North West Border: Blocked Paths and Long Barrows
This has been a very difficult blog to write. One which I very nearly didn’t write at all. I have been planning a walk for a long time now taking in two previously unknown to me Neolithic long barrows as well as some of the pretty little villages in the Cotswolds. It was a complicated task linking the various places together by public rights of way but to make it work I had to cross the border briefly into South Gloucestershire. The walk I had planned was 10 miles (16 kms) but being over flat terrain it should have been relatively easy going.
Sadly the day turned sour within a few hundred metres of our start point at St Mary’s Church, Burton. My regular walking buddy Stu and I crossed the B4039 north of New House Farm in the village. We were looking for the footpath that heads north west but could see no sign. However, the OS map very clearly shows a footpath up a driveway to a house at the top. Just after the house we arrived at a wooden gate in front of which an old knife grinder had been positioned, making access to the gate awkward. At that moment what turned out to be the landowner appeared at the door. We asked if this was the footpath and he confirmed it was through the gate whereupon we should head in an 11:00 direction across his field towards a dead oak tree. He was friendly enough but said if it was muddy it was nothing to do with him. Fair enough. After a few more friendly words he got in his car and departed.
This is where the day started as it was to continue. The wooden gate would not open so we had to climb over it. We were then confronted by a crop that was head high. The right of way had not been left clear.
We were determined to continue so we ploughed through, having no compunction about flattening the crops in our path. At the far side of the field was the dead oak. Beside it was a wooden fence but it was overgrown by brambles. However, this was not where the map showed the route of the path. We should have been a few tens of metres to our right but there was nothing there but a barbed wire fence. So we climbed over the fence into a field in which three very large horses were grazing. I’m not keen on horses. I feel far safer in a field of cows. And my discomfort was warranted. The horses came over and began nibbling at our rucksacks and clothes. They towered over me and at 6’3’’ even Stu looked small beside them. I was sandwiched between two of them and felt distinctly nervous. We tried pushing them away but they could obviously smell the food in our rucksacks. But we carried on, following the line of the route shown on the map crossing to the far side of the field, all the time being harassed by three gigantic horses.
Once we’d reached the far side of the field where the B4039 crosses the M4 I studied the map for an alternative route. I simply could not recommend to anyone the route we had just taken. But the only alternative if we were to keep vaguely on course was a 1km tramp along the busy B road which had no safe verge or footway. For the time being we stuck to our plan and headed on footpaths towards Acton Turville. From here we intended to have a quick look at the disused Badminton railway station before proceeding to Park Vale close to the Badminton Estate. Park Vale is shown in gothic script on the OS map which indicates a historical significance. In fact there are two Park Vales on the map – one a road and one a footpath. However, I’ve no idea what their significance is, and to reach the Park Vale footpath would require another walk along the B4039. As we looked at the map a passing villager asked if we were OK. We explained our predicament and he confirmed that there was not much to recommend a walk along the road. But he did recommend an alternative route which was not a public right of way. He said all the locals used it and that the landowner didn’t mind. But technically this would involve a trespass.
We’ve been (falsely) accused of trespassing on Hidden Wiltshire walks in the past. We have never shown a route that involves a trespass (whatever the rights and wrongs of doing it) and I’m not going to start now. Which is why I decided not to show the route of the walk for this day out. As you will read further on that decision was vindicated on several occasions throughout the day.
We eventually reached Park Vale via the alternative route recommended to us. But progress along the footpath was soon impeded by an overgrown hedge blocking the route.
Another diversion was necessary. Frankly I’m not sure what Park Vale is all about but it was not a particularly attractive route. The source of the Bristol Avon is close by though. I assume the word "Park" is reference to the Badminton estate.
Update: Since publishing this blog, reader Brian Madgwick pointed out that the Gothic script actually says Park Pale, not Park Vale, and that it is a ditch and bank boundary of a medieval deer park.
However Park Pale (for that is what it is actually called) was to lead us to our first main objective of the day – the Neolithic Giant’s Cave long barrow. On the way we had to cross several fields of arable. These had been cropped but it was obvious that no path had been left through the crop, and what looked like maize would have been impossible to cross before the harvest.
Giant’s Cave is a chambered tomb standing in the corner of a field on the edge of the Badminton estate and close to a lane. I’d seen many photographs of it from around 10 or more years ago and it was clearly visible in those photographs. (It is also known as Luckington I and being part of an important Neolithic site Luckington II could also be seen 150m away in the middle of a field to the south east.) Today it is a very different story. Giant’s Cave is now completely overgrown and difficult to discern. We could see what would have been the entrance at the western end and a pile of stones to the northern side, presumably removed from the barrow in the distant past. The barrow has never been properly excavated so it is not known what lies within. At the time of our visit the field was bounded by an electric fence and was being grazed by three more substantial horses. Across the field by another lane Luckington II was slightly less overgrown but the middle had collapsed, presumably from a botched excavation or at the hands of a clumsy farmer.
From Giant’s Cave we made our way to the village of Luckington, crossing fields where the right of way was not discernible. We were utterly fed up and decided to stop for a beer in The Old Royal Ship Inn. It’s a free house that also sports a community shop. The beer was excellent as were the sausage rolls baked on the premises.
Suitably refreshed we made tracks towards the curiously named St Mary with St Ethelbert Church, a sizeable church standing next to the 16th century Luckington Court.
Again I’d seen many pictures of this country house as it featured in the 1995 TV adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. However, little can be seen of the house now, screened as it is from prying eyes, which may explain the rumours in 2017 that this would be the new home of Prince Harry and Megan Markle (we all know how that ended)! It was on the market a while ago for £9m but didn’t sell. In 2022 it was marketed once again for the bargain price of £6m.
Apparently around 50% of Luckington’s houses are listed. It was once the home of Maj-Gen Sir Stewart Menzies, who was head of MI6 (SIS) in the last war and upon whom Ian Fleming’s ‘M’ was based. It’s a pretty enough village and there is clearly enormous wealth in the area but after a quick look at the church we decided to move on. We stumbled upon a permissive path that crossed land to which access had been opened, and which fell away to the infant River Avon, passing the site of a disused limestone quarry on the way and the place where Wessex Water pumps large volumes of water from underground into the river to increase flows.
By now we were on the Macmillan Way, a 460 km (290 mile) long distance footpath from Boston in Lincolnshire to Abbotsbury in Dorset, created to raise funds for the Macmillan cancer charity. Our plan was to follow it to our next main objective of the day, another Neolithic long barrow called Lugbury. We were to follow the Macmillan Way for a distance of several kilometres.
The experience was not a pleasurable one. We crossed field after field of arable where, apart from one short stretch, no attempt whatsoever had been made to keep the rights of way clear. Whilst this year’s crops were mostly low lying the fact that the entire route had been ploughed over made the going very heavy and exhausting, despite our both being pretty fit. I found this flagrant disregard for the rights of way particularly galling and inconsiderate bearing in mind the Macmillan Way was intended to raise money for charity from people obtaining sponsorship to walk it. I don’t know who owns the land but I do know that much of the land here is owned by the Duke of Beaufort’s Badminton estate. And it was very clear from the many horse jumps over field boundaries what the main use for this part of country is. To compound our despondency we seemed to be walking for over an hour through a sterile landscape of monoculture and absence of biodiversity. The lack of bees, butterflies and even birds was stark. For me this is the countryside at its worst but I accept that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Eventually we reached the little village of Littleton Drew and the lovely All Saints Church, passing on the way a house across the fields with what looked like an oast house in the garden (as well as an enormous horse box).
The pretty church was perfectly placed by the village green, and inside was bright and airy containing the recumbent effigy of an unknown 15th century woman. The village is attractive and understated and would be a tranquil haven were it not for the constant hum and hiss of traffic from the nearby M4. Unfortunately for us the wind was blowing in the wrong direction so we caught the full force of the noise. But soon after passing through the tunnel underneath the motorway and emerging to the south the noise dissipated.
Our spirits lifted as we became free of the flat arable land and emerged into more rolling countryside. Our final objective within striking distance. But before we reached it we were to encounter an enchanting treat. As we rounded the bend of a narrow track we were presented with a remarkable sight. A small half timbered building with a round turret and painted a striking dusky pink/ochre colour. And opposite on the other side of the lane, a larger farmhouse painted the same colour. This is Goulter’s Mill. The presence of a mill was noted here in the Domesday Book, but whether these buildings date back to then I doubt. Nevertheless, tucked away in this peaceful valley of the By Brook, a tributary of the Avon, this idyllic scene gave us great cheer after what had been a dismal couple of hours.
Not far from the mill we came across our final objective – Lugbury Long Barrow. Whilst covered in long grass the scale of this Neolithioc burial mound was far easier to appreciate. At 56m long by 38m wide and 1.5m this is still a substantial edifice, although sitting low in the landscape it is no West Kennet so is difficult to capture on camera.
The remains of the limestone entrance chamber can be found at the eastern end where two large standing stones capped by the capstone give a sense of the scale of what once stood here. Unlike Giant’s Cave, the mound is unfenced and the farmer has kindly not planted crops around it so it is accessible.
Not being next to a road and being hidden in the landscape I don’t imagine many people visit. But Colt Hoare did in 1821 and as did George Scrope in 1854/5, both conducting excavations of the barrow. They found 26 skeletons in four limestone chambers.
From Lugbury Long Barrow it was just a matter of returning to the church at Burton. The warm sunny day had by now given way to skies that were a portent of the rain that would follow that evening. The two photographs of St Mary’s that bookend this blog show how the light changed during the course of the day. Sitting on the bench in the churchyard we enjoyed the remains of our by now lukewarm coffee. We had intended to look inside the church at the end of the walk but it being after 6:00pm it was locked.
So, for reasons I think you will now understand, I have not shared the route we took. With all the diversions around blocked rights of way we ended up walking 12 miles (19 kms). Neither of us felt inclined to return to this part of Wiltshire but we did find some hidden gems about which we had been previously ignorant. Perhaps our experience of countless cases of blocked rights of way soured our view. I have never come across anywhere where this was so apparent and flagrant. I’ve got a lot of work to do reporting these obstructions to Wiltshire and South Gloucestershire Councils, and I have little expectation that anything will be done bearing in mind the power and influence of some of the landowners. A depressing note to end on but I will try to hang on to the memories of the good parts of the day – the landscape we encountered during our short trespass; a pint in The Old Royal Ship Inn, Luckington; All Saints Church at Littleton Drew; Goulter’s Mill; and Lugbury Long Barrow. If you are curious just visit these places. But I wouldn’t recommend attempting this stretch of the Macmillan Way.