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Knap Hill, Medieval Shaw, Huish and Oare in the Pewsey Downs

Updated: Jul 29, 2021

By Paul Timlett.

UPDATED 22 December 2020. Today I revisited parts of this walk and realised that I made a major mistake when writing the original blog in March 2019. It seems that I lost my battle to find the site of Medieval Shaw Village in 2019 and that in the original blog I attributed its location to what are in fact some Iron Age earthworks. I have amended the original blog accordingly. The route map shows the advised route rather than the route I took on the day.

As a landscape photographer there is little worse than a fine sunny day. So as I set out for the Pewsey Downs on Friday 15 March 2019 I was pleased to see there was no prospect of that. The forecast was for strong winds and light showers. As it transpired during the next nine hours the showers stopped for no more than an hour!

On this visit to the Pewsey Downs Nature Reserve the start for my walk would be the car park between Walkers Hill and Knap Hill on the minor road between Alton Barnes and Lockeridge. From there I would walk up to the site of the abandoned medieval village of Shaw (hold that thought) before continuing to Gopher Wood and Huish Hill where I would descend to Oare and the hamlet of Huish itself before gaining the heights of Pewsey Down once more for the return to the car park via Knap Hill. I had planned to follow a route that I found on the internet, and which I had bookmarked on my phone. It promised to deliver me to the location of the Medieval Village of Shaw. As ever, as a precaution I carried a map and compass.

Woodborough Hill, Knap Hill and Walkers Hill

Leaving the car park the numerous brown piles and plastic bags are your first warning that this is serious dog walking country. Later there are frequent reminders by way of trees and gorse bushes adorned with dangling black and yellow bags, like macabre Christmas decorations. Unless you want a long-lasting memento of your visit trodden into the carpet of your car I would suggest you walk with your eyes fixed firmly to the ground, which is a shame as the views as you ascend from the car park are increasingly spectacular. Still, who knows, maybe the “somebody” who dog walkers expect to clear up after them will have made a visit before you do.

Much of the land in this area forms the Pewsey Downs Natural England Nature Reserve. Therefore, within reason and with due regard for livestock and fence lines, there is open access so it is not necessary to stick doggedly to paths. Nevertheless as a precaution I wore my Natural England Volunteer fleece in case I was challenged! The whole area is a maze of footpaths, bridleways, and byways. It is criss-crossed by the Long Distance Walkers Association (“LDWA”) trails of the Mid Wilts Way, Tan Hill Way, White Horse Way and Wansdyke Path of which there is little evidence on the ground or on the map. I never once saw a sign for the Tan Hill Way even though it seems I spent some time on it. As for the Wansdyke Path, don’t expect this to necessarily follow the Wansdyke which we all know and love.

From the car park head towards the gate into the reserve beyond which you can see to the east Knap Hill directly in front of you. After the gate you soon come to a fork in the grassy track which goes right to the flanks of Knap Hill. But you will have time to enjoy this at the end of the walk. We are taking the left fork here. Head north east climbing gradually, with the aforementioned road down to your left.

Now let’s talk about the weather! I mentioned the forecast was for strong winds. Well that turned out to be a huge understatement. The wind was vicious. It battered me to pieces trying to turn me inside out, turning what in more calm conditions would have been drizzle into millions of tiny needles that drove into my exposed face. Reading my map let alone setting up my tripod to take photographs was virtually impossible. A Navy AW101 Merlin helicopter made three very low passes over my head, flying almost sideways as it fought to make headway so I had no chance! It was at this point that my plans started to unravel.

My cheerfully written guide which I was following slavishly on my phone due to my inability to hold onto my map turned out to be totally misleading. The author had carefully set out grid references and advised me to follow this path and that. All of which were inaccurate. It directed me to the Wansdyke Path at one point which led me way off course to Wansdyke which I had earlier identified on my map. However, this was one of those occasions where the Wansdyke Path, as described on the LDWA website, and Wansdyke do not coincide despite a sign on a fence to the contrary.

Initially I was going to share a link to my (un)helpful guide in this article but I wouldn’t be so mean as to condemn the reader to the hours of blundering around that I endured. After over an hour of staggering down a hill to the Wansdyke Path and then back up again against 50 mph winds I eventually returned to what I can only describe as ripples on the top of a hill with a small copse about 100m to the east and an underground reservoir surrounded by fences and metal gates to the south. I said “returned” because I had passed this way earlier. Using recognisable landmarks I triangulated my position, and deduced that I was in fact standing in the middle of what was once Shaw Village. It was only some 21 months later when I revisited the location, this time armed with a mapping app on my phone, that I realised this was not Shaw Village at all, but Iron Age earthworks.

(Not the) Abandoned Medieval Shaw Village but Iron Age Earthworks!

It was during my later visit that I established that the site of Medieval Shaw Village is in fact around 500 metres to the north east of the earthworks just to the south west of Shaw House. Wansdyke (not the Wansdyke Path) which can be seen running east-west along the southern edge of the garden of Shaw House, supposedly bisects the site of Shaw Village. Sadly the site is now on inaccesible cultivated land but from Wansdyke Path to the south no evidence of the village remains. The village is mentioned in the Domesday survey and had only three poll-tax payers in 1377, the lowest number in any Wiltshire village. It was probably deserted in the early 15th century when Shaw was linked with Alton (the Wiltshire Alton, not Hampshire) and its farms merged with Alton farms. But today one can only wonder at the hardships of the 12-20 people that lived here.

Absent the guide that I foolishly tried to follow, if you want to at least gaze upon the site of the village from afar my recommendation to you is to get the relevant OS map (I have the 1:50,000 but the 1:25,000 would be better) and a compass, or a mapping app. Plot a route from the car park up to Shaw Village and follow that bearing using the paths and gates where you find them. The nearest you can get is the Wansdyke Path from where you can see Wansdyke itself and the site of the village across the cropped field in front of you. To be honest I wouldn't bother unless you are blessed with a vivid imagination that will enable you to picture those medieval people in that location.

I’m conscious this has been a long read so far and we’re only at the beginning of the walk. I'm going to assume that you won't bother with the diversion to gaze upon an empty muddy field that was once Shaw Village but instead head straight from Knap Hill towards Gopher Wood. You can follow the edge of the escarpment from Knap Hill with its spectacular views to the south to accompany you. Via a series of pedestrian gates you will arrive at a striking finger post just before Gopher Wood with the village of Huish just visible below at the foot of the hill. More clearly visible is the highly unusual Oare Pavilion mentioned later in this blog.

Draycott Hill, Gopher Wood and a glimpse of Oare Pavilion

Follow the northern edge of Gopher Wood and descend through a gate and field usually full of sheep with many ancient contorted trees to your right. At the bottom of the hill you will come to what my guide (accurately) described as a Spaghetti Junction of rights of way. The White Horse Way, Mid Wilts Way, and Tan Hill Way all meet here (no signs for Tan Hill Way remember). If you visit in the Spring, and having more time if you don’t make my mistakes, it’s worth popping into the wood here as it will be a carpet of bluebells. Incidentally the track that drops down to your right ends up in the hamlet of Huish (more of that later!)

Spaghetti Junction in Gopher Wood and Huish Hill

From here we are going up the hill in front of us across the earth works heading south east and east. If I remember rightly this is signposted Mid Wilts Way but since you have taken my advice and plotted your route carefully on your map you will know that this track is taking you up Huish Hill. After crossing some fields you will come to the field boundary where there is a wide metal gate and a smaller metal gate to its right. But a further 50m along the hedge and to your right is another gate. This is where I should have been and where you will now be. This leads you along the escarpment with those spectacular views to the south on your right once more. At the end you will find my favourite house in the whole of Wiltshire sitting in splendid isolation in beautiful gardens at the high point of the hill (238m), commanding far reaching views to the south and the east. In passing I knocked on the door and gave the occupants an hour to pack their things before I moved in! Rainscombe House and its park can be seen to the east below with Martinsell Hill behind. To the south is the village of Oare.

Rainscombe House and Martinsell Hill from Huish Hill

Having lingered here for far too long I dropped steeply to the village of Oare. This descent is not for those with weak legs or vertigo but there is a perfectly placed bench part way down offering unsurpassed views. At the bottom of the hill you will emerge onto the little road to Huish. But be patient and instead turn left, past the primary school and head to the A345. On reaching the main road turn right for the short stretch past the sadly closed village pub. I reached this point six hours into my walk after all my route-finding errors. A kindly lady sensing my disappointment at finding the pub had shut down (I knew it had) offered to pop back to her house and get me a beer.