By Steve Dewey
In this blog post, we’re going for a short journey along Nine Mile River. It’s a short journey because it’s a short river that is little wider than a stream for most of its length. The river starts below the downs at the eastern end of the eastern Plain, and heads towards Bulford, where it meets the Avon.
Its name might lead you to believe that the river is nine miles long, but it's not; it's approximately four and a half. The river perhaps gets its name because, travelling north from Salisbury through Bulford, you first cross the river nine miles from Salisbury. Alternatively, it might be so named because it joins the Avon nine miles from Salisbury.
The headwater of the stream starts - at least in a wet winter – somewhere below Brigmerston and Figheldean Downs, near Brigmerston plantation. The water rises from springs, undoubtedly fed by the slopes around.
Maps of various periods show ponds near the Plantation, and the stream heading south and west from them. These maps also show how these ponds rise at the end of Bourne Bottom, the shallow valley that runs from the north across the eastern Plain and fills with water, if not a flowing stream, in a wet winter.
The actual spot at which the stream rises undoubtedly moves with the season. On the day I took most of the images for this photo essay, the stream was rising much further downstream, nearly a mile away from the ponds shown on the map above.
These first ponds – fed perhaps by water from the high ground along the east of the Plain, and by water flowing down, or beneath, Bourne Bottom – are dry in the summer. I look forward to going back this winter and seeing how far back upstream the water rises when the winter rains have soaked the downs around.
You can see from the photo above how lush the grasses are. This is the place of one of the ponds, dry now in early summer, but very green. How water arrives here remains a little bit of a mystery to me. Bourne Bottom is just over the other side of some trees and a track, but the ground rises a little between here and there; this makes me wonder if, like the Deverill, the waters of Bourne Bottom run underground for a short distance.
Also here is a rather fine dew pond.
Second Ponds and Ford
In the shallow valley through which the river wanders are a few tracks, which ford the waters when they flow. By the second ponds is the first ford. In June, this was dry, and it was interesting to see the flint gravels that had been rolled downstream by the winter flows.
It is unusual in the chalky parts of the Plain I visit to see gravel like this; there is sometimes similar gravel in the bed of the winterbourne at Water Dean Bottom, but this was more impressive, showing as it did the course of the stream in winter.
It feels like a different kind of world in the valley of the river. So much greener than the top of the central Plain. A river runs through it, but how flat the valley seems, even this close to the source.
Third Ponds and Ford
When I took these photos, the third group of ponds was almost dry, but unlike at the first and second ponds, a little trickle of water rose in the thick grass of the lowest pond. You can just about see it as a dark patch at the bottom of the image below.
Then, if you turn to look south-west, downstream, you see the water quickly begins to increase in volume and becomes a silver thread through the emerald-green grasses.
This is one of the reasons I find this part of Salisbury Plain interesting. The centre of the Plain has its winterbournes, certainly, with that at Water Dean Bottom being my favourite. But those bournes run in very distinct, short bottoms, and the land around them still feels like the land I associate with the middle of the Plain – chalky, with tall, white grass stalks rippling across the Black Heath, or red fescue waving gently in early summer on Ball Down. Here, though, is a much damper environment, something more quaggy, something more squelchy and springy underfoot, something more green and tufted.
Crossing the Old Marlborough Road
How green and marshy the land is through the valley is nicely shown at the ford that crosses the old Marlborough to Salisbury road.
Although it is dry now, you can almost see the bank that would hold back the shallow flow in winter. The ford itself is always relatively deep, even in summer. Don't drive through it too fast, you might be surprised.
The river continues on towards Sheep Bridge, running slowly down the valley. The river runs slowly and gently because the fall of land is so gentle. According to my calculations, the river falls about 20m (or about 70 feet in old money) over a distance of about 7¼ kilometres (4½ miles) – a gradient of about 0.003. There are no rapids on Nine Mile River.
Milestone near the Sheep Bridge
Being on Salisbury Plain, the river of course passes close to various historical monuments, including many tumuli. There is a very large group of nearly twenty tumuli close to where the old Salisbury road approaches Bulford. But I, of course, am more interested in milestones. This milestone is interesting as, in addition to reporting the mileages to Salisbury and Marlborough, it appears to have text at the bottom of the stone relating to Hungerford and Sidbury Hill. I need to give it a good rubbing, I think, to discover more.
Under the Sheep Bridge and into the Leas
The river passes under Sheepbridge Road at the Sheep Bridge, and then carries on into Bulford Leas. The road to Bulford is now a wide modern road called Bulford Drove, but the old road to Bulford used to follow the river quite closely, and given that, as the old maps say, the area was liable to floods, the road was quite boggy. The old road still exists as a byway. It is possibly the only one-way byway in Wiltshire. You can head west along it, but you can't go east. Years of vehicles travelling along it have dug a narrow line – if you're on the road, you're essentially in a trench about one vehicle wide.
And these days, the road will never dry out, as Bulford Leas is now covered in trees – some might even call it bosky.