Updated: Sep 1, 2020
By Paul Timlett
A couple of months ago I volunteered to shoot photographs and write a blog for Hidden Wiltshire about three of the hills above Pewsey Vale. I had a route in mind that would take me up onto Milk Hill from Stanton St Bernard, then following Wansdyke I’d walk along the ridge line to Tan Hill before heading south over Clifford’s Hill. I figured from there I would drop down to the Kennet and Avon Canal before completing the circuit to Stanton St Bernard. With the weather forecast looking hopeful I decided Valentine’s Day was the day.
I woke bright and early to thick mist. As a landscape photographer that was perfect. I knew the mist would gradually burn off to reveal a stunning landscape lit by strong sunshine. Bright sunshine is generally not great for photography but at this time of year the sun never rises very high so it casts strong shadows that give definition to the folds in the hills.
I parked the car at Stanton St Bernard near to Tintown Barn on the Alton Barnes to Devizes Road. Loaded up with camera gear I headed north on the bridleway and after a while steeply upwards over the slopes of Milk Hill.
Much of this area is a Natural England nature reserve. As a volunteer at the Parsonage Down reserve I know some of the staff and volunteers who work at the Pewsey Down reserve so this was a bit of a busman’s holiday. Whilst there is a network of designated footpaths and bridleways across the reserve there is permissive freedom to roam. So as long as you don’t climb over fences you can go almost anywhere. However, if you have a dog be aware there are sheep and cattle up there so you must keep it under control.
Anybody who has driven along the road between Alton Barnes and Devizes will possibly have seen the sky filled with hang gliders. A dirt track slightly to the west of the bridleway I took leads to a car park at the top which enables pilots to drive up with their hang gliders. There are signs warning the public that the car park belongs to them! So the best bet is to walk. However, at 294m Milk Hill is the highest point in Wiltshire so be prepared for a lung bursting walk. Another option if you are so inclined is go on horseback. I believe you can arrange a trek from the riding club at Stanton St Bernard and certainly the hills are frequently filled with riders. All I can say is that the horses must be damn strong to get themselves and their loads up those slopes.
From Milk Hill follow the ridge line which comprises Wansdyke due west towards Tan Hill. According to Wikipedia “Wansdyke is a series of early medieval defensive linear earthworks…” On the ground it is a very deep ditch, and on Valentine’s Day it was still filled in places with deep snow that has survived in the cold shade up there for nearly two weeks. This section of Wansdyke is known as East Wansdyke and runs for around 9 miles. The views are spectacular. To the south is Salisbury Plain, north are the Marlborough Downs, and to the west can be seen Cherhill (apparently pronounced cher-ill and not cher-hill). To the east the view is obscured by the bulk of Milk Hill. Allegedly in clear weather the views extend beyond even this - ranging from Cheesefoot Head near Winchester to the south-east to the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons in Wales to the north-west. The Mendips and Cotswolds are also clearly visible.
Next stop is the fairly innocuous and indistinct looking Tan Hill which is also shown as 294m on the OS map. Apparently Milk Hill is 26 cms higher! Not to be outdone by Milk Hill and its white horse, legend has it that Tan Hill had its own white horse. In truth it was more of a donkey. The legend also says that a path led down from the donkey to a miniature stone circle. The absence of any evidence on the ground led to the legend being dismissed as just that. However, eventually both were located albeit in a valley below. Alas the stone circle was found to be a modern arrangement of field clearance boulders. The donkey only reappears in exceptionally dry conditions when the vegetation obscuring it dies back.
From Tan Hill look south and you will, beyond the saddle between Tan Hill and Clifford’s Hill, see the ramparts of the Iron Age Hillfort of Rybury Camp which was in turn built on a Neolithic Hill Fort. A steep climb from the saddle up to Rybury Camp will enable you to trample all over it and around it, which many dog walkers do. I’m not sure how it has survived so well.
A short descent from the Camp brings you to the final summit of Clifford’s Hill which, whilst still 242m high, is dwarfed by its neighbours. It is famed for the stunning crop circle that appeared at its base in July 2018.
To complete the route I dropped back down to the Alton Barnes-Devizes road following the footpath across it towards All Cannings where I picked up the canal towpath back to Stanton St Bernard.
In conclusion this was an absolutely outstanding day out. It started in cold, thick mist which within an hour had cleared to produce a stunning warm day with clear blue skies with unbeatable views. The whole walk took me about 7 hours but probably half of that was spent staring through the viewfinder of my camera!
All images copyright of Paul Timlett