By Paul Timlett
Inspired by Glyn Coy’s visit to Knook Castle in January 2019 I decided to visit it for myself. It’s around a 15 minute drive from where I live and despite living here for over 25 years I had never been to see it. So on 1st March I decided to go and see what the fuss was all about.
On a cold grey morning I parked up in Heytesbury, close to The Angel Inn. I had only vaguely planned a route. I packed a small camera, two lenses and my usual flask of coffee into a small shoulder bag and struck out. Sixty seconds later I realised I’d left my map and compass on the kitchen table. Half an hour later my long suffering wife turned up with said map and compass. I then struck out again.
I headed across the A36 and followed the metalled road north then north-east towards West Hill Farm and East Hill Farm. I had travelled this road before in the opposite direction by bike during a memorable winter’s ride from Imber Village across the Imber Range. This was during one of the increasingly rare periods when Imber was open to the public. I’m not entirely convinced I should have been riding on that particular track at the time but I didn’t stop to ask. I recall riding for a good 45 minutes without seeing or hearing any signs of human life. For me, as a miserable anti-social old sod, it doesn’t get any better than that! But back to 1st March 2019.
Whilst I knew the road to West Hill Farm and East Hill Farm was open to the public the proliferation of military signs created a sense of unease. A sense that I was being a naughty boy. The appearance of a farm dog galloping down the road towards me didn’t help that feeling. With West Hill Farm to my left (and a sign welcoming visitors) I tuned right onto a footpath past some cottages marked as East Hill Farm on the 1:50,000 OS map. To be “welcomed” by another dog. I was now apparently on the Imber Range Perimeter Path which first crosses a military road before crossing a field then along the southern edge of a copse, with the road now below me to my right. The view from the edge of the copse was not far ranging but the shapes made by the land on the other side of this little valley really struck me, with a view up to a Wiltshire clump on the skyline opposite. The ridge was being grazed by six large deer which I took to be Fallow Deer as they were much larger than the Roe Deer that are common on the Plains. In the valley below was a herd of grazing cattle. A tranquil rural scene. This is where I took my first photograph of the day.
From this point the way forward is a little confusing. I saw two walkers coming down the valley so I descended from the copse to cross the road again. There are bridleway signs here but they seemed to conflict so I headed diagonally left and upwards across an ungrazed field where there were barely perceptible hoof prints. This was either Indian country or the bridleway.
Meanwhile the military road was behind me but snaked around to my left and then appeared in front of me as I crested the hill. There are many roads and tracks up here but few are marked on the map. But there were signs for the Imber Range Perimeter Path so I followed these east, by now in the direction of Chitterne. It always puzzles me that the many signs warning wayward walkers of instant death from unexploded ordnance don’t seem to apply to cows or farmers. I saw several of each way off the beaten track. I heard no explosions.
I continued east noting the various earthworks, barrows and tumuli recorded by Glyn in his blog. Being such a grey, flat day I did not take any photographs up here as Glyn had done such a great job before me. Knook Castle soon appeared right and to the south of the path I was on. It was then that I realised I had been here before, almost exactly a year ago on a walk from Chitterne. However on that occasion I had not visited the castle but instead explored a nearby deserted farm hidden in a valley and obscured by trees a few hundred metres to the east. Unfortunately the Army knew of its whereabouts and it had clearly been used as a command post in the past, with attendant graffiti.
Knook Castle is definitely worth a visit. It is well defined and a stile enables entry to the field in which it lies, and which on this day was being grazed by fat contented sheep. I spent a long time here, listening to the silence and taking in the atmosphere, imagining the pastoral scene of this Iron Age settlement. It is a univallate hillfort which means it has a single ditch. Whilst of no military value it was thought to be a defensive cattle enclosure which the Romans later occupied as a summer camp.
Suitably educated I then headed south via Quebec Farm to the B390 Chitterne to Knook road. I crossed this and continued uphill towards what is marked as Upton Great Barrow. Great it may have been but there is little left to justify further delay. From the top of the climb I followed the wide track south west and downhill towards the A36. There are a number of farm cottages and houses on the southern slopes of this hill commanding great views of the Wylye Valley.
On reaching the junction of the track with the A36 the noise from the road was a rude shock. Someone very influential must live nearby as there are traffic lights on the A36 here to ease the turn into and out of Upton Lovell and, as I had discovered, up the track down which I had just walked. On the corner at this point is a rather lovely old house. A guy was busily building an extension to the house and I stopped for a chat with what turned out to be the owner. A really interesting guy who led what seemed to be a carefree life, regularly taking off from here to walk and climb in Snowdonia. On this day he was less carefree. He complained bitterly about the farmer who owned the houses and cottages that I had just passed. It seems my new friend had successfully completed his extension only to receive a letter from Wiltshire Council at the behest of the farmer ordering him to tear it down and move it back one metre from the track. Allegedly the farmer had discovered some ancient covenant requiring that the track be left so many feet wide and my friend had transgressed. It seemed utterly petty to me but then it’s none of my business. Anyway the extension is now being re-built (a metre back) as a bunk house for weary travellers. A noble mission I thought.
As I chatted to the busy builder I kept glancing at my watch. It was about 13:30 on a Friday and I knew there was a splendid pub in Upton Lovell. It was a long shot but might it be open? I said my farewells and scurried off. If the pub was open it would surely be closing soon?
Well, it was my lucky day. The Price Leopold Inn was not only open but still taking food orders. I had been to the pub many years before. It’s at the end of a narrow village street with a beautiful little garden by the River Wylye. It is named in memory of Prince Leopold Duke of Albany, the youngest son of Queen Victoria who lived at nearby Boyton Manor (great farm shop by the way where they sell their own pig produce).
But today I just wanted to warm up so I went inside. And joy of joys. They sold Butcombe Bitter! I once knew the founder of Butcombe Brewery. He was, if I remember rightly, the Finance Director of Courage Brewery in Bristol. He gave it all up and set up a brewery in the outbuildings of his home in Butcombe in the Mendip Hills. A really lovely bloke. It’s many years since I had had a pint of his wonderful beer so this was a real treat. I set up camp in the little snug surrounded by books and lingered over a couple of pints.