Updated: Sep 23, 2021
It’s been a while since I’ve put together a new walk for Hidden Wiltshire. And I have to admit I didn’t put this one together either. It was my walking buddy Stu. So if you have any complaints I can give you his number.
Stu decided we were going to do a walk starting at Salisbury Racecourse, along the old Salisbury to Shaftesbury turnpike to Fovant badges, then down to the Ebble Valley before heading back up to the racecourse. However, having plotted it on the map it turned out to be nearly 15 miles. So there were two problems – a) it’s probably a bit further than I’d normally propose as a Hidden Wiltshire walk, and b) the old turnpike is about as interesting as watching a 0-0 draw between Southampton and Hull (the last football match I went to). So we went back to the drawing board to see if we could find a shorter more interesting route.
We wanted to visit Chiselbury Camp and Fovant badges (albeit from above). Whatever way we looked at it this would involve a stretch along the old turnpike. As we looked at the 1:25,000 OS map we noticed an open access area linking Chiselbury Camp to Broad Chalke way below in the Ebble Valley. The open access area was a sea of close fitting V-shaped contours. Which could only mean one thing – bottoms! So we strung together a series of rights of way that would take us from the start of the walk somewhere in Broad Chalke, along the valley to Bishopstone then straight up to the old turnpike. What follows is the walk we did. It’s still just over 10 miles (16 kms) and if I’m honest we still spent far too long on the old Salisbury-Shaftesbury road. Ideally you’d find a way to keep this stretch to a minimum but it was definitely worthwhile for the walk along the River Ebble but above all for the simply stunning Knapp Down. The latter proved to be one of the most beautiful parts of Wiltshire I’ve ever seen, a place I’d never heard of.
I’ve included two route maps for the walk. The first is the route Stu and I took, and from where I took the photographs. The second is a shorter alternative. There are parts of this I haven’t actually walked although I could see it from where we were.
We parked by Broad Chalke school. There was a small parking area at the bottom of the drive up to the school from the north west but I’m not sure it wasn’t parking for the school so it would not be viable during term time. I would suggest parking instead by All Saints Church or at the village hall. Alternatively you could start and end the walk from Bishopstone, where the village hall also has a large car park, and they're used to walkers parking there.
From the school car park we made for the river. It’s narrow here and broadly runs parallel to the main valley road. The first point of interest was a building site. A huge building completely swathed in scaffolding. As we walked around it we could make out that underneath the steel framework was an old mill. It looked as though the whole building had either been demolished and was being re-built, or that this was a renovation of epic proportions. On the gatepost of what was once the main entrance a sign revealed this was Knighton Mill. It was only as I was writing this piece that I discovered the mill is being completely re-built as an enormous residence for a property developer. It appears that Knighton Mill Pottery once operated from here. I’m not sure whether it will do so in future.
From the mill our next objective was the footpath between Stoke Farthing and Croucheston on the western edge of Bishopstone, passing Knighton Manor on the way, all along following the Ebble. At one point we found ourselves walking through a recently harvested field. We should have been on a path between two wire fences to our left but there were no directional signs and we missed the turn, so after a little while we hopped over the fence onto the path. From talking to a delightful local lady it seems we weren’t the only ones to make this mistake.
We needed to check our route finding again as we reached Croucheston. I’ve included a couple of photographs that should keep you on track but don’t be put off by the “Private Road” sign at the bridge.
The way on foot at least is straight ahead. But shortly thereafter we appeared to be on someone’s drive. On this occasion I was happy to be welcomed by a dog. A very friendly black Labrador. As it explored my crotch it’s owner emerged from the house behind the wall in front of us. We spent a few minutes talking to the lovely Wendy. She asked what our plans were. I was a bit reluctant to say that we were plotting a route for thousands of Hidden Wiltshire fans to follow up her drive but Stu spilled the beans. Incredibly she thought it was a wonderful idea. What then transpired was one of life’s miraculous coincidences. Wendy revealed she was a teacher. As was my wife. I wondered if she knew the Head from my wife’s old school who happened to live nearby. But Wendy actually teaches at a school in Hampshire. To which I replied “so you’ll know my dear friend and other walking buddy Julia”. (Sadly for Julia she has been mistaken for my wife as we’ve met people on our many happy walks together!) And sure enough Wendy did know Julia. Not only that but when Julia turned up to work at the same school as Wendy they'd reconnected for the first time in 20 years, having known each other long ago. What a small world!
Having taken our leave of the delightful Wendy, who directed us between her house and the bungalow next door, we followed the Ebble along what was the first of the highlights of the walk. The river splits into two channels with the path running in-between. Dripping with willows and dappled in sunshine this was a scene of the utmost tranquillity and beauty. With substantial houses whose gardens swept down to the banks of the river this was rural heaven. But all too soon we emerged onto a road, albeit a quiet narrow lane. We wended our way past what appear to have been old trout fisheries, all the while following close by the Ebble.
A hundred metres or so from the fishery you’ll find Bishopstone village hall. Not just a place to park but a popular coffee stop. However we continued along the lane passing several very pretty little thatched cottages, our target being Pitt Lane where we would cross the main valley road by the bus stop and phone box that would give us access to the climb to the turnpike on the ridge a couple of kilometres to the north.
The path up to the ridge is dead ahead along the edge of a field. As we climbed the views behind us over Bishopstone to the hills above it to the south gradually opened up.
Sadly, as we approached the turnpike close by Windwhistle, we were to encounter the handiwork of the dreaded fly tipper. There were two caravans surrounded by rubbish. Stu said he saw a cat in one of the windows so presumably they are inhabited. I have no issue with people living in caravans deep in the countryside. In many ways I’m envious, inhabiting such a remote location. But why not look after the place? Why trash your own doorstep?
What followed can only be described as a 4.5 km trudge. I was glad of the company as Stu and I chatted and joked, trying to make light of the gravel track between double hedges with little or no view of what we knew to be stunning countryside behind the screens. We took solace in the fact that this was an ancient trackway and imagined the lives that had trodden this path long ago. We talked about how the turnpike trust had competed with the competing route in the valley to the north, which eventually won out and became what is now the A30. It’s understandable that the valley route was successful, being sheltered from both the elements and robbers, but also avoiding the steep climb up Harnham Hill out of Salisbury.
The track follows the route of the ancient Salisbury to Shaftesbury road, the Salisbury Way, which I previously ventured along and wrote about in my blog Eden’s Last Post. The earliest mention of this road occurs in Anglo-Saxon times and it occupies the watershed between the Nadder and Ebble valleys. It was also once a “herepath”, a military road. We’d noticed on the map a number of tumuli to the north of the track just before the pig farm. We took a brief detour to explore but there was no sign of them. The views into the Nadder valley were impressive though.
After around an hour on the old turnpike, accompanied at times by wide ranging views across the Wiltshire countryside, we eventually came to a gate that took us onto Chiselbury Camp. There was once a turnpike toll house here. Chiselbury is an Iron Age univallate hill-fort enclosing 8.5 acres. And of course on the escarpment immediately to the north are located the Fovant badges. This is not the place to admire the badges as they are unseen below, but Stu and I stood in a meadow of the most beautiful wild flowers and grasses admiring the breath taking views at our feet, whilst kestrel hovered above our heads scanning the slopes for small tasty mammals. Having circumnavigated the hill fort we went to find an access point for the part of the walk we had most been looking forward to. Knapp Down.
As we retraced our steps from Chiselbury Camp to the gate onto the trackway we looked right and left for a way into the open access area on the other side of the barbed wire fence in front of us. To our left, around a hundred metres or so, we could see a horse jump but as we’d passed it earlier we’d noticed a strand of barbed wire along the top of it. Directly in front of us the barbed wire had been loosened and we could see signs that people had traversed it. Seeing no other way forward we decide to straddle the fence. Stu is a lot taller than me so found it easy enough to step over it onto the open access area. I had to raise my undercarriage a little but it was still easy to step over the fence without causing damage.
The way down from this point onto Knapp Down is extremely steep and not for those with vertigo. We zig-zagged our way down the slope until we reached the top of the bottom! From here the bottom sloped gently away in front of us to the south. I have to say this was one of the most beautiful and tranquil places I’ve ever seen in Wiltshire. It reminded me very much of Prescombe Down, not so far away to the west. As we strolled along the bottom of the dry valley we glanced behind frequently to admire the views back up to old the turnpike above. In front of us the views stretched to the hills to the south of the Ebble Valley. As we reached the end of the first little steep-sided valley we arrived at what is called Sheep Wash on the OS map. Here, looking behind us over our right shoulder, we could see a large hut up a small side valley called Gurston Holes. Ahead, up to our right, was a steeply sloping track with another side valley at right angles to the right of that. We stood gazing in awe. Stu then summed it up perfectly. It looked like an Alpine scene.
After some time taking photographs here we continued downhill along the valley heading towards Barnett’s Down and a track that would take us out of the open access area south east and up to our right. The open access area continues all the way down to Chalk Pyt Farm but from the map we couldn’t see a way to get from the open access land onto the bridleway at the farm. We were to discover later that we were correct in this belief. So having exited the open access land via a metal gate (just above the sheep in the photograph) we took the bridleway down to Chalk Pyt Farm.
Since doing the walk I’ve research Knapp Down and Barnett’s Down. Apart from establishing that it is a SSSI I could find no further information. So I assume it is a working farm in which the public are free to roam. As you can see from the photographs sheep graze on the Down, and there are signs requiring that dogs be kept on a lead. And rightly so. But people clearly do walk there from time to time. Whilst we were there we saw no one. Hopefully you will be as fortunate, for this was an outstandingly beautiful place. It would be so easy to spend half a day or a day exploring these valleys, never venturing outside the open access area. I will definitely be returning.
All that was left for this day was to take the short walk from Chalk Pyt Farm back into Broad Chalke where we had parked the car. But the day had one final delight in store. The Queens Head pub in the centre of the village was open! We were both hot and tired and the superbly kept beer slid down all too easily. Unfortunately for him Stu was driving, although at one point he did suggest that his wife would be happy to come and pick us up. Having known Suzanne for many years I’m not sure I’d want to have made that call!
On our way back to the car we walked through the churchyard of All Saints Church. A handsome church in lovely surroundings. Another reason to return.