By Paul Timlett.
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 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 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. As ever, as a precaution I carried a map and compass.
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 hellish 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 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 by Shaw House 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 guess what? I was standing in the middle of what was once Shaw Village. And I hadn’t even noticed.
Would I recommend a visit to Shaw Village? Well, yes. There are very indistinct earthworks to be seen but on a day like this one can only wonder at the sort of lives the 12-20 people that lived here endured in medieval winters. 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 you can almost feel the presence of those hardy people.
Absent the guide that I foolishly tried to follow, my recommendation to you is to get the relevant OS map (I have the 1:50,000 but I think the 1:25,000 would be better) and a compass. 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 gated enclosure that contains the reservoir and the small copse (Shaw copse) off to the east are the landmarks you are looking for.
I’m conscious this has been a long read so far and we’re only at the beginning of the walk. Not having learned my own lesson I tried once again to follow the guide to the next waypoint. Once again, I battled into the wind and went wrong. What I should have done, and what I would recommend you do, is walk around the northern and eastern edges of Shaw copse before heading east and then south across the grass down towards Gopher Wood. I went the other way round and came across a fence which necessitated another detour. With the benefit of hindsight looking back from finger post by Gopher Wood later it looks quite a short and simple walk from the eastern edge of Shaw copse to the western edge of Gopher Wood. And once at the finger post in fine weather you will have the most amazing views south across Wiltshire.
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!)
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.
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.
Just after the pub you will find a little lane on your right. Follow this right and left until you reach the stables and the entrance to Oare House where you will see a footpath sign to your right which takes you across fields to Huish. This is where the weirdness and true Hidden Wiltshire begins.
Oare House is a Grade I listed house. It was built in 1740 for a London wine merchant. It is now occupied by Sir Henry Neville Lindley Keswick no less, who once owned The Spectator magazine. To the west of the house but not visible from this spot is the very odd Oare Pavilion, a summer house designed for Keswick by the Chinese architect I M Pei and built in 2003. Keswick is Chairman of Jardine Matheson Holdings Ltd hence the Chinese connection. From the Pewsey Downs Oare Pavillion can be seen for miles around. Oare House gardens and the parkland you will now be walking through are beautiful. I’ve been here in Spring and the daffodils and bluebells are almost overwhelming. The trees are majestic.
Keeping the boundary of the field/parkland to your left, with views back up to Huish Hill and whence you came to your right. Follow it until you reach the minor road between Oare and Huish once again. Huish Manor is just across the road. Turn left onto the road for a short stretch past the entrance to the Manor on your right. Opposite is a wooden gate threatening a fine of 4 shillings if you don’t close it. Look carefully at the trees across the field and you may see a number of large darkly coloured deer peering at you. I stood for ages staring at these deer wondering what breed they were. It then dawned on me that they hadn’t moved at all, continuing to watch me from behind the trees. I’ll leave you to see if you can find them.
Back track a few metres to where the footpath you were on across the fields delivered you onto the road. Opposite this point there is a bridleway sign. Follow this up a boggy ditch and then take the footpath to the left behind the manor. The path meanders through what looks like and is the garden of Manor Farm. From my own experience I know what a pain in the neck it is to have a right of way across your garden. The owners of Manor Farm have embraced it! The path works its way through beautiful flower beds, a miniature stone age henge and finally a 7 foot iron chicken standing proudly by a pond. I told you it was weird. At this point the path passes through a gate where if you turn right you will immediately find the pretty little 13th century St Nicholas’s Church. The road turns into a track which eventually takes you back up to Spaghetti Junction. By this time it was getting late and starting to get very murky so I was unable to explore the church. I still had a long way to go.
Immediately before the church on your left is a track and a Natural England sign explaining that the track is a right of way leading you back to the entrance to the reserve. This is the way ahead. Once back on the reserve turn right and ascend the hill in front of you. According to my guide this is an ascent of 100m for about 900m. I’d take that with a pinch of salt but it is a lung buster. There are several routes up but don’t be tempted to cut the corner by branching left as you will find a fence blocking your way at the top. Instead bear right and either keep right following a track that is clearly used by farm vehicles or take a deviation to the left half way up the hill along a grass track that will take you to the top and a finger post that, if you have been paying attention, you will have passed earlier in the walk next to Gopher Wood.
Now it is a simple matter of following the escarpment west across Draycott Hill, Golden Ball Hill and finally the neolithic causewayed camp on Knap Hill, the whole time enjoying the stunning views south, west and not forgetting to look behind you to the east.
By now it was late and getting dark. Apart the one inevitable dog walker I had the place to myself once more. As I sat in my car exhausted but happy the dog walker made for a lonely and eerie figure standing on the summit of Knap Hill.
All images are copyright of Paul Timlett