Updated: Apr 5
Inspired by Elaine Perkins’ post of 2 February in the Hidden Wiltshire Facebook Group about Newton Tony and the Winterbourne Downs RSPB Reserve, my walking buddy and fellow Natural England volunteer Stu and I decided it was time to re-visit the area and explore a bit more widely (Last time we ended up in the Malet Arms for lunch so we didn’t get very far!) But on this occasion we wanted to dig into Newton Tony’s past as a transportation hub dating from the Iron Age all the way to the mid 20th century. We plotted a walk starting at Winterbourne Downs that would hopefully take us along a disused railway to the Port Way Roman Road, thence to Boscombe and over to Allington before returning to Newton Tony and the Reserve. We wanted to see if it was possible to walk along the old disused railway line that passes through Newton Tony – more of that anon. In all it was just over 6 miles (just under 10 kms).
As with our previous visit we were somewhat flummoxed by Ordnance Survey. Both the 1:25,000 and the 1:50,000 maps show the Reserve as being located to the south of the minor road between Allington and Newton Tony. It most definitely is not. The car park can be found on the north side of the road just outside Newton Tony and the Reserve extends on the north side of the road towards Allington.
We left the car park and onto the road, hoping that we could cross it to get to the line of the disused railway opposite, by Manor Farm. In short, you cannot. The field is clearly private property and is fenced off. But the earthworks in the field mark the site of what was Newton Tony railway station. According to Wikipedia “The Amesbury and Military Camp Light Railway, opened in 1902, connected with the main line…” (London & South Western Railway) “… to the east of the village. It carried largely military goods and passengers to Amesbury, extending later to Bulford, Larkhill and Rollestone. There was a station with two platforms, a goods siding and cattle yard west of Newton Tony, to the south of the Allington road. The line closed to passengers in 1952 and to goods in 1963, after which the track was dismantled.” The line can be traced all the way through the Winterbourne Downs Reserve to the Port Way to the south-east. I think the cattle yard mentioned must have been where the Reserve is marked now on the OS map.
Unable to follow the railway we descended the hill on the road into Newton Tony where we turned right and followed the road alongside the still dry bed of the River Bourne. When we’re on a walk we always make a point of stopping at village churches. Sadly St Andrew’s Church was locked but there was a stunning spread of primroses in the church yard.
The road alongside the Bourne is lined with many attractive houses and cottages. Since it is a No Through Road it is lovely and quiet. Our next objective was the Port Way Roman road alongside the main railway to London. This is where the road ends, around a mile away. Teasing us slightly above and to our right was the disused railway.
Leaving the village we continued along the road until we came to a substantial bridge high above the bed of the disused railway. The road continues to what is still called Amesbury Junction where the Amesbury and Military Camp Light Railway would have joined the mainline for rail traffic heading west towards Salisbury or east towards Andover. We decided to see if we could get down from the bridge onto the track bed and follow it to Newton Tony Junction where the the Amesbury and Military Camp line split – one branch for westbound trains via Amesbury Junction, the other for eastbound trains. For safety reasons there is fencing preventing access to the track bed. It’s a steep climb down. But the fence in one place was missing so we decided to have a look. Both Stu and I are experienced climbers so we risked it and it was clear many had done so before us. But to be honest I would advise against. It’s a long steep drop if you slip. Once on the track bed we headed towards what was Newton Tony Junction where the line once divided. There is nothing see other than the earthworks in an otherwise featureless field so we returned to the road.
Back on the road it arrives at a T-junction with the line of the Roman road – Port Way (or Portway). This ancient road linked Silchester and Old Sarum and may have pre-dated the Roman occupation. But the Romans adopted and improved it, forming part of a longer route between Londinium (London) and Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter), although the section between Londinium and Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester) is correctly known as The Devil's Highway, and the section between Sorbiodunum (Old Sarum) and Vindocladia (Badbury Rings) is Ackling Dyke. Silchester and Old Sarum were both important Iron Age settlements hence the theory that Port Way pre-dates the Romans, although both settlements were later occupied by the Romans. Nowadays the route runs parallel to the mainline railway from Salisbury to Basingstoke and on to London.
Despite being next to the railway this is an incredibly peaceful place. Walking as we did on a weekday, we saw only one other person as we continued the couple of kms from the junction to the turn towards Boscombe, accompanied only by birdsong. The peace was only interrupted periodically by trains thundering past at 90 mph (the speed limit on this stretch of the line) but we both remarked that the absence of the continuous intrusive sound of traffic was at once noticeable. As we continued alongside the railway line the brooding presence of Porton Down came into view on the other side of the tracks. There are reputedly 18 bowl barrows in the parish of Newton Tony but almost all of them are in the restricted area of Porton Down. Bristling with CCTV cameras, the huge mysterious buildings and plant seem menacing, yet the civilian laboratories there are home to scientists undertaking important and valuable medical research. But the rolling farmland and a willow humming with bees right by a tunnel underneath the railway seemed an inviting place to stop for a coffee.
From the Port Way we turned onto the byway to Boscombe. We wanted to visit the simple but pretty little 12thcentury church of St Andrew. Sadly this was church number two during the day that was locked. It’s interesting that whilst Boscombe lies in the parish of Allington, it is St Andrew’s that serves both parishes whilst the church at Allington is now redundant. Thankfully the busy A338 that passes through the village bypasses the church. The little lane in front of it was likely the original route but is now a little safe haven from cars and lorries, lined as it is with pretty cottages.
Just after the church we struck right towards Queen Manor Farm, an impressive looking farm house alongside the still dry Bourne. Beyond was a beautiful thatched cottage on a slight hill amongst the trees named…. Cottage in the Trees!
Just after this in a farmyard through which the right of way continues was a substantial wooden granary barn mounted on ancient severely eroded staddle stones. Some of them looked on the verge of collapse.
From here we followed the bridleway as it wended its way towards the road known as Allington Track. By a small linear copse we stopped for an early lunch. Just across a cultivated field lay the perimeter fence of the huge airfield of Boscombe Down. The airfield seemed incongruous in these ancient surroundings, with the A303 in the middle distance beyond adding to that feeling. Thankfully the sound of the traffic on the A303 was being blown in the opposite direction on the gentle breeze on an otherwise still, warm day. But the airfield was active with a fixed wing propeller-driven trainer buzzing overhead like an irritating mosquito whilst several helicopters plied to and fro around the perimeter. However, given the choice between incessant traffic and the occasional much noisier aircraft I’ll take the latter any day.
The bridleway joins Allington Track and our route here would take us back down into the Bourne valley to Allington. Thankfully there is a footpath in the field that runs parallel to the road on the other side of the hedge. But before long we were forced onto the road at a stile before emerging onto the A338 at the village. We took a short diversion here to our third church of the day – the Church of St John the Baptist at Allington. And guess what? It was locked. Frankly this is something that really irritates me. I don’t know whether COVID is still the reason why so many churches remain locked, although many stayed open (with precautions) in the early days of the pandemic. But locking people out of churches never seemed a very Christian thing to do to me. Maybe the few bad apples who steal from churches have ruined it for all of us?
After our fruitless diversion we retraced our steps northwards along the main road to the edge of the village where we turned right between fence lines along a footpath towards Winterbourne Downs. (A little further along the A338 the vertical stanchions of a bridge stand close to either side of the road – the remains of the bridge carrying The Amesbury and Military Camp Light Railway over the road.) At the T-junction of paths at the top of the hill, and now into the Reserve, we turned left with intention of following two sides of the fenced off area towards the line of the disused railway on the other side. A couple of hundred metres away we could see a guy staring intently through a spotting scope. Having been here before Stu and I knew exactly what he had found. We stopped to chat quietly and he kindly allowed us to take a look through his scope. And there, seemingly right in front us, were three Stone-Curlews which in reality were probably about 150 metres away. We had picked them out with our binoculars previously but the scope brought them so much closer. With its back to us one of the birds turned its head to preen and as it did so fixed me with its vivid yellow eye.
Winterbourne Downs is famed for its Stone-Curlews and it was the first place I ever saw one. I’ve seen many since. As we chatted to the chap with the scope it transpired he was from Felixtowe and spent most of his life on the road in his camper van following Ipswich Town ladies football team. And bird-watching! I’m not sure whether the two activities are related. But he was relatively new to bird-watching, and to Wiltshire. We asked him if he had seen Wiltshire’s Great Bustards. He gave us a look and said he’d never heard of them. So we described the Bustard to him and he raised an eyebrow. The look took on one of suspicion. So out came the phones and Google. He couldn’t believe his eyes and it was only when I showed him the website for the Great Bustard Trust that he believed us. He immediately packed up his gear and announced that he was off to pay the Trust a visit, despite us telling him he should probably phone ahead. I wish now I’d told him my story about the extinct Wiltshire Tiger.
From here we crossed over the line of the disused railway and continued through Beaumont’s Plantation. We took another path that dropped us into Newton Tony towards its western end, hoping to get a glimpse of Wilbury House from our slightly elevated position. But as Elaine said in her post, the Guinness family really do not want to be seen and there was no sign whatsoever of what apparently is a stunning mansion. We contented ourselves with a photograph of the lodge that Elaine also captured for her post.
It was then a simple matter of following the lane back through the village in the direction of the church before turning right, up the hill back to the car park at Winterbourne Downs. But first we had thoughts of a quick visit to the Malet Arms. We were horrified to find it closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. This was Tuesday. We were mortified. Three locked churches I can take. But a locked pub? Come on!
In conclusion, we were frustrated in our goal of walking the disused railway line. Most of it was either inaccessible or completely overgrown. The only bit we managed to walk along was probably also on private property so we shouldn't have been there. It would be a fantastic project to make the line usable for walkers and riders at least from Allington Track to the Port Way but there would be many costly challenges not least of which would be negotiating access across private land (which 95% of England is)!