By Paul Timlett
This blog was updated with additional information and a route map on 1 December 2021.
Since this is a blog about walking and photography we need to get something out of the way first. We don’t want any elephants in this room, do we?
There, I said it.
From the outset, when the Government issued their instructions, I followed them as far as I understood them. I’ve always walked a lot from home, and I always carry a camera. Nearly all of us do, courtesy of our phones. So I continued to do so. Apart from a throw away remark by Michael Gove at the beginning of lockdown, when he was asked how long we could go out and exercise for and he said something along the lines of “oh, about an hour seems right” I heard nothing concrete from Government to say how long we could exercise for. So I walked for anything up to about three hours. And as I did so I took photographs. Living on Salisbury Plain it’s very easy to reach wide open spaces within a few minutes on foot. I could walk for hours and see no one. So that’s what I did. Even as further clarification was provided, and we were told we could drive for a short distance to walk, I continued to just walk from home. I created a gallery on my website which I called Images From My Doorstep and concentrated on taking photographs of the little details that surround me.
Despite the relaxation of travel restrictions I’m still not comfortable driving great distances when I can exercise perfectly well close to home. In fact this whole period of confinement has given me the opportunity to think about what I was doing. Is it really necessary or justifiable to drive for hours on end simply to walk and take photographs? Did I need to realise my ambitions to travel the world for pleasure rather than work once I retired (early) when we have so much of beauty on our doorstep, or within just a short drive? I have no wish to return to a life of traffic jams.
So yesterday I drove all of three miles to start a walk a little further from home.
Once again, I didn’t set out on this walk with the intention of writing a blog. I just wanted to explore a nearby area in greater depth and lose myself in the landscape. So I took my camera and just one lens, my 80-200mm. It’s a big beast and I love cropping images taken with it to a square or a 5:4 crop ratio. Digital camera images mostly have a 3:2 crop ratio. I’ve often wondered about simply buying a square format or 5:4 format camera but that would mean sending the current Mrs Timlett back out to work to fund it. And I’m not sure I’d be terribly popular. The currency of the current Mrs Timlett’s status might not remain current if that happened. Then who would cook my dinner?
Anyway, to the walk. This route took me across to the valley that contains Chitterne Brook between Chitterne and Codford. I parked in a little layby on the B390 Shrewton to Chitterne road. As the B390 gently ascends in the direction of Chitterne you come to a sharp right hand bend on the summit before dropping down into Chitterne itself. The layby is on the outside of the bend on your left. On the opposite side of the road is a water tank. Care is needed on this road. It is used by wannabe racing drivers and motorcyclists to test the limits of their machines on this long straight road. There have been several fatalities along its entire length, and the lunatics were out in droves yesterday.
Leaving the car in the layby I headed south-east along the byway. This byway leads to the grass military landing strip at Deptford Down. You will frequently see military helicopters hovering and landing there, and occasionally you’ll see C130 Hercules transport aircraft doing touch and goes, and sometimes landing. You may also see the new A400M transport aircraft doing flyovers. The track is popular with trail bike riders who like to race along it on their way to Deptford Down. It’s also popular with dog walkers so beware the calling cards left by the less responsible ones. However, yesterday there was nobody about, just an Apache helicopter hovering high over the landing strip.
After about 300 metres, in a dip along the byway, you reach a crossroads whether the byway is crossed by a bridleway. These are ancient tracks, one being the track from Maddington to Codford the other the track from Salisbury to Warminster. I followed the former track during the first half of this walk. Whilst writing this blog I discovered that the intersection of the two tracks is the site of a tumulus called Oram’s Grave, where James Oram hanged himself on 25 July 1768. The people of Chitterne buried him here and it’s thought other suicide victims are also buried here, a stake being driven through their heart. I must admit I didn’t notice a burial mound.
Turn right at the intersection onto the Maddington to Codford track and head west across the cultivated field in the direction of the beech copse in the distance at the top of the hill. The farmer always leaves a path through the middle of his crop. Something else to note as you turn onto this bridleway is the deep ditch at the side of the byway. The farmer has been forced to create several of these ditches along this stretch of byway all the way up to Yarnbury Castle. The fields are plagued by hare coursers who simply plough through hedges and gates to get into the fields. They have caused a lot of damage so the farmer has had to resort to making what are essentially tank traps to keep them out.
Passing three hawthorn trees marooned on the byway in the open fields you soon reach the copse. Despite it’s proximity to the B390 this is a beautiful, peaceful spot with magnificent views. I could easily have ended my walk here. As I looked across to Deptford Down a break in the sparse cloud cover cast a slither of sunlight across the rape seed field in the middle distance gouging a yellow slash across the landscape.
Just after the beech copse is another crossroads where our path is crossed by a bridleway heading north-south, but we continue west towards nearby Clay Pit Hill, so named as this was a place where clay was dug in the 17th century and carted to Amesbury for the manufacture of clay tobacco pipes. To the south you can see the solar farm on East Codford Down. Shortly after the triangulation point and summit of Clay Pit Hill, marked by an underground reservoir gurgling away beneath a drain cover in the undergrowth to your left, you reach a copse. The bridleway continues straight ahead (I returned this way later) but we turn left here, heading south along the road.
It’s worth pausing at this point to take in the views all around. This area is intensively farmed but it still has a beauty about it. Whilst it was the middle of the day the scudding clouds created constantly changing patterns of light and shade on the land, diffusing the harsh sunlight.
Ten minutes or so along this road you come to what I believe is a biomass plant, marked as a Power Station on the OS map. Just after this, and immediately after the trees on your right, you will see the bridleway that heads south west across the field to your right. Again the farmer has cut a path across the crops. Beware of straying from the rights of way. The farmer here is very protective of his privacy and you may not receive a warm welcome if you go wrong. The road continues all the way to Codford St Mary but it is very definitely private, and is heavily used by farm traffic.
Several years ago I missed the bridleway sign and continued along this road as it soon comes to Codford Circle, otherwise known as Wilsbury Ring. This is a major historical monument, an almost perfectly oval Iron Age hillfort covering a substantial area, with a trig point in the centre. There is only a slight bank and outer ditch so not much so see at ground level. But it’s an important site for those who believe in lay lines, which probably explains the farmer’s reluctance to allow visitors. I know Glyn Coy would love to put his drone up over the hill but even that is forbidden. It seems a shame that an important historical monument such as this should be off-limits. The day that I strayed I was lucky. There was no one around so I spent a long time just lying peacefully in the centre of the circle listening to the skylarks. As I departed I accidentally put up three great bustards feeding in a field of rape. They were no more than about 6 metres from me and shot straight into the sky. They flew gracefully away as I stood with my jaw on the floor. A simply incredible experience.
Returning to my walk, the bridleway by the biomass plant heads downhill in a south westerly direction, Codford Circle always just out of sight over the brow of the hill to your left. I would recommend that you resist the temptation to visit it, and to be honest there isn’t a great deal to see at ground level. But look to your right and the views to the west are glorious. I sat here gazing over Auckland Farm for some considerable time drinking my coffee whilst watching the red kites and buzzards soaring on the thermals overhead.
Which brings me to the title of this blog and the reason I decided to bring my 80-200mm lens. I knew I’d see plenty of red kites here. The lens isn’t really long enough for bird photography but they come quite close so I was hopeful of a decent shot. However, the kites are a lot smarter than me. They played cat and mouse with me all day. As soon as I put my camera down, or pointed it in a different direction, a kite would swoop close above my head and I’d miss it. This happened time and time again. I never did get the shot so I’ve included one here that I took on Deptford Down about a month ago instead!
Continuing along the bridleway, which I assume is the aforementioned ancient Maddington to Codford track, it soon becomes one of the deep covered lanes we so often find in this part of the world. I eventually came to Codford St Mary. The road to the farm shop is on your left, but like so much of the land round here, it was plastered with “Private” notices. Not sure how they ever sell anything in the farm shop! Instead, I turned right onto the Chitterne road. I decided that, since the roads are still not quite so busy at the moment, I’d walk along the road a mile or so, past the Lyons Seafood cold store before turning left onto a road that would take me across the valley, over Chitterne Brook to reach the bridleway from Codford St Peter towards Codford Down. This was a mistake as the road now has a “Private Road” sign on it. Having turned onto the Chitterne road by the private road to the farm shop earlier I should have turned first left onto another road heading due west to Codford St Peter and then turned right (north) onto the bridleway there. This is the route I've shown on the route map. However, having trudged up the Chitterne road and dodged more traffic than I expected, I decided to chance it and walk along the private road. I got away with it, but it’s not something I would normally do. If something is marked private I feel I should respect that.
The bridleway that runs to the west of little Chitterne Brook is another beautiful and peaceful place. The area around the brook itself is rich in bird life (including those damned red kites) especially water fowl. It is also the gateway to trails heading west across Codford Down, the site of a Celtic field system and Ansty Hill , the location of Upton Great Barrow - a Bronze Age bell barrow where Cunnington found a necklace and beads . To the north can be seen the tumulus just south of Chitterne and an old fashioned water pump looking like something from the mid-West of the United States. In my photograph you can also just make out the tower of the church at Chitterne. The tumulus is pretty much all that remains visible of the Aston Valley Barrow Cemetery. This is a group 10 Bronze Age bowl barrows and a single bell barrow which were excavated by Cunnington in 1801. Finds included a cremation and an inhumation, and later Saxon goods which can be seen in Wiltshire Museum.
A couple of hundred metres before the end of the bridleway (which is also a metalled road for lorries coming up to Manor Farm) there is yet another crossroads where the road is crossed by the bridleway coming down from the hill to your left (west). Having photographed the tumulus and water pump from this point I went through the gate on my right and headed across the field north-east to the little wooden bridge crossing the brook.
This was another chance to sit quietly listening to the babbling brook and finish what was left of my coffee. And watch the red kites!
From the bridge I continued the short distance to the Chitterne road. Once through the gate I turned left along the road for about 100 metres before picking up the bridleway again on the other side of the road. The bridleway heads east up the hill back in the direction of Clay Pit Hill. And here I have a warning for you. The bridleway is clearly marked and requires that you climb over the stile into the field where a (private) farm road meets the Chitterne road. There was a small herd of young black bullocks a little distance away in the field. As I work as a volunteer at Parsonage Down I’m pretty used to being in a field with livestock. But I’m also wary of them at the same time, especially of cattle I don’t know. The moment I stepped off the stile the bullocks came galloping towards me. They are just inquisitive and excitable (think a classroom full of 30 five year old kids) but at this point I decided it was better to be on the other side of the fence. So I hopped back over the stile. I wondered what to do as the bridleway runs diagonally across the field. I started to walk up the (private) farm road. I’d been on the road at its far end before so I knew if it came to it I could just follow the road all the way up the hill where it eventually comes to the biomass plant. A tractor passed me and the farm worker simply gave me a cheery wave so clearly he wasn’t bothered about my presence. Fortunately though there were two further small stiles over the fence, and once out of sight of the bullocks I got into the field where I climbed steeply to the fence on the other side towards another stile. This is where I encountered the little pied wagtail sitting on the fence post, asking me to take his portrait.
Picking up the bridleway again by the eastern edge of a copse on the far side of the bullock field I passed a young couple heading towards the field. I warned them about the bullocks and was relieved to see they heeded my advice about following the fence line around the east and south of the field, well away from those frisky bullocks.
I was now on the final leg, following the bridleway east back towards Clay Pit Hill and the junction with the road to the biomass plant that I had turned onto hours earlier. It was then just a case of retracing my steps to the car.
Being late afternoon, the light had changed completely. The beech copse and those little hawthorn trees looked completely different as the sun began its journey towards the horizon. Worth one last photograph.
The perfect end to an almost perfect day when I had encountered precisely three other walkers on my 11 km journey. But oh for a pint in The Kings Head in Chitterne. That would have been the icing on the cake.