope of a Goshawk sighting. Eventually we joined the bridleway called Second Broad Drive that follows the course of the Roman road through the wood. At this junction we turned right intending to follow the Roman road for a couple of kilometres to the western end of the wood just before Dinton Beeches. Then we spotted something large and grey perched on a piece of wood a couple of hundred metres away. We both studied it through our binoculars. It was the right colour for a Goshawk. Could it be? Was it moving? Over a period of 15 minutes we edged closer and closer. Still it didn’t move. Now just a few metres away we realised what we had been praying was a Goshawk turned out to be a plastic pigeon! It was perched on a little pergola which framed a bench and table bearing a wooden vase holding a purple paper flower. The perfect place for lunch.
I’ve been to this spot in Grovely Wood several times but each time I visit there are new additions to this glade, mostly carved from wood. From sunflowers, to little faces and carved wooden birds this is a perfect haven in the vastness of the wood that invites you stop and spend some time. On this occasion we could hear a chainsaw nearby. This surely must be the creator of all that stood before us.
As we sat and ate our lunch and drank coffee at the table a figure emerged from the trees. This was to be the prelude to a fascinating encounter which both Stu and I felt privileged to have enjoyed. The talented individual before us was Gerry.
Gerry was born in a farm cottage in Grovely Woods many years ago. He has worked here all his life. Sadly he no longer lives in the woods as his house has long since been bulldozed and buried. He is now semi-retired but still spends much of his time here cutting wood and making the simple carvings all around us. He told us all manner of stories about the wood but his main interest was in its wartime history. The American forces took up residence in the wood in September 1942 and huge numbers of aircraft parts were hidden here along with an encampment of military personnel, safe from prying eyes above. He explained that what I had previously assumed were pill boxes or bomb shelters in the wood were in fact fuse bunkers where bomb fuses were stored. There are three, now well-hidden along Second Broad Drive. Despite his best efforts Gerry has never managed to establish when the Americans left. But he knows these woods better than anybody and he says he has never found any sign of them having been here. Not even a discarded knife and fork.
We could easily have spent all day talking to Gerry, sharing in his stories. In a sad moment he said that he hoped his knowledge and his stories would not be lost with his passing. He was happy for me to take his photograph. He said he loved photography and the role that it plays in capturing history. Both Stu and I left him hoping that we’d see him again. Now we know where to find him that should not be too difficult. But if we don’t manage to track him down again I’ll always remember him describing how a wealthy land owner once tried to show off to his posh friends by calling Gerry over to share some of his stories about Grovely Wood. In his heavy Wiltshire accent Gerry said “all of a sudden I went deaf in one eye and couldn’t remember a thing.” He had a twinkle in his one deaf eye as he said it.
Having taken our leave of this master craftsman and true woodsman we returned to the Roman road. As we trudged along the broad avenue, ever on the look out for Goshawks, we came across one of the fuse bunkers well hidden at the side of the road.
Whilst we saw Roe and Muntjac Deer, saw many Chiffchaffs and heard a Nuthatch we never did see any Goshawks. After some time the way became narrower and according to the map we had deviated from the line of the byway although we saw no turn. We eventually returned to the edge of the woodland where we were joined by one of the Grim’s Ditches that we find in Wiltshire. Just after a large barn we turned right onto the restricted byway that would lead us back down to Hanging Langford in the distance below. Again the route deviated from that shown on the map and even the right of way signs appeared to direct us away from it. But route finding was easy enough.
On our way back to Hanging Langford we passed two scheduled monuments – Hanging Langford Camp and Church-end Ring. The former is an Iron Age to Romano-British “aggregate village” which appears now as a complex series of low earthworks in a small wood. It is difficult to make these earthworks out as the whole area is overgrown. A line of earthworks leads down hill to Church-end Ring in a copse below, at the head of an unnamed bottom. This is described as a pear shaped banjo enclosure. This was a new one on me. Apparently they are largely known from cropmarks and soil marks recorded from the air and are predominantly found in Wessex. These two monuments suggest prolonged settlement and agricultural activity in this area with a complex range of settlement types. Whether they would have been contemporaneous I don’t know but it’s fascinating to imagine what people would have looked like and what they would have been doing here thousands of years ago, and of course from where they would have obtained their water this high up in the hills.
Once back in Hanging Langford we took a short diversion across three dry fords then along the banks of the Wylye towards Steeple Langford. We feared we’d have to walk between the two villages back to the car park at the lakes on the road, but there is a permissive footpath that provides a welcome route across what is known as Swanton’s Island back to the Reserve.
In total the route as shown was 11kms/7miles.